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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...




Avalanche

By Ilene Olson and Dan Van Veen
July 6, 2014

Thoughts of an avalanche didn’t even cross their minds when two Powell, Wyo., brothers decided to snowboard on a Saturday afternoon in February.

But the unusual amount of snow that had fallen in recent days certainly drew their interest.

High school junior Matt Walsh, 17, and his brother, Michael Walsh, 19, wanted to spend some quality time together. Michael, who works on rigs in the North Dakota oil fields, had gone home for a two-week break. He is accustomed to rough weather conditions, working 125 feet in the air when the temperature is 30 below zero.

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

Polecat Bench is an elevated, flat section of land that has relatively small cliffs and gullies cascading down the sides. Some areas are gradual inclines, but other parts — those appealing to snowboarders looking for quick runs — are quite steep and can stretch about 500 feet.

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 says.

That proved promising, so they started gearing up.

But their very first run on boards changed everything.

“I jumped off and landed in the snow,” Matt says. “I went down about three 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,” Matt says.

While strapping on his bindings, Michael had watched everything from above, initially amused that his brother couldn’t keep his footing. But Michael quickly grew alarmed.

“When he hit, I saw it all break around him, and I thought it was kind of funny,” Michael says. “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,” Michael says. “When the avalanche first started, it threw up a whole cloud of snow, so I lost sight of Matt. Then the ridge I was on started to go so I threw myself backwards on my board to keep from getting sucked down, too.”

When Michael stood up, he unstrapped his board and looked down where he had last seen Matt. 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 says.

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

“All the ledges and snow below the ledges came down on top of me,” Matt says. “Once it went dark, 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 J. Walsh, pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God in Powell, taught them about prayer. Each of the brothers prayed — Matt that he would be rescued, and Michael for guidance.

“I just prayed real quick and asked God what I should do,” Michael recalls. “God 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 under nearly three feet of snow. The hood of his snowboarding jacket had kept the snow from packing against his face, creating a small air pocket.

“I heard the Lord speak to me,” Matt says. “He told me He still had a plan for me and I wasn’t going to die there. I was really peaceful. I never felt so close to God. I tried to get out with every bit of strength I had, but I could only move one arm.”

Then Matt remembered accounts his mother told him of how he had to fight to make it into this world.

Becky Walsh was four months’ pregnant with Matt when she felt a heaviness and started bleeding one Sunday. By phone, a doctor told her she was having a miscarriage.

Husband Mike brought some kids from the church youth group to the house to pray for Becky. One prophesied Becky wouldn’t lose the baby because God had great plans for him.

Becky’s bleeding stopped. Matt would go full-term and be healthy at birth.

While encased in the snow, Matt — who is a worship and youth leader at Glad Tidings — calmly recalled the prophecy.

His legs and one arm were immobile, as if frozen in concrete. 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.

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

“There were huge chunks of snow the size of my truck still sliding all around me,” Michael says.

He reached the bottom, but was uncertain where to look. He believes God directed him. Michael scanned the 100-yard-long, 200-yard-wide area for any sign of his brother.

“I never felt so hopeless or helpless in my life,” Michael says. “I was yelling for him, and I was pretty frantic. It was a big area.”

Under the snow, Matt continued digging upward with one hand, snow frequently falling back into his face. 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 to the size of a baseball with his limited motion and reach.

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

And then the miracle.

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

“I stopped yelling for just a second, and I heard, ‘Mike, I’m fine,’” Michael recalls. “I just started digging and digging. When I found him, I broke down and cried. I was so happy.”

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

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

Michael resumed digging with his hands, freeing Matt after about 30 minutes.

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 says.

During the whole rescue process, portions of the hill kept collapsing all around them — but not on top of them.

“I got him out of the hole and we started to climb up,” Michael says. “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.”

Surveying the avalanche from the top verified how blessed both brothers were to escape without injury.

“I’m really thankful,” father Mike Walsh says. “They were pretty upset, pretty thankful to God for what He did.”

Michael says he instinctively sought God’s help during the disaster.

“Praying was the only thing to do,” Michael says. “Seeing Matt disappear in that snow was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. He’s more than a brother. He’s one of my best friends.”


ILENE OLSON is a reporter for the Powell (Wyo.) Tribune.

DAN VAN VEEN is editor of AG News.

 

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