Avalanches can sweep the most highly experienced mountain hikers or enthusiasts off their feet.
A Belgrade man had to resort to his will to survive after the unthinkable happened.
Even to experienced trail groomers like Daniel Kristensen, president of the Gallatin Valley Snowmobile Association, avalanches are dangerous.
He knows, because he survived being in the center of one.
“It’s like watching a movie but then you’re like I was in it,” Kristensen says. “That just happened.”
Kristensen has groomed the trails in Gallatin County for 12 years.
“I grew up playing in the mountains in the wintertime and then, when I was 18, they were looking for an operator and I said that sounds fun and I’ve been doing both ever since,” Kristensen says. “It’s calm. Nobody bothers me. I get to go out on my own and do what I’m good at doing.”
He was doing just that on the night of Feb. 27, grooming for the East-West Ride.
“We had groomed the upper section on Wednesday and that was just grooming the lower part from Storm Castle into Swan Creek so we’d have a nice, groomed trail for our ride,” Kristensen says. “I don’t know if I saw something or I heard something or what but I had a sense that the mountain was sliding.”
And it was.
“It started to spin the Cat,” Kristensen says. “It kind of came in from the back so it started to spin me and I felt it taking me over the edge. When it hit me and started taking me over the edge, then I was like 'I’m in trouble.'”
Tons upon tons of snow bore down on Daniel’s groomer, sending him reeling, then plummeting.
“It rolled me at least once,” Kristensen says. “I could feel glass breaking on my arms. Snow was coming in on me. That was a pretty scary moment right there because I had told my wife the night before that I would be home about two in the morning.”
It was about 8 p.m., meaning it could take hours to just realize he was missing.
“In an avalanche, you have 15 minutes to get somebody out with good odds of survival,” Kristensen says. “After six hours when she would have started worrying about me and somebody would have got up there, it would have been a body recovery.”
As the groomer slid to a stop, Daniel says he thought of his family.
“The first thing I thought about was my wife and son because...when I started going over, I don’t know if I’m ever going to see them again,” Kristensen says. “I went into survival mode. From years of recreating in the backcountry during the winter, I knew that fire is your friend.”
Amazingly, Daniel suffered only cuts but he had to act quickly.
“I was able to keep my hands warm on the exhaust pipe,” Kristensen says. “I was digging in through the snow, trying to find gloves and first-aid kits and that kind of thing. That’s where I cut my hands.”
Another stroke of luck, he had cell service.
“That’s probably the only place on that section of trail that I would have cell phone service so I started sending texts out,” Kristensen says. “I had a saw. I had a fire starter and I had some food, some candy bars and then it was just survival.”
His family and search and rescue crews got there within hours.
It was only then Daniel started to realize how close he truly had been to a bad ending.
“When I got home that night, I was like I am so unbelievably lucky to be alive,” Kristensen says. “The avalanche guys measured (it) at 660 feet long and 150 feet wide with a three to four foot deep crown line. There’s no reason I shouldn’t have had some kind of an injury.”
And Daniel says he held his family a little bit closer than usual.
“Luck kept me alive but training, winter survival training kept me alive after the accident,” Kristensen says. “There’s a lot of people that go out there in the winter time and they don’t understand the ramifications or they don’t understand the danger of where they are at or the avalanche danger. Educate yourself as much as possible.”