The Memory — Avalanche

Post by blogger | February 19, 2013      

Yesterday, I had a serendipity encounter with a guy who saved my life. Today, back in 1982 I lay in a hospital bed with a broken femur and my right gluteus muscle balled up in a useless lump where it was ripped from my pelvis like so much torn paper. My neck was sore, too. If the bleed-out from the femur hadn’t killed me, hypothermia while waiting for a rescue most surely would have.

 Poster of Highland Bowl avalanche 1982.

(Click image to enlarge) About that guy who saved my life. There was more than one, of course. But ski patroller Tom Hicks was instrumental. He was living in his camper at the Highlands ski area base parking lot, and organized the rescue after he got the call-- the call that resulted from local Bob Limacher who happened to be using a telescope to look at the bowl that morning, and saw Izo and I up there skiing. If Bob had not seen us, the rescue would have been at least an hour later or longer. Izo had climbed back up out of the bowl and skied down to Highlands base in record time, but if he'd been the first notification that might have been too late. Back to Hicks. Yesterday I saw him at the grocery store of all places. (Or, actually, it was Whole Foods -- where you see everyone.) A chance encounter, but perhaps not so much chance as destiny. Tom is in his 70s and still ski patrolling. By now he's probably saved a lot of lives. His is a life well lived. He snapped the shot in the poster above, showing my tracks leading into the slide. The image was used by Paul Ramer, one of the early avalanche beacon (Echo 2) makers and pioneer of alpine touring backcountry skiing bindings. Limacher is still around as well. I see him at the ski resorts every few years.

I’d messed up. Big. In some stupid state of sunrise euphoria enhanced by testosterone poisoning I’d skied my way directly into a cross loaded avalanche path. The slope ripped fast and raked me over boulders at 90 mph for 1,300 vertical feet.

My story was told long ago, from words muttered from my hospital bed. Today, memories rise like the foam on a mountain river, at once peaceful, yet turbulent, random.

I leave my friend Izo near the top. As he watches, I ski over an old filled-in fracture. The snow texture changes under my skinny 1980s skis. “This is not good. I’ll pull out over here at the top…” The fracture opening in front of me is burned into my neurons like a cattle brand. The avalanche takes me fast. I watch for about a second as it pulls big blocks of windslab from sidewall. Then it’s all roaring, tumbling with those same horse sized cubes of snow.

No body control. I’m a ragdoll. When my femur breaks my whole body vibrates like a tuning fork. This is only half way down. During the rest of the fall my leg is torqued and twisted in ways not even a medieval torture expert could conjure.

When the slide stops, it feels like stabbing the brakes in a high-end sports car. My lower body it buried a few feet deep. Is my leg gone? Amputated? I watch Izo work his way down the path. He can’t see me. I have no strength to shout. It happens too fast, when you’re life starts to seep out like water draining from a wrung-out dish towel hung up to dry. You think of people you love, how you failed them — how you failed yourself. And sometimes you survive to think about those feelings years later.

I lived through that avalanche as a changed man, with a sense of purpose that led to guidebooks, family, focused spirituality and ultimately the effort you see here at to inform, to entertain — and yes, to help all of you come back alive from your backcountry adventures. Please do.

What can I offer today? When you are out there skiing the wild snow, think about the consequences. Be risk averse. If you have the slightest doubt pick a safer route, a lower angled descent, an exposure with safer snow. Live to ski — another day.


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38 Responses to “The Memory — Avalanche”

  1. AndyC February 19th, 2013 9:24 am

    Wow! a horrendous experience; recovery and rehabilitation must have take a long time. Glad you are still here.

  2. Bill February 19th, 2013 9:25 am

    Thanks Lou. Heavy! (In the best way)

  3. Brad Janssen February 19th, 2013 9:55 am

    Wow, quite a harrowing situation you were in Lou. Glad you made it out ok!

  4. Rob S February 19th, 2013 9:58 am

    Powerful message, Lou…thanks for sharing it. With the explosion of people heading “out the gates”, your message is more relevant than ever. Thanks for carrying the torch for responsible behavior in the backcountry.

