After running safety tests atop a Utah summit, Blake Nielson pulled his helmet over his head, amped to snowboard a winding trail. But only moments later, Nielson fell on his back as snow dragged him down the mountain.
For a millisecond Sunday, Nielson pondered the worst outcomes. He realized he didn’t have time to worry, so he swung his arms, as though swimming, to remain atop the snow. After sliding for just over 20 seconds, Nielson halted to safety.
Nielson’s helmet GoPro captured the entire sequence.
“I wasn’t in a good place, but I never let myself get to a spot where it’s like, life flashing before my eyes,” Nielson told The Washington Post. “That’s not to take it lightly. I mean, it definitely could’ve turned worse.”
While people caused roughly 220 avalanches in Utah last year, fatalities are rare, said Chad Brackelsberg, executive director of the Utah Avalanche Center. He said since 2018, 13 people have died in avalanches in Utah, which is one of the most popular states for backcountry snowboarding and skiing.
Before snowboarding, Brackelsberg said, participants should check avalanche forecasts, equip themselves with a transceiver, shovel and probe and complete safety and rescue classes.
“Ninety percent of avalanches are triggered by the person that gets caught or by somebody in their party,” Brackelsberg told The Post. “That tells you that they’re not random acts of nature. By making the right decisions of where you’re at on a given day, they are avoidable.”
On Sunday morning, Nielson said he had followed the tips he’d learned over the years in books and safety classes. He began snowboarding as a child and became enamored with the seclusion and adventure associated with backcountry snowboarding, though he was always careful.
After a three-hour, 3,000-foot climb up Big Cottonwood Canyon with a friend to reach Salt Lake County’s Kessler Peak, Nielson said he completed every precaution. He dug a hole in the snow and stomped throughout the trail without snow propagating. He said there were strong winds, but he didn’t believe the conditions were troublesome.
At an elevation of 10,200 feet, Nielson began a trail just north of Kessler Peak. After about nine seconds and two of Nielson’s turns, the snow disseminated. Throughout the 22-second plunge, Nielson yelled to his friend that he was sliding but on top of the snow.
After stumbling about 300 feet, Nielson stopped as snow continued to release below him. His GoPro Max 360, which Nielson said he bought about two years ago, kept filming.
Breathing heavily, Nielson transmitted to his friend: “I have stopped sliding. I am safe. I am okay.”
Nielson, who said he didn’t suffer injuries, paused before adding with a sigh, “We’re okay.”
Nielson said a wind slab, which can move piles of snow to new areas, caused the avalanche. The snow slid about 1,300 feet, he added.
After hiking approximately 2,500 feet down the mountain after his fall, Nielson returned home to Salt Lake City. He said he felt embarrassed writing an incident report.
“You’re always trying to avoid avalanches,” said Nielson, who works at a Utah digital marketing agency. “That’s the No. 1 thing. The fact that it happened kind of hurt my pride.”
In the ensuing days, Utah snowboarders and friends contacted Nielson to offer their support. Their encouragement reassured Nielson that he had applied every precaution, he said.
While he said he lost some confidence in the mountain’s safety, Nielson returned to Little Cottonwood Canyon to snowboard Thursday morning.
“There is so much joy to be had in the backcountry,” Nielson said. “If you’re going to do something that’s enjoyable and you’re passionate about, it’s worth it to get educated and understand what’s going on in the snow.”