VAIL, Colo. (AP) — A recurring dream frequently woke snowboarder Brock Crouch: Buried alive and unable to move.
He couldn’t shake that nightmare for nearly two months.
Even more, certain sounds — like someone cracking their back — caused flashbacks to that day nearly two years ago when he was caught in an avalanche near Whistler, British Columbia.
Swept away in the snow, Crouch heard his back break as he tumbled about 1,500 feet through a rock-lined chute.
For five minutes, he remained buried deep under the snow until his buddies dug him out.
On his left shoulder, Crouch now has a tattoo of the mountain range that nearly took his life. Along with it, a new recurring dream — to make the U.S. slopestyle squad for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
“Can you imagine going from being buried for nearly 5 minutes to being on the podium at the Olympics?” the 20-year-old from Southern California said. “That accident changed my whole life perspective, on living my every day life.”
On April 22, 2018, Crouch and some friends took a helicopter trip into the back country to do some filming. Being April, they knew the snow might be a little unstable and were conscious of the avalanche dangers. They scouted the line they intended to traverse and had an exit plan just in case a slide occurred. Crouch was wearing an avalanche airbag as well, along with a locator beacon.
“But it’s Mother Nature you’re dealing with out there,” Crouch cautioned. “The mountain can change at any given second.”
Standing on a ledge, Crouch was about to start when there was a loud crack.
“The next thing I know, I’m in this big white-wash ball of snow,” Crouch recounted.
He tugged and tugged on a cord to inflate his avalanche bag.
The bag never deployed.
Crouch heard the sound of his back breaking as he uncontrollably plummeted down the mountain. When he finally stopped, he was buried under about 6 feet of snow.
There was no panic. Instead, a sense of calm washed over him as he tried to clear snow from his face. But it was as thick as concrete.
So he closed his eyes.
“I remember thinking, ‘This could be it,'” he recalled. “It will be a gift from God if I make it out of this one.”
His companions acted quick. One of them raced down on “pretty much straight rock,” Crouch said, to reach him. The others went around the slide as fast as they could.
At the sound of the avalanche, the helicopter pilot was in the air to get to him. He was able to point out the vicinity of Crouch before he disappeared under the snow.
Five minutes later, an unconscious Crouch was dug out by his friends. A few moments after that, he was alert.
“I remember screaming really loud, ‘I broke my back,'” Crouch said.
He was taken to Whistler and transported by ambulance to Vancouver. On their way down, he tried to get the emergency personnel to make a stop at a convenience store.
“I asked if we could go buy a lottery ticket,” Crouch said. “It would’ve been a good day to buy one, because it was my lucky day.”
His injuries: Three fractured vertebrae, torn pancreas, five knocked-out teeth, a black eye (from either hitting a rock or his knee, he’s not sure) and a bad concussion.
The good news: No surgery would be needed to fix the back. There was no nerve damage, either, for the snowboarder who’s been riding as much as he can since he was 3 years old — when he wasn’t surfing or skateboarding — and is sponsored by the likes of Burton boards and Red Bull.
One of the first to reach out to him soon after his accident was the late Jake Burton Carpenter, who founded the Burton snowboard company which helped launch an entire industry. Carpenter died in November after a relapse with testicular cancer.
“He asked for everyone on the crew that helped rescue me,” Crouch said. “He then called all of them individually and thanked them all for all their hard work. He sent them all bottles of champagne. How cool is that?”
After a week in a Vancouver hospital, Crouch was flown back to Southern California.
Next, the emotional recovery.
He dealt with post-traumatic stress disorder after the avalanche. He had “gnarly dreams” of being buried, he explained. He was dating a girl at the time who cracked her back and brought back such intense memories that he would blurt, “You’ve got to stop that.” Living close to a small airport, the sound of a helicopter affected him.
To help him overcome PTSD, Crouch attended classes that his friend’s mom taught. The sessions helped ease the vivid nightmares.
“It made me a lot more comfortable,” Crouch said. “It’s definitely pretty crazy, how your brain can be like that.”
Six months later, Crouch was back on snow. He went to Switzerland with the U.S. team for a training camp. By the third day, he was already hitting jumps.
The avalanche ordeal caused him to take a long look at his lifestyle. He vowed to take his snowboarding more serious.
“I was like, ‘Well, it’s time to buckle down and get serious and try to make a comeback out of it,’” he said.
He’s taken a big step on the competition front this season by placing fourth at the Winter X Games in Aspen, Colorado. Crouch also finished second to good friend Red Gerard in the slopestyle competition at a Winter Dew Tour stop.
And while he didn’t make the final round at the Burton U.S. Open last weekend in Vail, his exuberance was on display when he greeted Gerard, who took third, and the other finalists.
“We’re not really competitors but best friends,” said Gerard, who won the Olympic slopestyle gold medal at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games. “I’m just happy he’s still here.”
High on Crouch’s future agenda: Return to that mountain spot for another attempt.
“It would be a very special moment,” Crouch said, “riding away from that.”
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