Survival on the Spur
Richard Nichols’ wreck off the mountain
It was a Hail Mary moment for Richard Nichols as he sailed off Lone Mountain Trail. He saw a tree, knew that was where he was going to land, crossed his arms over his chest and braced for impact.
It was around 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 8 when he was driving to his job in mountain operations at Big Sky Resort. He believes the wheels of his Chevy Suburban caught a patch of ice.
"I was in total control, I had four wheel drive, had my seatbelt on," he said. "Then, all of the sudden [the vehicle] went up into the bank on the right side going up the mountain and I was like, 'Okay cool, not totally a disaster,' and then it spat me back out and as soon as I saw the guardrail coming at me I was like, 'Well, that's it – I'd better hold on.'"
“Two tons of steel at 50 miles per hour,” he said regarding the weight and trajectory of his SUV – the guardrail split like aluminum foil. The Suburban saved him, he said.
Terry Morrison, President of the Montana Tow Truck Association, traffic incident instructor and owner of Mister T’s Towing and Repair – the company that ultimately fished Nichols’ vehicle out of the mountainside said the Suburban went down 60 feet, since his tow truck had 60 feet of line out.
“When he drops the line, he gets an accurate footing,” Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Cody Ruane said, explaining that he estimates by looking.
Nichols crawled out of the wreckage and is thankful for the tree. Without it, his outcome may not have been as good.
“I’d say [Nichols] was lucky to hit the tree, sometimes they can be a good saving element,” Trooper Ruane said.
“The only thing that kept that guy from going down further is the tree that he hit,” he said. He pointed out that Nichols’ did things correctly. He kept his wheel straight and did not try to turn, which could have sent his car into a tumble.
“In the wintertime because of the road conditions, the speeds are not as great, so typically the accidents are not high speed accidents. In the summer time the speeds are so much greater and the accidents are way more violent,” Morrison said.
There was not a scratch on Nichols. Aside from the terror of the incident, the only other uncomfortable moment for him during the day was a 45 minute conversation with his concerned mother. She knew something was wrong because of the time of day that he called.
“She knows – mama always knows,” he said. “There was a time – I was kind of like a problem kid back in the day and if the phone would ring at a certain time of day she would just pick it up: ‘What did he do now?’”
By that evening, he was regaling the tale with his relieved father by his side.
Whether to credit a miracle or the result of physics with a few dashes of luck thrown in – he is happy to be alive.
“It’s a Christmas miracle!” His friend Mandi Dibble said.
Nichols surfaced from the wreckage easily, but the recovery of the vehicle was an intense dance of collaboration and physics. Due to the steepness and the snow conditions, the vehicle had to be brought up in a specific spot and through the same hole made in the guardrail, Morrison explained. A slew of traffic control signs were brought up with some positioned a mile in each direction to try to prevent a secondary collision.
A flagger was in place to control traffic and two tow trucks were used to bring it up. Most of the time, they only blocked one lane.
“We had to block the whole road for 10 minutes only, to get it through the guardrail and on the tow truck. That takes a lot of coordination with traffic control and you have to work as a team,” he said.
They let traffic flow up the hill freely because they “didn’t want the busses to get stuck and spin out,” which would have been a bigger mess, Morrision said.
“We controlled traffic going down the hill. It didn’t get out of hand until 4 p.m. when skiers came down the hill,” he said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, 24% of weather-related vehicle crashes occur on snowy, slushy or icy pavement and 15% happen during snowfall or sleet annually.