  5. Charlie February 19th, 2013 10:14 am

    Thanks, Lou! It’s only through the retelling of experiences stemming from bad judgement that we can spare others the experience and leave them with some of the judgement.

  6. Matt February 19th, 2013 10:33 am

    Thanks for sharing. As I begin to acquire more gear and knowledge aimed at backcountry travel it is easy to be only exited. Very excited! Your story reminds us all that living to ski another day needs always be at the base of or decisions.

  7. Skian February 19th, 2013 10:37 am

    Great read Lou, This story needs to be told time and time again. I think many of us have these last letters in our past. I for one am thankful for the attention the media is playing on the fourth component in backcountry safety.

    1) Beacon
    2) Probe
    3) Shovel
    4) BRAIN

  8. Lou Dawson February 19th, 2013 10:51 am

    Indeed, most people who are killed in avalanches these days have a beacon, shovel and probe…

  9. Lisa Dawson February 19th, 2013 10:51 am

    Glad you survived! Thanks for all your efforts to mentor others. I know it’s not always fun or easy, but it makes a big impact.

  10. Glen February 19th, 2013 10:51 am

    Lou glad you are still around to tell the story. I’ve been in several avalanches. Knock on wood and someone out other is looking out for me. Have turned my back to many slopes and face shots then and now and still do. Always check every condition for the weather and snow and just all elements involved for the venture. Be smart. Thanks again and yes powerful message. Wow, the memories.

  11. Terrance February 19th, 2013 11:28 am

    That was devine intervention and thank you for all your lemoade from that one lemon, another miracle!

  12. Bill February 19th, 2013 12:56 pm

    Hey Lou

    Sure glad you are around.
    Thanks for the story.

  13. brett February 19th, 2013 1:09 pm

    Live to Ski

  14. Christoph February 19th, 2013 1:22 pm

    Wow, Lou! Great message! Thanks for sharing, it’s important to listen to such stories. It’s god to see you still skiing well!

  15. Seemore Skinner February 19th, 2013 1:26 pm

    Thanks for the reminder with your great story. Glad you survived and are continuing to inspire all of us to keep it real.Every time a hear a whoomph I’ll think about it. Gulp!

  16. Zeb February 19th, 2013 2:09 pm

    Really nicely written. It’s a small set of people who survive avalances AND can write well.

  17. scottyb February 19th, 2013 2:35 pm

    Old navy fighter pilot told me once he would take lucky over being good any day.

    He also said you tell the weather man was lying cause his lips were moving.

  18. Lou Dawson February 19th, 2013 2:59 pm

    Thanks guys. When you’ve been around for a while, you don’t want to be _that_ guy telling the same old stories. But this one seems to resonate and always lead to introspection, so I took the risk. Lou

  19. Louis February 19th, 2013 4:07 pm

    Thanks for sharing Lou. As much as I hate to admit it, I am new to your website, and new to BC skiing. I treasure the opportunity to read about other’s experiences, good and bad. I find relevant photos to be invaluable as I find myself studying those photos to see why things likely went wrong and how another choice, even just a few yards or even feet away, probably would have turned the eventful day into a good old day in the backcountry.

  20. Wilf February 19th, 2013 5:39 pm

    Thanks for sharing and keeping us sober!

  21. Chase Harrison February 19th, 2013 6:09 pm

    I have skied your line dozens of times in Highland Bowl and I must say every time I do I think about that day in 1982.
    . Man, we have come a long way as far as avy contol work is conserned.
    Who would have thought that all of Highland Bowl would be open to the
    sking public. Lou, thanks for your words of wisdom.

  22. Scott Nelson February 19th, 2013 7:17 pm

    Thanks for sharing this again Lou. I’ve always appreciated the times we’ve been able to ski together, and for being a mentor to me in these regards. I’ve turned back more than once due to things you’ve shared with me. I think “brain” should be #1 on the list of what to take into the backcountry. And yes, live to ski.

