I got caught in an avalanche and lived to talk about it.
I don’t remember if it was Nietzsche or somebody else who said it. But the quote goes: Physical exertion is the fastest way to fraternization.
That definitely holds true in an avalanche.
If I had to boil down what I took from the experience, it would be reduced to the importance of surrounding yourself with great people. That applies to all aspects of life. But when you trust your safety — and even your life – to the people you’re skiing with in the backcountry, you’re creating a bond that goes beyond friendship.
I’d skied with these two buddies for years. Call them Joe and Pete. Joe’s a passionate recreational athlete who’s on the slopes a hundred days a year. Pete was a ski guide in Alaska for a long time and he’s had a lot of experience in the mountains. We all live in Jackson Hole, and reached a point where we could communicate without saying much because when we did talk we could finish each other’s sentences.
In the backcountry, all the decisions that you make are based on the conditions that you see, the conditions that have been present, the wind, the temperature, snowfall, and the comfort level of the group. If one of us feels leery, the others trust what he’s saying, and we all back off and come back another day.
But there are days when things look good and feel good, and you just happen to be on the other side of luck.
The reality is, unless you’re at home in your recliner, there is always some danger to being in the backcountry of the mountains.
This was backcountry in the northwest of the national forest in the Tetons, in Wyoming, around Christmas of 2009.
I was in my late twenties at that point, and had lived in the area for about five years, so when I awoke that morning there was no way to look at it as my first rodeo. I worked as a professional mountain guide in the Tetons with the nation’s oldest mountain guiding service – Exum Mountain Guides. Thousands upon thousands of hours and days in the mountains had led up to this point. I was pretty much at home, and very comfortable with the terrain we were skiing on.
But still, it’s different from going to ski in an area where patrollers use explosives and snow cats to create avalanches that control the terrain and make it safe.
We’d received some new snow the previous night that was somewhat heavy, and the snow underneath it was very light. So think of placing a sheet of plywood over a bunch of ball bearings. If it’s firm at the top and loose underneath, it can easily slide.
We’d been warned that the conditions created the potential for an avalanche, but we’d done our research, and all of us were very comfortable on the terrain. In our judgment, we’d be able to mitigate the danger.
The run itself was probably 2,000 feet down the flank of the mountain. Pristine powder snow, on steep terrain, with big rock walls. The slope we were going to ski on was about a perfect 40-degree pitch. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it an aphrodisiac, but for a skier the conditions were quite inviting. Ideal, really.
There were two skiers ahead of us. They went down the same run without any problems, and then it was our turn.
It was Joe’s birthday, and we decided he’d go first.
“Be safe,” I said.
“Have fun,” Pete added with a grin.
Joe pointed his ski tips downhill and gravity took him away. He was arcing big turns at about 40 miles an hour, leaving behind a signature carve on the side of the mountain that looked like a snake when viewed from above. As he began to reach the bottom, the slope angle decreased and he scooted out into the flats, eventually coming to a stop in a safe zone. Looked like a great run.
You let each other know that everything’s okay through a walkie-talkie or hand signals. Two arms straight up in the air means you’re good to go. Crossing your arms in a big “X” above your head means stop. The idea is to go down the mountain leapfrogging past each other. My run takes me past Joe and ends in another safe zone. And then Pete goes down past me, all the way . . .
Joe let us know that all was clear and off I went. It’s a meditative moment – really all about being in the moment. When you get to a point of excellence in writing or skiing or climbing, you’re not really thinking, you’re allowing your body’s muscle memories to take over and you react to the terrain. It’s almost like you become an observer of the activity and just let your intuition guide the physical moments. I imagine it’s the same way for a ballet dancer, painter or sculptor. The stress of life falls away and you’re very present. Right then, right there. Nothing else matters. Like so many times before.
But on the first turn came a sound I’d never heard before.
Then the slope just collapsed, just gave way underneath me and these big slabs of snow the size of a Volkswagon bus came tumbling down.
I couldn’t ski on top of the snow because of the rate it was moving down the slope. I was being overtaken by these massive blocks of snow and pulled underneath, literally taken for a ride.
My instincts told me immediately: This is an avalanche.
My second thought was: Am I going to be killed?
And my third was: Fight. Fight hard. Try to get to the surface. Then, as it slows down, swim towards the top of the snow and thrust your hand up.
If I could poke my hand out above the snow, my ski partners might be able to see where I was buried.
It felt like I was going down river rapids on my back – only the river was snow. I was just trying to tread water, to stay on top, as these rapids carried me away.
I was very aware of my situation. There just wasn’t much I could do about it with thousands of pounds of snow moving around me.
What set it off? Might have been my weight. I’m 6-foot-4, about 195, a little heavier than any of the three people who’d gone down ahead of me. Or perhaps I hit a weak spot that was the straw to break the camel’s back.
Or maybe it was the fact that three people had weakened the snowpack before me. Regardless, there was nothing that could be done about it. It didn’t matter. I was in it.
It turned quite violent, like what surfers feel when they wipe out, getting tumbled and tossed as if they’re in a washing machine, when they’re not even able to figure out which way is up.
My poles got knocked away. My goggles. My hat. I couldn’t tell how far I was going. You know how in the movies you see a guy running on a bridge that’s getting blown up behind him? Then you have an idea how it felt. You just don’t know if you’re going to make it.
