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It has taken me a couple of days to decide that I need to tell the story that nearly ended all my story telling. My first thought was that I didn't want to call attention to myself, especially for something that could have had such a hugely negative impact. Then I realized that I personally really needed to process it, but more, that other people I know and especially the young ones might benefit from knowing how something like this could happen.
We came up to Montezuma, above Keystone, on a Friday night to take advantage of an opportunity to stay the weekend at the beautiful, rustic cabin of some friends. It would be a ski weekend, with downhill scheduled at "A-Basin" on Saturday and a back country tour on Sunday. After a full first day on the downhill slopes, we had a nice dinner and went to bed early so as to be ready for a good start Sunday morning. Our troop included my mountain man mentor, Bill, and my friends Elaine and Jami. My wife Joy was sick and unable to make the trip and Elaine's husband Ken and son Luke did not fancy themselves as back country skiers.
It was a beautiful sunny morning as me headed up the easy, gentle slope of the Peru Creek trail, gliding on top of about three inches of newly fallen powder. We skied past a couple of cabins nestled into healthy stands of Engelmann spruce. Our elevation at the trail head was almost 10,400 feet. The view was spacious and spectacular. It was natural, in fact, compelling, to gaze again and again at the line of snowy white peaks of the Continental Divide that commanded the right side of the horizon. What beauty!
As we went, we commented on the lack of snow load for this time of the gear, congratulating ourselves for an early start, a beautiful day and such an easy trail. I speculated that this would be a great trail to skate ski given the wide trail and four and a half easy miles of ski touring in the high country. "The higher you go the better the snow!"
Peru Creek was the site of 14 mining operations of various sizes dating from the mid I809 s. At the four mile point, we decided not to resist the temptation to ski across the meadow and investigate the collapsing building that remained at the "Pennsylvania Mine" site. We did not have historical information with us but appreciated the brief descriptions in our guide book. Bill compared the mine site to much larger sites he had seen in Alaska the previous gear.
By this point we were getting a little tired. For me, it was my first trip to the back country since my shoulder surgery the previous September. I was pleased at how well the left shoulder was responding, but the fatigue in the rest of my body was a telling indicator that i could be in better shape. Jami and Elaine were in agreement that it was time to head back down the trail.
I stopped at the high point, above the mine site to take the climbing "skins" off my skis while the other skiers pushed on. Jami and Elaine knew that the more experienced guys would be catching up in no time, and so headed on down the trail while Billy, an avid telemark skier, pushed up the side of the the 20 degree slope just ahead for the opportunity to ski down, then to catch up with me when I passed. I dilly dallied, so by the time I got there I could see that Billy had not only gone up but had already come down, so I pushed on into the clearing until I could see Billy moving slowly back up the slope, looking up at the scantily snow clad face of the smallish mountain. I could see by his ski trail that the slope we were on was not steep enough for Bill to really get going for more than four or five turns, but still, the untracked snow must have been too much temptation for the mountain man. Billy looked up to examine the peak again as I stopped to see what he was so focused on. Billy looked away just as I caught sight of some movement, like polygonal shapes appearing on very top of a white screen. As if in slow motion, the snow at the top began to sink down just as the narrow avalanche chute to the right also began to move a narrow band of snow pieces down it's trough.
My first reaction was, "All right! We get to see an avalanche!" Bill, cued by my reaction, looked up again to see the widening collapse of the thin looking blanket of snow beginning to slide down the steep face. It was Billy's cautious movement in the direction I had just come that cued me that we better get our butts moving just to be on the safe side. I had stared for three or four seconds before deciding, with Billy's encouragement, to reverse my direction and get moving as fast as I could go. I then glanced hack to see that that little chute of snow had crashed down to the top of the saddle we were on and had mysteriously been transformed in size. It was bursting over both sides now and was surging right for us! Heading off the trail and down hill, my ski polls sank much deeper into the snow. There was the sensation of barely moving as I again looked back to see that Billy had also decided to turn down hill and was gaining on my left. But directly behind him, the full breadth of a now shockingly obvious avalanche burst forward with the momentum of a freight train. I pumped and pumped and pumped again, noticing that there was a small swale just ahead of me like a rolling ditch or wave, maybe fifteen feet across and three of four feet deep. I thought, "I must get the the high side of that!".
As I pushed up the bank of the swale, I glanced back again to notice Bill was now even with me and behind us, by about twenty feet was an awesomely beautiful star burst of white snow fragments blasting out of a rushing wave and above it a billowing, churning, exploding cloud of furious bright whiteness, like a banshee. Time stood still in that instant. In the next instant, plumpf! The force of the snow coming up the swale pounded me instantly down, face first. Stillness. Total silence. No pain. Only awareness.