  23. snowbot February 19th, 2013 8:28 pm

    Risk *averse*, dammit!*

    Thanks for reminding all of some of the real consequences of our passion.

    I apologize for the pedantry, especially in the context of this story, but it’s a term that’s very relevant and meaningful in the context of backcountry decision-making. And, um, somebody already corrected you on it once this week.

  24. byates1 February 19th, 2013 8:33 pm

    ” You think of people you love, how you failed them — how you failed yourself. And sometimes you survive to think about those feelings years later.”

    ^ appreciate that, good stuff.

    “if we can avoid disaster for the next two centuries, we should be safe”

    Stephen Hawkings

  25. Lou Dawson February 19th, 2013 9:30 pm

    Snowbot, I actually had it right myself, then did some editing of other stuff, and my mind got all tied up in knots! Just let it go. I’ll get it right eventually (grin). The mnemonic that was helping me was remembering how the financial writers spell it. Then I started over-thinking it. Never ends. Onward through the fog!

  26. BrecKJack February 19th, 2013 9:59 pm

    Wow! Lou, please take solace in how many lives you have saved by retelling the story again…..and again. It is impactful today as it was when it happened. It shaped your life and those around you. Don’t be bashful. Tell it again and again. Your payoff are Louie and Lisa (and selfishly, all of us).

  27. Mark Worley February 19th, 2013 10:57 pm

    Amazing what the human body can endure, though I am sure residual and long-lasting effects of such trauma linger and might not be fully felt until many years down the road. Thanks for sharing.

    There is a somewhat popular feature near where I often ski that I have avoided for several years because I can’t help but wonder what trauma a slide in there would dish out. Your story helps reinforce why I have yet to ski that line.

  28. Doug Hendrickson February 19th, 2013 11:00 pm

    Thanks for sharing that and this site! Your close encounter with death has inspired you to do great things for the benefit of us!


  29. Lou Dawson February 20th, 2013 6:40 am

    The disturbing part of all this, but also what makes alpinism what it is, is that you can do pretty well if you learn good decision making. But sometimes you just plain make a mistake, or something weird happens that’s out of gamut. Those are the accidents that happen just because you’re out there hundreds of days and finally are in the wrong place, wrong time, and you might not even know it. Like Doug Coombs, I’m thinking.

    Also, if you accept much risk, and ski that slope over and over and over again, dozens or hundreds of times, and that slope slides say one out of every 100 times it is skied, what does that say? What that says is it’s perhaps inevitable you’ll be caught in an avalanche. I won’t mention any names on that one, but just look at a few accidents and you can spot the ones where that type of thing comes into play. That’s where being even a tiny bit more risk-averse can reap huge rewards in safety over a long career of backcountry skiing.

  30. Rob Mullins February 20th, 2013 1:04 pm

    Lou you have been a voice for reason and safety after your near-death and much suffering. Thank you!

    I often think of, as a Pro Patroller the ski area passes that I pulled (in WA) the very year of your story for violation of a signed and tape-fenced avalanche hazard area. the hazard was real, funny how folks just did not want to believe it! My partner and I pulled 22 passes in a shift, unbelievable. That caused a ruckus, management gave them all back. The very next season six skiers were caught in a large avalanche in the area where we had pulled the passes the year before. There were injuries, probably surgeries, fortunately no fatalities. Just luck. In retrospect I recall the anger and negative emotions wen we pulled passes for violating an avalanche closure, carried to this day by some of the folks still around town- but perhaps they were saved.

    Your wise words rail against the avalanche gear/ marketing/ instruction ‘complex’ that I believe threatens sober thought and safe decisions. It does not matter the size of your shovel or the features of your latest beacon, your ability to dig pits and write reports with symbols will not matter either! If caught in an avalanche one may be broken, suffocated, killed, or perhaps just injured, suffering, disabled. More and more are wandering onto dangerous avalanche terrain who have little or no clue whether or not they are in danger. Modern gear, media and especially marketing hype drives these lemmings.

    The decision to enter avalanche terrain is all that matters. Get it right or die.

