BCA Float Airbag Save: Surviving an Avalanche that Totaled My Sled

In January, Tony Jenkins survived an avalanche that totaled his 2018 Ski-Doo Summit X 165 snowmobile.

By Tony Jenkins, BCA sled ambassador 

We hear about it, we read about it, and once in a while lose a friend or someone you might know to the powers of Mother Nature. On January 10th, 2018, my day started out like any other day while I head out to ride my Ski-Doo. I usually start out getting all my snowmobile and avalanche safety gear ready, checking equipment and making a cup of coffee and then checking the avalanche forecast. The avalanche forecast that day called for “Considerable” conditions, with aspects of northwest, north, and northeast facing slopes being more dangerous.

I headed toward Alpine, WY to meet up with some friends.  We unloaded the sleds, checked our transceivers and headed up the Grays River road for higher elevation. Our snowpack, like the rest of the northern Rockies, was already off to a bad start with the drought and warmer temps that have set seasonal records. The day before it had rained clear to 6,000 ft, but we knew there would be little fresh snow up high.

The morning started off a little rough with icy conditions and spring-like snow, but once we got to 8,000 feet we found better snow conditions and were able to start playing in 8-10 inches of fresh powder. We rode some fun drainages and trees, and it was time to have a little break. My friends were sitting off the side of the mountain, in the trees. I decided I wanted to go play around and take a rip up a hillside and ride some tree lines.

I took off up the hill. As soon as I cut right on edge, I saw a crack propagate in front of the ski. I stopped my sled to assess the situation and realized it was the new snow layer from the night before and it was sliding from underneath and into old growth trees.

At the same moment, I happened to just look over my left shoulder. This is when I saw the whole hillside fracture. The avalanche was like watching a window in a car shatter into thousands of pieces–and it wasn’t the new snow layer: it was the persistent slab layer that decided to let loose.

The slide broke loose about 200 yards above the spot where I had stopped. I remember seeing the wall of snow headed toward me and immediately reaching over to my BCA Float MtnPro Vest to pull the trigger and deploy the pack. I remember hearing the airbag deploy, looking down to see that I was still holding onto my sled and realizing that I was going to get taken out through a lot of old growth trees. (Keep in mind that all of this happened in less than 5 seconds.)

The last thing I remember is folding my arms and hoping my friends had an eye on me. That’s when everything went black and I was thrown around as if I was in a washing machine–but with a load of firewood. When the avalanche finally stopped, I popped up on top of the snow with just my legs buried in the debris and snow filling my helmet. I was so angry at myself and for putting myself in that situation. My worst worry now was my leg. I had never felt pain this bad before and I couldn’t seem to catch my breath. As the avalanche carried me through the trees, I had struck a decent sized tree with my left thigh, the side of my hip and along my stomach. I had the wind knocked out of me,and the pain from my femur was to the point I just wanted to puke.

My good buddy came to my rescue. First, he assessed me and dug my feet and legs out. I asked him just to let me catch my breath and to see if I could get my leg to start working again. After a few minutes, I was able to move a little and get to where we could pull my pants off and take a better look. Once we looked at it we realized no bones were broken, and fortunately all I had was a contusion on the femur.

I’m sharing my story not to scare you but to give insight into the experience that I survived. Sure, I walked away and yes I was bitten by Mother Nature, and I did learn a lot from this experience.

Would I do things differently? Absolutely! Surviving an avalanche has changed me in many ways. We all felt guilty of taking chances and pushing the boundaries; it’s who we are. To be honest, I’ve had a lot of luck throughout the years of riding–but eventually you might get bit, and hopefully you’ll survive.

After surviving an avalanche, I took the time to write Bruce Edgerly with a big thank you for the BCA gear his team has designed. I know for a fact that if I hadn’t had my BCA Float MtnPro Vest on and hadn’t deployed the airbag, I would’ve been more gravely injured and maybe wouldn’t even be here today. My sled was totaled in the avalanche, a complete loss after being struck and mangled by the trees in the accident. Fortunately, I walked away with only minor injuries.

A photo of Tony from a happier day. He reported no one took photos of his airbag the day he got “bit.” They were all shaken up and just focused on the rescue, then getting off the hill.

Tony is on the cover of BCA’s and Ski-Doo’s 2018 catalogs. When he’s not riding sleds, he’s a security guard at the Idaho National Laboratory outside Idaho Falls, ID.