In the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an incoming storm turns a good day into an escalating accident

On January 12 of last season, Jason Layh, 44, and his partner embarked on a tour on Jobs Peak (10,638 ft.), located in the southeast corner of the Tahoe Basin on the Nevada side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After the duo successfully skied their line of the day—a run roughly a vertical-mile long that dropped to the Carson Valley floor—they decided to take a look at another line that they’d both been eyeing for some time off the peak’s eastern shoulder before heading back to their cars. But with a storm rolling in and after witnessing windloading, the pair decided to call off any additional ski or recon mission. As they began to travel downslope, a slide broke and Layh, who was working his way through some trees, was swept away.

A clear day and present danger on Jobs Peak in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. [Photo] Scott Rokis

The wind, which had been prevalent that morning, had come in a lot earlier than forecasted. It had primarily been at the very top of the peaks, but at this stage it really started coming downslope. There came a point where we had to take our skis off because the wind had blown the snow back to rock on one side of a prominent ridgeline that we were crossing over; then right on the other side we were instantly post-holing up to our waists, so skis back on.

My partner was fired up by just how crazy the weather was, and when we got a little bit farther we were able to get into the protection of a big, old juniper tree. I stopped my partner there and said, “No more. We can’t keep going any more. Our window for traveling has gone.” He agreed, but I wanted to turn around and go back the way we came, and he wanted to just drop where we were. We were in the middle of that discussion, and he started pulling his skins off. In the process his skins got blown out of his hand and went downhill. He instantly—a knee-jerk reaction—took off after them. I remember standing there being like, “I don’t want to ski down here. I don’t like it. I don’t like where we are. I don’t know what’s going on.”

He was able to collect his skins, and we got this moment of calm where the winds just completely stopped, and he wanted to ski down that line. I began to come down, and he called out to tell me to not follow the line he’d taken. Instead, he had me go across through a whole lot of trees. Right as I was stepping through that zone, the whole slope released.

I instantly tried to grab onto everything that I could, but when you start moving like that, everything might as well be covered in Vaseline. My skis got ripped off, and I tried for another couple of trees but couldn’t get ahold of anything. Downstream of me, I could see a big tree, and I made my mind up that I needed to get to that tree. I could see it was a big tree—it was easily a 40- to 60-foot pine tree—but I could also see that the force of the slide was whipping this tree like those silly things you see at car dealerships, those big inflatable people that whip all over the place. I went for that tree with everything I had and at the exact moment that I got there, the snow surged up and lifted me higher, and that tree snapped back and just smacked me.

It smacked me hard enough that it instantly broke my [lower] leg, and I thought it had broken my femur, as well. It smacked me up the entire length of my body. It shattered my helmet, and it hit me so hard that I grayed out—I didn’t black out, but I came as close as possible. My arms and legs instantly stopped working, and I went into the fetal position. I remember thinking of Ursula, Xavier and Gina [my daughter, son and wife], and I said I was sorry, and I knew if I didn’t stop, I was going to die. And then I stopped.

The tree had hit me hard enough that it deflected me out of the main stream of the avalanche. When I came to a stop, I was half buried. I was terrified of what was going on around me—I knew I was hurt, but that wasn’t what I was afraid of. I was afraid of sliding further down the hill. It felt like gravity was pulling me down the hill, and I couldn’t stop, and that was terrifying.

Seconds later, my partner got there. He hadn’t even used his beacon. He just instantly started moving downhill and tried to keep his eyes on me in the slide. I told him, “My leg’s fucked.” My partner’s profession is SAR with one of the local fire crews, and that side kicked in. He dug out a platform and just leaned in right on top of me to make me feel like I wasn’t going anywhere, and then we started addressing my leg. He pulled it back out and aligned it and started to splint it with what we had—some ski poles and some ski straps—and made me as comfortable as possible and started to organize an air evac, and he got me into a bivy bag he was carrying.

Fortunately, he had a thermos of hot water with electrolytes in it, and that was phenomenal. After being able to get this hot liquid into me, I was finally able to regain the use of my arms and my hands, and I was able to help stabilize myself and get another jacket on and change out gloves.

Then the helicopter came, but as it turned out, the helicopter couldn’t get to us. It was too windy. They were unable to winch another helper down; they were unable to drop any equipment off. They gave Aaron the call that they were going to go down and land below, and he was going to have to try to get me farther down the hill, and they would have a crack at [the rescue] farther downstream. Also at the time a big storm front was moving in. And for reasons still not known to me CalTrans called the helicopter off mid-rescue. They didn’t want the helicopter stuck on the Nevada side of the Sierra with the storm coming in.

So we were now left with no helicopter option. They called a valley-based SAR group to come and assist. When we finally got sight of some of the SAR group coming up, Aaron was super relieved to see them. Unfortunately the rest of the crew had tried to come in on sleds and had almost immediately gotten stuck. They had proceeded on snowshoes so they weren’t able to sidehill.

We were going so slowly, and I was losing a lot of blood. As it turned out, I had severed my tibial artery. The National Guard sent in a Black Hawk to come pick me up. That got in right around dusk. Fortunately, that helicopter was powerful enough that it could withstand the winds that were now coming down all the way to the valley floor.

I ended up having a compound tib/fib fracture and severed artery. My tib/fib was displaced 4.5 cm outside of my leg. They drilled out the inside of my tibia, and now I have a titanium rod that goes from just below the tibial plateau to the ankle, and that’s a permanent fixture.

At first it was almost too easy to look back and blame. But why didn’t I speak up? I pay a lot of attention and have done this for a really long time. I was with a really experienced partner. But the bottom line is that if your innards are telling you something’s amiss, it’s the same in any situation. You turn around, and you get out. z

Read more details and reflections from Jason Layh on this slide and his recovery at

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  1. This is a year old story. Hairy but these things happen.

  2. Thanks for sharing. You benefit all of us by doing so. My stories aren’t nearly this worthy. Forgive the little humor please.

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