BILLINGS - Getting out in the Montana terrain — it's something Anthony Kluesner does all the time.
The 22-year-old snowmobiler was born and raised in Lima, Montana, but now lives in Meeteetse, Wyoming.
But a late-February trip to Mount Abundance near Cooke City now has him feeling lucky to be alive.
“I had some friends come out from another state. Their favorite places to ride are in Cooke City. So we went up there for two days, Saturday and Sunday. That morning started off great,” Kluesner said. “I see this big old wide-open side hill that was untouched. I mean that was a snowmobiler's dream right there to go play on it. And we tore up that whole side hill. Just had a ball.”
On Feb. 25, Kluesner and his friends were having a day of fun snowmobiling together.
But things quickly changed when an avalanche was triggered, burying Kluesner and his Polaris in a pile of heavy, suffocating snow.
“I went over to the right and was climbing it. Did a cool backcountry move and I slipped up the side of my running board. I was trying to get the snowmobile to stop, and I was just going to go back down the bottom and try again," Kluesner said. “The next thing I knew, just dead, heavy weight was just coming over the top of me."
And while he was only buried for a short time, Kluesner said it felt like forever.
“When I was under the snow, it felt like I was under there for 2 minutes, 3 minutes. But really, it was only 10, 20 seconds I was fully buried," Kluesner said. "But just that whole not breathing, seeing nothing, it just, I think it kind of put me in shock a little bit."
According to Kluesner, while he was buried, he was in complete darkness — and he could feel his snowmobile on top of him.
“The snowmobile was on top of me. And one thing I definitely remember to this day, I think about it every day now, it was the scariest thing. I couldn’t move, breathe, or see," Kluesner said. "Snow was packing up, piling up in my helmet. And all I could do was try to swim. Try to do anything to just get up on top. That was my main goal, was to prevent getting buried.”
Luckily, Kluesner's leg was caught on his snowmobile, which he now believes saved his life.
“At some point, I think it had one more roll. The snowmobile, with it hooked up to my leg, the handlebars. I truly believe that’s what saved my life," Kluesner said. "My snowmobile pulling me out of the snow like that.”
While he was buried, Kluesner said he remained calm, knowing there were others on the mountain that could help.
“I just remember as I was buried, I was just praying for the best. Hoping it would come out good," Kluesner said. "And in the back of my mind, I knew I had a ton of people around me."
According to Kluesner, there was a group of backcountry skiers nearby that aided in rescue efforts following the avalanche.
"There was about a group of ten backcountry skiers like ten yards away. They saw the whole thing happen, and they were on top of me within a minute,” Kluesner said. “Everyone that was around me was right there on top of me. But it took them 8 minutes to dig my waist out, down to my feet.”
Kluesner said the snowpack was so heavy, he couldn't even move his legs.
"It turns into concrete you know. And you can’t move. I tried doing a wiggle and my legs were not moving," Kluesner said. "It was a weird feeling. It was just so compressed and tight."
And Kluesner believes this experience is a great reminder to always be prepared — with the right gear and training.
“Yes, avalanche trainings are expensive. But it’s worth every penny,” Kluesner said. “It’s not only for your life, but it’s also for your buddy's life. If they don’t have the training, and you go out and you climb a hill and get caught, they don’t know what to do. They might have the gear, but if they don’t have the training, then how do you know how to use the gear?”
Something avalanche experts agree with.
“If you are snowmobiling, skiing, climbing, hiking in steep terrain, it’s a good idea to go through some basic training," said Alex Marienthal, an avalanche forecaster for the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, on a video call Saturday. “The training itself is really important. If you have the gear and you’ve never practiced with it, and you don’t know how to use it, it’s less likely that it will be effective."
Marienthal said with the trainings, there are three items everyone heading into steep terrain should carry: an avalanche transceiver, a probe pole, and a shovel.
And according to Marienthal, being aware is another crucial checklist item.
“Some of those key points are visiting our website, mtavalanche.com, if you’re in the southwest Montana area. Other areas you can find avalanche forecast and conditions at avalanche.org,” Marienthal said. “Be aware of your surroundings. And one key thing with the terrain is that if you’re able to avoid being in avalanche terrain, that’s kind of your safest bet. Sometimes you might get caught off guard, or end up in a spot you’re unfamiliar with, but that’s the easiest way to avoid being caught. Is to stay off of an out-from-underneath, those slopes steeper than 30 degrees.”
While Kluesner said he was prepared, he never thought being caught in an avalanche would happen to him.
“That day I was just in the wrong spot at the wrong time. It can happen to anyone though, and that’s the scary thing. Is it can happen to anyone professionally or not. So it’s just super important to know before you go," Kluesner said. “I am truly grateful for how it ended up being. I hope the people that see that video, I hope it puts a spot in their mind saying, that’s actually the real deal.”
Kluesner said he urges others to take avalanche safety and rescue classes, and the snowmobile club he is a part of, Cody Country Snowmobile Association, offers a free 2-day training course every December.
“My local snowmobile club in Cody here puts on an avalanche class. And I started taking those, and now I’ve been taking some Level 1 certifications,” Kluesner said. “It’s nothing to mess around with really. You got to have big respect for the mountains if you’re going to go play in them.”
Kluesner said this experience won't stop him from going after his dream of becoming a professional snowmobiler. In fact, it's actually motivated him to spread awareness.
“I feel it’s going to motivate me more to push for avalanche training and safety, and just snowmobile safety in general,” Kluesner said. “It’s always been a big dream of mine to become a pro-snowmobiler. And after being in that situation, it really just put a big impact on me to motivate other people.”
While he's grateful to be alive, Kluesner wants others to remember what happened to him can happen to anybody.
"For whoever's going to watch this, see this, go get your training," Kluesner said. "Go spend the few bucks. Your snowmobile clubs put on free trainings too. Just go have fun and be safe about it.”
To learn more about the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center or to access its resources, click here.
To learn more about the Cody Country Snowmobile Association, click here.
“I just remember as soon as I saw daylight again, I just was relieved," Kluesner said. "And just like, ‘Holy crap, did that just happen?’”