Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
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.
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 WildSnow.com 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.