My weak shoulder and arm were pinned under me. My whole body was literally encased in snow like a full body cast. After some seconds, I realized that my right arm could move a little. I also could turn my head slightly and observed a brightness in the direction of my arm. I pushed at the snow. It seemed to give. I pushed again and again. Finally, after what might have been twenty or thirty seconds, my hand popped through. I could see the blue sky. It was the most beautiful piece of sky I have ever seen in my life. I was alive and I could breath and nothing seemed to be broken. It was only then that it struck me that Billy might also be under. I screamed his name again and again, but there was only silence. I tried to muscle the arm under me and then other parts of my body to see if there was any "wiggle room". I was in complete traction. Only my right arm and my head had partial freedom of movement. I plunged the loose snow straight up in the air. Half of it came back down. The snow level was at the top of my finger tips. I worked to make the hole bigger. The work was so slow and arduous and the frustration of having no movement gave me pause. What to do? Then the thought, Billy could be losing consciousness right now."
The mind echoed thoughts. "Don't think that way!" "Get it in gear and get the ____ out of here!" "I might be Billy's best chance to survive!" I began again scraping at the snowy walls of "my hole" with abandon, but the "easy" pieced had been moved. I found that I could not penetrate the compacted snow with my fingers and limited arm motion. I tried my thumb. That worked better. Scraping with my thumb under my body to move maybe a square inch of snow at a time was not going to get me out in time to "save" anyone - except myself. I had no concern about saving myself. I just assumed that is was just a matter of time. But this was taking too long, seven, eight, nine minutes. I screamed Billy's name again and again and began crying with abandon. My friend might be dead.
Just then I remembered what Elaine said when we met her on the trail to head back, after the three of us "checked out" the mine site. She said our voices carried so well that she could almost make out our conversion from 1/3 of a mile away. Maybe Jami and Elaine could still hear me! I yelled HELP, HELP, HELP! I tried to make it sound penetration. But I was yelling out of a hole. I went to work again to see if I might be able to angle the edge of the hole. No go. I began thumbing and scraping the snow directly over my body with some success, periodically yelling. I stopped to breath. I wasn't panicked but felt a deep somber, defiant urge to thrust around and yet, at the same time, to rest. It was then I thought I heard a voice. It sounded very distant. It seemed to say, "We're coming. We're gonna get you out of there" I froze. Silence. I yelled my most penetrating, HELP! Silence. Did I hear that, or was I hallucinating? Silence. I started to dig again. It then occurred to me it might be Billy. It sounded like it came from across the valley, but.... "Billy! is that you?" Silence. Dig some more, one thumb, one thumb movement at a time. Yell again. Rest. Again I hear a sound. It was someone, still sounding far away, but it sounded like Bill. My spirit was beginning to soar. "Billy, is that you?!" No response. But somebody was there. Why was it taking so long? Maybe twenty or thirty minutes had passed by now. I went back to scraping and pushing snow away from my head.
I heard a voice talking, yelling. I answered and craned my
neck to look up in time t o see a park service green pant leg appear. I strained
further to see a concerned red bearded face ask, "Is something
"Billy!" I cried. "No, nothing broken."
"I suppose you want to get out of there," he answered with an understated sarcasm.
"Oh yea!" I responded.
Billy began digging me out, first moving snow off my body, then around my head. "Close your eyes", he instructed. He dug down and around my boots until he could free me from my ski bindings. As I stood up, a little disoriented, I looked around in amazement at how bright the day was and how huge the avalanche field was. I don't know that I had ever seen one so large in my twenty plus years of back country experience. As I turned back toward Bill, he grabbed my arms and looking right at me he said, "Do you realize how lucky you are? Do you know how lucky we are?" he gave me a quick but firm hug.
"Yes", I said, while only beginning to comprehend what Billy had fully realized. Bill continued, "The hardest part was thinking that you were dead." "I felt exactly the same way Bill. I had already started to mourn your death," I explained. "You can't know how good it was to see that green pant leg. You have never looked so good!"
We walked to where Bill had dug out with the intent of finding some of his gear. He told me that he had been dragged another thirty or forty feet beyond where I stopped with his left hand over his face and the other above that. His right hand could not move but his left had enough freedom to swipe at his face with abandon until he made enough room to spit out a mouth full of snow. He then dug toward his other arm, not sure what side was up, but desperately wanting to have use of both arms. He said that it took maybe thirty seconds before he finally broke through. He was then able to get enough snow off to escape the straps of his backpack. He could sit up and began digging for the closest foot, twisted under him. That was slow going, but with one foot free to kick away snow, he said the rest was "cake." He said he called for me but heard nothing. It was at that point he thought he heard me calling for him. He also said that when he did finally hear my voice, that it was the most beautiful sound he could imagine. I can honestly say that no one has ever said that to me before!
I dug out one of Billy's skis and asked him if he wouldn't mind if I borrowed it to use as a tool to dig my gear out. "That's what its for", he replied as he began to dig with his backpacking shovel. I couldn't help but think about how Billy always carried his shovel in the back country and how lax I had become about carrying mine, almost as though because Billy had his, we were all "insured" or something. If I had been the first one out and Billy had been down under, I would have been one sorry dude.
