Never have I fought so hard to suppress the overwhelming urge to panic. Before I realized what I was doing, I heard my own muffled screaming. I told myself to calm down. Again, I realized I was screaming. A few deep breaths later, I gained a small measure of composure. I had my left hand free and was able to move it enough to clear the snow from in front of my face. My sweeping motions were slow and awkward, but I kept working at it. I quickly realized that I would survive, though it might take me a few hours to extricate myself. My thoughts suddenly turned to my ski partner. What if he was buried as well? There was no way I would be free soon enough to find him alive. Could this really be happening?
The story of our avalanche accident really begins days earlier. It was December, and we were faced with a weak and uncharacteristically shallow snowpack in our local mountains, the likes of which many of us had never experienced in the Northwest. We had a classic shallow, faceted base and very limited terrain options for skiing. On the positive side, the shallow pack had no distinct layer formations or overlying slab. However, the snow scenario changed quickly in late December when a big storm cycle began to deliver new snow accompanied by warming temperatures and strong winds to really seal the deal. Now, the snowpack resembled the proverbial house of cards. Further complicating the situation was an uncharacteristic lack of snow at lower elevations that eliminated more modest ski objectives.
The arrival of the storm cycle coincided with the Christmas holiday, and we were faced with a perfect storm of factors to take us to our story. People had free time, new toys, visiting friends and a strong desire to get out and ski for the first time all year. These human factors, combined with the shallow snowpack and reduced ski terrain, put everyone on the same limited terrain options, none of which were really very good objectives given the high level of hazard the new snow brought with it. Subsequently, two independent avalanche incidents rocked the local backcountry ski community on December 28, and a third incident in a nearby area claimed the life of a snowmobiler.
The first avalanche accident involved a group of highly experienced skiers. A lack of solid communication led to a skier venturing onto a questionable slope that ultimately fractured the full width of the bowl and slid to the ground. While the skier who triggered the slab and the rest of his group escaped without harm, the slide debris hit a party lower in the drainage that was following their uptrack. The party that triggered the slide had no idea anyone was below them and, fortunately, no one was hurt.
Meanwhile, a few miles away, another group made up of several independent parties was touring in what is commonly considered to be some of the safest high-elevation terrain available in our area. Again, the uppermost party triggered an avalanche. This time the slide carried a skier over cliffs, breaking his ankle and scattering his equipment. The skier was fortunate to escape with modest injuries but, again, the slide debris hit a lower party. As luck would have it, no one from the lower group was buried or hurt, but one skier did lose a ski to the debris pile. It is with the loss of this ski that our story begins.
Having had the good sense to stay home on the December 28, I heard all the tales of excitement and near misses that evening. While heading out to ski seemed out of the question, my friend Dave and I thought we might just go up and try to locate the ski lost by the party hit with the debris. The ski happened to be a brand new demo board belonging to my guide service. The guide of the party who lost the ski thought that we had a good shot at locating the ski if we had a metal detector. Dave and I decided to go look for the ski before it became buried for the season. We knew the hazard was still high, but thinking that the path had run the day before, we figured that we could reasonably search the debris and, hopefully, find the lost ski. We spoke about the prospect of getting in some turns and quickly agreed that, given the conditions, skiing wasn’t even worth thinking about. We resigned ourselves to a search mission to investigate the debris from the previous day’s slide.
Following a routine snowmobile ride up the access road to the trailhead area, we put on skis and set an extremely cautious uptrack through mature timber in the valley bottom. We stayed well away from runout zones and spread out when anywhere near a potential slide path. When we arrived at the scene, we designated a safe location on a treed rib where Dave set up as spotter, and I began to search the debris zone with the metal detector. We both worked in our skis, skins on, bindings locked in tour mode. Up to this point, we saw no obvious red flags – no cracking, whoompfing or natural avalanche activity. We still played things very conservatively since the weather was nasty. It was snowing hard – between one and two inches per hour at times – and we could hear the winds nuking above us. We paused a few times to make sure the sound of the wind howling wasn’t a slide rumbling from above.
As I searched lower and lower in the debris with no luck, we decided to switch places. Dave began searching the lower debris zone while I assumed the role of spotter. As Dave moved the search lower and eventually below the debris, I too moved downhill in an effort to maintain voice contact. Moving down our safe rib brought me onto a part of the rib where it began to fan out and, in hindsight, did not offer as much protection as our original safe zone. At this point, Dave was below the tip of the debris from the day before and, without discussing it aloud, we both later agreed that we had felt any natural slide that could release would not run past the previous day’s debris zone.
The remaining text alternates between Larry’s and Dave’s perspectives.
Then it happened. I heard something. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it was enough for me to yell, “Dave, why don’t you get yourself out of there,” since he was in the gut of the runout. Dave, still in skis, began hustling over to safer terrain when I heard it loud and clear. I remember thinking, “Holy shit, this thing is big.” I turned to look up the slope and saw something that will haunt me for the rest of my days. It was a powder cloud rushing down toward me at an alarming rate. (It should be noted that because of the weather, we could not see up into the starting zone of the slide path all day).
