At 3:20 p.m. on Saturday, February 29, Andrew Hryb, 36, of Darien, Ct., and his brother Alexander, 35, of Norwalk, Ct., boarded the Sensation Quad, planning to ski a backcountry zone off Stowe Mountain Resort’s Spruce Peak. More than 35 inches had fallen in the area over the last four days and everywhere skiers were venturing out of bounds to find first tracks in what felt like bottomless powder.
The two brothers had skied this area, known locally as “The Birthday Bowls,” before. It’s an area that drops down the back side of Spruce Peak through glades to the east side of Smuggler’s Notch, the mountain gap between Stowe Mountain Resort and Smuggler’s Notch Resort.
“At 5:30 p.m., one of the brothers texted a friend that they were having difficulty finding their way,” said Neil Van Dyke, Search and Rescue Coordinator for Vermont’s Department of Public Safety and a former leader at Stowe Mountain Rescue. “They had a topo map and apparently were experienced skiers, but just got turned around up there,” Van Dyke said.
At 6:30 p.m. a 911 call came in from one of the brothers.
Stowe Search and Rescue responded, driving up the Route 108, Notch Road, and located the skiers at around 8:30 pm. Alexander was in contact with them by phone, stranded at the top of a 220-foot cliff.
They found Andrew’s body near the base of the cliff.
According to a release by Vermont State Police, the brothers traveled an estimated 1.5 to 2 miles from Sensation Quad lift at Spruce Peak through the woods before coming to the top an ice climbing route known as Doug’s Route, located across the Notch from the Hellbrook Trail. It appears that Andrew lost his footing while trying to look over the edge of the approximately 220-foot cliff and fell.
“This was one of the most difficult rescue operations I’ve experienced,” said Van Dyke. “Stowe Mountain Rescue started to go up to one of the cliff bands where Andrew had fallen but made the decision early on that it was too risky,” Van Dyke said.
In the growing darkness Van Dyke put in a call to the Army Mountain Warfare School, the national mountain warfare training arm for the U.S. Army, which is based at Camp Ethan Allen in Jericho, Vermont and trains regularly in the cliff bands and rugged terrain of Smuggler’s Notch. Temperatures dropped below 20 degrees in Stowe at 6 pm and continued dropping down to around 12 degrees.
Under the leadership of Mountain Warfare School instructor, Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Dearborn, a team of five soldiers showed up to assist Stowe Mountain Rescue’s team of seven. Two members of Colchester’s Search and Rescue team were also on hand.
“We don’t use the Mountain Warfare School often,” said Van Dyke, “but when the chips are down those guys are world class and they were really the difference here. They were able to climb up a mixed ice and rock route up to where Andrew’s body was. It was then another 200 feet of sheer ice, a technical ice climb, to get to Alexander’s location and they were able to lower Alexander down.” The rescue operation didn’t conclude until about 1:40 am on Sunday morning. The incident was considered an accident and Andrew’s injuries were consistent with the fall. The accident happened on state land, well outside the ski area boundaries.
Performing rescue operations off cliff bands in the Notch has been part of the Mountain Warfare School training (see The Mountain Warriors, a story by Abagael Giles in Vermont Sports magazine) and as an instructor, Sgt. Dearborn has had experience setting up simulated casualty rescues on cliff bands of 120 feet in the Notch, according to an article on the U.S. Army website.
“Alexander was on a flat plateau above the cliff, uninjured, but the snow was so deep he couldn’t make his way back up and we made the decision that with the limited personnel we had, the rescue would work better from the Notch Road,” he said.
Van Dyke, speaking by phone on Monday, was somber. ““Many of us can see ourselves in very similar situations. It’s not unusual for those of us who recreate in the backcountry to take risks or to find ourselves in sketchy situations. Ninety-nine times out 100, we come out ok, but sometimes it doesn’t happen that way and we need to be careful about finger pointing,” he said.
Van Dyke also posted a personal note on Ski+RideVt’s Facebook page:
“I would venture to say that virtually all of us who love the backcountry have at some point in our lives (likely more than once) pushed the envelope a tad. Many would argue that a bit of adventure and uncertainty contributes to our enjoyment. You can put me in that group.
Almost always we make it through, head for home, have a beer and share a laugh and a good story about our adventure. Then on rare (very rare in fact) occasions, things don’t turn out so well and something like what happened last night occurs.
In the ultimate wisdom of our 20/20 hindsight could things have played out differently? Of course, but the fact is that sometimes really bad things happen to really good people in circumstances similar to where we have placed ourselves at times.
Let’s keep our thoughts and prayers with the friends and family of a fellow skier who won’t have an opportunity to play another day in our great outdoors.”
Note: This post has been updated as new information has been made available.
Featured photo: Looking at the east side of Smuggler’s Notch and the cliff bands above where the accident is believed to have occurred. Photo by Scott Braaten/Stowe Mountain Resort.