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Snowboarding brothers narrowly escape avalanche on Polecat Bench

Matt (left) and Michael Walsh stand on the top of Polecat Bench early Monday morning, not far from where an avalanche buried Matt on Saturday. Matt (left) and Michael Walsh stand on the top of Polecat Bench early Monday morning, not far from where an avalanche buried Matt on Saturday. Tribune photo by Ilene Olson

Thoughts of an avalanche didn’t even cross their minds when two Powell brothers decided to snowboard off Polecat Bench in the late afternoon on Saturday.

But the unusual amount of snow that had fallen in recent days and weeks certainly got their attention.

“We wanted to go off the side of the bench since it had snowed so much,” said Matt Walsh, 17, a Powell High School junior.

So he and his brother, Michael Walsh, 19, headed for the bench between the city and Powell Municipal Airport. Michael, who works in North Dakota, was off for two weeks. The brothers wanted to spend some quality time together on snowboards.

They enjoy pitting their snowboarding skills against challenging conditions, so they looked for the most vertical descent they could find.

Once they arrived at a good spot on a south-facing slope, “we walked over and looked at it, and jumped off without snowboards to see what it was like,” Matt said during an interview on Sunday afternoon.

That proved promising, so they started gearing up at about 4:20 p.m.

“I went and got my snowboard and walked over to ... the longest run I could do, and strapped up in my bindings,” Matt said.

“Michael went and got his snowboard and asked what I was waiting for. I said I was waiting for him, and he said to go for it.

“Then I jumped off and landed in the snow. I went down about 3 feet, and I saw in front of me the snow starting to crack, then it started to crack all around me.”

He rode the avalanche to the bottom of the bench, then braced for the impact.

“By the time I got to the bottom, I had about a half a second, then all the snow hit me.”

While strapping on his bindings, Michael had watched everything from above, first with amusement, then with growing alarm.

“When he hit, I saw it all break around him, and I thought it was kind of funny. Then I’m sitting there, and the whole bowl area kind of let go. I could hear the rumble of how powerful it was.”

About then, the ledge where Michael was standing started to let go as well.

“I had to kind of flip backwards off it,” he said.

When he stood up, he unstrapped his board and looked down where he had last seen Matt. All he could see was a cloud of snow, and he didn’t know if Matt had been able to ride the avalanche to the bottom.

“When the cloud cleared, he was nowhere to be seen,” Michael said.

Unbeknownst to him, Matt was completely buried at the bottom of the hill.

“Once it went dark,” Matt said, I didn’t know what to do. I pretty much figured I was going to die.”

That was when both brothers remembered the lessons their father, Mike Walsh, pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God Church, taught them about prayer. Each said his own prayer — Matthew that he would be rescued, and Michael for guidance about what he should do.

“I wasn’t sure if I should go to my truck and get my phone and call Search and Rescue, or what,” Michael recalled. “I just prayed real quick and asked God what I should do. He told me to go find my brother.”

Matt was in a sitting position, with his legs extended straight out in front of him and his arms over his head. The hood of his snowboarding jacket had kept the snow from packing against his face, creating a little air pocket there.

“I prayed, and figured I heard the Lord speak to me,” Matt said, “and he told me he still had a plan for me and I wasn’t going to die there.

“Once I heard that, I started assessing things. I kind of wiggled around with every bit of strength I had and tried to see if anything would budge,” he said.

His legs were immobile, as if encased in cement, as was one of his arms. But a small open space around his other hand allowed him to move it, and he began to dig upward through the snow, a bit at a time.

“I would dig up a little way, and the snow would fall in front of my face,” he said. “Then ... I would use my hand to pack it down.”

Meanwhile, Michael had jumped over the side of the bench and was running down as fast as he could in his search for his brother. While the force of the initial avalanche was over, the entire hillside was unstable, and large chunks of snow continued to break off and cascade down the hill.

“When I was going down to find him, there was huge chunks of snow the size of my truck still sliding all around me,” he said.

He got to the bottom, but was uncertain where to look.

