Surviving an Avalanche—Buried Alive with Brock Crouch
On April 22, 2018, Brock Crouch was in the Whistler backcountry heli-boarding with an experienced crew when things went south. He was caught in a massive avalanche, buried alive, and suffered multiple injuries including a broken back, ruptured pancreas, and plenty more unaccounted for. If it wasn’t for the actions of the pilot, riders and crew around him, he would not be alive today. Luckily, those that were with him were trained and acted fast, and two weeks after the avalanche, Brock walked into our office (just a five minute drive from his house in Southern California) with a back brace, swollen eye, missing teeth, and a big smile. We aren’t going to lie and say he looked great, because he didn’t… but it sure was nice to see him. It was the same old Brock. With a ridiculously positive SoCal attitude, probably aided by some painkillers, he sat down to tell us all about it.- Mark Clavin
Alright, we'll just go through it. How many days ago did this happen?
Yeah, I am working with a lady to remember it all. I'm sure most of you guys know. I was caught in an avalanche 16 days ago in Whistler.
I was up in Canada for about three weeks. Went up there with Nik Baden, Gabe, and all those homies, filming for Beta, and then we went to Baldface. Super dope. After Baldface, I went back to Whistler for a little heli trip to get some shots just with Red Bull. They always ask me what I want to do at the beginning of the year, and the last four years, I've said I want to go heli somewhere with John J(Jackson). That's what I've always wanted to do, and this year they finally set it up.
I was supposed to go up on a little heli trip in Whistler, BC for a week and the day before we went sledding, it was dumping snow. It was a pretty sketchy day in Whistler, it was all cloudy and it was getting socked in. We tried to get some snowboard clips but mainly just sledded four hours straight… still super dope. The weather said the next day was supposed to be sunny and a good day… so we met at the heli pad around 7am and it turned out to be bluebird. Had an insane morning, and then we were leaving this one zone…
Wait, real quick. When you say insane morning, you had some good laps or what?
Yeah, yeah. We got some good clips. We were flying and John found this one dope spine zone that we all could ride and it was pretty sick. We all got different lines and we did that run twice. Nothing really happened there, I mean, I hit a little cliff and there was a minor little 30-foot wide sluff, but super stable. We were all super stoked. After a few hours, we flew over to this other ridge and found this pretty crazy zone that I guess… no one ever really has seen. We were just lucky enough to see it as we flew over it. There was this crazy chute that they wanted to ride that and then I spotted this zone over to the right more… they went over to the chute more to the left and our guide, Shin (Campos), and I went over to the right more. He came with me and said, "Okay I'm just going to point down through this chute. Avy's shouldn't be big at all." It was a super narrow chute so an avy could've happened, but they weren't really too worried about it.
So, I went over with the guide to the zone and he said it felt pretty stable. I did a run down and it was just like the other zone, every turn I did, the snow wasn't moving at all. Just super good blower pow from the day before since it was still pretty cold. We all got a shot and then went back up for another go… John, Mark (Tremblay), Cam (Fitzpatrick) and I. We went back up and they spotted some stuff like maybe 500 yards on the same face but way over to the left, and Cam and I were going to just go to the same spot on the right. It was a weird little spine zone into a 10 or 15-foot cliff drop, a couple turns and then you had to point it through a chute. Cam was a bit away from me and I couldn't really see what he was asking, but I guess he was saying, "Yo, is this a cornice?" I couldn't really see. I thought it could be, but I didn't really know. I thought it was all good…
If Cam would've walked forward, it would've been way worse. Because little did we know, we were on the big ass cornice that fell. I strapped in and then I was talking to Justin (Hostynek) from Absinthe, he was on another ridge talking on the radio. "Alright, I'm about to drop in 10, Justin." It was just another run. When you say drop in 10, it's all chill. He said, "Alright, I'm ready," and then I was looking down the run to the left.
I did a small hobble, like when you move not even 180 degrees, I just hopped to the right. Not even hopping super hard. I was chilling, had my hand on the rock. And then… I've been explaining it like when you're a little kid counting how far the thunderstorm is away from you. One one-thousand, two one-thousand… Okay, it's two miles away. That's what I always used to do at least. And it literally sounded like it was on top of our house. You just heard it, so gnarly. I remember looking down and it was so big. It definitely wasn't sluff that pushed past you really quick. It was just happening so fast, it cracked so far under me that it was all in slow motion. I was just like… oh my gosh.
