By Mark Ellis
He felt a tad uneasy when he learned his two sons planned to take their Ford Raptor to the top of Polecat Bench and snowboard off the top.
“It’s not a place where most people go snowboarding,” says Pastor Mike Walsh, senior pastor at Glad Tidings Church in Powell, Wyoming.
Because he didn’t want to be an overbearing parent, and his sons are “tough Wyoming boys who like to hunt and fish,” he backed off. He wanted them to have a day of adventure.
Son Michael, 19, works in the North Dakota oil fields on rigs that send him 125 feet into the air, sometimes in weather that dives far below freezing. Michael was home for a few days with family, and looked forward to hanging out with his younger brother, Matt, 17, his best friend. Matt is a junior at Powell High School.
Saturday, February 8th was picture-perfect, with 10-foot drifts of fluffy-looking snow scattered across The Bench. It was snow that seemed to have been there for months, with little risk of avalanche.
Normally, they would snowboard off the top together. But on this day, younger brother Matt was ready to go first and spun off the top, hurtling down the 60 degree incline, as Michael stood at the edge, preparing his gear.
“All of a sudden Michael saw the whole mountain go off. It went pop, pop, pop, pop across the top,” Pastor Mike recounts. Michael had to flip his body backward to avoid being swept over the edge himself.
When Michael got up, slightly dazed, he was enveloped in a enormous cloud, and had no idea where his brother might be. He knew, however, he was caught by the enormous avalanche, which covered an area the size of two football fields.
“He had no idea where to look,” Mike says. He realized his phone was in his truck. He wondered if he should go to truck and dial 9-1-1. Michael never felt so hopeless or helpless in his life.
Frantically, he cried out to God: “What should I do?”
Afterward, he told his father, “Dad, I’ve never heard God speak before, but I heard him there. He said, ‘Go find your brother.’ It was very clearly the voice of God.”
Michael began to work his way down the debris field, knowing every minute counted with his brother buried somewhere out of sight.
According to one of Pastor Mike’s friends who works in search and rescue as an EMT, rescuers have about seven minutes to find someone buried by an avalanche before they pass out. “In 15 minutes you’re usually dead,” he was told.
Matt’s head was buried three feet below the surface, with his body in a sitting position. Because of his hood, there was a tiny area in front of his face that was ice-free. He tried to dig upward, but the snow turned to ice. “He was cemented in. There was no way he could move. He dug up as far as he could but he couldn’t get to the surface.”
Matt began to yell, but there was no response. I’m probably going to die, he thought. Remarkably, he felt God’s peace. He remembered a prophecy given to his mother, Becky, when she was four-months pregnant with him. She had started to bleed and a doctor informed her by phone she was probably miscarrying.
That night after church, her husband brought some young people to the house and they prayed for her. One of the kids prayed, “You’re not going to lose that baby because God’s going to do great things with him.” The bleeding stopped and Matt was born five months later, completely healthy.
As Matt remembered the prayer, he knew he was in God’s hands, ultimately.
As Michael ran down toward the bottom of the avalanche, chunks of snow the size of his truck were still coming down around him. There was no sign of his brother and he had no idea where he was. He yelled for him, but heard only silence.
Out of an area about 100 yards by 200 yards, Michael happened to step on the exact spot was his brother was entombed. His boot sunk down into a depression the size of a baseball.
A tiny hole opened and he heard faintly, “Mike, I’m OK. Mike, I’m alright.”
God guided Michael to the exact spot in the vast debris field and he was standing right on top of Matt!
Frantically, he began to dig, until Matt’s head emerged from the icy encasement. Using only his hands, it took Michael about 30 minutes to completely free his brother from the snow, much of which was frozen like concrete.
“When I found him, I broke down and cried,” Michael said later. “I was so happy; the fear and heartache I
experienced were gone.”
During the rescue, sections of the mountain continued to collapse. When they returned the following day, the rest of the ridge had collapsed, burying the entire area under several additional feet of snow.
The Walsh family gathered that night to praise God.
“Matt should have died,” Pastor Mike says. “The only reason he was found is that God did it,” he says.
“I know it was a miracle. There is no doubt in my mind.”