Reno, Nev. • Aaron Zanto describes ski lines in snow the way a painter describes brush strokes on canvas.
When he’s skiing the Lake Tahoe area backcountry, the 44-year-old firefighter from Kings Beach, California, strives to make every line meaningful.
But not every line is beautiful, as Zanto learned when an avalanche on Jobs Peak turned his partner’s ski line into an ugly smear across the snow.
It also transformed the day into a crisis that required every ounce of Zanto’s skill and a few strokes of luck: Setting his partner’s broken leg; watching a helicopter turn away due to high winds; dragging his seriously injured partner through deep snow to reach rescuers; wondering whether a second helicopter could get his friend off the mountain by nightfall.
Through the ordeal, Zanto gained a greater appreciation for the tools and knowledge anyone who skis, hikes or rides in the backcountry should take on every trip.
“Think about where you are going and are you prepared for what it is going to mean,” he told the Reno Gazette Journal . Zanto’s ski partner didn’t want to be interviewed or identified publicly.
Their ski trip went bad Feb. 12 on the flanks of Jobs Peak, a mountain towering more than 5,000 feet above Nevada’s Carson Valley floor. The 10,600-foot peak with commanding views of the Lake Tahoe Basin is actually in California.
An advisory from the Sierra Avalanche Center warned of the potential for avalanches.
But Zanto had been monitoring the snowpack all season and was confident they could avoid problems.
“I think any reports are super important, but skiing day in, day out is kind of more what I take into consideration,” he said. “We definitely thought things were stable that day.”
By 10 a.m. they reached the rim of a steep couloir called Jaws and noticed there had already been a natural avalanche.
They descended a 2,000-foot line on better snow back into the canyon.
With plenty of time left in the day, they headed toward the S Chute, named for its shape and visibility from the valley below.
Along the way they noticed strong winds had rearranged snow, even in protected areas. They also observed ridges of wind-deposited snow deep into the trees, something usually associated with exposed terrain.
Zanto said they didn’t factor the conditions into their decision-making as much as they could have.
Eventually, they reached what they estimated to be about a 40-degree pitch, an angle that’s steep enough to produce avalanches.
While they were discussing their options, a gust of wind ripped a climbing skin from Zanto’s grasp and blew it down the line they were contemplating.
Zanto skied first and retrieved the lost skin. The snow held and all seemed well.
Zanto’s partner followed. That’s when things went wrong and the snow broke loose.
“The whole thing just broke away, it started to carry him,” Zanto said.
Zanto watched helplessly from 15 feet away while the avalanche gained size and speed. By the time it stopped, it was 40 feet wide and had carried his partner 500 feet down slope.
“I remember him getting washed off his feet and being like, ‘Oh crap, he is not going to be able to stop.'”
Zanto reached for his avalanche beacon but realized he wouldn’t need it. His ski partner was only partially buried with his head and arms free above the snow.
When he realized his partner was breathing and conscious, Zanto thought they had averted a serious problem.
It wasn’t until Zanto was digging that he saw his partner’s leg was bloody and badly broken.
Zanto knew he had to act fast. Given his medical training as a firefighter, Zanto knew his friend was at risk of catastrophic blood loss, hypothermia and shock.
He disassembled a collapsible ski pole to make a splint to set the broken leg. He wrapped his friend in warm clothes and tucked him into a bivy bag.
They were within range of cellular towers, and Zanto called 911 about noon. Dispatchers sent a California Highway Patrol helicopter with a hoist toward them.
But despite multiple hoist attempts in high winds, the helicopter was forced to turn back.
Alpine County Search and Rescue advised Zanto and his friend to stay put while rescuers approached by ski and snowshoe.
It would take rescuers hours to reach them, and Zanto knew they didn’t have that kind of time. The sun would set in less than four hours.
Nightfall was “just not an acceptable option,” Zanto said.
So Zanto started moving his partner toward the rescuers.
It was a slow operation. The snow was deep and soft and Zanto had to pull him, step-by-exhausting-step.
“I was pulling on his good leg; I basically pulled his ski boot and walked backward,” Zanto said.
For more than an hour, Zanto pulled his partner downhill. Even resting was a challenge. Every time they stopped, his partner’s body heat melted the snow around him and caused the bivy bag to freeze in place.
After about an hour, Zanto and his partner reached a rescuer about 1,000 feet lower than where they started.
They continued towing Zanto’s friend, descending another 200 feet before meeting more rescuers.
Even with help, progress remained slow and daylight dwindled.
The two skiers had been on the mountain nearly eight hours. Traveling another half-mile would take until after dark.
One of the rescuers summoned a Nevada National Guard helicopter able to fly under difficult circumstances.
National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Wagner got the call.
Wagner knew other helicopter teams had decided against flying. But he also knew the Guard’s UH-60 Black Hawk, with two engines and a combined 3,000 horsepower carrying his crew of five could conduct the mission.
Plus, the Black Hawk might be the skiers’ last chance.
“If we weren’t able to get there, there was a good chance they were going to be there all night which greatly increased the risk for the patient,” Wagner said.
With the capability to fly 170 mph, the crew reached the Carson Valley in about 20 minutes. The crew had little trouble locating the group, but they faced stronger winds than expected.
“We train in more difficult conditions routinely around here, whether it is night or snow or higher elevation,” Wagner said.
He described hovering about 120 to 130 feet above the ground, using tall trees to help him keep the craft properly oriented. Staff Sgt. Nicholas Hammond and a stretcher were lowered by hoist to the ground.
After his ski partner was safely in the Black Hawk, Zanto had time to ski back to his parked truck.
Although the day included a serious injury and helicopter rescue, Richard Bothwell, a backcountry ski guide and avalanche instructor, said the skiers were well prepared for emergencies and made good decisions under difficult circumstances.
He said carrying a bivy bag instead of a space blanket and having a working cellphone and GPS location were critical.
“The vast majority of the people we see out in the backcountry are poorly prepared to deal with a significant situation,” he said.
Zanto and his partner also benefited from good luck, Bothwell said.
“With just a little bit of a shift in luck that helicopter wouldn’t have flown in and they would have been out there for a significantly longer period of time,” he said.