It cracked probably 10 feet to the right of me and 20 feet down, and then across the face. It pushed me to the left and just knocked me on my ass so quick. I couldn't stand up and try to ride to the right, because Shin said earlier, "Okay, if an avy happens, point it out to the right, just get out of it because that's where you'll be able to go," but I couldn't because it knocked me down so quick.
So you had an exit plan.
Yeah. Every time you get to the top of a run, you should talk about an exit plan, you know? Shin is one of the best guides you could ever have. It knocked me around into a 180. I was just sliding down the hill already backwards. It was like a movie scene. I was looking at Cam and seeing him just go farther away from me. And then I remember… not the whole cornice, if the whole cornice broke it would've been a fifty foot crack… this cornice was so big. But I just remember seeing half of the cornice break below it, pretty close to Cam. Two 10- to 15-foot boulders fell off the cornice. At the time, I compared it to being in white wash surfing, it was just like that for the next… it felt like the next five minutes. I remember tumbling and rolling down.
It must have felt like forever.
That's what it felt like. I felt like it was just going forever. I remember rolling around, being so lost and then I remember hearing my back break. Just so loud. It sounded like a video of you hearing your bone break. I fully remember hearing bones cracking. I mean being in an avy probably doesn't help because it probably sounds like that already, but I fully remember a clear noise of crunching, you know? Falling and obviously hitting rocks… Luckily the heli pilot, right when he saw the first crack, turned his engine on. Before anyone heard on the radio, "Brock's in it, Brock's in it!" Two weeks before, our heli pilot, Josh, took a break because he was the pilot when a girl died up there. So, he came back out and was then in with this avy.
He was already ready, you know? He was so on it. I could not be here right now if it wasn't for Josh. He was hovering above me the last fifty yards sliding and rolling down the slide, and he could see me when I stopped. He said the avy was so big that it kept coming and coming and he just watched me get buried. When all the debris settled, he landed and radioed to John and all those guys, "Alright, come to where he slid, just hug the right rock." It was a huge chute but they were all good. John, Mark, Cam and Shin came down the chute that I slid down and just hugged the right side and picked up my signal…
They were within 30 meters so they were pretty close… they were all running and got it to 0, probed me second try, or first try… I think they got me second they said. And they started digging super fast.
How many feet down?
They said like five or six. There was two inches of my nose and I was riding the 65 Custom… a way bigger board than I ride in the park. They could kind of see it. But they didn't know if my board got detached. So yeah, they started digging and got my head first. They saw my hair because my beanie… everything was off. They got my hair first and said I was like four big scoops deep.
And you're unconscious this whole time?
Yeah, yeah. So I got to the bottom and I just remember I was like sitting there and clearly my back was so broken that I thought I was just sitting up, but they found me and my board was over my head and I was laying on my back.
Yeah, my knee was on my eye and the doctor said that at some point in the fall, he thinks that my head probably went through my legs. I'm pretty much the luckiest kid alive. But I just remember right when I got to the bottom, I thought I was on top.
So you can actually picture the whole fall? And you had a bag on, right?
Oh yeah, for sure. I had a bag on, and it didn't deploy. I pulled it but it didn't go.
Your bag didn't go?
Yeah, but the bag is kind of what saved my life.
Because my bag has a metal piece of bar in it, and that bar is broken in half and my probe went through the backpack. It ripped through the backpack and bruised my tailbone pretty bad.
But it stayed with you?
Yeah. And I remember getting to the bottom and it became really dark really quick. It was all black and I tried to move my right arm to make an air pocket, you know? And it felt like I was just stuck in concrete. It was crazy dude. It was the most calm I've ever felt in my whole life. The doctors diagnosed me with a pretty bad concussion when I got back to the hospital.
That could've been from any day with you, too. Haha.
Hahaha. Yeah, but I just remember getting to the bottom and it was all black and I just said three things. I though this is where I'm dying. I love my family. I love snowboarding. It'll be a gift from god if I make it out of this one. And just being so calm and just shutting my eyes, like going to bed. And I was just like, I'm dead…
And you were above the sluff the whole time going down?
I was on top. It was so steep, they said I fell around 1,500ft. going over rocks. Because the chute I came down, we actually have a picture of it before the avy happened, there was like no snow on it already. It was almost unrideable. And then being in the avy, just rolling around, probably didn't help.
