Avalanche victim describes life-threatening ordeal

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  • Marty Mann at Cron Automotive in Kalispell on Jan. 31. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Marty Mann shows scars from a broken femur sustained after a cornice collapse and subsequent avalanche caused him to fall over 300 feet while riding a snow bike in the southern Swan Range on Saturday, Jan. 5. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    A snow bike belonging to Marty Mann sits near the approximate location of a cornice fall near the summit of Spring Slide Mountain in the southern Swan Range. (Flathead Avalanche Center photo)

  • Marty Mann at Cron Automotive in Kalispell on Jan. 31. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    Marty Mann shows scars from a broken femur sustained after a cornice collapse and subsequent avalanche caused him to fall over 300 feet while riding a snow bike in the southern Swan Range on Saturday, Jan. 5. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

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    A snow bike belonging to Marty Mann sits near the approximate location of a cornice fall near the summit of Spring Slide Mountain in the southern Swan Range. (Flathead Avalanche Center photo)

Marty Mann’s friends expected to find his broken, lifeless body hundreds of feet below the summit of Spring Slide Mountain.

On Jan. 5, Mann, 44, and three friends met up around 8:30 a.m. at Woody’s Country Store east of Kalispell to buy supplies for a day of motorized snow-biking in the Swan Range.

Around 10 a.m., at a spot just past Swan Lake, the men climbed on their snow bikes and headed into the backcountry. Mann, who has a long history of skilled participation in motor sports, revved up his snow-adapted KTM 450 XC-F bike.

Roughly 3 hours and 45 minutes later, Mann and one of his friends stopped near the summit of Spring Slide Mountain.

Mann, sweating from effort expended during the ride, stepped away from his bike to consult his cellphone and maps to try to pinpoint the group’s location. He kept his helmet on. He said he did not stray far from the bike.

“As the other two bikes are coming up the hill, the vibrations and the sound caused the cornice to break off,” Mann said.

He said he thinks the force of the collapsing cornice pulled him off his feet. He said he does not believe he was standing directly atop the cornice when it broke.

“It just threw me off the hill backwards. All of a sudden, I was plummeting. Your mind works really fast. As it threw me off there, I thought, ‘I just died.’”

Later, the Flathead Avalanche Center, which said it is best to give cornices a wide berth because they can break off far from a suspected edge, estimated Mann fell about 200 feet in steep and rocky terrain.

“I felt like I was just getting tossed in a dryer,” he said. “I hit the ground and I thought, ‘I’m still alive.’”

But the ordeal continued.

“I get to the bottom and then I get swept down in an avalanche. I’m just swimming, swimming, swimming, trying to get to the top.”

When the cornice broke, it triggered several thick slab avalanches, the Flathead Avalanche Center reported.

Mann was carried another 100 feet down the slope and buried, the center said.

When the mass of snow stopped moving, Mann discovered he was essentially buried standing up, with roughly two feet of loosely packed snow above him. Miraculously, he had an air pocket around his face and was able to breathe.

His right arm was pinned by the snow but he could move his right hand. More importantly, he realized he could move his left arm. He started digging at the snow around him and tried but failed to reach the Spot satellite tracker in a front pocket.

“I wondered whether everybody else had been swept down the slope,” Mann said.

But then he heard the sound of snow bikes.

“I was able to raise my arm up and they could see where I was,” he said.

Mann’s companions left one man near the summit to try to connect with cell service to summon help. The other two raced down the mountainside to initiate a search.

“They dug me out until they could reach my Spot to send an SOS,” Mann said.

And then they continued digging. When their work uncovered Mann’s legs, he realized his right leg was unnaturally bent toward the left. And the pain began to surface, too.

“By then, I was shivering and going into shock,” he said.

Mann’s companions built a large fire and employed emergency space blankets to try to warm him, but the shivering continued.

They also continued efforts to summon help, not knowing whether the SOS message had been received.

It had. Eventually, Two Bear Air reached the scene.

“At that point, I thought, ‘I might survive this,’” Mann said.

The rescue crew lowered a basket and winched Mann up and inside the helicopter. The aircraft flew to Swan Lake and rendezvoused with an ambulance, which transported Mann to Kalispell Regional Medical Center.

Fiancee Theresa Jassman, 44, was waiting. She had heard initially about the SOS and that Marty had been badly hurt. She said she breathed again when she saw him.

Mann’s right leg had a broken femur, the body’s longest and strongest bone and one that can be difficult to fracture. His right heel was crushed. He had suffered a compound dislocation of his right ankle.

Aside from a compressed vertebrae in his lower back, he had not been injured above the waist.

Mann said he has apparently suffered nerve damage in his lower right leg. He said he cannot yet tighten the calf muscle in that leg or move his toes, limitations that could challenge walking, even after healing of his femur and the damage to his left ankle.

“I think walking is still a long ways off,” he said.

Mann knows the outcome could have been much worse.

“I survived something I shouldn’t have,” he said.

He credits his level-headed snow-biking companions with keeping him alive after the fall and avalanche.

“The people I was with are the people you want to have with you in a situation like that,” Mann said. “Those guys were truly amazing.”

And he expressed gratitude for the response of Two Bear Air.

“I owe them my life,” Mann said.

In the weeks since the incident, there has been another source of amazement, he said. He noted, with tears in his eyes, that every time he turns around someone is offering their help.

“The outreach of the community reassures me about the good in people,” Mann said.

A graduate of Flathead High School and the father of two grown children, Mann owns and operates Cron Automotive in Kalispell. He added a fourth employee after the accident to help keep pace with the work. Jassman is one of the shop’s four workers.

Mann said his long experience in automotive work and ties with regular customers mean his absence from the business can hurt revenues. He comes to work some days and helps direct work from a wheelchair.

He said he has health insurance, but described the high-deductible coverage as expensive and “crummy.”

Today, beginning at 6 p.m., Penco Power Products in Kalispell will host a benefit for Mann. The benefit will include a silent auction, food and more.

Jassman said her fiance is not someone who feels comfortable asking for help.

“He’s just so humble and so grateful,” she said.

On the day that Mann nearly died, he traveled into the backcountry well-equipped for an emergency — with an avalanche beacon, the Spot satellite tracker, an avalanche airbag pack and more. He said the avalanche airbag deployed and probably helped him survive.

He said he will invest before venturing out again in a more sophisticated satellite tracker, one that can confirm that an SOS or other emergency message has been received.

In the aftermath of the accident, Keith Hammer, chairman of the Swan View Coalition, said it appeared the snow bikers were in an area closed to over-snow vehicles when the fall and avalanche occurred. Hammer asked the U.S. Forest Service to investigate.

On Thursday, Mann acknowledged it appears the party of four was in a closed area, but he emphasized that any violation was unintentional.

“It’s hard to know the exact boundaries when you’re out there. That’s why I was trying to look at my phone, to see where we were,” he said.

He said he is prepared to pay a fine, if required.

Janette Turk, a spokeswoman for Flathead National Forest, said Friday the agency is still investigating the case.

Meanwhile, Mann said it is too soon to know how the experience of Jan. 5 will change him.

“It has reiterated how precious life is and how important your loved ones are and your good friends,” he said.

He said it is important to go into the backcountry prepared for the worst and ready to effectively use the emergency gear in your possession.

Being ill-prepared can have far reaching consequences, he said.

“There’s the love of someone who’s going to miss you if you’re gone,” Mann said.

Reporter Duncan Adams may be reached at dadams@dailyinterlake.com or 758-4407.

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