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January 15, 2009 3:12 am

Powell men save friend from icy togwotee disaster

Written by Tribune Staff

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An icy avalanche buried snowmobiler Ryan Berchtold, very nearly taking his life, on New Year's Day. The next day, Berchtold stood in the hole his friends dug to rescue him. Courtesy photo by Tim Metzler

When an avalanche buried and suffocated Ryan Berchtold of Powell at Togwotee Pass on New Year's Day, three friends came to his rescue.

Josh Lovelady, Tim Metzler and Darren Thomas, all of Powell, dug Berchtold out of the snow and performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), delivering him from sure death.

Lovelady conducted CPR on his best friend.

“Scariest thing that I've ever done in my life,” said Lovelady.

The four men were snowmobiling in the Togwotee Pass area when the icy avalanche descended, entombing Berchtold in 7 feet of snow.

It happened in seconds.

Berchtold was snowmobiling on a small hill. Then all hell broke loose.

“I felt it break underneath me,” Berchtold said.

Berchtold tried to maneuver his snowmobile down the hill to avoid the roiling snow, but to no avail.

Before he knew it, he was crammed in an impenetrable world of white.

Berchtold tried to reach out, but was unable. That was it. He was dying.

“I remember going into kind of a dream,” Berchtold said.

And he was gone.

Thanks to an avalanche beacon, the guys were able to locate their friend trapped below, but it necessitated 15 or 20 minutes of frantic digging to reveal Berchtold's still form.

He wasn't breathing — Berchtold's mouth was packed with snow.

Lovelady gave his best friend CPR and revived him.

Lovelady said he believes he breathed into his friend's mouth and pumped his chest for five or 10 minutes, but he lost track of time.

Finally, Berchtold came around, but he was still groggy and his tongue was lolling, Lovelady said.

Berchtold was suffering hypothermia, so the guys built a fire to thaw him.

Berchtold's comeback might be described as a miracle. But, by the same token, his buddies' efforts in the face of such dire circumstances must be proclaimed heroic.

Young, tough and lucky might characterize Berchtold. Three hours after the avalanche struck, Berchtold departed on a snowmobile while his friends dug out his machine, which was still swamped with snow.

“He rode out under his own power,” Lovelady said.

Soon after, the men arrived at Riverton Memorial Hospital.

Berchtold was examined, underwent a CT scan and was pronounced OK.

“They said I was fine,” Berchtold said.

Lovelady never said he and his pals were brave, but he praised the simple device that beeped like a beacon of hope.

“We always carry avalanche beacons strapped to our chests,” Lovelady said.

Lovelady said beacons cost between $250 and $600, but he said you can't place a price tag on a life.

The friends take a couple snowmobile trips per year. The Cooke City, Mont., area is a favored spot.

Avalanche conditions across the West have been extremely hazardous this year, and recently have killed people.

But the men were taking precautions — wearing beacons and sticking close together.

“We never ride alone,” Lovelady said.

Anyone who visits the winter back country should pack an avalanche beacon, and they should never snowmobile alone, Lovelady said.

The next day, the guys were at it again. They went snowmobiling.

“I was pretty nervous,” Berchtold said, but he said it lifted his friends' spirits being out on their sleds after their horrendous mishap.

Berchtold hasn't recovered completely yet; he gets headaches and suffers fatigue, but he is getting back to normal.

He said he knows he was fortunate and is mighty thankful for his friends' successful labors to save his life.

“I just felt very lucky,” Berchtold said.