Snow is beautiful. Snow is magical. It sets the stage for endless fun. But snow is also deadly when the conditions are right. Mike Crowton and a group of his close friends and family learned that earlier this year when they went on a cat-skiing trip in Canada. When a massive avalanche hits a group of 12, someone nearly always dies, but on this day surviving an avalanche turned into a story of faith.

Mike, a devoted dad of  and husband, was born and raised in Huntsville and Ogden, Utah and practically lived on the ski slopes growing up. His father was an avid skier and ski instructor and Mike knows much about skiing and loves it. Mike was deployed as a dentist during the Iraq War for four months in 2005. After dental school in Virginia, he opened his practice in Ogden, Utah and loves being close to area ski resorts where he goes skiing with his family all winter. It’s always been a great way for him to relax and let off steam. In his eyes, putting putting skiing and family together is about the perfect way to spend time.  The group on this trip had been trained to Cat ski and knew about the danger of avalanches – had even seen a few small ones here and there but the group felt they were safe. They were wrong.

An eerie feeling

The 12 men before the near-fatal descent.

On day three of the trip, fresh snow was finally falling, something they had been waiting for. The past two days the weather had been lackluster and snow conditions were not prime. There was great snow in Utah that week and Mike was questioning that it might even be better back home. But not on that third day. It was the perfect storm, they thought in a good way, and they were ready.  They had an avalanche refresher course before heading out that day and the falling snow was beautiful for skiing. It was time to head to the area the group was most excited about – Mt. Macky. Mike had visited the particular spot they were going that day on the Selkirk Mountain Range last year with his two cousins and  friend. It was the spot that convinced him to bring a bigger group back this go-round. The first couple of runs of the day were supreme. Waist-high, light fluffy snow. The best conditions to ski.  As they skied the runs, Mike noticed some snow cascading down the mountain a bit. It gave him an eerie feeling, but he tried to shake it off – maybe he was just overreacting. Mike, his cousins Jake and Ben Rabe and friend,  Jared Flitton all invited different friends and family to make a group of 12. The number 12 was significant because that’s the size of groups that would go on the cat together and travel down the mountain. On one of the first runs, the first pair of skiers got lost from the group. They tried calling and whistling for them to no avail, so they went back up to the top and luckily, they were there. But it seemed to cast a bit of worry and pale on his outlook before the next run.

Related: Power of Place

The group were going down in pairs for safety. A guide would accompany the first two and a tail guide would bring up the rear. The group were all religious men who took very seriously their family relationships, their relationship with Jesus Christ and how those two things work together. They decided to snap a picture before the descent, but an uneasy feeling was still resting in Mike’s mind. Was it his age talking to him? He had always been sensitive to the spirit, and maybe that was what was talking to him. He tried to keep shaking it off. This was going to a be a blast! The skiers started heading down and Mike was in the middle of the group. He would find out later that some of the other men had a bit of an eerie feeling just like him.

Avalanche!

“Rocks! Watch out for rocks!” came the calls from some of the skiers ahead. They had obviously uncovered some rocks and yelled for them to watch out for them. After that, Mike sped past the six skiers and the guide heading out further to the left of the large bowl. He stopped himself about 20 yards to the left and 10 yards above the main group. Mike was feeling the burn in his quads as he stopped and was just kind of waiting. He looked across the massive bowl, almost like a gully as he waited for the rest of the skiers to come down. He could hear the skiers yelling from up above. As he caught his breath, out of nowhere he heard a large “woompf” and a huge crack starting seeping across the snow about 20 yards above and slightly to the right of where Mike had stopped.

