Silverton Slide: Jeremy Bird recounts being swept onto Colorado route 550 in a January 9 avalanche

On January 9, residents of the greater Durango, Colo. area Jeremy Bird and Mark Helmich set out to tour in Coal Bank Pass in the San Juan Mountains—a day that ended with Bird, 52, getting swept over a cliff and onto Route 550 by an avalanche. The accident occurred during a time when avalanche danger across the west ranged from moderate to extreme, but on Monday, the day of Bird and Helmich’s trip, the storms that hit Colorado were just starting to ramp up and conditions were changing on an hourly basis.

In the aftermath of the slide, Bird took the opportunity to reflect and share his experience so that others could learn from the events that took place that day. Here is his recount of what happened that day.

The site of the slide in TK. [Photo] Mark

The site of the slide on Coal Bank Pass. [Photo] Mark Helmich

“Well, we could always go back and ski Purg.” That would have changed the whole day. But there wasn’t enough powder to warrant that, so my partner Mark and I pulled out our shovels and dug through the foot-and-a-half deep plow debris by the side of the road. After backing my Xterra in just enough to get us off the pavement, we donned our gear, checked beacons and positioned AvaLungs for proper operation in the event of emergency.

Skins on, we started up the Deer Creek skintrack on Coal Bank Pass in the San Juan Mountains, south of Silverton. It had been snowing heavily since we started up the pass, and it was piling up, but there was little wind and the snow did not feel dense. As we passed other skiers, it became evident through the eight-to-10 inches of fresh snow on the skintrack that it was accumulating faster than we thought. A few miles south of us, Purgatory had reported three inches that morning, but the pass was obviously a lot deeper. In fact, I was later told by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) that 21 inches had fallen in 10 hours at the nearby weather station.

Deer Creek is known as a go-to area in higher avalanche conditions, so we figured we were in the right place for the not-so-favorable conditions. As we stripped skins at the top, we decided to head back on a southern route toward the car rather than the normal northern route, which necessitates hitching a ride up the pass to return to the truck. We had skied a similar line earlier in the season, but conditions were dramatically different this time. The first ski cut on a small slope produced sluff, which got our attention.

I had checked CAIC the previous evening and read the reports and forecasts. Noted were the normal persistent slab conditions, which are pretty much always a consideration in the San Juans. Avy danger was moderate with a considerable rating forecast the next afternoon. I did not, however, check the report in the morning, nor did my partner. That was the first mistake of the day.

As we made our way down moderate slopes next to the skintrack, I cut around a knob on a 35-degree slope and kicked off a sizable slide, which I watched slide around me in fascination. It missed me due to a tree, and it was soft and powdery storm snow, but it still left a 10-inch crown above me and a debris field below me. At that point it was the largest slide I had ever triggered.

I have been an avid backcountry skier for seven years, addicted from the first time a buddy of mine, Jim, took me out on his old boards with borrowed beacon, shovel and probe to McMillan Pass at the top of Red Mountain Pass. I met Mark a few months later when Jim invited him along on an excursion on Ophir Pass. After Jim moved away, Mark and I continued to ski together inbounds and in the backcountry around Silverton and Wolf Creek Pass.

So we were having our normal dialogue assessing what each of us had seen and experienced that day with the snowpack so far. We came to the conclusion that we would ski carefully in the tight trees and try to regain the skintrack for reference and possibly as an escape route should we come across a larger flat or open slope.

I skied first, as I often do, to give Mark, a splitboarder, a better run-in incase of flats ahead. We rode the slope in small sections, making sure to stop in safe zones and keep eyes on each other. By this time, we knew we were not in an ideal safety situation, but we felt we could work our way back to the car without incident if we were careful.

As we came out of a stand of trees, I could see a yellow road sign a hundred feet below. The slope looked steep but manageable on a normal day. Unfortunately, this was not a normal day. As Mark came up behind me, he asked if I could see a direct line to the road. I said there were cliffs below, but it looked OK to the left. I skied a short distance to a better vantage point. There were obvious cliffs to the right, below us, as well as an avalanche area road sign. That also should have been a big red flag, but it looked like there was a direct line in a less steep area to the left that might work.

Mark expressed that it would be safest to make a ski cut over to the left before dropping in. I told Mark that I did not like our position at all and was not comfortable with the slope. As I recounted the tale to my wife that evening, she asked me why I made the decision to ski it with such thoughts in my head. I didn’t have an answer. Now that I’ve replayed the moment a hundred times in my head, I still don’t have a real answer.

The road was so close, I was sure I had a solid line. I even entertained the thought that I could outrun a slide on such a short pitch. I ignored the sirens reminding me that the 40-degree slope probably would slide with the weight of a skier added to the fragile slope. I ignored the fact that I was skiing into a terrain trap next to an area of cliffs without a sure line-of-sight to the bottom.

