If you’ve lived in Montana as long as I have, chances are good you have, like me, taken some risks recreating outdoors you shouldn’t have taken, and by fate, luck or divine intervention, lived to tell the tale.
Some, taking the same risks, have not.
Justin Steck falls into the former category. Last month, the 35-year-old University of Montana journalism student was skiing the backcountry in Glacier National Park with his longtime friend, Jason Robertson. They’d put on their ski skins and were ascending Elk Mountain on the south end of the park – a place they had safely skied just the day before.
On the way up, Steck, trailing behind Robertson, noticed a small avalanche.
“Just about 10 feet away from me a slough of snow broke off, and it was probably 40 feet wide or so, maybe ... 30 inches thick,” Steck said. “And it gave me pause for sure.”
But not enough pause to turn back. Reaching the top of the mountain, it was windy with low visibility. Robertson descended first on his snowboard with Steck following him on skis, heading into a bowl on the mountainside.
According to the incident report released by the Flathead Avalanche Center, Robertson, who had stopped in some trees, looked back and couldn’t see Steck descending, but he did see a “small powder cloud moving rapidly downhill.” He headed down and to his right and managed to escape the brunt of the avalanche. Steck was not so lucky.
“I heard this little rustling sound behind me, it was pretty faint, and I just thought ‘What is that?’ ” said Steck. “And the next thing I know, I’m being tossed and things are very chaotic.”
The avalanche carried Steck 800 feet down the mountain, shattering the helmet he was wearing, separating him from his skis and poles, and bombarding him with debris.
“I remember the wind being knocked out of me, and just being hit,” Steck said. “I could feel myself going (into) varying depths – I could feel the snow being light and I could breathe easy – and I could feel going deeper, and I couldn’t breathe as well.”
Miraculously, Steck ended up with his head and shoulders above the snow. He had a concussion, a broken arm and six broken ribs. He believes the shattered helmet probably saved his life. He started yelling.
“Not really yelling for anyone, I’m just hollering. And it seems like a matter of just a few seconds before my friend skis up and is asking me if I’m OK.”
Neither of the men had checked avalanche advisories before setting out; if they had, they would have found out avalanche danger for the day was rated “considerable” by the avalanche center. Neither was wearing an avalanche beacon or transceiver. Robertson was carrying a shovel that he used to dig Steck out. Their cellphone worked, and after calling for help, they began a laborious and painful descent to meet up with rescuers. They were worried about getting caught in another avalanche.
And it was then the relief hit Steck.
“I remember it was only a few steps, that I was thinking, god, I was thankful that I had made it basically,” said Steck. “I don’t normally find myself religious, but I was very thankful I had made it through (the avalanche).”
Surviving a near-death experience can sharpen life – and pad the wisdom of hindsight.
“I realized that, you can die out there, whether you do all the right things or not, you still can die,” said Steck. “But I would rather at least have taken all the precautions that I could, to better my odds.”
And next time he will – precautions like checking avalanche conditions, wearing a beacon and paying attention to the clues nature gives.
Steck’s physical injuries are mending nicely and he plans to ski the backcountry again. But his life will never be the same.
“There is a greater sense of urgency when you go through something like that,” said Steck. “Moments matter more.”
Sally Mauk is news director at Montana Public Radio, KUFM, in Missoula. She writes a twice-monthly column for the Missoulian.