The backcountry skier who was seriously injured in an avalanche in mid-January was finally able to go home last week.
Jacob Rabe was one of 12 friends who went out cat skiing with two guides from Big Red Cat on Thursday, Jan. 19, and found himself swept up by an avalanche. Though eight of the skiers were caught in the avalanche and four were transported to the Kootenay Boundary Regional Hospital (KBRH), it was Rabe who was most hurt.
“He … had tib/fib fracture on his left leg and broken ribs, and a dislocated sternum and broke five vertebrae in his back and neck. Broke his collar bone, broke his scapula, had pretty significant brachial plexus nerve injury in his right arm, and multiple facial fractures,” said Rich Nydegger, one of the friends who was caught in the avalanche and was carried approximately 40 meters, but who wasn’t hurt.
Rabe spent about two weeks in the ICU being treated for his injuries before he was moved into rehab, and though he’s been allowed to go home, he still has more recovery ahead of him and still has to go back to rehab every day.
The 12 friends were all originally from Utah, but Rabe had since moved to Spokane. Since KBRH doesn’t have a trauma center he and one of his friends needed to be transported to a hospital that did have one — they ended up being transported to the hospital in Spokane where Rabe works as an ER doctor.
“He was kind of the one we needed to help diagnose everyone else,” said Nydegger.
On the day of the avalanche the friends were skiing in pairs, with one guide leading and the sweep guide following after everyone else had gone. It was the last pair coming down that initiated the avalanche, according to Nydegger, and they were just reaching the rest of the group “when the crack propagated and the avalanche started.”
Four of the skiers were above the crack and stayed clear of the avalanche; six were swept up but were only carried so far. Some of them were injured, but they were quickly located.
Rabe and one other were carried much further. By the time the other 10 people were all accounted for and had switched their beacons to search, the two still weren’t showing up on the beacons. “Those beacons have a 60-meter radius and so we knew that they weren’t anywhere near,” said Nydegger.
Nydegger was in the group that went searching for them.
“We just kept going farther and farther and farther down the hill and finally I got a reading on my beacon of 48 meters … so we just hustled down and the lead guide had just gotten there before me,” said Nydegger. “The two guys … that weren’t accounted for, it was maybe a few hundred meters down through thick trees, and cliffs, and rocks, and they’re about maybe three meters apart from each other — go figure. After getting strained through the trees they were almost right next to each other, which was, in my eyes, a miracle.”
Both of them were completely buried, with only their hands sticking out, but it quickly became clear that Rabe was in worse shape. “The one was very coherent and we just kind of dug him out quickly and got his face clear, and then the other guy [Rabe] was not breathing and [was] bloodied up and banged up.”
The avalanche occurred a little after 2 p.m. and Nydegger estimates that it was five hours after that before they reached the ambulances and a total of nine hours before everyone was off the mountain.
All 12 of the friends were experienced skiers and all had avalanche training. They each carried a beacon, probe and shovel, (no avalanche airbags because they aren’t allowed on planes), and Nydegger says the team’s guides were amazing. Every member of the team was capable of helping his fellow skiers.
But Nydegger also wants to emphasize that he and his fellow skiers haven’t shared their story with the media to highlight their heroism. They want others to be aware of the risk.
“If there’s anything that we can do to help educate or help to not have these things happen, that’s our motive,” he said.
Nydegger says if you’re headed into the backcountry you should be with people who can save you, and have avalanche training and first aid so you can help them. Even with all his group’s experience, Nydegger ultimately believes it was a miracle that he and his friends live through their experience.
“We definitely felt that there was a miracle that took place and we were watched over by a higher power.”