Mike looked to see a father and son, Chris and Jason Bond above about 20 yards. As soon as he looked, he heard Jason, a very experienced skier yelling “Avalanche!” “Avalanche!” As he looked up, he could see that crack in the snow. Without much thought Mike knew immediately what he needed to do – get out of the way. He quickly dove to his left and buried himself in a cloud of snow. And much to his luck, or what Mike now believes to be divine intervention, there was a large outcropping of rocks, like a cliff or boulder, positioned just above him and close enough that he could dive below them for cover. The snow shot right over the top of the rocks. For what seemed like forever the snow flowed over his head and it sounded like a rushing river. But it was all over his head and he was shielded by the large rocks. Those rocks absolutely saved his life. And about those rocks. Mike’s son, Nick, was serving a LDS mission in Sydney, Australia at the time. Mike learned about a week after the incident that Nick was aware of his dad’s ski trip and didn’t feel good about the trip at all. He prayed fervently for his father’s safety that week. Mike and his wife Emily, feel those rocks were positioned in that spot as an answer to Nick’s many prayers that week. Mike feels confident that it was Nick’s obedience, faith and fervent prayers that protected him that day. One of those mission blessings or even miracles that families experience during those two years of missionary service. But Mike wasn’t the only one spared.

Rich Nydegger caring for Jake Rabe right after they were unburied.

Recovery: A story of faith

Slowly everyone became accounted for, although they were spread out all over. Mike’s cousin, Jake and his friend Jared were down below and they were least responsive. Jared’s brother Brandon Flitton was nearby he was eager to get to his brother, but also wanted to help find everyone else on top.  The only snowboarder in the group, Rich Nydegger, was already down below. There were actually two slides – one right after the other, but each slide affected the group in different ways.

As Rich and the head guide worked to get Jared and Jake out  – the two men landed only about 20 feet from each other after being carried 700 yards – it became apparent that Jake was in the worst shape. Jared had stayed conscious through the whole ordeal, being carried end over end in the snow for many yards. Jake was not conscious. As soon as he was revived, Rich felt the urgency to give Jake a Priesthood blessing. A couple of the other men in the group had joined them by now. Their guide, Kaury, was seeing that things were not looking good for Jake and he told him to do anything that would help.

Rich said this blessing was unlike any other he had ever given to anyone. He spoke directly to Jake. “Jake, this is Rich, Jason  and Tyson (Cox).  We’re giving you a blessing.  You need to listen to what we’re saying!”  He was trying to listen to the spirit for what to say. “Jake, I command you to be healed.” -repeating it again, kind of in a more loud, forceful type tone.  After that, Rich remembered picturing Jill’s face, Jake’s wife.  He had only met her once, four days earlier when they picked up Jake in Spokane at their house.  Rich didn’t know Jake, or Jill or their family at all, but he could see Jill’s face.  Then the blessing took a little bit of a different tone.  Rather than being louder and more forceful, the words were very sure, reverent, confident, peaceful and matter of fact. “You will be healed.”  As Rich thought about it, he realized the command were his own words but  the words, “You will be healed,” were God’s.  Soon after the blessing, a quiet feeling of calm settled over the whole area. Kaury, a self-proclaimed atheist, asked the men what the blessing was all about. Rich explained that the blessing is the power and authority to act for God – as his mouthpiece so to speak in the form of a prayer or blessing. Kaury was intrigued by the explanation and asked many more questions about their faith as he watched the actions of the men that day.

Prayers and blessings

Brandon caring for his brother, Jared (top). Rich caring for Jake (bottom).

That wasn’t the only blessing that day. Mike gave Brandon a blessing before he went to check on his brother Jared who was with Jake and there were more to come. They slowly started to find everyone one by one.

Mike’s good friend from dental school, Clint, called out that he thought he had a broken leg. As Mike went to him he realized his ski was missing, but sticking up out of the snow a few yard away. He slid on his bum to get the ski and slowly moved to Clint. Slowly the rest of the “on top” group made their way to Clint and moved to get out of the path of another slide, although it was not an easy task. It required balance, faith and prayers. Once Clint’s leg was put in a splint, a sloppy one at that, after all Mike was a dentist, not a doctor, the real waiting game began.

Mike didn’t feel cold or even wet through the whole time, but conditions should have dictated that they were all freezing. Maybe it was the adrenaline or just an added blessing, but he didn’t notice the cold and the men didn’t speak of it, not wanting to bring the cold on.

