Tahoe snowboarder recounts rescue from the Firebreak
March 11, 2009
LAKE TAHOE ” A day after a series of storms dropped more than four feet of snow on Heavenly Mountain Resort, Nick Gorman thought it would be a great time to learn fresh powder snowboarding down his favorite run, Firebreak.
Did he ever have another thing coming.
Having skied nearly his entire life to an expert level, the 27-year-old Stateline man picked up snowboarding only a few months ago.
He spent most of March 4 on Heavenly’s slopes, carving groomed areas. Thinking he had gotten the hang of it, he told himself he was ready for the backcountry Firebreak run, known for its gladed, expert terrain.
“I thought I was ready because I had skied it so many times before,” said Gorman, a professional poker player.
But nothing compared to the challenge of getting caught alone in snow up to his neck, unable to move, with wet clothes and a creeping feeling that he might not make it out alive.
Recommended Stories For You
Four hours later, he did, rescued by a Navy helicopter from Fallon.
A week later Gorman reflected with the Tribune on his obvious mistakes, feeling contrite about the need to be rescued and grateful to the 40-plus people who spent hours trying to reach him in an area where there was a considerable avalanche threat.
“I would have died if I hadn’t had my cell phone,” Gorman said. “Everyone who skis in the backcountry needs to have one that is fully charged and can get service.”
Snowboarding in powder is much different than on groomed snow. It requires different balance. Unlike skiing, there are no poles, and there is nothing to grab onto once you’ve fallen.
When Gorman reached the top of Firebreak, he was already tired from a full day of riding, he said. That was his first mistake, he admits.
“I should have been paying attention, but there was something telling me that I need to do this. I was feeling arrogant,” he said.
Five minutes into the run, he fell. He got up, went some distance, and then fell again. Each time he fell it took several minutes to get back up.
“It’s like getting caught up in a quicksand sink and you can’t move around, and all you’ve got is your arms to pull you back up. Every time I fell, the more tired I got,” he said.
Tired and unable to sustain any amount of ride, he looked around and saw nothing but trees and snow. His breathing became heavy. Panic overcame him.
“I’m looking at two miles from the bottom, and every time I move I’m getting deeper and deeper into trouble,” he said.
Snow flowed like sand down his parka, into his gloves and through his pants. One foot of powder is something he could handle easily, he said. But four feet of it and going nowhere, Gorman knew he was in trouble.
Beginning to hyperventilate and his clothes soaking wet, he took off his gloves and went for his cell phone. His hands numb, he had trouble dialing 911. He began sucking on his fingers to get some feeling back and was able to complete the dial.
He told the dispatcher where he was and his condition. The dispatcher told him to take his hands and put them against his chest to keep warm, he said.
Meanwhile Douglas County search-and-rescue personnel, Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District firefighters and the ski patrol at Heavenly were notified. But there was one problem. The Firebreak area was considered an avalanche threat, according to the sheriff’s office, and rescuers would be risking their lives by going in.
After assessing the area, the decision was made to call the Naval Air Station Fallon rescue squadron, which deployed a helicopter, Douglas County authorities said.
Waiting for help to arrive was the hardest part. Gorman was assured he was going to be rescued, but he wasn’t sure he would keep all of his fingers and toes. The numbness overtook his body and he was told to keep his head lowered and to move around to keep up his circulation. He closed his eyes and began thinking “good thoughts” ” people, nature and the sky. He called a friend several times in between calls to dispatch. A helicopter arrived, spotting him on the ground, and then remained suspended while a search-and-rescue sled team were sent to the scene at about 4:30 p.m., but because of his remote location and the avalanche threat, they were not able to reach him.
The Naval helicopter was, perhaps, a last-ditch effort to save his fingers and toes ” if not his very life.
At around 6 p.m. and in darkness, the helicopter sent down a man attached to a rope. The man grabbed onto Gorman and told him to hug his body while the crew inside the helicopter pulled him to safety inside.
The crew members gave the shivering man blankets. All he could say at the time was “thank you for saving me.”
The pilot flew him 40 minutes to Carson Tahoe Hospital in Carson City, where his body temperature was 93.1, as compared to the normal 98.6. He declined medical attention, he said, because he didn’t have insurance. A Douglas County Sheriff’s deputy arrived at the hospital, and, after speaking briefly with Gorman, told him he didn’t face any charges.
The pilot of the Naval helicopter told Gorman he would not be charged for the rescue.
Gorman spent the night warming up at a Carson City motel and returned to Tahoe the next day, only to find that his car, which had been parked on Chonokis Street, had been ticketed and towed.
As it turns out, Gorman was parked in an area that had to be plowed and his car stuck out too much for the plow to get through. It cost him nearly $600 to get it taken care of, including the tow, the ticket and getting his car out of the tow yard, he said.
“I think of it as really weird karma,” he said.
Still, Gorman remains grateful to the search and rescue crews, the Longhorn Naval helicopter crew.
“They saved my life,” he said.
He is also apologetic for his actions, which he said were “dumb, impulsive and arrogant” and completely void of “any self-awareness.”
Gorman said he will continue to snowboard on regular runs, and won’t go into backcountry on his board until he’s confident he’s able to handle powder.
“I’m thinking, with a snow like that, with all of that powder and what is required with a snowboard, I will need a few years of practice before I ever think of going back there again with a board,” he said.