There are many lessons to be learned from a tragic avalanche that took place on Feb. 15 near Smiley Creek, north of Ketchum. The snow slide led to the death of 64-year-old George Gilbert Martin, of Bellevue.
George Martin’s wife, Lesley Martin, survived after being trapped under heavy snow for 90 minutes.
“If one of several things had not happened, I would not be here today,” said Martin, who gathered with her rescuers to thank them last Thursday evening at the Sun Valley Brewery in Hailey. “Most importantly, don’t give up looking for people, even after one and a half hours. Go after them.”
The Martins were snowmobiling with another couple, Robert and Susan Swanton, in deep snow 2.5 miles from Highway 75 in the Frenchman’s Creek drainage, when the slide occurred, at about 2:05 p.m.
“We were not hill-climbing. We were on the flats,” Martin said. “We were about 400 feet north of the base of a hill in Frenchman’s Gulch. I am not sure how we triggered it.”
According to the Blaine County Sheriff’s Office, the avalanche was triggered when one of the “victims stepped through the new snow slab and penetrated the old faceted layer of snow. This caused a large collapse that propagated uphill and released the avalanche 9,000 feet in elevation in the upmost part of the path.”
Martin said the two couples had been taking turns getting stuck in deep snow on small rises and over creeks on the valley floor, at times going to one another’s sleds to help them dig out. Heavy wet snow had fallen recently, covering a soft layer beneath, she said.
“It was very deep. I went down up to my chest,” she said.
The couples were determined to get their sleds back to Smiley Creek for lunch, after digging one another out in one location for about 10 minutes.
“I heard a crack, and saw it coming,” Martin said. “I think I let out a scream and turned toward George and covered my face with my hands and lay down in the snow.”
According to the Sheriff’s Office, the avalanche ran about 1,400 vertical feet, piling 4 to 8 feet of debris across a 300-400 foot area. All four snowmobilers were covered or partially covered.
The Swantons were able to free themselves and reach George Martin, who was already deceased. They used avalanche beacons to try to locate Lesley Martin, but could not find her. They yelled, but heard no reply.
With freezing hands, the Swantons gave up hope that they could find and save Lesley Martin, and rode to Smiley Creek to find help. Lesley Martin was completely buried in snow nearby, but very much alive.
“For the first several minutes, all I could think about was that this was how I was going to die, and not believing it because we had never been in trouble like this before,” she said. “What would my son do without me? What would my dogs do without me? What George would do without me?”
After three or four minutes, Martin began struggling for air, and then just settled in.
“It was like cement. I finally settled down because I was packed in solid,” she said.
Martin said she had time to wonder what had happened to the others in the party.
“I didn’t know if they were dead or alive, or if anyone would come to get me. Then I just concentrated on being calm. I am not claustrophobic, but I am still not sure how I was able to stay calm that long,” Martin said. “I think I passed out a few times because I had no recollection of how much time passed. It felt like 20 minutes.”
About 90 minutes after the avalanche, Lesley Martin heard the sound of snowmobile engines above her.
The Swantons had made it to the highway, and sent word to Smiley Creek, where Nate Scales and Justin Stevenson jumped on sleds to race to the site of the avalanche to rescue survivors. They were followed by Alan Rooney, the manager of Smiley Creek Lodge.
“I can’t tell you how relieved I was to hear that sound,” Martin said. “They went back in there, despite the danger of another avalanche.”
Stevenson used an avalanche beacon to locate Lesley Martin, and then began to dig.
The first face Martin saw upon being dug from the snow was Nate Scales’. She recognized him immediately when she arrived at the Sun Valley Brewery on Thursday.
“I will never forget that face, ever,” Martin said.
“Nate and Justin said they could not believe that I was found alive. At the highway, everybody was totally shocked that I was alive, including me,” Martin said.
Martin said covering her face with her hands and arms allowed her to have enough of an air space to survive. She also attributed the avalanche beacon for saving her life.
“Now we know how far from a hill an avalanche can be triggered,” she said.
Martin said she has shown no signs of post-traumatic stress, but she is looking out for signs.
“It didn’t terrify me at the time, and I am not sure why. I am only terrified now that my husband has died.”