Alpinist Willie Benegas on Being Buried in an Avalanche


On March 12 The well-known alpinist Willie (Guillermo) Benegas was seriously injured in a large avalanche the Silver Fork Drainage of Big Cottonwood Canyon, about 15 miles from Salt Lake City. The 54-year-old Argentine led a group of six skiers along with Winslow Passey, another experienced mountain guide. They had split into two groups and Benegas stood beside his pair of skis and watched them fall into a gully. The first woman skied her line without incident, but a slab of snow came loose as the second skier descended.

While his customers safely exited the slide, Benegas was buried under two and a half feet of snow. The incident happened around 12:30 p.m. and it took the women 23 minutes to locate Benegas, dig him up and clear his airway.

Benegas has decades of experience on high peaks – including 13 Mount Everest peaks – and together with his brother Damian founded the renowned Benegas brothers Tour guide in 1992.

“In backcountry skiing, we’re threading the needle all the time,” he says. “Often we are lucky, sometimes not.”

Benegas suffered four broken ribs on his left side, two on his right, an injured lung, and lacerations to his face. He reckons a full recovery will take at least two months.

According to a report from the Utah Avalanche Center, snow accumulated over facets (angular grains that don’t blend well with other snow) at this site from late January to early February, burying the facets about two feet below the surface. The result was a light blanket of snow, particularly sensitive in the gully where Benegas was buried. That day, the center had issued one special sheet, warning skiers that the snow pack was particularly unstable in northern and central Utah. On March 12 alone, eleven avalanches were reported nationwide.

“It was an extremely difficult year,” says Benegas. “Our snowpack was difficult to predict in terms of microterrain assessment.”

Benegas attributes the accident to hubris, as he estimates he’s skied the same runway 150 times without incident.

“As we approached the last bank, we put pressure on the slope and nothing happened,” he says. “I sat on some rocks in a steep section and watched my clients corner down the slope. I don’t remember how it broke, but the panel came loose. I yelled “Avalanche” while keeping an eye on my clients. The last thing I remember was seeing my client safe on skis as I started riding the wave. Then everything was empty.”

Benegas says he called for help after his funeral but then recalled his survival training.

“I became calm because I knew my teammates would start looking for me. I slowed my breathing to conserve as much oxygen as possible in my small air sac and waited,” he says. “When I was caught, I thought So this is how I will die. The only way to survive was to shut down, to hibernate. I visualized my teammates with probes and then I guess I passed out.”

Luckily, Passey – who was with the other four skiers, three of whom had avalanche training – was nearby and organized a rescue. She had a skier call 911 and asked two others to attach their skins in case they have to climb to him. Passey located Benegas but could not get a beacon reading less than 1.6 meters (about 5.2 ft), meaning he was buried well below the surface of the snow. After a positive probe strike, the women began digging, first uncovering a boot: He was facing downhill, so it took significantly longer to clear the snow around his head and open his airway.

While rescuing Benegas, another group of skiers passed in the gully above them, also triggering a small slide. Although the slide did not reach the women, they were reminded that the entire chute was unstable. Passey later documented the incident in a written report for the Utah Avalanche Center.

Benegas was breathing but unconscious. Ski patrols from nearby Solitude Mountain Resort arrived at the scene just five minutes after his burial and helped the group get him out of the gorge and into a zone where he could be flown to a local hospital. A helicopter arrived at 2:30 p.m. He was in critical but stable condition.

Damian Benegas returned to the area the next day to find out what had caused the avalanche. “All I could see was a long 250 foot by 70 foot debris field that ended in a small creek at the bottom of the slope. It was a miracle my brother didn’t hit a tree because the bottom of the slide ended in a dense grove of pine trees,” he says.

A GoFundMe Campaign launched to help Willie Benegas continue his recovery and support his family with daunting expenses.

“The bottom line is that we shouldn’t have been there and triggered the avalanche,” says Benegas. “Kudos to the ladies – I owe them my life.”

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