SALT LAKE CITY (KUTV) — A skier is recovering in the hospital after getting caught in an avalanche and enduring a harrowing, hours-long search and rescue operation.
Travis Haussener, a 35-year-old scientist from Salt Lake City, struck an upbeat and positive tone Friday afternoon as he talked about the ordeal just two days earlier that left him with multiple broken bones and severe hypothermia.
"I got lucky, for sure," said Haussener, with his wife, Chesy Nichols, by his side at the University of Utah Hospital.
In an interview with KUTV 2News, the athletic outdoorsman described his experience skiing Wednesday morning in Neffs Canyon, east of Millcreek, where he said he had been many times.
"It was great. I was by myself," Haussener said. "Then I went up for another lap, and I just pushed it a little too far."
Haussener said he heard a "whoomph" sound as he went up a steep slope, after which he saw a "cascading wall of snow" rushing at him.
He said he thought his life was over.
"Lo and behold, I smashed into a tree that broke my femur, broke my ribs, broke my arm, but it saved my life," Haussener said, "because all the snow then cascaded below me."
Haussener, an experienced skier, said he tried to dig himself out with one hand. When he had to periodically stop digging due to cold or fatigue, he said, he yelled for help.
"I just kept shouting help, help, help," Haussener remembered. "And my savior, my hero, Tom, he heard me."
He's talking about Tom Elbrecht, an off-duty Unified Fire Authority firefighter who happened to be in the area and found Haussener after about 45 minutes.
Elbrecht helped dig Haussener out of the snow. Then, the two of them huddled with Elbrecht's dog to stay warm.
"I was the coldest I’ve ever been in my life. I think at one point my body temperature was probably around 93, so I was severely hypothermic," Haussener said. "At that point, you’re just trying to stay alive, right? That’s the only thing you can think of is just survive the next 10 minutes, and once you get to those 10 minutes, survive the next 10 minutes."
By late afternoon, rescuers were able to reach them, but the operation was slow due to fears of triggering another avalanche. A helicopter tried to bring Haussener out as darkness set in, but the hoist rope was too short.
Ultimately, crews had to drag Haussener down the mountain. He said the experience was incredibly painful.
"They put me in like a body bag, and they just pulled me down the mountain basically, and that was unbearable pain," Haussener said. "They were just dragging me with all these broken bones down a mountainside."
They later put him in a toboggan, which Haussener described as a "five-star hotel." He was taken the rest of the way down the mountain, loaded into an ambulance, and taken to the hospital where he underwent surgery on his broken femur, which was severely fractured.
Haussener has been recovering in the hospital ever since. He credited the doctors and other medical staff at University of Utah Hospital with helping him recover from his injuries. He even tried walking Friday morning with the aid of a crutch.
He said he hopes to be discharged soon.
Meanwhile, Haussener credits Elbrecht, the off-duty firefighter, with saving his life and never leaving his side.
"I owe my life to him," Haussener said. "He’s a real hero."
Speaking to reporters Thursday, Elbrecht downplayed the notion of being a hero.
“It was right time, right place,” he said. “That’s all it was. I can think of dozens of people, I can think of hundreds of coworkers, that would do the exact same thing.”
Haussener said he plans to keep skiing, but he'll be more careful in the future. He realizes this story could have ended much differently.
"I will continue to go," he said, "but hopefully mitigate the risk a little better next time."