On January 9, 2017, Jeremy Bird and Mark Helmich set out for a backcountry tour on Coal Bank Pass. That adventure ended with Bird getting swept over a cliff and buried by an avalanche on Highway 550. Jeremy survived this ordeal due to the quick actions of his partner, a passing motorist and a fair bit of luck. The team's story can teach us a tremendous amount about safety and risk in the San Juan Mountains.
For the last two years, I’ve used the 550 slide as a case study in my avalanche safety training courses. This incident has all the classic twists and turns that adventure educators love to use when guiding students to become more competent with decision making, terrain recognition and the power of the human factor.
Ever since I first heard Jeremy and Mark’s story, saw the aftermath and burial pictures and learned about that harrowing day in early 2017, I longed for the opportunity to actually work with these two. Well last night, I had that chance and the dorky educator in me was enamored with the presentation we put on.
In summary, more than 70+ attendees were locked in to these guy’s tale for almost two hours. A robust and honest Q&A with the crowd cemented the authenticity of the session. This was powerful shit and it was absolutely fucking rad to be able to bring this training opportunity to the local tribe.
A HUGE thanks to everyone who attended this event- I’m more convinced than ever that impriniting this case study into a digital short would be a valuable contribution to our sector. More to come on that- for now, enjoy the recap and highlights below:
"If I told you, you've got a moderate chance of dying going to El Rancho tonight, you might think twice about going to the bar. But we don't think twice about accepting a moderate chance of death in the backcountry." -M. Helmich
First, if you are unaware of this avalanche accident, start here and read about the incident in Backcountry Magazine.
We kicked things off by sharing the weather and avalanche report from January 9th. We also shared pictures of the accident site and of Jeremy's recovery. With the scene visually set, the partners then shared their own experiences and emotions from that day.
Both men were challenged by some amazing questions- from both the audience and submitted online by FOSJ members.
Jeremy spoke candidly about being unable to answer the question “Why did I drop this slide path?”
Both teammates agree that turning around on that fateful morning would have been the best decision they could have made.
Mark described how lonely it was searching for Jeremy on the surface. "I'm a man of faith, so I prayed and asked for strength from above."
And Jeremy talked through the thoughts and emotions playing through his mind as he lay buried under five feet of snow upon the surface of the highway.
"When I felt that probe, it was the best feeling I had ever felt in my whole life because I knew I was going to be okay." -J Bird
The team stressed the importance of continued education and ongoing rescue training. They highlighted the need for quality gear and safety equipment. They implored the audience to diligently check the daily bulletin from CAIC and compare what you’re seeing in the field to the forecasts and the conditions you expected to see before reaching the trailhead.
Both Jeremy and Mark demonstrated ample amounts of humility and introspection. It was easy to see how much they’ve learned and gleaned from this experience. They spoke to their individually refined levels of risk acceptance post-slide and shared how they see terrain differently nowadays.
They were candid with how the accident had impacted their families, their friends and their continued partnership. Jeremy offered an emotional recap of how the incident really hit home after completing a multiple burial training scenario last spring. “I thought of how my mom felt, how my son and wife would react to me being gone. And I said to myself, I never want to do this to them again.”
It was a powerful presentation.
Probably one of the best sessions the Friends of the San Juans has ever sponsored.
And unlike so many recent case studies here in this range, this story has a happy ending.
For me, this was a teaching opportunity I’ll remember forever and I look forward to working with these guys again. Their story can undoubtedly save lives and it’s an important tale to tell. Thank you Jeremy and Mark for all you’ve done and continue to do. The courage and honesty you bring to this work is an invaluable resource for the entire backcountry community.
Jermey Bird deploys his airbag for the crowd