Okay, so then you had your three thoughts. Anything else?
No, that's about it… saying this is it. I mean… I'm snowboarding, this could be the last time I buckle in. I remember being so calm and just shutting my eyes.
And when you came to?
Yeah. It was pretty crazy. It took a while. I was fully gone and they said about 6 or 7 minutes is when I really came back to.
How long were you actually buried?
Five minutes until they got to me, but I was really out of it for probably 7-8 minutes after. John J was trying to clear my airway because my mouth was full of snow.
Yeah, and so they were getting to my airway and then I remember… well, I don't remember. But John said that right when I came back to, I bit his finger straight lockjaw. He said the hardest feeling thing he's ever felt on his finger.
There was still one tooth left. He said it was pretty messed up but a tooth kind of came out with his finger or something like that. My right eye was swollen shut for five days after, so I just opened my left eye and it was so blurry. From then, I just remember being in some crazy pain. I looked to my right and Shin was still checking my pulse.
But they didn't have to shock or bring you back.
Nope. I just snapped back to, and John said the first thing, I must've been so concussed or something, but I looked up like, "Well shit boys, I went down the run wrong."
Classic Brock. Jesus, dude.
Yeah, it was pretty crazy. John started asking me all the questions to make sure I wasn't paralyzed. They were like, "Okay can you move your toes? Can you move your fingers?" And my gloves were off, my beanie was off… so I was so cold because.
When I was going to the hospital in Vancouver, I was so messed up on morphine and I kept trying to talk to the guy in the ambulance and I was like, "Come on man, you don't have a wheelchair in here? Just wheelchair me in, let's go buy a lotto ticket, I should be dead right now." That's what I kept telling him.
Okay, let me ask you this. List off your injuries.
I ruptured my pancreas, broke my L1, L2, T12, and I pretty much shattered the bone above my teeth.
Oh, and my eye was swollen shut for five days… I have an eye doctor appointment in four days to see what's going on. It's still all bloody.
And then how many teeth did you lose?
I lost my four front teeth, and I got 8 stitches in my chin.
And a concussion as well?
A pretty bad concussion.
And 15 days after, you basically look back to normal. Swollen and all that stuff, but chilling.
My right butt cheek is still completely numb, but we're good.
Are they numb right now?
Yeah, they're still numb, but he said it'll come back in the next month or two.
What's weirder: pissing or shitting?
It doesn't feel weird, it just hurts. Like I'm grunting.
Oh yeah. My shitter though, that one hurts, dude. My back just like seizes up because my whole lower back is pretty much broken. It's so painful.
Are you afraid to go to the bathroom?
No, it's just like a night terror. I don't want to because it's going to hurt so bad, but I'm pretty lucky that I'll be able to snowboard in 5 months and it's going to be the best day of my life.
Recovery process. Surgery or what do you have to do?
No surgery on my back, but they pretty much told me if I would have broke my back any more forward, I'd be paralyzed. If I broke it any more to the right, I'd be paralyzed… because it was so close to the spinal cord. If I broke it any more to the left, I would've had to put two screws and a plate through the L1 and the L2 and I probably would never be as flexible as I was and I wouldn't be able to snowboard because I wouldn't be able to wind up the same or any of that stuff, or at least competitive snowboarding. And then he said that if I broke any more down and made my spine go any more down, I would've damaged all my nerves that lead to pretty much every single thing, like both my ass cheeks, my shitter and all my everything, like balls and dick and everything would've just been numb the rest of my life, so pretty lucky.
Had surgery on my teeth, but I gotta wait a couple months to get my new teeth in because I broke the whole bone under my nose that my teeth connect to, so they had to go put bone marrow in there and it takes around 2-3 months for it to bond right to where they can drill roots, or fake roots, back up there to get fake teeth.
What do you want to say to John and the crew?
John and I have always kind of… I've always looked up to him ever since I was so young. He lived in Crowley with his brother and I've been driving to Mammoth since I was like 5 years old. When I moved up there when I was like 8 or whatever, I just remember seeing John. He was always in the backcountry and stuff, but when he would come ride the mountain I would always watch. John and EJack always had the dopest parts…
John J is a life-saver. Pretty much all I can say, and seeing him in the hospital was probably the craziest experience I've ever had in my entire life. Seeing Cam and those guys in it too, it's just crazy to see what they all went through. Sorry homies… for doing that to all you guys.