I didn’t even consider the only right answer in this dangerous situation, the only answer with a high probability for a safe descent to the road: I should have pulled my skins out of my pack, taken the time and energy to carefully skin straight back up and traverse through the trees to a much lower angled slope a few hundred yards down the pass. I guess I sometimes forget that going back up is an option. I doubt I will ever forget that again.

As I checked with Mark to make sure he was in a safe zone anchored by a tree, I bit down hard on the mouthpiece of the AvaLung I always carry. I practiced reaching for the handle to trigger the airbag on a pack I was borrowing from a friend. It was the last piece of safety equipment I had been hesitant to procure due to price. I felt more confident with the pack, which was maybe not such a good thing in hindsight.

I turned and headed out onto the fragile slope, thinking I could make it to the vantage point I had been eyeing. Almost immediately, the slope fractured and liquefied. I instinctively pointed my skis downhill to try to ride the slide out. Then the horizon disappeared as I launched over a cliff band and felt myself falling into the white room. I had no idea how far I had to fall or what was at the bottom. Before I knew what was happening, I was spread-eagled on my stomach with a heavy weight piling onto my back.

I vaguely thought the airbag pack should have floated me to the surface but realized that I hadn’t pulled the ripcord. I firmly believe now that muscle memory through regular practice is the only way to have that ripcord pulled in an emergency. There was just too much input in the moment for my mind to react properly.

I attempted to move and was surprised that my right arm was in a beach ball sized pocket of air, and I could move it from the elbow to the hand. I attempted to dig up toward where the snow had piled on but could not reach the surface. I concentrated on breathing out through the AvaLung and in through my nose or the AvaLung. This had the effect of directing my warm exhalation to the area behind me and allowed me to breathe in through my nose or the one-way valve on my chest. I thought the air pocket around my arm would help add to my available air supply. I knew I could breathe normally and had no immediate pain indicating severe injury. I was not even cold, having kept my gloves, helmet and goggles in place.

I concentrated on slowing my breathing with limited success. It was pitch black with no sound other than the duck-like quack of the AvaLung at every breath. I accepted that my life depended entirely on the actions of another person. I scared myself momentarily by thinking that if Mark was also caught in the slide, no one would find me in time. I wouldn’t let myself go there. I imagined the progress Mark would be making above me, noting, “He should be down the slope by now. He should be starting his beacon search. He should be probing soon.”

I imagined I heard sounds from above me; maybe I did hear the faint sounds of his rescue attempt. I waited and felt no probe strike. I focused on my breathing and the rhythmic quacking of the AvaLung.

Jeremy Bird gets rescued by Mike Barney and Mark . [Photo] Mark

Jeremy Bird gets rescued by Mike Barney and Mark Helmich. [Photo] Mark Helmich

Meanwhile, Mark had aired a 15-foot cliff onto a flat debris field and started his search. As he stripped his pack and attempted to access his beacon, he realized it was under his coat and the leash attached to it was too short for him to read it properly in rescue mode. He stripped his coat off and flipped the beacon switch to search. In the heat of the moment, he did not put his coat back on but started searching in his fleece. This could have had dire consequences for him, as his coat and baselayer became quite wet during the rescue.

Both of us have practiced beacon searches but not on a regular basis. Mark was using an older beacon and had difficulty finding me quickly. Neither of us had developed the smooth muscle memory through regular practice that may have taken minutes off the rescue time.

We both carry Pieps beacon probes so I knew if he hit me with it he’d know it was a positive strike. It only took about five minutes before I felt the probe hit my backpack and then my arm. I jerked my arm to signal I was OK and breathed a big sigh of relief. I knew I was going to be OK. It took an estimated 10 to 15 minutes for Mark to dig down to my helmet.

I breathed in, quacked out.

Mark was doing what he had to do and digging with all his strength. He described to me how lonely it was being out there by himself with the responsibility of my life in his hands. He prayed and dug and prayed and dug. When a car pulled up to the section of the pass now covered eight-feet deep and 200-feet long in avalanche debris, his hopes were buoyed. Unfortunately, they had no shovels and seemed unable or unwilling to assist in the rescue. So he kept digging until near exhaustion. I was buried four-to-five feet under the surface, so there was a lot of snow to move.

As the darkness finally started to become lighter, I felt a shovel hit my helmet and then my hand. I reached out to show I was OK and a friendly pair of hands grasped mine. I thought in the moment, “Don’t grab my hand, dig!” but realized shortly that someone was still digging and the hands were very comforting. I heard a voice I didn’t recognize barking orders to move the snow away from the hole. I could tell he knew what he was doing, and moments later he cleared the snow from in front of my helmet and asked if I could breathe. It sounded like the right person was out there helping out, and I was right. Mike Barney, who I found out was the one dictating orders, has had considerable experience teaching avalanche education at the Silverton Avalanche School.

