Big lines and big recoveries: Overcoming the trauma of surviving an avalanche

Amie Engerbretson, BCA brand ambassador, in an ad for Ski Portillo, Chile. Photo: Liam Doran.

BCA pro athlete Amie Engerbretson was featured in the December 2016 issue of Freeskier. Reporter Tess Weaver Stokes interviewed Amie for the story “Backcountry Rehab” to learn how she has overcome the trauma of surviving an avalanche, and gone on to drop big lines and continue her professional ski career. Read an excerpt of the story here about how Amie sought out a trauma therapist to “mend her relationship with wild snow.”


By Tess Weaver Stokes, Freeskier

The trauma started on December 9, 2013, when Lake Tahoe native Amie Engerbretson made a classic powder turn in Utah’s Grizzly Gulch, a backcountry area just outside of Alta Ski Area. The slash triggered an avalanche that dragged her 100 feet downhill and into a terrain trap, where she was buried under a foot and a half of snow. She was dug out within 30 seconds by skier and photographer Adam Clark—who was documenting Engerbretson’s skiing that day—and bystanders. She was wearing a beacon and deployed an airbag, but her partners didn’t have proper backcountry tools and the avalanche danger was rated considerable on the steep, north-facing rollover she was skiing.

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Photo of Amie triggering and getting caught by the avalanche.

The incident was highly publicized and the group faced much criticism. But, Engerbretson’s personal account of the incident on her blog, titled “Blind Spot,” was well received for its honesty and accountability. Her humility resonated in statements like: “I knew that if I would have read the accident report about someone else I would have thought, ‘Wow, those guys were idiots.’” Engerbretson was shaken, but continued skiing.

A month later, she was skiing in-bounds at Crystal Mountain Resort in Washington after a massive storm delivered more than 60 inches of snow—closing the resort the day prior. She and her group were skiing cautiously all morning and moved to a treed area with some small airs at the top of the slope. Engerbretson noticed bomb holes on the face and ski-cut the top of her line before dropping in. But, when she landed her cliff drop, a pocket released, sending her head first down through the timber. She struggled in the heavy snow, but eventually inflated her airbag and was pinned against a tree 100 feet downslope—she’d torn her MCL and meniscus. The slide continued for approximately 1,000 vertical feet, carrying her ejected ski the entire way. Engerbretson was in disbelief. She knew the Utah incident was skier-induced, but this time, she was in-bounds, aware and taking proper precautions. Engerbretson realized she was forever changed as a skier.

“It was the compound effect of the two slides, within about a month of each other, and very early in my backcountry skiing career, that was really hard to overcome,” says Engerbretson.

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Gearing up for a ride in the bird at Golden Alpine Holidays, British Columbia.  Photo: Jay Dash

Engerbretson continued backcountry skiing later that winter—having recovered from her knee injury—and even went heli-skiing for the first time. But, she constantly looked over her shoulder, expecting the worst. The feeling of sinking into a deep powder turn morphed from bliss into raw fear. She battled nightmares. All symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, from which many avalanche victims suffer; a 2002 study said 41 percent of buried victims experienced PTSD symptoms.

“The slides had become so huge in my mind that any hint of instability would set me off,” says Engerbretson. “I would start sweating and feeling nauseous.”

In the fall, Engerbretson realized she wasn’t healing and sought out a trauma therapist. Through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), the therapist worked to de-sensitize Engerbretson to her avalanche accidents and reprogram her subconscious in regards to the events. While triggering both sides of Engerbretson’s brain with a minor distraction, for example following the therapist’s fingers back and forth, they talked through the event in detail over and over and over.

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Amie Engerbretson enters the white room in Hokkaido, Japan. Photo: Will Wissman.

“Eventually, I got to a point where I could go through all the [aspects] of the accidents and be okay,” she says. “It was hard to get there, but it gave me the space to really look at all the things that happened, trying to look at them without emotion. Through this process I was able to figure out what bothered me the most. What I found the most unnerving was the sense of a complete lack of control.”

In April of 2015, Engerbretson had the unfortunate opportunity to put her training to the test. She was on the trip of a lifetime, a film outing with Warren Miller Entertainment in Alaska. Standing atop Pyramid, an iconic peak in the Chugach, she dropped in on the biggest line of her life at the time—a 3,600-foot, 50-degree face. On her third turn, s small pocket pulled out below her. She dug her tip into the crown of the slide, inverted in the moving slab, got back on her edges and stopped immediately in what her guide called a ‘very athletic move.’

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Amie Engerbretson powder skiing. Photo: Tucker Patton.

“It was a good test of my training and ability to overcome that and get back on my feet,” says Engerbretson.

And that she has. At 28 years of age, her flowing blonde locks and enthusiastic smile can be seen in more published images than ever, including two magazine covers to date. Based in Utah, she’s worked methodically to create the ski career she’s always wanted. Engerbretson joined the Backcountry Access team last winter and currently rides with a BCA Float 22 Lime avalanche airbag, and a Tracker 3 beacon, probe and shovel avalanche rescue package.

Though many of the skiers she works with have more backcountry experience than she possesses, Engerbretson doesn’t worry about coming off as overly cautious. She usually prefaces her dialogue with her past experiences and what she’s learned.

“Overcoming my trauma is a work in progress. I am not sure I will ever cure it or feel the way I used to in the backcountry. What I do aim to do is move through it, minimize the irrational fears and try my hardest to keep the joy alive.”

Read the full Freeskier story.

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Amie Engerbretson lays down first tracks in Chilkoot Knoll, CPG Heli Skiing, Girdwood, AK, Photo: Jeff Engerbretson, Skiing magazine, January 2017.