Shin was at the top with all those guys. Seeing those guys in the hospital was pretty crazy. Some emotions definitely came out. John just sat there and hung out with me and my family and it was so sick because I've always looked up to him so much and now I feel like we definitely are like, I just feel like all those guys are like brothers now. Every time I see them, we've shared an experience that a lot of people don't get to share because a lot of people…One, you don't want to share that and two, I'm lucky to be here and sharing it with them because they saved my life. I didn't plan it. Mother nature just wanted that to happen to me on Earth Day, but it's all good.
And what about your parents?
I guess Shin and John called Steve Ruff when I was in the hospital at Whistler and were like, "Hey, get a hold of your dad and mom." It was just a Sunday afternoon. My mom is on this crazy diet right now, so she was making all these smoothies because she is on some crazy shit. She was making a bunch of smoothies or something for the week down in the kitchen, and my dad got a call from Ruff and… well, I don't know how it really went, but I was told he called and my dad just yelled down to my mom like, "Hey, Brock got hurt. He's alive. He can feel his toes and fingers. He's in an ambulance going down to Vancouver. We need to book a flight right now." And that's all my dad said. So my mom was like, "What?!" asking him a bunch of questions and my dad was like, "Just book a flight."
How was that?
I don't know. I just remember getting down to Vancouver at like 6 p.m. maybe, and was in the ER until like 1:30 a.m. doing x-rays on every single bone in my body, doing like cat scans and MRI's. And I remember they walked in at like 1:30 a.m. to the emergency room. Seeing my family, that's when the wall of emotion started hitting. I was like, I should've died ten hours ago or whatever.
Do you think the whole experience has even set in yet?
I don't know, because I'm so comfortable sitting here and talking to people about it. I think it set in for sure, because there were some nights. Like the night I stood up and walked, I remember that night because that's when the recovery started, you know? When I first walked again. Without all the medicine and stuff in the hospital. Walking out in my room, walking to a door in the hospital and just looking over Vancouver and looking at the whole city… kind of just like, what the hell is going on? I think it'll set in more when I'm way older and realize, holy shit, that actually happened to me.
I watched Unbroken and that was a little too early. I should've waited a little bit. Because in Mark McMorris' movie, when he hits the tree and Craig runs down there, the ten minutes after they got there, those ten minutes where they're like giving him a jacket because he's cold and moaning, that was me ten days ago or whatever.
So that was the night it all kind of started?
Yeah, that was the first night it all kind of just like, I don't know, I was just sitting there. Mark and Jake Burton actually came over for dinner the other night and Mark was talking to me about it. "Dude, did you ever have any nights where you would start just crying and being like what the hell just happened?" He remember that from the hospital. It's just gnarly because I've just been thinking about Craig Kelly and all these legends that it has happened to, you know, and how many people have actually survived out of it. It's pretty gnarly. And then getting a bunch of texts, there was a bunch of skiers up there who were DM-ing me with, "Hey we heard what happened. We heard the radio call a couple ridges over…" and just crazy stuff like that.
Yeah, the amount of people that reached out to you probably had to be a pretty overwhelming.
Yeah. I got a FaceTime call actually from all the Beta Boys the night after and I've been talking to them a lot because I was with them all year. Like right after I didn't make the Olympics, I went to Europe with them, then Seven Springs a month before, and I was with them in Whistler two weeks before… and then I was with them five days before it all happened in Baldface.
How many FaceTimes do you think you've answered or called?
Quite a few. A lot, actually. I'm just lucky to be where I'm at right now and it's going to be a long road, but it's gonna be so fun.
Recovery process in Southern California. We were talking earlier about how this is a good place to do it. Why?
Wake up every day and most of the time it's sunny and one of my best friends, Red, just got a house down here so he's going to be here all summer. As shitty as it's going to be not being able to go to Hood or New Zealand or Australia or be able to really snowboard or surf or skateboard the next five months, it's still going to be fun because there's the horse races and the fair and some music festivals maybe. I'm just lucky to be walking.
And you talked to your doctor about surfing this summer. Do you think you'll actually do that?
