A Charlotte Backcountry Skier Survives a Rocky Mountain Avalanche
photos courtesy of Mary Brush
Mary and Charlie Brush
The last image seared into Charlie Brush’s mind, right before a 500-foot-wide wall of snow buried him alive, was that of a fellow skier’s orange pants as she yelled, “Stop!” Then his world went dark.
If his rescuers had taken another two or three minutes to find him and dig him out, Brush likely wouldn’t have returned to tell his story. To what does he credit his miraculous survival?
“Dead-stupid luck,” he says — and some well-timed “nagging” by his wife, Mary.
Last month the Brushes, who live in Charlotte and run a property-management company in South Burlington, were on the last day of a three-day backcountry ski trip in Golden, B.C. The couple was snowcat, or off-trail, skiing in Chatter Creek, a 92-square-mile area northwest of Calgary that boasts some of the best powder in North America.
Both Brushes are accomplished skiers. Charlie, who grew up in San Mateo, Calif., graduated from Middlebury College in 1969 and spent four years coaching the school’s alpine ski team. Mary was a top-ranked skier at the University of Vermont. In the 1970s she made the U.S. National Team, with three top-10 World Cup finishes, and competed in the ’76 Winter Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria.
Earlier this winter, Chatter Creek received a heavy dumping of snow. According to Dale McKnight, who owns the cat operation the Brushes were using, avalanche conditions were “generally good that day” — at least in areas that had already been skied. However, the spot where the Brushes and 10 other skiers were dropped off on that fateful morning — a short, steep basin called a fish bowl — had not been skied all season.
After two days of poor visibility, the Brushes were relieved when the weather finally cleared enough for them to ski above the tree line. While in the trees, the skiers had been warned not to strap their poles to their wrists. Should one snag a branch, it could easily dislocate a shoulder.
But that warning also had a drawback: A day earlier, a member of their group had lost a pole in deep powder and cost the group considerable time looking for it. Now that the skiers were in open terrain, Mary repeatedly reminded Charlie to strap on his poles — warnings that, Charlie now admits, he usually ignored.
On the second run of the day, the Brushes and other skiers waited to ski into the fish bowl to a cat waiting a half mile below. Their guide went first, and two skiers from Calgary schussed down next, followed by Mary. When she was about 10 turns into her run, Charlie followed her down the mountain.
About halfway down the slope, Charlie remembers hearing a woman named Mary Allen above him shout, “Stop!” At first he ignored her. But when she shouted again, he pulled up, glanced over his left shoulder and spotted her orange ski pants — and a wall of snow barreling toward him.
“The next thing I know, I’m face down in the snow,” Charlie recalls. He never heard the avalanche crack or the rumble of sliding debris.
Charlie says it took him a couple of seconds to realize what was happening. “It wasn’t a big tumble,” he says. “It was just pushing me forward.” As the snow deepened around him, Charlie extended his right arm to try to maintain an air vent to the surface. Suddenly, he stopped moving — while snow continued to pile up over his head, blocking out the daylight.
As the snow settled, it hardened rapidly and entombed Charlie’s body. He distinctly remembers feeling a heavy pressure on his chest. His mouth was filled with snow, and his breathing got labored as he struggled unsuccessfully to free his arms and legs.
“I said to myself, OK, this is how it ends,” Charlie recalls. “And then I passed out.”
Mary, who estimates that she was only 40 yards downhill, couldn’t see her husband from where she was standing — a berm above her blocked her view. But she knew immediately that Charlie hadn’t skied out of the avalanche.
At first, the rest of the party assumed everyone had escaped the slide and was accounted for; in fact, someone in the group began snapping photos. Then Mary started yelling that Charlie must still be under the snow somewhere.
Allen, who was just uphill from Charlie and had only been buried to her knees, quickly freed herself and switched her avalanche transponder, which all the skiers wore, to search mode. The others did the same.