Finally, the force of the avalanche began to slow. I focused on punching my hand up through the snow the moment before I stopped. But I had no idea if I could get it above the snow, or how it might look from above the surface.
The best hope you have in this situation is the avalanche beacons that backcountry skiers use that are strapped to our chests. The beacons are radio-transmitting devices about the size of a cellphone. When we’re skiing together, each of us is sending out a signal. But if one person gets buried, the other members of the team switch from send mode to search, and their devices flip over to look for the buried person’s signal.
The beacons have a digital screen with an arrow on it pointing to the signal, a readout of the numerical distance in meters, and an audible beep to let you know you’re getting closer. The closer you get, the faster it beeps. These signals will lead to within 3-5 feet of the sender.
As soon as this avalanche started, my partners kept their focus on me to mark their last visual. Then they flipped their avalanche beacons so they could locate me underneath the snow.
That sounds encouraging, but there’s no guarantee that the searchers can find you before you suffocate. I mean, how long can you hold your breath?
About two minutes if you’re relaxed on the surface of your bathtub.
Now, imagine getting jumbled, huffing and puffing, then wrestling with someone, and then holding your breath.
The questions running through your head are very simple:
Will I get a deep enough breath of air?
Can I create some sort of air pocket underneath the snow that will allow me to hold on for a little bit longer?
Or am I going to be asphyxiated?
As the avalanche came to a halt I punched one hand up. I had no idea how it looked from above or if anyone could see it. But fortunately, the fingertips of my leather glove were sticking out of the snow.
As soon as I came to a stop all of the snow around me began to consolidate and freeze together. I had snow pushed down my mouth to about my Adam’s Apple — frozen solid. And these big cones of ice were stuffed up my nose. I did have a little air pocket, but I was choking.
My partners skied in my direction. I didn’t realize it during the avalanche, but I had passed Joe on the way down. I knew that Pete could come down toward me. But I had no idea if Joe had been overtaken by the avalanche. I couldn’t yell. I couldn’t even talk. I couldn’t fucking breathe. All I could muster was a helpless muffled whimper. Fuck.
So I was buried in black with my fingertips poking out of the ground, trying to preserve my energy like a surfer under water. I told myself to relax and stay calm. Breathe. You got this. But the more time passed, the more I knew I was in trouble – and minutes were passing.
Finally, I could hear one of the avalanche beacons. The closer it got, the faster the sound came.
Beep. . . …..Beep . . . Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.Beep.Beep.BeepBeep. Beeeeeeeeeeeeeep.
I knew I would be found. I just wasn’t sure how fast. I didn’t know if my glove could be seen, and the beacons are only accurate to within 3-5 feet. What if Pete was five feet away and he dug in the wrong direction? All I could do was hold on to whatever air I had left. Zen-mode ASAP.
Then I heard them starting to dig. We travel with these big collapsible poles in our backpack called avalanche probes. We also carry metal shovels. The digging got closer and closer. It felt like I’d been under the snow for somewhere between three to five minutes. Get out a watch and try to hold your breath for a minute. That panic feeling at the end? Yeah, like that . . .
All of a sudden I saw light. Then, Pete’s face.
In that moment I realized I was going to live. But my next thought was: What about Joe? Had he been caught in the avalanche? Am I going to end up surviving this crazy experience having killed one of my friends?
Then I saw Joe’s face. I had gone past him unknowingly while I was in the washing machine. Hundreds of feet past him, actually, as he watched helplessly from a safe zone. What a sight for him. Seeing his face was a huge relief.
My focus went straight to what felt like a hockey puck in my mouth. I was gagging on this block of ice, and as soon as my upper body was freed, I reached into my mouth with my pointer finger and my thumb and pulled it out. Then I pulled out the ice cones that were forced up my nostrils.
I looked up at Joe, and the next thing that came out of my mouth was: “Holy shit am I glad to see you! Happy birthday!”
None of my bones were broken. But as they dug me out, I saw that I had fileted my left knee. The skin was peeled back like the rind of a grapefruit and I was basically staring at my kneecap, the attached tendons and ligaments. I don’t know why my knee wasn’t bleeding intensely. It was like somebody had taken a machete and hacked into me with surgical precision.
Joe pulled a gauze pad from his first aid and put it over my knee. My buddies taped over it and then Pete pulled his bandana off and tied it over the gauze and the tape. We still had a long way to go. We were 4,000 feet above the valley floor. Shit, now what?
The skis had remained on my feet the whole time, so I used a combo of hobbling and skiing to get off the mountain and back to our car.
I think I experienced some form of compensatory shock at the hospital while I was getting stitched up. I was really cold and shivering under three or four heated blankets while the nurse stood there in only her lightweight scrubs, and that’s when the trauma from the experience must’ve kicked in. The doctors put in 30 stitches, and we headed home.
That night, I had a meal with my girlfriend. I remember feeling two emotions simultaneously. I was physically and mentally exhausted, and very humbled.
The next few times I went out skiing I had an overwhelming feeling of general anxiety that I only learned to keep in check through repeated exposure. But the humbleness never went away. I’m more thankful and grateful now than I ever was before the avalanche – for everything.
Had I not chosen to be with those two guys on that day, I might not be around to talk about it. And my friends are not shy of reminding me.
Occasionally, when we’re in a bar, Joe will say: “Hey, remember that time? . . . ”
And then Pete will interrupt: “Yeah, I think you should buy us a round . . . ”
Who can argue with friends like that?