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Firefighter shares experience of rescuing skier buried by avalanche

Posted at 8:14 PM, Dec 15, 2022

SALT LAKE CITY — Tom Elbrecht and his dog Wiley were skiing in the Neff's Canyon area Wednesday when Elbrecht heard a strange noise.

"I started hearing what I thought was an animal, or potentially just two skiers talking to each other," he said.

He skimmed up the backcountry area, only to find a skier struck by an avalanche, trapped in snow up to his chest.

“Made my way to the victim and unburied him from the backside and made a quick assessment and then proceeded to call 911," said Elbrecht.

Elbrecht used his medical training to examine the skier and said it felt like he had a broken femur.

Search and Rescue members made their way by skiing toward the men, but weather and dangerous avalanche complications made it difficult for them to get there quickly.

“I was mentally prepared for I’ll just say 3-4 hours," said Elbrecht, "And when it began going on beyond that point it was just trying to keep morale high between the patient and myself.

Elbrecht stayed with the skier the whole time, stripped down to just a t-shirt and pants since he had given the skier every extra layer he had.

The two huddled together for warmth, Elbrecht's cattle dog Wiley joining in now and again.

“He was chewing on sticks and wanted to lay in the patient’s lap which is not ideal for the patient but he handled it like a champ.”

A sigh of relief washed over them at 4:30 when two Search and Rescue skiers made it to the trio.

Unfortunately, that was only the beginning of what would be an uphill battle to get the skier off the mountain.

“We tried as a group to coordinate with the DPS helicopter and from what was told to me it sounded like it just wasn’t an option," said Elbrecht, "So the decision was made to make an improvised harness and build an anchor and lower the individual down on the road to the remaining search and rescue members down below.”

After eight hours had passed since Elbrecht's 911 call, a snowmobile brought the skier down the mountain where he was transported to the hospital.

“It was an immense weight off your shoulders, I think for everybody," said Elbrecht, "The general feeling was that we all wanted to do the right thing but without causing more harm and without causing more harm for [the skier] specifically."

Elbrecht skied down on his own and then reunited with his wife waiting anxiously at the bottom of the mountain.

Many called him a hero, but he said it was simply the right thing to do.

“It was really just happened to be there in the right moment, just act upon it. And I think there’s a whole lot of other people that would do the same thing that I would in the same kind of situation.”