“I was yelling for him, and I was pretty frantic,” Michael said. “It was a big area to look for him.”

Michael started searching in an area, but said he wasn’t sure why he began his search in that particular spot.

Under the snow, Matt continued digging upward with one had. After a while, he felt his fingers just barely poke through the surface of the snow, and he enlarged the hole as much as he could with his limited motion and reach.

“Once I had the hole, I yelled for Mike four times, but I didn’t hear anything,” he said.

Then Michael stepped into the hole.

“When I saw that, I said, ‘Mike, I’m fine.’ And that’s when he found me.”

Until that moment, still unaware that his brother was directly underneath him, Michael had continued to shout Matt’s name.

“I was yelling and yelling, so I stopped yelling for him for just a second and I heard, ‘Mike, I’m fine.’

“I stepped in the hole and I just started digging and digging. It took me a good minute or two (to dig down to where Matt was), because the snow had compacted itself so hard.”

Matt’s head was under about 3 feet of snow, Michael said.

Once he had freed up Matt’s arms, he took a picture of Matt there in the hole in the snow. His legs still were buried.

Michael resumed digging, eventually freeing Matt.

“He kept his cool really well, and he was making jokes when I was digging him out,” Michael said.

Matt didn’t fully realize the magnitude of the situation until he got out of the hole. Once he did, “he was kind of in shock about what he just made it through,” Michael said.

“I was pretty overwhelmed,” Matt said.

But the danger didn’t end there.

“I looked up, and there was a whole other section (of snow) next to us that was about to let go,” Michael said.

“I got him out of the hole and we started to climb up,” Michael said. “It was really steep, all ice. We used his board to climb. We took turns to help each other up. We’d dig into the snow with our hands to get a handhold, and worked our way up to the top.

“The shelf (on top) was pretty close to giving away, too. I used my hands to push him up, then he used his snowboard to pull me up.”

Matt held onto one binding on the snowboard and held it down for Michael to grab the other.

Once both were back on top, they looked at the time. It was 4:59 p.m.

Surveying the avalanche from the top verified how fortunate both brothers were to escape without injury. They took their parents, Mike and Becky Walsh, to the spot on Sunday, recounting their adventures of the day before. The snow shelf at the top where they had climbed to safety on Saturday had fallen overnight.

“We didn’t think anything like that would happen on the bench,” Matt said.

Mike Walsh said he never would have thought of an avalanche off the Polecat Bench, either. But, viewing the winter scene on Sunday with his sons, he said it was easy to see how it could have happened, as there were large drifts of snow clinging to the side of the bench.

“They picked the steepest spot with the most snow on it,” he said.

Mike said his sons had been watching videos online of people snowboarding in the backcountry. But, after Saturday’s close call, “they said, ‘We’re not going to do this backcountry stuff anymore.’

“It was definitely one of those situations we don’t want to deal with again,” Michael said, though it hasn’t dampened the brothers’ enthusiasm for snowboarding. They planned to go snowboarding in Red Lodge, Mont., on Monday.

“I’m just thankful,” Mike said Monday. “I’m really thankful. That could have been very bad. I’ve never seen them like that, when they got home. They were pretty upset, pretty thankful to God for what he did.”

Michael said he is grateful for the guidance he was given to find his brother. Without it, the outcome could have been very different.

On that day, “Praying was the only thing to do,” he said.

“Seeing Matt disappear in that snow was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen,” he said. “I don’t mind taking risks myself, but I don’t want anything to happen to him. I didn’t want to have to face my parents and tell them something had happened to him.

“He’s more than a brother. He’s one of my best friends.”

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3 comments

  • posted by Mel Bass

    February 18, 2014 12:00 pm

    WOW! What a story! God came through, one more time!

  • posted by Veronica

    February 13, 2014 6:16 am

    If we trust in him he will never leave us nor forsake us.

  • posted by Angela Williams

    February 11, 2014 1:04 pm

    GOD is good and he is always with us all we have to do is don't forget that he is alwasys by our side and to call on him

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