"you lucky S.O.B.!" Bill yelled as I walked back up
to my "yard sale."
"Likewise!" I returned
"Isn't it great to be alive?", he yelled again.
"Yes it is!"
Working to dig out my skis and polls with Bill's ski, I didn't notice when Bill came up behind me. "Do you know how lucky you are?"
I sat up as he started to dig with me. Bill stopped and leaned toward me and said in an almost conspiratorial voice, "Wasn't it beautiful?"
My mind flashed back to that last glance before impact and I was amazed at how clear was the image of the star bursting wave of avalanche snow rushing at us with it's halo cloud of urgently billowing, snow bright wall of furry. "Yes, yes, wasn't it!" A paused stare and we went back to work. Later Bill would say that it was the snow cloud above the avalanche that had so captured his imagination. My image remains focused more in the wave of exploding snow that to was the business part of the phenomenon that needed watching: taken together, a magnificently beautiful terror.
We accounted for all of out gear, nothing lost or broken, miraculously. We decided that it would be a good idea to get the heck out of there as there was yet another side to the mountain's face intact. "First, lets take a couple of pictures," Bill said, producing a camera that he had earlier retrieved from his pack. We chuckled, snapped some shots, looked around again and headed off the debris flow. it was huge, I thought. We estimated maybe 150 yards or more across and significantly longer. We got to the edge and stopped again to stare and take more pictures, saying things about luck and how good it was to be alive and how beautiful the day and the mountains. We then saw skiers approaching. I expressed to Bill that maybe we didn't have to tell them what happened. He responded, "Lets wait and see."
The skiers were in awe of the avalanche and asked us if we had
"Well, how close were you?"
"Well, kinda in it."
One woman kept talking about luck. Others seemed maybe a little skeptical. Another skier pulled up and asked, "what time is it?" I looked at my watch, "Ten after one," I said.
We excused ourselves and were off. We pushed on at a good pace without a thought about fatigue. As the trail widened I pulled over to one side and Billy skied up along side me. I looked over to see him staring at me with a grin. He said, "I'm looking at one of the luckiest S.O.B's on the planet." I responded, "I'm looking at one too!"
* * *
Our story broke through the disbelief of our friends and buried them with us, in an avalanche of bewilderment. Jami felt guilty that she had left us. Elaine was stunned. Kenny strengthened his resolve about not being a back country skier. Luke was himself, giving us back to a sense of normal, playing in the snow at the cabin.
I left early with Jami to take our place in the I-70 traffic jamb beginning at Loveland tunnel, maybe beyond. The song came on Jami's tape deck. "...Look all around nothing but blue sky Look straight ahead nothing but blue skyyysssss...." Tears streamed down my face.
I feel motivated at this point to say a few things about this experience in hind sight.
First, looking back on the avalanche scene, I am simply amazed at how totally deceived I was by the snow conditions. It was a beautiful day. The trail itself was maybe the easiest trail I've ever skied in Colorado. We remarked on the way up how little show there was over all, even with the several new inches. The mountain that avalanched was south facing and so had thinner show than others. The run out area was not at all steep. And I admit too that I did not feel in peril at any point.
This is what I want to pass on to people. I had easily over a hundred hours of back country experience and Bill, many hundreds more. While Bill was suspicious of the avalanche potential, we both wound up "entombed." as Bill described it, under the driven snow. Be aware! If in the back country, be prepared for the back country. Know where you are and what the options are. Having said that, I also have to say that we survived by the grace of God and the luck of the draw. You don't want to be in the way of an avalanche, whatever your skill level.
Other impressions are more transcendental, but for me, just as important. Bill and I went through a near death experience here. I can only speak for myself, but this is the kind of thing that changes one's perspective. I feel that the slate of all my yesterdays was wiped clean. As I write, this is "day three" of my new life. I did not notice before, but now I am certain, that this clean slate can happen with every new day. I am seeing now from awareness, with the things of life going on within that; as opposed to seeing with a busied mind, efforting to let go of determined priorities so I can "have fun", or "enjoy myself", or to "do" work, whatever.
Entombed in snow I was left with my awareness, vacant of priorities beyond the moment. Even the priorities of the moment were like clouds suspended in that sky of awareness. The storm of panic and fear never really formed, even as I worked in anguish for the life of a friend - and myself. What "I" could do was like some turbulence in the larger being. I could only be with the program in the moment; moment to moment. This might seem like vague and trivial "philosophy," but it seems huge to me now, like the snowy peaks of the Divide, rising above the tree line.
Why should it take an avalanche to see this? There was no option but to lead out from awareness. The mind and its thinking capabilities, were only tools in the process, tools that did not compare to a simple thumb for effectiveness, in this instance.
Who can say what lessons are transferable? For my part, I have only been around now for three days and I'm still doing double takes everywhere at the awesome beauty I can't seem to miss and the pure joy of friendship, the bliss of gratitude and the miracle of life itself. How lucky can one person be?
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