Firefighter did ‘all that I could do’ to save skier after avalanche in Neff’s Canyon

Tom Elbrecht gave skier his coats and granola bar and stayed with him for eight hours as search and rescue team wrangled with danger of more slides.

(Fox13) Emergency crews work to rescue a skier who was caught in an avalanche in Neffs Canyon Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022.

Cottonwood Heights • At first, the noise Tom Elbrecht heard above him as he skinned his way up a cross-country ski track in Neff’s Canyon on Wednesday sounded like a wounded animal. As Elbrecht climbed, though, the sound became clearer.

“Help!” someone was calling. “Help!”

A firefighter based out of Station 110 in Cottonwood Heights, Elbrecht’s plan for his day off was to take his Australian cattle dog, Wiley, out for a couple hours of exercise and later go out to dinner with his wife and some friends. Instead, Elbrecht and Wiley spent the next eight hours in the snow and cold helping a skier who had gotten swept up and partially buried by an avalanche in the Thomas Fork area.

Though Elbrecht found the man around 10:45 a.m., less than an hour after the avalanche occurred, the threat of triggering additional avalanches thwarted multiple rescue attempts and rescuers were not able to bring the skier off the mountain until around 7 p.m. The 35-year-old man, who has not been named, was buried up to his chest. Authorities said he suffered a broken femur and an arm injury and also had begun to develop hypothermia.

He likely would have been far worse off if Elbrecht, a 31-year-old trained EMT from Millcreek, and Wiley hadn’t come along. Elbrecht said a hiker he met before the rescue was the only person he saw in the canyon that day besides the skier and rescuers.

“I don’t know how busy that canyon gets, and specifically that area,” he said, “but I can tell you with the snow and the trees that you couldn’t hear anything from the hiking trail that’s at the base of the canyon.”

Avalanche danger for the Thomas Fork area of the canyon, which is northwest facing, was “considerable” Wednesday, according to the Utah Avalanche Center. UAC forecaster Nikki Champion said that means the chances of a human-triggered slide was — and continues to be — very likely even at elevations below 8,000 feet. The UAC reported Wednesday’s avalanche, which swept through an area burned by a fire in 2020, took place at 7,200 feet and was 200 feet wide and two feet deep.

(wbsguide.com) A map of Neff's Canyon from the Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Guide. A backcountry skier was rescued by an off-duty firefighter on Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2022, in the Thomas Fork of Neff's Canyon.

Champion noted that a similar skier-triggered avalanche occurred a day earlier in the White Pine area of Little Cottonwood Canyon. A skier swept up in that slide had “serious injuries” and had to be transported out to an ambulance, according to the UAC report.

Those mid- to low-elevation bands are “especially dangerous” right now and will continue to be through the weekend and beyond, Champion said. The danger comes from them appearing innocuous compared to higher-elevation terrain.

“They could be triggered remotely or [triggered] from below,” she said, “and there is enough snow above hiking trails or places that people might be snowshoeing — you know, terrain people often seek refuge in on or these days of danger. And that’s exactly where this guy was.”

Though he ultimately didn’t need it, the skier did have an avalanche beacon in his backpack, Champion said. When turned on, a beacon emits a constant beep and can be critical in helping rescuers locate someone who is buried or stranded. If a backpack with a beacon is ripped off in a slide, though, it can also cost rescuers valuable time. So Champion advised carrying them close to the body in a harness or sewn-in pocket.

A debris pile and other evidence of an avalanche stood out to Elbrecht as he approached the skier. He found him pinned against a tree with just his head and arms exposed. One leg was stretched out behind him.

Immediately, Elbrecht made a call — not to 911, but to his wife. She knew where he was and could relay information to rescuers better than he could with spotty cell phone coverage. Then, looking around at his surroundings, he realized a rescue would be neither easy nor quick.

“I knew the second I made that call that it was not going to be a 30-minute deal. It was not going to be an hour deal. It was going to be hours,” he said. “But as we started approaching 4:30, 5 o’clock, it was getting a little discouraging.”

In his backpack, Elbrecht carried an extra down jacket that was the replacement for another down jacket he’d given away when he applied his EMT skills during snowy rescue at a ski area in New Hampshire years earlier. He gave that to the skier, as well as an extra base layer and his lone granola bar. Then Elbrecht gave the stranger the jacket off his back. After he dug the skier out of about three feet of hardpack snow, he built a lean-to to keep him out of the snow and then built a bench to give rescuers a flat spot to transfer the skier onto a stretcher.

By 1:30 p.m., though, Elbrecht said he’d done “all that I could.” After that, they just had to wait.

Elbrecht sat behind the skier to give him something to lean on. He put Wiley between them as a sort of furry blanket to keep both of the humans warm. Meanwhile, a helicopter would occasionally hover overhead as teams from Salt Lake County Search and Rescue, Wasatch Backcountry Rescue and the Department of Public Safety attempted to reach the pair without setting off another slide.

“It was a little discouraging each time that they said, ‘No, we can’t do it,’” Elbrecht said. “I totally understand the decision to not endanger more people, but [I was] just trying to keep the situation positive, keep the patient talking to me and just do the best we could.”

Around 4:30 p.m., two search and rescue members arrived. They dismissed Elbrecht, but he chose to stay to help. Together, they transported the skier by foot to the Neff’s Canyon trail, where a snowmobile with a sled took him to an ambulance waiting in the trailhead parking lot.

Elbrecht brushed off the references to him as a hero that some search and rescue members made Wednesday night.

“Right place, right time,” he said.

Champion said that was especially true since the skier was traveling alone in the backcountry, something the UAC warns against. In addition to a partner, the UAC advises all backcountry travelers, including hikers and snowshoers, to bring a beacon, shovel and probe and know how to use them.

Utah is expected to get a break from the snowstorms and some welcome sunshine this weekend. But that doesn’t mean a break from avalanche danger, Champion said. All that snow from early this week will continue to overload a base that degraded and became granular during a brief warm, dry spell last month.

In fact, she said avalanche danger will remain high, especially on north-facing slopes, for some time to come. Eventually, though, the seemingly weekly, or daily, storms this year will do more good than harm.

“The good news is that we are slowly insulating the snowpack, especially at the upper elevations, like in upper Little Cottonwood Canyon,” Champion said. “While that does raise the avalanche danger right now, that is going to start sealing those weak grains that are at the ground. So by putting more snow on and giving it more time, we are going to start moving in the right direction.”