Lewistown man speaks about surviving avalanche
As a 30-foot high wave of snow rumbled toward him, Kerry Simac had only seconds to react.
“It looked like a tsunami,” he recalled.
With no time to hop on and drive his snowmobile out of the way, Simac instead decided to dive behind the 500-pound machine in hopes that it would buffer the brunt of the avalanche’s churning force.
“It was the only thing I could think of at the time.”
Simac is a Lewistown crop insurance adjuster with an adrenaline junkie streak. Married and the father of two children, he used to ride bucking broncs. Now at age 48 he gets some of his thrills by snowmobiling in extreme terrain throughout the Rocky Mountains.
Last Saturday he and buddy Johnny “Dangerous” Dupont, of Billings, traveled to West Yellowstone for a weekend of riding after what had been a week of fairly steady snowfall in the region. On Saturday they toured nearby Beaver Creek. On Sunday they decided to explore the Taylor Fork drainage south of Big Sky in the Madison Mountains.
“We knew there was avalanche danger,” Simac said. “Everybody had packs and beacons. We’re all trained how to do that stuff.”
Simac was riding his friend’s snowmobile on Sunday after his began having mechanical problems, so he was taking it easier than normal, filming Dupont as he rode across a steep slope in a remote area called Sunlight Basin.
Dupont made it up and across the slope fine, but the next rider — from a group they had hooked up with the day before — triggered an avalanche as Simac was filming.
“I thought that kid was going to get buried,” Simac said. “The avalanche was 5 feet from his tail, but he outran it.”
“When the avalanche broke loose, I watched it for a second,” Dupont said. “We were far enough away that I thought there was no way that little amount of snow is going to reach us.”
But then the small avalanche released more snow and became a much larger slide.
Looking up, Dupont and Simac saw the larger wall of snow heading for them and shouted out a curse.
“I knew I was in trouble then,” Simac said.
“All I saw was a big white cloud coming toward me,” Dupont said.
He can be heard on the video yelling at Dupont to go, because he was parked in front of Simac’s machine.
“I should have jumped on his sled,” Simac said, hindsight being 20-20.
Instead, he dove behind his borrowed snowmobile and braced for the brutal impact.
“It’s scary. It’s scary as hell.”
Since taking up snowmobiling five years ago, Simac has been riding with a group of friends, often in avalanche terrain. He’s attended an avalanche class to learn the basics about where and when to ride, how to conduct beacon searches for victims and the importance of keeping your eyes on a victim when an avalanche strikes.
Dupont said he’s triggered several avalanches on his snowmobile, always outrunning them.
“All my friends say when we go snowmobiling, ‘Never follow Johnny,’” he said.
Avalanche safety gear is not inexpensive. A basic beacon and avalanche pack, which deploys inflated airbags after pulling a ripcord to keep a victim close to the top of the snow, start at around $200 each. Because of the expense, last fall Simac purchased a small, used airbag to save money.
On the way to West Yellowstone last Saturday, he serendipitously stopped at a Bozeman used gear store and found a much better pack in perfect condition, and bought it while leaving his old pack behind. Turns out it was money well spent.
“I didn’t think at the time that I’d buy it and use it the next day,” Simac said, a coincidence that turns his thoughts to divine intervention.
Yet Simac didn’t even have time to pull the ripcord on his airbag as he dove for cover.
“Everything happens so fast. You have to train your mind to pull that pack,” he said.
“If you think you have time, you don’t.”
Simac believes the ripcord may have gotten caught on the snowmobile or his arm and accidentally inflated.
“I wish I could say I was smart enough to pull it, but it happened too fast.”
The roar of the avalanche as it closed in was deafening, he recalled. The impact of tons of snow barreling into the snowmobile was intimidating, unlike anything he had ever experienced.
“I could feel it was a really hard impact.”
It was about then that it crossed his mind that maybe jumping behind the sled and grabbing onto it like a life preserver wasn’t such a good idea, maybe the heavy machine would beat him senseless as the avalanche tossed them around like lettuce in a salad spinner.
“It seemed to go on forever, but it’s only seconds,” Simac said.
But in those few seconds a barrage of snow pelted, pushed and eventually partially buried him.
“That pack deploying was just a miracle in itself,” Simac said. “Maybe the good Lord was watching over me, or my guardian angel.”
Shock and awe
When everything stopped, Simac and the snowmobile had been swept about 15 to 20 feet downhill. He was firmly encased from the waist down in snow that had set up like concrete and the snowmobile was completely buried. Amazingly, too, Dupont’s phone, which Simac had been recording video on, was nearby, capturing much of the traumatic event.
“Everybody was right back in there to give me a hand,” Simac said. “They were pretty happy to see me above the snow.”
“He was shaking so bad he couldn’t even hold my phone,” Dupont said. “He was pretty shaken up.”
Simac said it took about five to 10 minutes for his legs and hands to stop shaking from the adrenaline pumping through his bloodstream.
“I was just happy to hop on my sled and get the hell out of there,” he said.
The Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center’s Eric Knoff and Doug Chabot visited the site of the avalanche on Tuesday to document the specifics of the slide, which in places had scoured the hillside down to bare ground.
“He was right near the toe of the slide,” Knoff said. “Fortunately he wasn’t farther up the slope where more volume came down.”
The debris field was estimated at 15 to 20 feet at its deepest.
“It was a super steep slope,” Knoff said, a 45-degree rise that climbed roughly 300 feet. “And it was a total terrain trap” with little room for the avalanche to fan out at the base.
“If he was closer to the slope it would’ve been ugly.”
A few days after the ordeal, Simac said he watched someone else’s online avalanche video that drove home just how powerful and frightening the slides can be.
“It’s pretty surreal when you think about I was in the same boat,” he said.
It’s a perception he had trouble relating to his wife and children, something that it may be hard for anyone to fathom unless they’ve been in Simac’s boots, staring down a tsunami of snow and being violently and helplessly tossed.
“If there’s one thing I could pass on, it’s that I thought I was invincible, but you’ve got to think things through and stay back,” he said.
“You don’t realize the severity of the outcome.”
- Contributors can log in for advertising-free pages.