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'Perfect storm' of events helped save life of woman buried in weekend avalanche

Woman describes 'strange calm' after being buried by snow

SALT LAKE CITY — Elisabeth Malloy knew that she had no control over her fate.

She had just been "mowed over" by an large avalanche that swept her 100 feet down the mountain. She was on her stomach, pointed head-first down the slope.

Malloy was able to create a small air pocket by flailing her arms as she was moving — trying to "swim" to the surface of the avalanche. But once the slide stopped moving, and once the snow settled, she found herself buried 1 ½ to 2 feet deep, unable to move.

At that point there was complete silence. All Malloy could do was collect herself and try not to panic.

"The sensation was serene, really. I didn't really panic," she said. "I decided the best situation for me is to meditate and breathe really slowly. And so I just said a few things to myself, like 'It's not time for me. I'm not ready yet. I'm just going to breathe really slowly and Adam will find me.'

"I just had that feeling that I was going to be fine. It was just weird. It wasn't a suffocation, it wasn't a fear. It was really kind of a strange calm. And I had an initial feeling of getting panicky and freaking out, but my second instant thought was, 'Well, that's stupid. That's not going to help me.'"

Malloy said she "totally slowed her breathing down" and breathed only through her nose.

"It was like I was having a little nap. And I remember being woken up by sweet kisses. That's how I remember it. I was being woken up by being kissed awake."

Those kisses were actually her boyfriend, Adam Morrey, giving her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She had been completely buried under the snow for several minutes. By the time Morrey was able to find her and dig her out, she was unconscious and not breathing.

That was Saturday, when Malloy and Morrey were backcountry skiing in the West Porter area of Millcreek Canyon. They were caught in an avalanche that measured about 700 feet wide, 2 feet deep, and swept 800 feet down the mountain.

Malloy, 43, was discharged from University Hospital on Wednesday. Although she still has weeks of physical therapy ahead, she was able to keep all of her toes and fingers and is expected to make a full recovery.

An emotional Morrey and Malloy — who walked gingerly into a press conference on her own power — told their remarkable story in public for the first time on Wednesday. As bad as it was to be caught up in the avalanche, Malloy called it a "perfect storm" of events that happened afterward that made it possible for her to be here today.

"It could have been a much different outcome had the right things not been in place," Morrey said.

The two experienced backcountry skiers said they were having a great day of skiing to that point. And they were aware of the considerable avalanche danger that day, but kept pushing it as the afternoon progressed.

"Our judgment was overwhelmed by the pursuit of having more fun, skiing steeper slopes and great Utah powder," Morrey said.

Morrey was traversing uphill, with Malloy below him, when the large slab of snow broke free.

"There was a large collapse. I could see there was snow falling from the trees. There was a lot of energy that had dropped onto the slope. I immediately looked up and saw the slab near the ridge line had released, that we were going to be caught. I turned downhill with some profanities, was able to make it 10 or 15 feet before I was hit, and in my mind I also knew Elisabeth was caught," he said.

The avalanche pushed Morrey about 15 feet into a group of trees. After a few seconds, the snow had passed over him. His foot was still stuck in one of his skis.

"I immediately called for Elisabeth, and there was no response from her," he said with glassy eyes as he recalled the story.

Morrey said he panicked to try and break free from the snow.

"I got my backpack off, got my beacon out, turned it on and immediately picked up a signal, and again that reaffirmed she was buried somewhere," he said. "Hearing the beacon kind of brought me back to my senses. I knew I had the opportunity to save her, and that I had to everything within my power to try and get to her."

Morrey used his shovel to dislodge his boot from his ski. He then walked to the bottom of the slide with his shovel, probing pole and beacon to look for her. When Morrey finally got to the area where the beacon signal was strongest, he put his pole into the snow and hit Malloy's foot. He began digging through the snow. By this time, Elisabeth had been buried for "several long minutes."

She was face down, with her backpack pushed over her head. And she was turning purple. At one point as Morrey was trying to dig her out, Malloy stopped breathing.

"A bit of panic set in again. As quickly as I could, I worked to free her from the snow. It's a very difficult thing — three-quarters of her body was uncovered. But it's still very difficult once the snow sets up, like cement, even one limb stuck in there can make it impossible to pull somebody out."

Eventually, Morrey was able to completely free Malloy by lifting her out of the snow by her backpack. He began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. She began breathing again after a minute. Morrey grabbed the three extra coats Malloy had in her backpack to try and keep her warm, using one of the coats to wrap around her foot which by now was only covered with a sock.

After about 15 to 20 minutes, Malloy came to.

The couple's first bit of luck came when Morrey wasn't buried and was able to help. The second part of the "perfect storm" came in the form of Peter Donner who happened to be backcountry skiing in the same area. Donner is also an avalanche expert and watched the slide as it happened, unaware that anyone was caught in it. He was taking notes and decided to get a closer look. Donner said his heart sank when he saw that people had been buried.

If not for Donner, Malloy said she's not sure she would have made it. He helped get the couple to an area where they could be picked up by a medical helicopter. It was a very slow 2 ½- to 3-hour process. But he did it by joking with them and keeping Malloy's spirits high.

Morrey said Malloy did the "Elisabeth shuffle" to get down the mountain, as each man would make "stairs" with their skis and then assist her as she slowly made her way down. By this point, frostbite had started to set in, and Malloy's mind was starting to become confused — a typical symptom of extreme frostbite. At one point, doctors say blood had stopped flowing to her right hand and had almost stopped flowing into her right foot. To keep her focused, Donner would sing to her about getting a hot toddy and she would have to reply to him in order to get one.

Morrey said Malloy was amazingly strong during the ordeal, to the point that when they were finally dropped off by the helicopter to a waiting ambulance, they initially put Malloy in the front passenger seat and Morrey in back, believing he was the victim.

Malloy was taken to the burn unit at the hospital where soft tissue damage of all types are treated, not just burns.

Part of the reason the couple spoke publicly Wednesday was to thank the many people who made their rescue possible. They also wanted to stress to others the importance of being prepared. Morrey has had extensive avalanche training, and both skiers were fully equipped with the proper clothing and gear. If not for having a beacon, shovel and probing pole, Malloy said she probably wouldn't be alive.

"I want to try and prevent people going into the backcountry without the resources, the education and the knowledge. I don't want teenage boys to go under the ropes at Brighton, or Snowbird, or Alta and not go with a clear head. This is a calculated risk that we take, that we all get training," she said. "It works. I'm proof of that.

"Life is random and you can't control things. But when it does happen, it's important you have the support."

Malloy is a critical care nurse at Primary Children's Medical Center and said being able to keep her hands and all of her fingers is invaluable. Morrey works for a local backcountry gear manufacturer.

Malloy said the experience hasn't deterred her will to return to the backcountry.

"It's not about the powder turns. It's about the mountains, it's about the hiking, it's about the experience for me. It's not necessarily about the skiing. I enjoy being in the mountains. I love snow. I've always considered myself a mountain goat. So I know I'll be back out," she said.

"I will keep all my fingers and toes and I will be back out there."


Twitter: DNewsCrimeTeam