Brock Crouch has learned a lot since surviving an avalanche almost two years ago. Getting back to doing big tricks on his snowboard is only a small part of it.
A California native, Crouch grew up surfing, and upon discovering a love for snowboarding, quickly climbed up the professional ranks. By age 13, he was a top contender in slopestyle, the judged competition in which athletes launch themselves off a series of large jumps and rails. By 2017, he was competing in the X Games.
But in April 2018, Crouch, then 18, was heliboarding — snowboarding on avalanche-prone slopes after being dropped off by a helicopter — on the high, wild peaks outside of Whistler, British Columbia, with a group of friends and a film crew.
He was standing atop a steep, narrow chute, looking over what he thought was a 10- or 15-foot cliff. It turned out to be a massive cornice, an enormous blanket of snow folded over the chute. He was still planning where to point his board for a 1,500-foot vertical journey between rock faces when a more violent sort of journey suddenly enveloped him.
Accompanied by what sounded like a thunder crack, the ground beneath him broke away and Crouch went tumbling down the slope amid a gushing torrent of snow and boulders. The helicopter pilot flew along the slide down the chute, alerting the crew to the spot where Crouch had been buried. Following the slide path, his friends used tracking devices to find him and dig him out.
Crouch was buried for about five minutes. When a friend got to him and fished snow out of his mouth so he could breathe, Crouch bit his hand.
Crouch’s back was broken. His pancreas was ruptured, and the bone between his nose and mouth shattered. All of his front teeth had been knocked out. One of his eyes was swollen shut, apparently from slamming his knee into his face while tumbling. But he was alive.
He recalls that one of his first thoughts was wondering if he would walk again, much less snowboard, much less resume a career of flying off jumps and cliffs.
Crouch put himself on the fast track to recovery. “I was walking with a cane to the gym two and a half weeks after the avalanche,” he said. “I wanted to get better as soon as I possibly could.”
That meant long, long hours in the gym, extensive physical therapy, endless doctor’s appointments and 28 dental procedures. After less than seven months, Crouch was healthy enough to get back on his board. The first thing he wanted to do was head once again to the unpredictable slopes of the backcountry.
“After my accident, me and my dad were talking one day,” Crouch said. “He was like, ‘Hey, here’s a time for deciding what you want to do.’ I decided if I don’t go film in the backcountry, I’ll probably be very timid from it for the rest of my life.”
Crouch armed himself with as many tools as he could before re-entering avalanche country.
“What I did was go and get my first aid, did a bunch of avalanche courses, and started taking things a lot more seriously,” he said.
He spent most of last winter filming on steep slopes outside of ski area boundaries. There were some demons to overcome, but none in the form of deadly sliding snow.
“In Tahoe was when it really started kicking in again,” he said of his nerves. “We were riding big lines and it was springtime. The crew I had with me helped me through a lot of stuff. Every time I’m out in the backcountry and I see a cornice, I think of that day and what happened. But the only thing you can really do is move on and keep looking forward and trying to progress.”
Back on the competition circuit this season at age 20, Crouch has progressed. Twenty months after the avalanche incident, he is riding better than ever. In the Winter X Games in January, he just missed the podium, finishing fourth. Earlier this month at a Dew Tour event, Crouch was second, beaten only by one of his best friends, the Olympic gold medalist Red Gerard. Crouch ranks the experience among the best in his life, and Gerard said it marked a huge step for his friend, and for their sport.
“For a while there, we weren’t seeing Brock at contests,” Gerard said. “It was such a long recovery for him, and his old tricks were really scary. The X Games and Dew Tour were surprising to me, really exciting to see that he made his way back to doing some of his old tricks, that he had gotten over his fear. You could see he was getting over that hump. He was on it. It’s exciting to see him back.”
This week, Crouch and Gerard are back in avalanche territory outside of Jackson Hole, Wyo., spending their days snowboarding avalanche zones and filming before competing in the last major contest of the season, the Burton U.S. Open. Crouch is going into it as he does all things these days, physically stronger and mentally transformed.
“When an accident like that happens to people, it changes their life drastically,” he said. “For me, it changed in a very good way. I’m a lot more serious now about my physical health, trying to take care of my body as much as I possibly can, eating healthy and even treating my friends the right way.”
Yes, he is more cognizant of avalanche dangers, but he is also more mindful of the world around him in general, and believes a mortality check could benefit anyone.
“I feel for people in this world who haven’t had something like that,” he said. “Sometimes even hearing the way my friends talk to their moms or something like that, I’m like, ‘Dude, what are you saying?’ I feel like knowing your life can be taken at any second really changes everything. It definitely changed my life a lot. It made me a better human.”