The snow came in like a straightjacket, pinning limbs and snuffing out first light, then air, then hope of rescue.
In the days leading up to Feb. 10, almost 3 feet of snow had fallen on Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. It was light, deep, bottomless.
That’s where Paul, as he was later identified by responders, found himself around 11:30 a.m. on that Sunday morning, across from Tower 20 of the Challenger chairlift, upside-down and struggling to breathe.
Paul tried to move, to shift snow away from his face. In immersions like that, all the effort heats the snow, and the melting slurry caves in further. You try to dig out, but end up burying yourself deeper. Paul tried to keep an airway open, but he was pinned. Later, he’d tell rescuers he accepted he was going to die, if no one saw him first.
Wyatt Minor grew up on skis. First, at Rotarun, near Hailey—literally, his childhood backyard—and then on Baldy. His father, Hank, owns and operates Apple’s, the venerable Warm Springs après-ski haunt. And during early season, on early mornings before the lifts would spin, Hank would bring his son along while he set up the restaurant. Wyatt would hike the runs, and teach himself to ski down.
“This hill was his babysitter,” said one longtime family friend.
There, he grew into a long-limbed 18-year-old, a senior at the Sun Valley Community School and one of the most recognizable—read: very best—skiers on the mountain.
Last year, he was one of the two first recipients of the Sun Valley Ski Patrol’s Golden Cross Award, given in recognition of honorable contributions to the mountain community. Minor had dug a skier out of a tree well.
On the morning of the 10th, he was enjoying the long-awaited end to the low tide that started the season. It was a powder day, an all-timer, and Minor met a friend by the Warm Springs Lodge to ski it. He sat on the far left of four-seat chair, with his buddy on the right, and they mapped out the lines they would hit that day.
He was looking past his friend, down the double fall line of the Challenger cut, when he saw something moving in the small trees along the edge of the run—the basket of a ski pole, shifting slightly above the snow. Minor could imagine the rest. He took out his cell phone and called the patrol shack. The number was already programmed into his phone.
He told the dispatcher what he knew: Snow immersion—skier’s left, Challenger liftline, Tower 20. From there, he had 3 minutes and 20 seconds left on the lift. He waited, and shouted down at everyone he passed. One man, standing on the I-80 cat track, heard the message and started the search.
At the summit, patrolmen Dominick Conti and Sean Evangelista got the call. In his fourth year on the patrol, Conti has responded to four burials in the trees on Baldy. (The next weekend, he’d respond to another, in the trees off Olympic.) Two years ago, he was first to find a fatality—a man, blue and buried, in the Frenchman’s glades. He was skiing alone, too, Conti said. Conti figured he’d been submerged for an hour and a half by the time the patrol found him.
Those calls reinforced a ski patrol maxim in Conti’s mind.
“On big days like that, always ski with a friend,” he said. “Watch out for one another—don’t just say we’ll meet at the bottom. Keep an eye out, especially in the trees.”
Now, they heard Minor on the lift overhead, directing them. Patrollers conduct searches slowly and carefully. They respond to a general vicinity, wary of a cardinal search-and-rescue sin: finding themselves too far downhill, below the victim. As they combed through the forest, Minor sat on his chair, waiting to get his skis on snow.
It took maybe 30 seconds for him to get from the Lookout summit to Conti and Evangelista, less than that to reach the buried Paul.
“I just buckled my boots and straight-lined it,” Minor remembers. He blew by the patrollers, and called for them to follow his tracks.
The first man Minor had yelled to was already there, pawing at the snow to let air in. Minor and Conti clicked off Paul’s skis, and the four of them started digging. They read the name off his ski pass—Paul—and started to shout.
Paul heard it, faintly at first, he told Minor days later. The voices were quiet, a long way off. They grew louder, until, eventually, he woke up.
Paul came up blue—“really blue, completely blue,” Minor said—but started breathing. His heart had likely stopped. He couldn’t make words, couldn’t recall or speak his name for four or five minutes, Conti said. Other patrollers brought oxygen, then the toboggan, and the crew brought him to a waiting ambulance below.
“It took all of us to get him out of there,” Conti said. “He was minutes, if not seconds away from not coming back. To me, there’s no question Wyatt was instrumental in saving this guy’s life.”
That afternoon, Conti called Hank Minor, Wyatt’s dad. He wanted to tell a father what his son had done.
“I’ve known Wyatt for a long time,” Conti said. “I’ve seen him grow up. I can’t stress enough how proud I am of the kid. I wanted to tell Hank what a fine young man his son had become.”