Snowmobiler Saved by Avalanche Airbag–After Nearly Leaving it Behind

By Joe Waggoner

We were going riding out of Conconnuly, Washington, in an area we consider to be pretty safe from avalanche danger, where I don’t always wear my Float avalanche airbag pack. I asked my buddy that day if he thought I needed to wear my airbag pack. He said, « I wouldn’t think you would need it here. » And I said, « Yea, I wouldn’t think so. » But then for some reason I put my Float pack on anyway and hopped on my snowmobile.

It was the end of January 2017, and we had not had any snow for a week or so and things seemed pretty stable. We got to Tiffany Mountain and there was a bunch of guys and sleds tearing it up. I told my buddy it didn’t look like there was much snow. So I decided to climb up a moderate slope that wasn’t really extreme.

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The northern cliff-face of Tiffany Mountain and distant peaks. Photographed just below the summit (8245 feet).

When I was most of the way up the slope on my sled, the snow broke loose. I was still pointed uphill and was unable to get my sled turned. My sled started to flip over backwards and I deployed my avalanche airbag pack. I went down headfirst. Only my head and arms were sticking out during the slide. I kept trying to swim through the avalanche debris and stay free, but heavy snow was pulling down on my legs really hard. The avalanche was like a raging river. It spit me out the bottom of the slide and I stood right up with no snow on me at all! The whole avalanche slide path area was stripped down to dirt and rock.

After the avalanche, I saw that my sled was about a hundred feet above me, half buried and packed in hard. There was about fifteen feet of snow piled up where my sled was. I am convinced that I would have been completely buried if I didn’t have a Float avalanche airbag pack--that there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here now.

I now encourage everyone to wear an airbag pack. Just last weekend we had a couple avalanche victims in eastern Washington, so I am happy to be able to share my avalanche survival story.

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Funpharmer Sledder Joe Waggoner carries avalanche safety gear every time he rides.


We learn something new from every avalanche event.  BCA thanks Joe for sharing his avalanche success story with our backcountry community, particularly because he was riding in avalanche terrain that claimed a young sledder 11 years ago.

Tiffany Mountain, located in the east northern WA Cascades, was the site of an avalanche that caught two snomobilers on March 19, 2006. One snowmobiler was partly buried by the avalanche and injured, and another 17-year-old snowmobiler was buried and killed in the avalanche.

According to the Northwest Avalanche Center incident report, Tyler Thompson of Omak was riding with several other snowmobilers, including his father Frank Thompson, in the Browns Meadow area when one of the snowmobilers rode up the side of the bowl, triggering an avalanche. Tyler and his father were caught in the slide. Members of the group quickly found his father but were unable to locate Tyler. Search parties, along with a search dog were called to the area. After four hours, the dog led searchers to an area and they eventually located the teenager buried about 30 inches under the snow near the base of a tree. It appeared he was carried down the hill and slammed into a tree.  It is unknown whether they we riding with avalanche safety gear.

Northwest Avalanche Center Incident Report – Summary

  • Date/Time of incident: 3-19-2006, ~2 PM
  • Location: Above Brown’s Meadow near Tiffany Mountain; approximately 12 miles NE of
    Conconully, Okanogan County, WA
  • Activity: Snowmobile
  • Incident: 2 snomobilers caught—1 partly buried, 1 totally buried and killed,
  • Slide information: Crown face ranged from 2-5 ft deep by ~200 ft across. Slide apparently
    released on faceted snow near the ground [HS-AMu-D2.5/3-R3.5-G].
  • Slope information: slope angle at the fracture line estimated in mid-upper 30 degree range;
    slope was convex and wind loaded near the top and lacked any significant anchoring (see
    photos below)
  • Slope aspect and elevation: W-NW exposure, approximately 6,000 ft elevation