Park City man survives deadly Montana avalanche
Park City resident Brandon Malman was having a quick chat with his buddies while traversing backcountry terrain in the mountains of southwest Montana late last month when they heard a “whoomphing” sound.
The group immediately got quiet and looked at each other, waiting for someone to confirm the terrifying sound they had just heard. But, the snow started to liquify beneath their feet before anyone could say anything. Within about two seconds, Malman estimated, he felt like he had been dropped through a trap door.
Malman’s younger brother and close friend were positioned a little above him, while he and another friend were located slightly lower on the mountain. His brother and their friend grabbed on to nearby trees and were able to lift themselves above the snow.
Brandon Malman, caught in the slide, began tumbling hundreds of feet. He tried covering his face with his hands and “swimming” in an attempt to stay above the snow.
“It seemed like an eternity,” he said in an interview Monday evening from a hospital in Salt Lake City. “The whole thing probably didn’t last more than 30 seconds, but during that time I was carried about 300 vertical feet down.”
Malman said he hit trees, rocks and snow-covered branches on the way down. It felt like every tree was made of iron. He begged for it to stop.
“It was scary as hell,” he said. “I had this weird experience where my body had a talk with me. It said, ‘If we want the pain to stop we can let go.’ I started thinking about my daughter. She is 10 and having her find out she lost her dad in a slide wasn’t an option. I thought about my brother. I decided not to take that option. I decided to stay alive and suffer. It was weird. Like I had the option to let myself die.”
Malman has been skiing since he was about 2 years old. While he considers himself an expert, he isn’t out there doing “flips and twists.” He’s lived in Park City since about 2005 and works as an operator for a renewable energy company.
He’d taken several backcountry trips with friends staying in yurts in Colorado, Utah and Idaho, before recently deciding to spend a long weekend in Montana. The four-man group found a yurt in the Tobacco Root Mountains for four days of self-guided backcountry skiing.
The day of the avalanche, on Jan. 25, the group set out around noon, staying in the tracks they had created the day before after a guide had briefed them on the terrain and snowpack conditions. The mountains of southwest Montana received a significant amount of heavy snowfall in previous weeks, according to Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center.
Malman said the primary goal when backcountry skiing is to avoid avalanches. But, he had his beacon, shovel and probe with him just in case. He was prepared. He added, “You don’t really want to focus on what to do when you’re in one because you want to avoid it altogether.”
“We were trying to do it in the safest way, with the lowest angles possible,” Malman said. “We were trying to make our way up to the ridge when we started to realize we were getting into a steeper pitch and needed to make an adjustment to our route to keep it safe. Right when we started to make our change, it hit.”
The avalanche occurred at around 9,000 feet, running 1,100 vertical feet on a southeast-facing slope among a heavily wooded area. The slab was 30 inches thick and about 425 feet wide, a Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center report stated.
‘Fighting for our lives’
When he finally quit sliding, Malman, who was partially buried, started calling out for help. His friend found him first. Malman was in bad shape. His legs were mangled and his avalanche backpack had been ripped from his body. None of the rescue items he packed were anywhere to be found.
“He was relieved when he found me, but I could tell he was in shock. I knew I was in shock,” Malman said. “He said that my brother was up there with our other friend. He said our friend was on top of the snow, but wasn’t doing well and my brother was trying to keep him alive. I realized we were in the worst-case scenario. We were fighting for our lives.”
Malman realized their friend had died when his brother skied down to him with extra gear. He immediately broke down crying. Mainly for his brother, he said, who had just lost his best friend in his arms.
Malman, fighting off hypothermia and indescribable pain, felt it was important to stay calm. He didn’t want to panic, making it worse for the other two.
“I needed to aid the mental stability of my companions and not just lay there being a victim. I had to help them,” he said. “I kept cracking jokes, asking if my eyeball was hanging out of the socket. I was just trying to keep the mood as light as possible.”
They surprisingly had cellphone service, despite their desolate location, and were able to call 911. After one helicopter was unable to land, another one eventually plucked Malman from the mountain nearly five hours after the slide. His brother and their friend had to try and make their way back to the yurt. They were eventually found by search and rescue.
Road to recovery
Malman tore three ligaments in one of his knees, suffered multiple compound fractures and broken bones in his other leg and sustained massive trauma to his eye socket. Doctors may have to amputate his severely damaged leg. He spent several days at a hospital in Montana before being flown back to Salt Lake City over the weekend.
A friend, Jeff Dickey, started a GoFundMe page to assist with medical expenses. Donations had reached more than $34,200 by Monday night.
“Any time something like this happens, the bills can be overwhelming,” Dickey said. “I was a little worried, at first, that he would be upset. He’s not the type to ask for help. But, he was absolutely awestruck by it. He is overwhelmed with gratitude. He’s just one of my favorite people on this planet, and it is hard to know that this happened to not only him, but to all of them.”
Malman is keeping a positive attitude. He continues to crack jokes and is already talking about becoming involved with the National Ability Center, a Park City nonprofit that aids people with disabilities, whether he loses his leg or not. While he endured a tragic, life-changing experience, he doesn’t want it to define him.
“There is a lot of dangerous stuff out there, and if you spend your life trying to avoid all of the danger I think you are robbing yourself,” he said. “I want nothing more right now than to get back in the backcountry. I know avalanches are dangerous, but I think this was just bad luck. But, you still have to enjoy life. We are not here for very long.”
Ted Walker recently took over as director of the Summit County Children’s Justice Center after the previous director, Christie Hind, stepped down last month.