After an avalanche in the Austrian Alps engulfed skiers on Christmas day, the quick action of several area teens aided in the search for survivors.
When the Gottmann family from Malta, and the Osterhout’s from Broadlalbin, arrived at the small, quiet town of Stuben in the middle of Austria’s largest lift-linked ski area – the Arlberg, they were in high spirits.
Known for its excellent snow conditions, it was the Gottmann’s third time visiting the mountainous region. After checking-in to the Chesa Lavadina on Christmas Eve, they were on the slopes by 9 a.m. on Christmas Day.
The weather was unseasonably warm following days of heavy snowfall, and in Zurs, the avalanche rating was high. The familiar warning was a common occurrence for the ski area, which, because of their careful grooming, hadn’t experienced an on-trail avalanche for 50 years.
“We knew about the avalanche warnings but were not anticipating anything happening. We weren’t too worried,” said Erik Gottmann.
“The weather made it unstable so there were not a lot of people going backcountry skiing in the unpatrolled area,” said Kristen Gottmann.
The family learned later that the ski resort tried to break free precarious snow from the mountaintop with dynamite that morning but was unsuccessful.
After lunch, the children; Erik Gottmann, 19, Troy Gottmann, 17, Hans Gottmann, 15, and Tyler Osterhout, 16, said goodbye to their parents and boarded a separate lift up Trittkopf mountain. Just before 3 p.m., they stopped on the slope and took some pictures. That’s when the extraordinary happened.
“It first started with a little snow sliding down the mountain. It was not too crazy. It was pretty silent. Then, there were the screams,” said Erik.
Beginning at 2:51 p.m., a torrent of snow released just 100 yards from where the boys were standing. Troy caught the deluge on video. In just 10 seconds, mounds of heavy, wet snow tumbled 500 yards toward nearby ski runs burying skiers.
“We just said, ‘we’ve got to go help those people, see if people are ok, and if not, help them,” said Erik.
On another lift, Kristen wasn’t aware anything unusual had happened until she received a call.
“My son, Troy was really panting and said, ‘There’s been an avalanche. We’re all ok. We’re all ok.’” The next thing Kristen heard was, “We’re going to go help,’” before the phone lost connection.
The first man the boys found was buried up to his neck. A handful of people gathered around him quickly, using their gloved hands to dig him out from the snow.
“He was in a good amount of pain. He’d cut his pinky and was swearing in German,” said Erik. All the Gottmann’s have a grasp of basic German and were able to decipher that he wasn’t able to feel his legs.
“Obviously, something was wrong.”
A Group Effort
Within 10 minutes, the paramedics were on-site and the ski patrol began their search. Based on Troy’s video, 10 people appeared to have been engulfed by the cascading snow. As many as 200 people joined in the rescue, scouring the path of the avalanche with poles, searching for broken skis, helmets, and goggles – any clues they could find indicating the whereabouts of the missing skiers.
Hours passed and Kristen was only able to speak with her children intermittently. After receiving the initial call, they had a tough ski down the slope. Then they ran the two or three blocks to where their children were expected to emerge but didn’t.
“By this time, we were frantic. I just wanted to know they were safe,” said Kristen. A triage station had been set up and she’d seen five or six helicopters fly by overhead. They brought in rescue dogs. Then, around 6 p.m., it started getting dark and search lights were set up.
“After the initial findings, we felt like it was our obligation to continue to help,” said Erik, a sophomore at the Virginia Military Institute. “We just thought it was the right thing to do. Obviously, it was pretty scary but most people would do the same thing as long as they have some kind of heart.”
At the base of the mountain, the families were finally reunited and, once the road reopened, returned to their cozy bed and breakfast. It was there they heard the local news was calling the rescuers the “Heroes of Zurs.”
“I’m proud of my boys for doing the right thing. Other people came across it and skied away,” added Kristen.
Hitting the Slopes (Again)
Rather than being deterred by the incident, the local group remained in the high alpine region and returned to the slopes with a healthier respect for Mother Nature’s immense power.
“You never know what’s over that next hill, so when you experience something like this, you take note of the unintended consequences,” said Erik. He also added how thankful he is for everyone who helped out after the avalanche but may not be receiving recognition for their heroic actions.
Every skier feared lost has now been accounted for. The avalanche resulted in four injuries, one considered serious, and several run closures, which have now been reopened. In addition to being vital to their search efforts, Troy’s video has aired on numerous national and international news outlets. The local families returned home on New Year’s Day and only then learned how far the story had spread and the full impact of their quick actions.