On Thursday, January 28, 2021, my friend Justin Calbert died in a snow immersion incident at Dodge Ridge. What’s amazing is that he’s alive today to hear and tell the story. Justin is a 38-year-old snowboarder who has spent his entire life at Dodge Ridge. He is one of the most talented and strongest riders I know and is very strong and fit. He really is the best rider on the mountain. He’s also an amazing human being, one who I have been privileged to know in my time at Dodge Ridge. We almost lost Justin that day, but due to quick reactions by the staff of Dodge Ridge Professional Ski Patrol and several bystanders, along with quite a bit of luck, we did not.
Dodge Ridge was hammered by a strong Mono Wind event on January 19, 2021, which I documented in a previous article for SnowBrains. The mountain was due to open again on January 28, 2021, after a strong storm dropped several feet of snow on the Central Sierra resort in the days prior. Conditions were very deep, and the Mountain Operations and Ski Patrol staff were working hard to open the mountain. Road conditions were as bad as I’ve ever seen them on my way up to Dodge Ridge and having gotten stuck behind a pair of tractors opening the road, I didn’t arrive until after the normal 9 am opening. As I pulled in to park I saw Justin getting ready, along with quite a few other friends.
It was clear that Chair 3, the main chair off the base area, was not ready to load and it might be a while before we could load. So rather than wait in line with the crowd, I decided to skin to the top of the mountain, as I often do. Justin and his wife Casey are also frequent early morning hikers. In fact, I’d spent the morning of New Year’s Day at the top of a run before the mountain opened with Justin and his wife Casey and other friends. It was a quiet and snowy walk to the top of the mountain, and I was pleased to have avoided the powder fever chaos.
Meanwhile, Dodge Ridge Ski Patrol, along with several bystanders, were trying to save Justin’s life. As usual, Justin was one of the first people in line. He and Casey are often in line early to get first chair. Casey was having some trouble with her ski bindings, so she decided to take an easier run in to the shop to have them adjusted, while Justin dropped under Chair 3 to hit the Face Rock, a popular drop right under the chair that he has hit many times over the years.
In full view of the crowd on the chair, Justin scraped rock as he went over the edge and augered in headfirst into the deep snow. He was seen struggling to escape, with only the bottom of his board visible, and his head deep underwater. Folks on the chair started yelling to get the attention of other skiers and riders on the snow so they could go help Justin. Josh Emmons, ex-Dodge Ridge Ski Patroller, photographed Justin struggling as he flew over in the chair.
16-year-old skier Ben Ronnenberg was one of the first to reach Justin, and he, along with off-duty firefighter Jerad Heinrich and his brother-in-law Brock Dejong tried to extricate Justin and start CPR. Justin was under the snow for 15-20 minutes, and was pulseless and not breathing when he was found. Dodge Ridge Professional Ski Patrol staff soon arrived and took over the rescue and medical efforts.
Dodge Ridge Ski Patrol Director Carl Richter, Risk Manager / Patroller Russell Phillips, along with Patrollers Matt Michaels, Trevor Sandberg, and Chris Vasquez cleared Justin’s airway, extricated him from the snow, performed CPR, and transported him in a toboggan to the First Aid Room under very difficult conditions. Their efforts at immediate and effective CPR were the start of the chain of survival for Justin. Having been on the staff at Dodge Ridge for 10 years, I am quite proud of my friends’ efforts to save our friend.
Doctor Cody Andersen, an ER doctor at Adventist Health Sonora, and a co-worker of Casey was a witness to the incident. He followed Justin into the First Aid Room and assisted with his care, going so far as to ride in the ambulance with him from Dodge Ridge. Ambulance transportation was difficult that day, with very bad road conditions. Tuolumne County paramedic Nick Zavodo and his partner Jeremey Johnson transported Justin down the hill where they met PHI Helicopter Med 4-1 for a flight to Doctor’s Medical Center in Modesto, CA.
Justin was sedated, intubated, and evaluated and monitored at Doctor’s Medical Center. CT scans revealed that he had suffered no apparent brain damage, and he was moved from the ICU to a Medical unit. Justin had no idea what had happened when he regained consciousness but quickly improved. After a few days in the hospital and several tests, he was given a clean bill of health and sent home on Sunday, January 31, 2021.
Justin has no recollection of the incident. He remembers the time leading up to the incident but not what happened. He woke up in the hospital hooked up to monitors wondering just what the hell was going on. He credits not only the efforts of everyone involved, and the fortunate circumstances that made the situation as good as it could have been, but also his health, fitness, and strength. As an EMT and patroller for over 25 years, there is no scenario I can build in my mind that ends up with Justin walking around ok. But here he is, alive and kicking and ready to get back out and make some turns. Justin says:
There’s an old saying that many of you skiers and snowboarders have heard “there’s no friends on a powder day.” We’ll I’m here to tell you that’s not true. On Thursday, January 28th I was snowboarding solo at Dodge Ridge. It was a deep day! The ones you dream about. From what I’ve been told, I was jumping off the Face Rock and After landing, became totally submerged. Some reports say it was almost 20 minutes before someone got to me. If it wasn’t for the quick response of a near by skier, and the Dodge Ridge Ski Patrol, I would not be here today. If I can say anything about my experience, it’s to always ski with a buddy. Your life might depend on. I was lucky, but there are numerous accounts of other who were not. Please be safe out there.