SALT LAKE CITY — Elisabeth Malloy is not going to let an avalanche keep her out of the backcountry.
But first the pediatric critical care nurse plans to get her strength back in her hands and feet before she goes skiing again. She also wants others to know that her survival was not just luck, but involved training and the use of equipment necessary to survive an avalanche that was 700 feet wide and dropped 800 feet vertically.
Malloy shared her story at a news conference at University of Utah Medical Center Burn Center on Wednesday, after being released from the hospital.
Malloy, of Salt Lake City, and her skiing partner, Adam Morrey, decided to spend Saturday skiing at West Porter Fork in Millcreek Canyon.
Morrey, also at the news conference, said he had called the Utah Avalanche Center and knew the danger was high. He and Malloy both knew the area and are experienced in the backcountry.
They each had backpacks filled with extra clothes, props and shovels. They also were wearing beacons.
Once there, the pair of skiers witnessed that “things were unstable. Cracking (of snow) around our skis, but it looked like relatively safe terrain,” Morrey said.
After climbing to about 9,000 feet, they had a choice: either go the conservative route along the saddle or go the steeper route.
“Our judgment was overwhelmed by skiing steeper slopes and Utah’s powder,” Morrey admitted.
Across the ridgeline were some trees that appeared to be anchors, but as Morrey descended, a slab of snow loosened.
“It looked like we were going to be caught in it,” Morrey said.
And caught they were.
The snow pushed Morrey 20 to 30 feet, catching one ski around a tree.
“The snow was running over me,” Morrey said.
When the snow stopped, his head and chest were out of it. He yelled for Malloy; his heart stopped when he didn’t get a response.
Malloy had just turned when she saw the slab coming at her. Though Malloy is a strong skier, she couldn’t get out of the way of the snow.
Flailing her arms wildly in effort to swim and stay at the surface, Malloy said, it felt like she was on a water slide, going face first with no control.
The instant it stopped, everything became quiet.
She had one moment when she began to panic because she couldn’t move her arms or legs, and thought, “That’s stupid. (Panicking) is not going to help.”
Malloy decided to take slow breaths and to meditate. She had a pocket of air and kept saying to herself, “It’s not time for me. This isn’t it.”
“It was like having a little nap, and I was woke up by sweet little kisses,” Malloy said.
Those kisses were from Morrey, who was performing rescue breathing.
He had spent several long minutes digging himself out. Then he spent more long, anxious minutes searching for Malloy.
When he got a signal from her beacon, he began the arduous task of meticulously searching the area for any sign of her. All he could see was snow.
After a few minutes of digging he found her foot. Then inch by inch, he dug her out.
“I was going to do everything in my power to get her out,” he said
When he finally dug her out, Morrey found Malloy not breathing. Morrey, who works for a local backcountry gear manufacturer, had been through avalanche training as well as basic first-aid courses.
Morrey proceeded to do rescue breathing, and once Malloy was breathing on her own, he helped her get extra clothing out of her backpack. Unfortunately, the avalanche took one of her boots and her skis.
About that time, Peter Donner, who used to serve on the board of directors for Utah Avalanche Center, showed up. He usually skis in the area, said Bruce Temper, who is also with the center and was at the news conference.
Donner was taking photos of the avalanche when he spotted the couple and realized they needed help.
It took Donner, who sang to Malloy to keep her calm, and Morrey almost three hours to get Malloy to a location where a helicopter could carry the pair to emergency crews.
“I kept saying all I wanted was a hot toddy, and Peter said only those who said ‘Yes,’ will get a hot toddy,” Malloy said.
Malloy said whenever Donner asked if she was OK, she would say “yes,” and Donner would say, “Hot toddy for Elisabeth.”
Malloy knows she is lucky. She did have frostbite on her right hand and right foot, but doctors at the medical center were able to save them.
“I have all my digits,” Malloy said.
Malloy said it will take time, but she plans to be 100 percent and back in the mountains again.
“It’s who I am,” she said. “It’s about the mountains … It’s about hiking. It’s about the experience. I love snow.”
But she and Morrey said they plan to be more careful in the future.
Asked if they were married, Malloy said, “No, we’re just dating, but I’m pretty sure that’s going to change.”