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Hastings man witnesses disaster, helps rescue friend from avalanche

Michael Mimbach, pictured wearing sunglasses, helps his friends dig Tyson Black out of a Utah avalanche March 4. (Submitted photo)3 / 3

It was the single scariest moment of Michael Mimbach's life. Mimbach, who graduated from Hastings High School in 1996, was out snowmobiling with some friends near Kamas, Utah, when the worst happened. While riding up and down the slopes March 4, Mimbach's friend Tyson Black was caught and buried in an avalanche.

They were at about 10,000 feet, and knew the avalanche danger was high just the day before. But it was warmer that day, and the snow was stiffening up.

"It didn't look as volatile as it did before," Mimbach said.

They started riding up one of the slopes to see how high they could get. But when Black got to the peak of his ride, the snow about 10 feet above him broke loose and came rushing down around him.

"It pulled him and pulled him in fast," Mimbach said.

As soon as it happened, the group rushed into action. They had a window of about 20 minutes in which to rescue their friend and the avalanche covered an area about the size of a football field. Victims buried in an avalanche 20 minutes have an 80 percent fatality rate, Mimbach said. And while everyone there that day normally wore an avalanche beacon - a device that allows a buried person to be located by radio signal - Black hadn't been wearing one. His friends had no way of locating him.

They each took on a task - using probes to search for Black under the snow, using shovels to dig where they thought they might find him, searching for anything sticking out of the snow that would give them a clue, running to call 911 and keeping track of how long Black had been buried. They waded through snow up to their knees, but underneath that the snow was packed so dense it broke two of their shovels and a couple probes as well.

Mimbach's shovel was broken, but he dug with it anyway, guessing at where he thought Black would be. Luck was on his side. They were 22 minutes into the search when Mimbach's shovel hit Black's helmet.

"The feelings that went through me were so mixed. We're in a six-foot hole and I see his helmet, and all that went through my head was, are we five minutes too late? Is he going to be with us? What are we going to find as we uncover his face?"

"When we got the final time, I honestly thought that I was going to be at his dad's house apologizing to his father. It was really, really hard."

With everyone now working to move snow, the group got Black's face uncovered.

"His lips were blue, he was not breathing," Mimbach said.

"It was like a best case scenario of 'Oh my goodness we found him,' and at the same moment, worst case scenario."

And then, out of nowhere, they heard a noise. It was Black, taking his first wheezing gasp of air. Completely on his own, he had started breathing again.

"You can only imagine how lucky we were," Mimbach said.

Things could have gone differently. They could have never found him. They could have found his hand first, instead of his head, in which case they wouldn't have been able to uncover his head quickly enough. And Black started breathing on his own, in a situation where resuscitation would have been impossible because of his position.

The most amazing thing, Mimbach said, was that once they finally moved enough snow to get Black on his feet, Black stood and walked away from a situation that, with good results, ends with victims on stretchers.

"That's proof that he's the toughest guy I know," Mimbach said.

Proper training

The entire rescue was a result of good teamwork and training.

When Mimbach moved to Utah in January of 2003, he realized quickly that snowmobiling in the mountains is completely different than snowmobiling in Minnesota. There, he said, he can be riding on snow 10 feet deep, one snowfall can drop four feet of fresh powder and mountain terrain is often treacherous.

"You start to learn that there are some major dangers with mountain riding," he said. "Having any training you can is huge."

He had gotten involved in search and rescue, but when he heard that the Utah Avalanche Center offered avalanche courses, he jumped at the chance to learn more. He wasn't the only one in the group who had such training either, and that teamwork and training is what Mimbach credits for Black's survival.

"We had a lot of training and we acted upon that training and it was definitely a group effort," he said.

Once they had gotten Black's face uncovered and had him breathing again, they used a phone to record video of the rescue so others at the Utah Avalanche Center could use it for training.

Although the day ended in success rather than tragedy, it could have ended much more quickly had their equipment not failed. They would have found Black within about five minutes with reliable equipment, Mimbach said.

"The following day I went out and I got all new rescue gear," he said. "And I didn't buy mediocre stuff; I got top of the line stuff."

It's a situation he said he doubts he'll have to be in again, but if he is, he'll be prepared.

"It sure makes you think twice about life, that's for sure," he said.

Dense and deadly

When a major snowfall comes in Minnesota, it's not uncommon to see people out heaving massive shovelfuls of snow from their driveways and sidewalk. Even snow as deep as about three feet can typically be shoveled out of the way fairly easily.

Snow packs so tightly in an avalanche that a shovel can only handle about four inches at a time, Mimbach noted. And if a victim is buried under just six inches of snow in an avalanche, he or she will probably be unable to escape without someone else digging them out. Someone buried 20 feet under the surface isn't likely to survive even if he or she is located immediately, simply because it would take too long to remove the snow above them.

Getting buried in snow is one danger, but so is the speed. A fast avalanche can travel upwards of 200 miles per hour, putting victims at risk of broken bones or worse if they get slammed into any debris or trees.