Within seconds, Mary recalls, Allen was “calling out numbers” — the distance, in meters, from Charlie’s beacon signal. Mary remembers hearing her shout, “1.7 meters!” The rest of the group scrambled as fast as they could to find Charlie, who had now been under several feet of snow for almost five minutes.
“I was just thinking about what he was going through under there,” Mary says now. “He was suffocating ... but I knew he was right there, just under the snow. They just had to get him out.”
Bob Bristow, a friend of the Brushes from Shelburne, was the one who spotted the tip of Charlie’s ski pole peeking above the surface. Bristow grabbed the pole and pulled. Miraculously, it was attached to Charlie’s wrist.
This was the only run in three days on which Charlie had heeded his wife’s advice to use his pole straps. That decision, he now acknowledges, probably saved his life.
As precious seconds ticked away, four members of the team dug as quickly as they could with shovels and gloved hands. Mary, who was slower to reach the scene, could only listen as others shouted out their progress.
“At one point I decided not to go any closer,” she admits. “I got this really freaky feeling that I didn’t want to see him when they first found him.”
Her intuition was well founded: When the rescuers cleared snow from Charlie’s face, they discovered him blue and not breathing. Someone in the group opened his mouth, cleared out the snow and blew a few quick breaths into his lungs. As others freed his neck and shoulders — the snow, now almost rock-like, had to be chipped away bit by bit — someone put an oxygen mask over his face to continue the rescue breathing.
“And then,” Mary says with a smile, “Charlie opened his eyes.”
This wasn’t the Brush family’s first near-fatal ski accident. On February 18, 2006, nearly seven years to the day before Charlie’s “event,” as he calls it, the couple’s daughter, Kelly, almost died on the side of a mountain.
Kelly Brush, a top-ranked ski racer at Middlebury College, was competing in the women’s giant slalom at Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, Mass. Coming over a knoll, she caught an edge, tumbled off the trail and crashed into a lift tower.
Charlie, who was on the sidelines at the time, was among the first to reach his daughter. Her helmet was shattered, her face bloodied, and she was slipping in and out of consciousness.
“I could tell right away that something was really wrong,” Charlie recalls. As he lay beside her in the snow, Kelly closed her eyes. He yelled at her to open them and keep breathing. “I was telling her, ‘Don’t you die on me!’”
Kelly suffered a fractured neck and spine, four broken ribs and a collapsed lung. She spent 10 days in intensive care and another three months in rehab, and was left paralyzed from the waist down.
But Kelly, a lifelong athlete, refused to give up competitive sports. After a lengthy recovery, she returned to the slopes, this time on a monoski specially designed for skiers with paralysis. In 2011, she won the women’s handcycle division of the Boston Marathon. And in December 2012, Kelly Brush Davisson — she was married last August — was selected as one of 10 Athletes Who Care and profiled in Sports Illustrated.
Since her 2006 accident, the Kelly Brush Foundation, founded by her parents, has raised more than $1 million to support its two-pronged mission: to purchase adaptive gear for paralyzed athletes and to improve safety conditions at ski races around the country.
Four weeks ago, Charlie Brush walked away from Chatter Creek under his own power. (According to the resort’s owner, his was the first serious accident there in 13 years.) He had badly wrenched a calf muscle in the fall and suffered minor cuts and bruises to his ribs and face — the last, he suspects, from someone who accidentally nicked his face with a shovel while digging him out — but no other injuries.
Less than a month after defying what Charlie calls “1000-to-one odds,” he and Mary returned to the slopes — in Stowe, far from any avalanche hazards.
Today, Charlie is far from blasé about his near-death experience. As he learned afterward, just another few minutes under the snow would have resulted in permanent brain damage, then in cardiac arrest.
“When you escape one of these things, your first instinct is euphoria. You don’t go into the ‘Holy shit, I just about died!’ thing,” he says. “You’re just happy that you got out. I knew I just won the biggest game of my life.”
And, in light of his daughter’s far more serious accident, Charlie tries to keep his own near miss in perspective.
“If I got through that one,” he says, “being buried in the snow wasn’t that big a deal.”
The print version of this article was headlined "Brush With Death".