I grabbed the nearest tree I could find, a sapling at best. I felt the wind and then the debris hit me. It pulled me off the tree, but it wasn’t too powerful. I felt like, “O.K., this is going to be alright.” I was on the surface when I stopped and heard Dave yell my name. I yelled to him, and we confirmed that we were okay. A split second later I was hit in the back by a force much stronger than anything I have ever experienced. This time I remember thinking, “This might not be okay.” I was going wherever this thing wanted to take me. Headed for some smaller trees, I tried to stop myself by putting my skis out against the trunks. My skis were still locked in tour mode, complete with skins attached. Then it got dark. I was still moving and was amazed at how completely I was enveloped in the mass of snow. I remember having the thought, “I can’t believe it’s going to end like this.” As I felt it slow, I began to try to reach for the surface. I could tell my hand was free, even though I couldn’t see it. The panic was like nothing I have ever known. I quickly began to try to sweep snow away from my face. It was a slow process, but after a moment or two, I realized I was going to live. My position was extremely uncomfortable, and I felt very compromised. I was face down, head uphill, with my feet tucked under me in a modified squatting position. My toes were pointed away from each other and, while I wasn’t sure, I thought my skis were still on.
I knew as soon as I heard the noise that it was not just the wind. I turned and began shuffling out of the runout zone as I heard Larry yelling to me. I looked uphill and instantly began to run, quite literally, for my life. The powder cloud bearing down on us confirmed my fears. It was right out of a movie and barreling down on us. It was obvious that I was not going to be able to run clear of the path and I grabbed the nearest tree. It was barely taller than me, but it was all I had. Irrational thoughts that this could not be happening whizzed through my head while the force of the slide ripped me from the tree and sent me tumbling downhill. I stopped, realized I was on the surface and immediately opened my eyes and looked for Larry. We made voice contact, and I glimpsed his orange jacket through the blowing snow, my heart racing, but my mind calmed by seeing him. Then it hit again. My body spun, and I was pushed headfirst downhill, skis still locked to my boots. I remember thinking “this is not good. I need to spin around.” And then I stopped. Again, I found myself on the surface. I had been flushed out the side of the debris flow. This time, however, Larry did not respond to my calls for his name. My heart was pounding and my mind raced as I tried to grasp what was happening. Without fully processing the moment, I pulled out my beacon, switched to receive and saw eight meters on the digital display. My beacon counted down as I moved and the signal grew stronger. The display read two meters, and as I scanned the area I saw Larry’s hand rise out of the snow beside a cluster of small trees. The arm moved; I dropped to my knees and began clearing away snow with my hands. As I worked to clear out around Larry’s head, I realized that I did not have my pack, which had my shovel. I had left it, along with my companion rescue gear, back on the rib where we had initially established our safe zone.
Seconds after I realized that I was not fully entombed, Dave appeared, sweeping snow away from in front of my face. Dave’s almost immediate arrival brought with it a profound sense of relief; it was a mixture of knowing that Dave was O.K. and that someone was here to help me. Dave was also quite panicked and said that he didn’t have his shovel. It was in his pack up the hill at our original spotting location. He said he was going to go get it, but I begged him not to leave me until I was further uncovered. He dug by hand and moved snow off my back, which was hyperextended. Once I had reached a more tolerable position, I agreed he should leave to get his shovel.
The energy of the moment as I initially uncovered Larry was intense. The relief that I felt in finding him alive and uninjured was quickly overwhelmed by a sense of urgency to get the hell out of the area. The time from when I initially located him until we decided to flee the scene remains a chaotic blur of activity and conversation. The chaos was enhanced by the weather, which was blowing and snowing with an intensity that seemed to rival our sense of urgency in the moment. I was further rattled by not having my shovel at hand initially. Fortunately, my pack was exactly where I had left it, sitting upright and dusted with snow, at our initial safe zone. Shovel in hand, I worked to dig Larry out.
Once Dave had his shovel, it only took a few minutes of shoveling to free my legs and boots. It was awkward to release the bindings, but I finally stood up, free of my snowy tomb. It surprised us how difficult it was to remove my skis from the debris, even with most of their length exposed. My pack and ski poles were nowhere to be seen. They had been on the ground next to where I stood when the slide hit. We spent a few minutes probing for the pack, but we were flushed with adrenaline, having a tough time calming down and thinking clearly. After a few minutes of probing for Larry’s pack, we decided to ski out.
Our desire to retreat was intense, but the trail breaking and travel was not easy. Every gust of wind felt like the powder cloud of another slide ready to bear down on us. Even in dense, mature timber I couldn’t relax. We decided our original uptrack still marked the safest and most direct route out, but we struggled to find it in our adrenaline stupor and the nuking weather. Eventually on course, we made it out to the road and our waiting snowmobile. We talked about how neither of us felt the ability to be calm and rational and how neither of us had ever wanted to get so completely out of the mountains. We were spooked just standing near any open slope. We even moved the snowmobile, which was parked in a commonly used pullout, to a safer location before loading our gear for the ride home. The ride out felt chaotic. The maelstrom of the storm and the speed of the machine just enhanced the adrenaline rush that fueled our hasty exit to safer ground.
In hindsight, although we felt we were managing the risk of the day, our biggest mistake was underestimating the terrain above us, both in scale and in its potential to produce another large-scale slide. We may not have triggered the slide like in most accidents, but we did put ourselves in its path. Between the poor visibility, the rapid loading of new snow and our underestimation of the terrain above us, we put our lives at risk. We are fortunate to have lived to learn from the experience. The first few times that we made it out skiing after the incident were more about simply getting back into the mountains, a place that until the incident had always been a place of comfort, a place to live life to its fullest. It did not take long to feel at home in the hills again, but that day in December will not be be soon forgotten.
Now, many years later, we still talk about the avalanche. It took the bulk of that winter and several debrief sessions to work through the emotions and memories of the day. We’ve even ski toured through the area together a few times over the years. Time has a way of healing memories, but the incident will forever shape our decision-making process in the mountains.
(this story first appeared in Off-Piste Mag Issue 47)