After a couple of hours the first toboggon arrived and was going to take Clint out, but because the injuries down below seemed more serious, they had to take Jake and Jared out then. More waiting. One of the guys suggested they give Clint a  blessing. They were all in precarious physical position to not move snow and start another avalanche and to also keep Clint’s leg still. Mike was the man decided by the group to give the blessing, but he could not reach Clint to place his hands on his head, but somehow Mike knew that Heavenly Father knew his hands were there figuratively. Mike carefully folded his arms where he was and started the blessing. As Mike uttered the words of the prayer, tears started to come. That was exactly what Mike needed, maybe even more than Clint. He felt a calming sense of peace wash over him and knew they would be okay. Mike finished the prayer, asking God  to give them a safe way off the mountain and to heal those injured. That prayer helped Mike over the next several hours – he felt peace and calm and felt that he would need to be the calming force as they would wait for hours with an injured man on a freezing mountain.

Related: Prayer and the uncanny moments that followed

They had no idea how long it would take for a rescue group to arrive. Hours? A day?  The men tried to make small talk – about their careers – all of them dentists or doctors, about church and their church callings, but soon just became silent. Mike didn’t feel cold, but he did feel anxious. He felt the importance of keeping everyone else calm, and because of the blessing he had a sense of peace. They started to communicate with those left in the group below: “Aah-ooh.” they would shout back and forth. Some would start to call out, “Are they ever coming?”  or “We are never going to be rescued!” There was a sense of anxiousness in the air and one of the men started moving around, trying to get out anxious energy. It concerned Mike it might start another avalanche. Mike then responded, “I think I see someone!” Even though he only hoped he did. Finally, he did. He shouted, “Here they come! We are going to be saved!” Mike had known it all along.

Related: One by One

Coincidences

The rescue was precarious. It took time, but finally they were on the cats, headed out off the treachorous mountain. As they climbed on the cat, one of the rescuers exclaimed, “You need a beer!” Mike laughed. “Not us,” he exclaimed. “But I could use hot chocolate!” As they drove back, the guides both commented on the fact that some special things had gone on that day. One of the guides shared about the blessing Rich had given Jake down below.  More questions came, and considering the guide didn’t know if there was a God, he was feeling something…odd. Both guides talked about how unearthly the experience had been. One said he was starting to follow typical avalanche protocol, to ski back and forth down the run, but had a physical sensation of being pushed down the mountain in a straight line. The zig-zag protocol is to find buried victims after a slide, but had he done the methodical zig zag, he wouldn’t have found Jake who was completely buried at the bottom. If he had taken the time to zig-zag he wouldn’t have gotten to Jake in time. A miracle in and of itself. He explained to Mike that he “abandoned” everything he knew, but he couldn’t help himself. Rich also had the experience – the feeling of being pushed. “This is a special group,” he told Mike and the others. There were other “coincidences.” All the men landed vertically, allowing them to get air, they also had space between them and snow. Though many did get buried, every one of them had something – a glove or a ski sticking out of the snow so they could be found. Mike also felt that a secret to their survival was the selflessness of each man on the slopes. As soon as they were somewhat “dug out” they urged those doing the rescuing to move on to someone else. And then as they finished getting themselves out, they joined the rescuers, completely selfless in every way.

The guys getting ready to head down Mt. Macky.

They went to the hospital to visit some of the men needing a stay. Jake’s injuries were by far the worst – 12 broken ribs, broken tibia and fibula, broken clavicle, orbital fractures. The biggest issue now a year later remains his torn brachial plexus which to this point leaves him paralyzed in his right side- shoulder down. It was very difficult for Mike to see his cousin in that state and he was overcome with emotion. He gave him another blessing and was overcome with the peace and feeling he would be okay. And to this day, he still feels that, even though Jake is still recovering and has some movement returning. He is hoping to be able to work as an ER doctor again someday. Mike is impressed with his positive outlook even now.

It wasn’t until around 2:30 a.m. that Mike was finally back in his room with his thoughts to himself.  When Mike spoke to his wife Emily on the phone his words came out in sobs as he tried to explain the power of the day. As he laid in bed, sleep would not come. He decided to pull out his scriptures and landed on a verse that calmed him. It is found in the Book of Mormon:

“…the Lord our God did visit us with assurances that he would deliver us; yea, insomuch that he did speak peace to our souls, and did grant unto us great faith, and did cause us that we should hope for our deliverance in him.”   -Alma 58:11

What about now

Mike with his children skiing at Sun Valley last winter a few months after the Avalanche.

