Caution And the Wind

             A low whumph rumbles beneath your feat and it feels as if the mountain has groaned. A creepy feeling shoots up your neck and down through your frozen toes. Then shooting cracks and you can’t tell yet, but it feels as if the mountain is moving upward while you are standing still. Then you accelerate and you are moving with the avalanche. The next few minutes will decide a lot about your life, and the life of your friends. Maybe they are there watching you and they dig you out safely after you swim carefully down a river, staying on the surface, not hitting any trees, and avoiding bumping your head or bones on any rocks that you might be moving over/through. Or maybe they won’t be able to dig you out in time because you were buried in a terrain trap, or got ripped away from your beacon. Or the beacon saved you from a sharp rock in the gut, but it was shattered and ineffective. You must receive a passageway for air within 15 minutes or else you will start to suffer brain damage from suffocation, regardless of the probable trauma your body has incurred with bent knees, broken ribs, or worse. Your best way to live longer: don’t panic. Slow down your breathing and try to relax…as you watch your life slowly, very very slowly, flash before your eyes. Soon you will freeze and go into hypothermia, so that will be nice. Just fall asleep.


            Getting caught in an avalanche is a realistic fear in the mountains no matter where you are. Typically, more people die of avalanches in resorts than in the backcountry, although snowmobiles and greater accessibility have increased the numbers of people dying the backcountry, not to mention the slack-country danger zones where people venture without effective training and knowledge, both of the snow-pack and their rescue gear. Each beacon must be used in a certain way to be most effective. You must be practiced. Your probing and shoveling require proper technique as well. Think of an outward spiral with your probe, and a V shape for shoveling with multiple people.

            In the end, wherever you put more people, more people will die of something, no matter how much you protect against it. Resorts presuppose a certain rate of accidents. NARSID (Non-Avalanche-Related-Snow-Immersion-Deaths) are a frequent occurrence at resorts, as are small but deadly avalanches and ski-patrol fatalities. Hence the astronomical insurance rates for resorts.


            Sitting in class, talking about death, it felt a lot like driving school, but more sciencey. The real reasons that people die in avalanches has everything to do about the science, and nothing to do with it at all. Technically, there was a situation created over time by nature underneath where you ventured to go. But you went there. Why? That is the real question. A sense of belonging, where only a very few species have been able to survive. And what a survival.


            After class, which was an ordeal because it took so much time over so few days, and kept me from climbing or skiing anything, we made a stab at the backcountry. We charged in and were chased back out by a coming storm. We spotted no less than 5 large (R1-R3, D2-D3) avalanches off of Ralston and rode on only mellow slopes that were only occasionally as steep as 35 or 40 degrees. We survived to tell the tale…tomorrow.



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