Skiers recount riding out inbounds avalanche at Breckenridge Ski Resort
Ryan Zabik climbed in his ski boots 50 feet up through the avalanche path to where his friend George Micah Woods rested. Then Zabik snapped the selfie that will stick with the skiing duo for a lifetime.
It’s a snapshot in time that provides a glimpse into Friday’s in-bounds avalanche at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
“A whole lot of adrenaline, a life-threatening situation,” Zabik said at the Starbucks in Breckenridge 24 hours after the avalanche. “I tend to respond to stress with laughter and euphoria, so that was kind of my thing: ‘Wow, that was a hell of a ride.’”
The foggy, out-of-focus cellphone picture showcases the 30-year-old Zabik smiling into the camera from underneath his ski goggles while his pal Woods, 31, smiles from a seated position a few feet upslope. Next to Woods, a Breckenridge ski patroller is at his side to help him. And, in the distance above those three, the afternoon sunlight over the Ten Mile Range illuminates the probe-line portion of the search and rescue effort conducted by the resort’s ski patrol in the wake of the slide.
“I started tumbling immediately,” Woods recalled of the avalanche, “as soon as I started sliding, the snow fell over me. I let go of everything and rolled down the hill with my arms flailing about. I knew I was in no control of where I was going.”
The duo from Michigan was here on their annual ski trip with family and friends. For the past five years, their group has generally come up for four days — flying in on a Wednesday, skiing Wednesday through Saturday, and flying back Sunday.
Friday’s avalanche, though, threw a different experience into the annual vacation. The duo estimated the avalanche was 50 to 100 yards wide and 300 to 400 yards long.
“Not a large avalanche by any means,” Zabik said, “but enough to definitely be deadly.”
Reflecting on the avalanche, the duo still wasn’t sure if they triggered the slide or if it was another skier or rider above them. Maybe they had, maybe they hadn’t. Either way, they said it occurred at 12:15 p.m., while they were traversing from the top of the Imperial Express SuperChair, North America’s highest lift, to their desired above-tree line ski terrain destination: Whale’s Tail.
Whale’s Tail is a location both had skied before. The lifelong, more experienced skier Zabik had made the traverse dozens of times, while the more intermediate skier Woods had done it a few times himself.
In fact, on Wednesday and Thursday of this week, Zabik and Woods both described the skiing at Breckenridge as perhaps the best of their life. This week’s epic powder provided lifetime memories for years to come of skiing off of the T-Bar and off of Peak 6’s above-tree line Kensho chair. It all came without a hint of a reason to be worried about an avalanche. The thought truly didn’t cross either of their minds until Zabik felt the ground move from beneath his skis during that traverse to Whale’s Tail on Friday at 12:15 p.m.
After they rode up the Imperial Chair together, Zabik described the conditions above 12,000 feet as typical to what he’d experienced there before: Strong gusts, moderate to limited visibility — the usual.
Zabik estimated he and Woods were among the first 100 skiers and riders who attempted the traverse from Imperial Chair to Whale’s Tail. About an hour before, Zabik diligently checked his phone to see when Breckenridge would open the lift. Once they did, they raced over before waiting on a 25- to 30-minute lift line at the bottom of Imperial.
Zabik said he and Woods were about 200 to 300 yards into their traverse — about three minutes from hopping off the chair — when he noticed the avalanche.
“Instantly, as soon as I felt it shifting, I knew exactly what was going on,” Zabik said. “…The fact I got sucked into it the way I did, I think it broke 10 yards above me.”
Fifty feet behind Zabik, and about 5 to 10 feet downslope, Woods said he was looking down at his skis, trying to follow in Zabik’s path, when he noticed his skiing had become “a bit clumsy, a bit stumbly.”
A split-second later, he too was sucked into the avalanche. He thought to himself that he didn’t know how to react for this. Should he swim? In the moment, he hoped for the best, thinking to make his body limp with the idea it could prevent him from breaking any limbs — his gravest concern.
“My eyes were closed and I was just along for the ride,” he said. “I knew that I felt snow in places I shouldn’t have felt along the way. It was after the snow actually was coming over me that it dawned (this was an avalanche).”
Further down slope, Zabik said the slide engulfed his skis, sucking him down pretty quickly up to about his waist. At that point, he said he did his best to arch his back and throw his arms out to try and stay on top of it. But, because he was positioned semi-vertically within the slide, Zabik felt the snow continuing to grab a hold of his skis, pulling him down further. He compared the feeling to quicksand. At that point, he thought it’d be best to lose his skis. Trying his best to position himself to have his bindings release his skis, the avalanche soon ripped them right off.
“I was no longer able to float on top of it,” Zabik said. “I was tumbling head over heels. At that point, feeling the snow coming up over the top of my head, I realized I was buried. I tried to make a ball, tried to make an air pocket (with my arms). That’s what was running through my head —make an air pocket.”
Time distorted the experience for both skiers, though they guessed it lasted 10 seconds from start to finish. Once it stopped, both Zabik and Woods had somehow managed to float back up to the top of the slide, both of them in a seated position with snow up to their waists.
They said where they came to a stop was about 150 yards downslope in a portion of the resort a ski patroller told them is known as the “Shadow Bowl.” The avalanche’s debris field didn’t carry them all the way down to where the debris itself came to a stop.
Once he came to a rest, Zabik immediately called up to Woods, paranoid of a secondary slide of some sort. Zabik didn’t move until ski patrol reached Zabik, which they said was five minutes after the avalanche occurred.
Both Zabik and Woods described their interaction with the resort’s ski patrol as great. They were asked all sort of discovery questions immediately, including whether anyone else was involved. The duo told the ski patroller they were not sure.
In a press release issued Saturday afternoon, Breckenridge spokeswoman Sara Lococo said a total of five guests were involved in the slide and that no guests were injured or required rescue.
“Although it is not entirely clear what caused the slide,” Lococo said in the statement, “It may have been triggered by a guest traversing the area.”
Ski patrol eventually cleared the area at 1:54 p.m.
“While events like this are extremely rare,” Lococo said, “we take this very seriously and Breckenridge Ski Resort and Ski Patrol will continue to do everything possible to help mitigate risk for our guests and employees.”
Zabik and Woods also realize it was rare. They said the ski patroller who attended to them told them that in his 30 years in ski patrol this was only the third instance of something like what they experienced.
After they stayed put at the scene for what they estimated was two hours, the resort’s ski patrol took them out on a snowmobile. A debriefing and statement process followed at a ski patrol station before they downloaded a lift to the base of Peak 8. They said the resort’s guest services then took them down to the resort’s ski rentals to have them outfitted with new equipment — only three of their four skis survived the avalanche — for free. To cap the day off, they said the resort bought them a round of drinks at the TBar restaurant.
“Everyone involved was very good,” Zabik said. “Most people have just been completely dumbstruck it happened.”
As for Woods, when he and Zabik returned to ski the resort for a few hours on Saturday, he wasn’t ready to head back up Imperial. But, at some point, he’ll return to the spot that gave him the wildest ride of his life.
“I figure I have a score to settle with the mountain,” Woods said with a laugh.
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