Yeah, that seems a little crazy but the doctor told me that I have to go get a check-up in four weeks and he pretty much told me that if everything is healing smoothly, I'll be able to go paddle around if it's really small and hang out with some of the homies in the water. I'm from Southern California and middle of the summer, I'm just so stoked… I have already been thinking about getting back to riding. I just want as many homies as can go, out to Europe the beginning of the season because it's pretty damn crazy. I've really just been looking at this situation like, wow, you really are not guaranteed tomorrow.
Right off the bat, you're looking forward to riding again?
My dad and I had some crazy heart-to-heart conversations in the hospital and he's Iike, "Are you scared?" and basically, I am not. Kimmy Fasani came over to my house last night and she was asking me about it and we talked about backcountry and stuff like that and I'm just going to try to take this as a learning experience. It's a huge eye opener for me. I'm going to really try to make it be a big learning experience for all my friends. That shit is crazy. Mother nature doesn't fuck around. It was the craziest thing I've ever been a part of.
Have you taken avy classes before?
Yeah, I've done one in Mammoth. But being out there, I felt like I got way better at sledding, I got way more in tune with stuff. We built a jump one day and he's like, "Yo, go probe the landing," so it just got me way more comfortable with the backcountry before that happened.
How many backcountry trips have you gone on?
I don't know. Two weeks before that, I was with Tyler Orton and Gabe and Nik and Jared and we almost went out like every day, so almost eight days.
But were those lines as intense as this line?
Oh no, that was my first real one. That was maybe my third or fourth day in a helicopter, but first real day. That morning of that day, I did my first successful spine ride down. It was pretty crazy.
What did it mean to you when everyone from the snowboard community reached out to you?
That was a trip. It was crazy. I had maybe 20,000 followers or something on Instagram and just seeing it double so quick, you know, and I'm not saying I'm like stoked on that or whatever, but seeing how many people are behind you and realize how big this actually is and yeah, I'm probably going to have to tell this story a lot and people are going to want to hear it, but it's so crazy to think that it actually happened to me. I'm just so thankful for everyone that's here and it's gonna be a long ass road but it's going to end one day and I can't wait to snowboard again. I can't wait to go sledding again and get back out in the pow because it's so sick.
When are you thinking you'll be cleared? You’re saying Dew Tour?
Yeah. Hopefully I will be cleared, I mean hopefully shit goes really well and I'll be cleared before he even says what the real clear date is, but as of now, I'll be cleared right before all the European camps, like when Saas Fee is good and Stubai, stuff like that.
Editor's note: We caught back up with Brock again just a few days ago to see how he was feeling.
How long has it been now?
Um, it was 10 weeks ago yesterday.
Perfect. So, you're 10 weeks out, saw you're golfing again, you're chilling… how you feeling?
Feeling pretty good. I just talked to my doctor the other day and we are hoping in 2 weeks my bone will be completely healed and he'll probably be able to clear me to go surfing again, so that's pretty dope.
And what have you been up to?
Yeah, I mean, when you break your back, you literally cannot do anything. The first month was probably some of the most painful things I've ever done in my life, including brushing my teeth, trying to take a shower, trying to shit… was probably one of the worst things I've ever had to deal with in my life.
Yeah, has all the numbness come back?
Yeah. So, everything is pretty much back to normal. But yeah, I talked Red and his brothers into getting a house down in Southern California, so they got a house within 5 minutes of mine and we set up a little art studio in their garage and I just started working and doing a bunch of painting stuff with Blake Axelson.
Nice, did it hurt to paint?
No, it was nice. We set it up. Got a super comfortable chair and I just pretty much sat there but… big shout out to Blake for just kind of doing kind of whatever I asked… cause when my back was in pain, I didn't want to move. Thanks Blake!
Alright, so now, you've had a bit more time to reflect, any major lessons?
Yeah, for everyone out there, I mean, we just lost another snowboarder (Dillon Ojo), you're definitely not guaranteed tomorrow. I definitely learned that being out in the backcountry is way different than being in the park and mother nature does whatever it wants, whenever it wants… and if you go in the wrong zone or hit the wrong thing, you can get really really f'd up. I'm going to definitely be way more on my toes, look at everything that could possibly go wrong, because something can go bad in the click of a finger.
To everyone out there that sees this interview, I hope you guys stay safe, make sure all your beacons are at 100%, and you guys get trained, listen and learn every single thing possible because that day I was very lucky that everything worked out.