I heard him telling someone to take pictures that could be used in his teaching. He asked if anyone else was caught in the slide, and for a moment, I worried that Mark was buried, and Mike had performed the entire rescue. I asked urgently about Mark before I could even move my head and heard Mark’s reply that he was OK. I was able to relax somewhat as it took what seemed like forever to free up my arms and legs.

I think everyone was quite shocked as I popped up out of the hole, gave thumbs up to the photographer and began digging my skis out. Mike stopped me and patted me down, knowing I had to be in shock and might not feel an injury. I told him I thought I was OK. I ended up with a sore shoulder and tweaked left knee but miraculously no real injuries.

I snapped a couple of photos and accepted a ride back to the Xterra. We jumped in and drove toward the top of the pass with ski boots on, as we were parked in a possible slide zone. I called my wife and told her I loved her—the only thing that came to my mind as I was driving through the blizzard toward home. She asked, “You’re not driving are you?” to which I sheepishly replied, “Yes.”

As we traded seats and he drove down the pass, Mark commented, “I guess we should have gone to Purg.”

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  1. Thanks Jeremy! Glad you’re here to give some perspective and advice.

  2. thanks Jeremy for sharing your story. It takes a lot of courage to talk about the incident. We can all learn from this and glad that you both are o.k.

  3. Thanks for such a contemplative, well-told account — your thoughts are super helpful. Glad you’re safe!

  4. Greer Taylor says:

    Amazing. Praise God he’s okay! Can’t believe someone stopped and was unwilling to help. Hope that was reported incorrectly.

  5. Robbie gallegos says:

    Sure glad we didn’t have to bury you again. Breath in, quack out…

  6. Shawn underell says:

    Wow Jeremy, love you and I had no idea. Give a call and let’s hook up… at purg

  7. Riveting story and we are happy that Jeremy had the right equipment, friend and luck on his side. We are very happy that this was a positive outcome and has become a lesson for us all!.

    Rest up.. Be careful. Enjoy the snow. Sharing this with our kids later today.

  8. Thank you thank you thank you. …for being brave and sharing your story.

  9. Glad things worked out, and thank you for the honest account, including decisions and gear complications that added to the complexity. Refreshing that it’s not another “we’re SO safe but it was a freak accident, go figure…” story. Thanks again and have fun out there.

  10. A post-incident story well told.

    The focus on self-reflection and thought processes (heuristics) is particularly useful.

  11. Matthew Baldwin says:

    shit that was a good read. tear in the eye at the end.

  12. Thank you Jeremy for telling your story! Well written and honest, which deserves a huge compliment. Very useful account for all of us. It’s also nice to read a successful use of the Avalung that confirm my thoughts about it. I’ve been a fan and wearer of one for many years now. Fortunately never had to use it. Of course the biggest question always was and is, how possible it is to keep it in your mouth. So every successful story is a welcome reinforcement. I’m also in the same boat as you of being hesitant about buying an airbag and that is mostly due to the price as well (but also my worries of taking higher risks because of it). But in this particular incident it is questionable if it would’ve kept you on top, since it sounds like you were not flowing much with the avalanche!?
    You are one lucky man for walking away from this relatively unharmed!

  13. Slim Bouguerra says:

    Nice Write up Jeremy and happy that the ending was good. But wondering why this accident report is not available at ?

  14. jim Winzer says:

    Jeremy called me at work shortly after his rescue. When I heard what had happened I was glad to see he was alive and OK. It’s a good thing Mark was there and kept his cool and did the right thing. As Jeremy Mentioned in the article I introduced him to the BC. Jeremy ,Mark and I always worked hard at being safe while still having a lot of fun and doing sick turns. I have unfortunately lost a friend back in 2000 in the Indian Peaks west of Boulder and have been in 2 rescues. The one thing I have learned and I’m sure Jeremy and Mark would agree, it does not matter how much knowledge ,experience, or good avie equipment you have, anything can happen. Be safe my friends.

  15. Wow! Glad you and your partner are ok. One point I think is worth mentioning since it was not brought up in the article or previous comments is that we all should consider the roads and their users when deciding whether or not to ski avalanche-prone slopes above them. Motorists have been injured and killed, and roads have been shut down, from avalanches. From the description in the article, it seems that a slide on that day on that slope was very likely to cross the road, so just throwing it out there as another thing to factor in to our decision-making. Again, so glad you’re ok and thanks for sharing your experience.

  16. Thank you for sharing. I appreciate your vulnerability. These are the stories that remind us of life’s fragility, and the seriousness of backcountry skiing.


  1. […] Silverton Slide: Jeremy Bird Recounts Being Swept Onto Colorado Route 550 In A January 9 Avalanche – – This guy had a close call in SW CO. […]

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