It’s been nearly a year. The men are still in contact with one another and for some the physical and emotional healing has been tough. Some have been asking, “Why me? Why did I survive?”   For Mike, the experience changed his life.

He knows that each day is gift. His love for the gospel and understanding of it has deepened and he feels grateful for it each and every day. He knows he’s not invincible. He feels humbled to know there is protection there when needed and sought for. He has gone skiing again, but doesn’t know if he will ever head to the back country, at least not any time soon. He and his wife hope that the joy he felt on the slopes will return. He also has gained greater perspective – little irritations roll off his back easier, he feels more accepting of the world around him and feels a bit more in tune for the what the plan of his life is.  Snow for Mike is still beautiful, stunning and yes, treacherous.

Author’s Note: This is part of a longer narrative I wrote for Mike Crowton and his family about his experience. The power of the experience is something that needs to be shared with anyone that questions if God loves them, if he visits us in trials or who is looking for a will to go on. It is a story of faith that needs to be told. So we at Evalogue.Life decided it would be appropriate to share it here. 

I also want to share a list of the men and their role in the avalanche:

The Group:

  • Chris Bond(father to Jason)/Jason Bond- last pair to ski down. Stayed above avalanche. Jason skied down and helped triage Jake and Jared with Kaury (lead guide). Chris remained up top with Mike and his group until rescue came.
  • Creighton Green-  stayed skiers left of the slide, didn’t get buried. Stayed up top then went down with first toboggan to assist with injured below. He had a go-pro on during second avalanche.
  • Tyson Cox- also skiers left of slide. Didn’t get buried. Also skied down to bottom to assist with injured.
  • Brandon Flitton-(older brother to Jared) first person Mike came to and helped unbury. He suffered broken ribs. He slid down to be with his brother. He is an anesthesiologist and was valuable in assisting getting injured to hospital.
  • Jared Flitton-  was swept away by first avalanche and taken 700 feet down the mountain. Buried with one hand out of snow. Quickly found by Kaury and unburied. Suffered a torn acl and much trauma as he never lost consciousness.
  • Ben Rabe (Mike’s cousin and older brother to Jake.) Buried from both first and second avalanche. Creighton and Tyson helped unbury him. He suffered broken ribs and a torn acl. Stayed with us up top until rescues came. He was taken to hospital in the second Cat.
  • Jake Rabe (Mike’s cousin and Ben’s brother). Swept away by first avalanche. Suffered worst injuries- 12 broken ribs, broken tibia and fibula, broken clavicle, orbital fractures. Biggest issue remains his torn brachial plexus which to this point leaves him paralyzed in his right side- shoulder down. Lost consciousness and resuscitated by Kaury. He was taken with Jared to the hospital.
  • Rich Nydegger- The only snowboarder in the group. He skied down with Mike prior to the avalanche. Located skiers right of the slide with me. Somehow stayed on top of the avalanche and escaped being buried. Skied down to help with Jake and others.
  • Clint Iverson- second person Mike came to after avalanche and finished digging out. Splinted broken Tib/Fib with broken ski poles and belts in order to transport to safer ground. Stayed up top until rescued. Rode toboggan down to the Cat to the hospital.
  • Cory Penrod-  buried during second avalanche. Suffered broken ribs and torn rotator cuff. Stayed up top until rescued. Also taken to hospital for evaluation.

Rachel J. Trotter Rachel J. Trotter is a senior writer/editor at Evalogue.Life. She tells people’s stories and shares hers to encourage others. She loves family storytelling. A graduate of Weber State University, she has had articles featured on LDSLiving.com and Mormon.org. She and her husband Mat have six children and live on the East Bench in Ogden, Utah.

 

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2 thoughts on “Surviving an avalanche: A story of faith

    • December 6, 2017 at 5:45 pm
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      We felt the same way, in awe of what happened and the faith of all involved. Thank you for taking a moment to comment.

      Reply

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