It was time, I suppose, for a revitalized sense of humility: not meekness or servility, exactly, but more a respectful modesty about abilities, beliefs, understandings.
The basics: a late-winter backcountry ski tour with friends in familiar terrain. There were four of us. I was the one with the most backcountry experience, the most local knowledge, the most specific avalanche training, and probably the most confidence, deserved or not.
Instability issues had been front and center all day.
For example, a couple of feet of recent snow, unconsolidated when we left the parking lot, but cohering into soft slabs as we skied; cracks propagating from a test on one steep slope; a gully releasing a size two slide—deep enough to bury a person—as I skied nearby. There were little slabs breaking loose in switchbacks and quick test pits, then more slabs letting go on terrain rollovers whenever they were disturbed. Temperatures were warming slightly (always a red flag) and by late in the day the wind shifted, then increased as it began snowing again.
My understanding of avalanches, stability assessment, and risk-taking behavior is better than some, although certainly worse than others. I’ve taken trainings, read books and watched videos, practiced stability tests and rescue techniques, and sometimes taught those techniques to others. In addition, I read weather reports, follow avalanche warnings, and am generally responsive to input from the experiences of others.
We spent an unusual amount of time searching for safe slopes to ski, twice backing away from enticing fields of deep powder when stability concerns intruded. Late in the afternoon, two of our party headed downhill to warm up at the ski area lodge, saying they’d meet us at the car, leaving myself and my regular partner to head back up the ridge for a last run before dark. The light was getting increasingly flat, the wind picking up. Fresh snowfall gradually erased our earlier tracks.
While climbing, we watched a pair of obviously inexperienced skiers picking their way down, precisely where we’d soon be skiing. The lead skier turned once but didn’t notice the crack in the snow emanating from his ski tips. The other followed, with the same result. I spoke harshly and judgmentally to my partner: they had no business being there, no skills, no knowledge, zero awareness of the risks they were taking.
Fifteen minutes later, we started down the same slope. [Cue: ominous music, heavy on the bass.] This was a short pitch I knew well, had descended in all sorts of conditions, and repeatedly declined to ski when it didn’t feel safe. The route required dropping into a broad gully, dog-legging left to avoid a steep roll, followed by a straight drop to the bottom.
I believe myself to be thinking clearly, but it is possible that this is an illusion, the product of the stress hormones flooding my body and brain.
And here is the part which puzzles me: above that steep rollover, I lost my bearings for a few moments, and all my carefully accumulated knowledge, all my studies, and observations, somehow disappeared. At that moment, the slope became a big pillow of powdery snow, offering a few more turns to complete a long day of skiing. I understand, you see, all but that one momentary lapse—which, however, rendered all else wholly irrelevant. I pointed with my ski pole and said something about dropping in first. My partner, with less training and less experience, didn’t protest.
I failed to dog-leg left. You can picture the result: I drop over the initial roll, the snow instantly fractures around me, and I plummet downslope sideways, struggling to stay upright. I succeed for the few moments it takes me to be carried to the concavity below, where I fall and am instantly buried to my neck. I remember to push a hand towards the sky as the snow stops moving. This is supposed to create a passageway for air as well as perhaps signal my location to rescuers if I’m completely buried, but my face remains at the surface, a stroke of luck. My skis, which proved eminently releasable earlier in the day, remain attached, as does my backpack. I’m still holding my poles, and I seem to be unhurt. I can move my skyward-reaching arm with some difficulty, but the rest of my body is totally pinned. My heart pounds powerfully, and my arms and legs throb with adrenaline.
I can see my partner above me, peering over the edge. I can also see that there is fractured, unreleased snow just below where he is standing. I yell that I need help, and start enlarging the hole around my head, fearful that as soon as he moves, the remaining snow will collapse down the slope and complete my burial. He starts a descending traverse and promptly releases another section of slab, which ends in a pile right next to me. He is not caught, but he does look quite alarmed. I am feeling calm, and believe myself to be thinking clearly, but it is possible that this is an illusion, the product of the stress hormones flooding my body and brain. My mind is working out alternatives and possibilities at a ferocious rate.