  31. Mark W February 20th, 2013 3:00 pm

    Just to change up the focus a bit, what if you had deployed an airbag when you were caught? Do you suspect the outcome might have been different?

  32. Lou Dawson February 20th, 2013 3:40 pm

    Mark, no, would have been the same, the airbag pack would have been ripped off me or destroyed. You should see my skis. I saved one. It’s is literally exploded. Most avalanches such as this kill you from trauma. Airbags are great but I’ll gurantee they’re going to end up somewhat like beacons, people will have higher expectations than actual reality. That trap will be something for all of us to be on guard of in our own safety approaches. Lou

  33. Bob Limacher February 21st, 2013 7:49 am

    Hi Lou,

    the only reason I saw you through the Telescope was because I skied the Bowl the day before with the Ski Patrol and was looking for our tracks…otherwise you would have had to wait for Izzo to get out, go down and find help…you think that would have happened in an hour ?…i doubt it. It took 15 minutes to get 911 to believe my call and have Mt. Rescue call me for details… you have been an outstanding Mentor and Positive force in the Backcountry for many years since…
    Thanks Bob L

  34. Lou Dawson February 21st, 2013 8:53 am

    Hi Bob, thanks for chiming in! I’ve sure got a special place in my heart for you!

    Yeah, it might have taken Izo longer, definitely not shorter! He probably climbed out of the Bowl in about 45 minutes (up the lower shoulder to looker’s right from bottom), then took ten minutes to get to the parking lot where Hicks was already getting the rescue ready thanks to you. In all, everything happened really fast but I was lying there in the snow for quite a few hours by the time Tom Snyder and the rest of the patrol guys got there with a sled, then it was another hour before they had me packaged and down at the ambulance. I passed out a few times in the sled, which did not impress the ‘trollers as that is a very bad sign when someone is hypothermic along with bad trauma.

    One lesson all this taught me was that being a bit more prepared for an accident can go a long ways, especially having communication gear instead of skiing-hiking out for help. It amazes me to see recent accidents where the only way they could get help was for someone to make a long, hard, slow and sometimes dangerous trek to a phone, when some sort of 2-way comm would have allowed perhaps a better (or at least safer for the companions of the victim) outcome.

    Also, using a SPOT might not be the best as it’s one-way, and someone will probably still want to go out to a phone. But at least the SPOT might instigate a rescue call-out sooner. Every minute can count in these situations, but time moves like molasses when you shift from fun powder turns to someone lying there in the snow with their life draining out.

    I’d sure like to get a copy of that 911 call. It must have been interesting, you trying to convince them of what you saw. I never knew that the dispatcher delayed things by another 15 minutes. Bad on them.


  35. Another Dawson February 22nd, 2013 9:51 pm

    Thanks Lou! You were the one who insisted I take an avy class if I was going to get into backcountry skiing and you told that story to the class there in Aspen – must have been about ’84. I was a college intern working on Lovins’ house with the notion that I was done with resort skiing and from then on it was all going to be human powered. Your story at that class was very humbling and I still remember how you segued from the previous lectures on snowpack instabilities such as bed surfaces and loading by saying something to effect of “The problem is, everything you learned this morning about what can kill you is really similar to what can lure you into the backcountry: 2 feet of new on a firm base? Untracked 35 degree slope? Sound like perfect skiing?” And then you launched into your story.
    Stories can’t do it all in terms of education but they really can stick with us when they resonate and I’d like to think yours has helped me have 30 years of backcountry safety.

    Mike Dawson

  36. Don Gisselbeck February 24th, 2013 8:22 pm

    The Brain part cannot be over emphasized. The avalanche that could have killed me
    could have been predicted by novices.

  37. Bondcop March 1st, 2013 10:25 pm

    Crazy coincidence. A couple days after you posted this, I got to hear the first hand account from Izo who I met in the jackal hut. Really intense stuff.

  38. T-son March 6th, 2013 9:03 pm

    I cant imagine what it would be like to bust your femur in half! I wonder how long it would take for the adrenaline to wear off? Thanks for sharing that story.

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