Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Inspired by Steve Christie’s suggestion to share our avalanche stories, I thought I’d tell mine, before Lou tells his. (Note from Lou, he says “everyone, got any stories? How about a guest blog?”)
I was lucky, caught in a slough. It was small and short. I was not hurt.
Skiing Snowmass (Colorado) on a day that was nothing short of epic — nearly 30 inches in 24 hours –22 overnight. Friends and I stumble across a gate I’d yet to enter during my first year in the Aspen area. We slide, legitimately, between a boundary rope and cliff band (they have since moved this rope to close our "gap"). At the top of our line we stand above a 10-15 foot cliff with lines toward other drops in all directions. Gray drops first, lands in a cloud of white, to the left and a second drop into a small chute with waist deep turns for 500 vert. Nice!
Pete and I turn our attention to the terrain below us. I see the line I want. Pete likes to poach my lines, so I ask if he wants next drop as I push off simultaneously. Oh, sorry Pete:)
Stop. Let’s look at the situation at hand.
So, I’m in bounds. Perhaps in a closed area (honestly, I never thought I was OB). But it sat perched above a fully open area. Conclusion: It’s controlled terrain. At a resort. I’m safe. I didn’t so much as question in my head about the possibility of getting caught in a slide. No beacon. No shovel. No probe. No worries.
Back to the drop in. I land, whiteroom. I pause on my next turn just long enough to see, there are two rocks in front, one tiny, one needs a look. The snow hasn’t cleared and I’m moving. Funny, haven’t turned the skis downhill yet!?!? Feel my feet leave the ground briefly over the first rock. I’m thinking I must have landed further downhill than I thought, side slipped off. Snow still hasn’t fully settled. I’m in a resort, the thought of danger has yet to enter my mind.
I feel somewhat solid ground again, but I’m still moving. Next cliff is close, I know it. Point ’em downhill. Still can’t see.
Weightless. Blind. Exciting. Definitely getting worried.
Impact. Not big. The kind of impact you get on a 22 inch powder day. You just know you’re down. Hmmm. Must have slipped on the steep terrain somehow. I wonder what just happened, then a wave of snow washes over my shoulders. But it wasn’t a wave, more like a brick wall collapsing over me. It pile drives me head first over my skis. I tomahawk back to my feet before I realize I’m upside down. Then again, snow driving into my back, head-over-tea-kettle. "Ok", I think, "this is an avalanche." I’m supposed to swim, right? I don’t know if I’m back upright yet. Light, dark. Waving my arms frantically to "stay on top". It’s hard to swim with no direction. Light, dark. Swim!
It’s over and I’m standing knee deep in debris. Solid debris, but not the concrete you read about. I’m 150 feet lower than before. No skis. My friends tracks from earlier covered in my one big track. Looking back I had washed over a 5 foot rock followed by a 35 footer. Lucky.
After an hour of searching for my skis, we’re sitting at lunch. My hands are still shaking a bit. Gray says to me, "That was the rowdiest line of the day!" Classic.
I didn’t even own a beacon the day that happened. I didn’t ski backcountry, why would I need one? Looking back, I haven’t changed my in-bounds practices much. But I do ski with an awareness that nothing is guaranteed on snow. I enjoy what I get, take caution when necessary, glad for every powder turn I’m allowed to make.
(Guest blogger Dave Downing and his wife Jessica live in Carbondale, Colorado, where Dave is a freelance designer and owner of Ovid Nine Graphics Lab. Dave’s ski career began due to a lack of quality skiing video games for NES.)