Apr 07, 2023
When Francis Zuber left his house in Bellingham, Wash., March 3 to ski his local mountain, Mt. Baker, it started out like any normal day trip. It was an easy hour and change drive, and he rolled out of the car into some easy warmup laps. But as the day progressed, it became increasingly clear that luck was on his side.
To start, he intended to meet up with a friend, but only made loose plans beyond knowing they were both riding that day. Against all mountain odds, his friend spotted him on his first lap (let’s be real, that never happens on a crowded Friday).
As the day progressed, the duo worked their way over to an out-of-bounds territory off Chair 8. Being experienced skiers and avy certified, they were comfortable in the terrain and had the proper safety gear, Francis let his buddy go first and chose to follow his line.
About a minute in—which Francis said was well before the “exciting part of the line” even—something caught his eye.
“I picked a line and I’d only been there a couple of other times, so I was going a little quicker than I would have liked through those tight trees,” he recalls. “I did a jump and had to sort of bail and reset myself. It’s a miracle that I did, because if I had come flying out of those trees, there's no chance that I would have seen a snowboard.”
The snowboard happened to be another well-versed Mt. Baker local, Ian Steger, who was the last of his group to ride the sidecountry section. Ian either got clipped by a branch or snagged something, which led to him falling upside-down in a tree well.
“I can still see in my mind's eye what I saw in that moment,” Francis explains. “It was just like this very abstract red flash. I thought it could be a couple of things in that split second—one of those lollipops ski patrol puts out or actually somebody standing up next to the tree. I thought, that was weird, so I had to take another look because it was so out of place for being out of bounds.”
That’s when Francis saw Ian’s brightly colored board wiggling a few side steps up from him, and he took action.
“It was extremely shocking, going from this moment of euphoria, of skiing deep snow,” he remembers. “Going from having the time of your life. To all of a sudden, it's like, ‘Oh, my God, I have to save this person's life right now. There's no one else coming that can help. I have to do this now.’”
From their calculations, Ian had been there 5 to 7 minutes. He had started off with an air pocket that slowly collapsed, and he could hear his riding buddies radioing for him but couldn’t reach his walkie talkie, and even if he could, Francis said they were a challenging distance away to trek back up, through deep powder, and help. All safe to say, Francis came along at the perfect moment.
Ian’s group was probably the first group of the day to make the traverse around a gully and through some trees to ride that specific area, and as the rescue played out, Francis said no one else came by. So yes, Francis had luck on his side but, even more importantly, he and Ian both agreed that they had proper mountain safety training on their side, too (as well as the proper backcountry beacon, shovel and probe kits).
“This stuff happens so frequently, and it can be a little hush hush. I think people should be talking more openly about the danger of the sport,” Francis says. “Everybody should get training if they plan to go in the back country.”
Francis said he ultimately decided to post the clip to his Instagram and YouTube to help raise awareness about the importance of proper mountain safety and riding with buddies, especially in tree sections and any out-of-bounds territory.
“The intention [was to post the video] to raise awareness around the of danger of tree wells and deep snow and how to stay safe. With the hopes that people see it and sort of reevaluate the protocols. Maybe stop skiing solo in the trees or get some avy training, whatever the case may be.”
Luckily Francis had his GoPro (a recent Christmas present from his wife!) recording almost the whole event, so he was able to share the story and raise awareness. But he did joke that as soon as he realized his camera was still rolling, his first instinct was to cut the recording. So he didn’t capture the moment Ian reconnected safely with his crew nor the inevitable connection the pair formed after a near-death experience. But that’s OK, because “there's a happy ending to the story that Ian is okay. He was uninjured and we're buddies now.”
While Francis appreciates the praise he’s received for his heroic actions, he also was quick to point out that there are professional doing this every day—we just don’t always have GoPro recordings to share.
“I want to shout out the ski patrol and search and rescue crews because they are doing this stuff all the time and certainly not getting nearly enough recognition for it.”
We’re proud to be in touch with Francis and able to grant a GoPro Award for his “Be a HERO” mentality. You are a legend, Francis!