Although the debris around my body feels like the fabled concrete of all the burial stories I’ve read, it does not support my partner, even on skis; the frictional heating which transforms and bonds the snow in larger slides was absent here. He takes quite a while to reach me, struggling in what is now functionally bottomless snow. Meanwhile, I start laboriously digging myself out with my one mobile hand. I have lots of time to wonder whether I could get free without someone to help me, and plenty of time to conclude that yes, I think so…but am not entirely sure.
Finally, both arms are free, and he is close enough to toss me a shovel, which allows me to get one leg free of its ski. My other leg is still deeply buried; my knee hurts, and my calves and thighs are hinting that they’ll soon start cramping. My partner is still laboriously muscling himself through the slide debris, sunk approximately chest-deep.
Eventually, he is in a good position to help me dig. Soon I’m free, skis and poles are recovered, and he helps snap me back into my bindings and hands me my pack. We shuffle slowly out of range of the steeper terrain toward the parking lot, noting that the uptrack we put in earlier is completely invisible in wind-driven snow. Every so often, I turn around to look at the slide which almost buried me, a small, almost insignificant release in the context of this terrain. At the spot where I was buried, there is a fresh, fan-shaped deposit about five or six feet deep. I continue to marvel at how small it looks.
I feel oddly disconnected from my body, which appears to move independently of conscious will. On our trip back, we pass another similarly-sized slide which, I note, covers our uptrack. Uncharacteristically, we don’t stop to study this one for signs of triggers or clues about the snowpack. In fifteen minutes, we are back at the car, fumbling with our gear while our friends wake up from their naps. Soon, we’re all headed for home. I tell them what happened, hearing in my voice the brief, uncertain hesitations which tell me I’m not yet certain which parts rate telling and which do not.
Now, much later, I continue to ponder. Aside from our wholly irrational decision to ski the steep roll in the first place, a couple of other factors jump out at me, some of which are not pleasant to contemplate. For one, this was not big terrain; if it had been, the consequences would have been severe (and in this context, “big” means even a couple of hundred vertical feet). There were no rocks or trees to batter me, I stayed upright, and my partner, just above me with a clear line of sight, would have known my location even if I’d been fully buried. And: I was there with a partner, which is not always the case.
Despite everything in my favor, it took five or ten long minutes before my partner was close enough to dig me out. All those beacon search drills I’ve practiced, in which I stripped off skis and ran around on supportive snow following grid patterns or tangent lines, seemed laughable in retrospect. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine conducting a beacon and probe search at all under these circumstances while waist-to-chest-deep in unconsolidated snow. Had I been fully buried, it might have taken 10 or 15 minutes to dig an airway to me. A pessimist might allow 25 or 30. You know the statistics as well as I do.
Another aspect that bears at least passing mention is the fact that while coming to help me, my partner set off another, very predictable slide: same slab, same slope, 75 feet away. He was thrown, but not trapped in the debris. The point is obvious, and routinely made in avalanche safety classes: in a rescue, the first order of business is to maintain safety for the rescuers. On the other hand, I was definitely pressuring him to make haste to come and help me, accelerating his agitation.
Most importantly, I think about the way that a single split-second of inattention negated all the wisdom I’ve accumulated over the years. The rest of the story is much like others you’ve heard over the years. You know: “There we were, ignoring the obvious warning signs, the danger ratings, and the cautions from others….” For me, the part that matters most is hidden somewhere in that single instant, in my very brief failure to maintain the cognitive focus which had always come so easily.
My conclusion: when I’m skiing backcountry—doing this improvisational dance with the terrain, playing freely with the mountains I love—I’m constantly making decisions about where to go and what to do. I’m always under the impression that I’m deciding what sort of fun I want to have, or how much challenge, or what mix of bliss and adrenaline. But in fact, when I’m skiing, I’m also deciding something else, over and over: how badly do I want to survive, to return to the lowlands and my everyday life?
Put differently, am I ready to stay here forever, or should I back away from the edge?
There is a postscript, a coda to the original story. Less than a year later, there was another avalanche in this precise spot. It buried three snowshoers, and, unable to extricate themselves, they spent the night trapped under the surface. One died; the others were found alive the next day in what is commonly described as a miracle.
Mark Harfenist was born and raised in New York. After 40 years in places with insufficient snowfall, he settled at last in Bellingham, WA, where he dabbles in mountain biking, motorcycling, backcountry skiing, kayaking, and world travel. In his spare time, he works as a family therapist and mental health counselor.