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Avalanche Retrospect

March 26, 2011: the day the love of my life dealt me a hostile, heartbreaking blow.  I have spent the past 25 years searching for a way to satisfy an endless hunger; a hunger that many of us share, one that occupies our thoughts often: the perfect run, in perfect conditions, with the perfect group of friends. I thought the hunger would never be satisfied and every season, I prioritized the pursuit of it; I expected it with every venture out. Until a year ago – when all priorities and expectations I had about skiing were lost.  I have spent the last twelve months trying to find them again.  

On March 26th, I was involved in a class 3-4 avalanche in the Manti/La Sal Mountains of Utah.  The slide was about 400 feet wide. The crown measured 6-8 feet deep in most places and was caused by a cornice collapsing beneath me. Two friends, both 200 feet away from me, and I were all caught and trapped in the avalanche as it ran 1000 vertical feet. I came away partially buried while my friends were completely submerged.  Two of us survived; one did not. Our friend slipped away the following day from his injuries.

When the cornice fractured, I was instantly thrown into a free-fall. I can’t remember having any visibility until the slide came to a stop. I don’t know if I had my eyes closed or if the powder cloud prevented me from seeing and from having any sense of where I was. I’m sure it was a combination of the two. My other senses seemed heightened at the time. The large chunk of cornice, carrying me with it, slammed into the slope. A shock wave of sound shot across the cirque echoing – deafening and fracturing.  It was like a starting pistol that initiated instant acceleration down the mountain.

Avalanche training rushed through my head, and I started flapping my arms. “Swim. Stay on top!” were the words that kept running through my brain, when all of a sudden the outside world rushed in as I heard the snapping of logs and trees all around me.  With those sounds, my mind shifted to other thoughts, questions, and doubts. “This is big! I’m going under any minute… I may not live through this! I have to see my wife and son again!”   Finally, the noise stopped though I felt like I was still moving.  The powder cloud began to settle, and I looked down to see my legs buried up to my knees. The rest of my body was above the snow and uninjured. I looked to the ridge to signal to my partners that I was okay, and in complete shock, stumbled my way over to a safe zone. The rescue that followed and its outcomes had its triumphs and heartaches, all of which are difficult to retell and relive still to this day.

The avalanche ended my ski season for the year. Even though it continued to snow and there were many perfect powder days left in Utah, I was not able to even entertain the idea of sliding on snow again that season. As the winter continued on for what seemed like forever, each day I found myself not skiing – just battling with my thoughts and doubts and a confused state of mind.  Primary thoughts were of my fallen friend and what we should have done differently to prevent the tragic accident. Secondly, I kept thinking about how I came away from such a large avalanche unscathed.  And thirdly, I kept questioning, “How will this affect my future?” Up to this point in my life, everything I had done or wanted to accomplish had been based around enjoying the outdoors and spending as much time as possible in the mountains, on rivers, and in the ocean. What if I’m too scared to get my life back on track? What if passions become consumed by fear?

The loss of a loved one while doing what you love

Gar

The friend I lost was a person who truly inspired me every time our lives brushed, whether that time was spent in conversation or outside pursuing life.  He had a way of making me feel that I could do anything – and if by chance I tried something and couldn’t do it, he would convince me that simply trying would make me ten times stronger.  It was impossible to say no to an adventure with him. He was a person who was very aware of the risks he would take while seeking out adventure.  He always knew that something unfavorable could happen or that there was a chance for failure, but this awareness did not deter him from giving 110% to every undertaking.  He was firm and self-disciplined when he needed to be, but he also recognized when levity and comfort were the best tactics for success. 

I thought about all of this when we were able to locate him and started digging him out of the debris pile with downed trees and large chunks of avalanche debris all around him. Finally, we uncovered his face.  It was blue, and he was lifeless. At that moment, the first thought racing through my mind was that if any person could recover from a situation like this, it would be him. His strength and tenacity could will him away from death.  Back to life. Back to us.  After we performed CPR for almost an hour, his heart was beating again, and he was breathing on his own.  We knew our friend could do it, always giving 110% even though he’d left us for a short time.

The rescue team evacuated him and transported him to the hospital where he would continue to battle for his life. It was calming to me to know that we didn’t have to leave a friend on the mountain. I was also comforted in seeing that he was continuing to work hard to succeed in his fight to see another day and another adventure.  The calm and comfort were short-lived as the following day; he passed away due to the trauma of the accident. His brain had swollen to the point that it was causing irreparable damage to his brain functions.  This was the first time in my life that someone this close to me had passed. The grief of this loss, along with the knowledge that I had been a part of the accident that caused it, weighed heavily on me then and has continued to sit in the background of my life today.

A funeral followed six days later.  The gathering of people who came to pay their respects was astounding. The power that my friend had to motivate me to push on and to succeed obviously was not limited to our circle of skiing and climbing friends. He had touched the lives of literally thousands.  I am sure each had experienced his influence in a different way and my friend probably never even realized it. The way he chose to live his life was at a level that shined high above the standard of an average acquaintance or friend. The power of that passion was recognized while he was with us and even now continues to fuel others to live feverishly, to try, to fail, and to learn.

Weeks turned into months and each day I continued to be inspired by my friend and his example of how to make the most out of life with the opportunities given.  Everyone is dealt a different hand here on earth, but no one is forced to give up. We retain the choice to continue to give 110% in all that we do.  Every day we can choose to push on and to become stronger despite the challenges that unplanned events and situations press upon us.

Chance, luck or destiny?

On the day of the avalanche, there were a total of seven of us in our ski party. Three of us were involved in the slide:  Mark, Garrett, and I. All three of us ran the entire length of the slide path. I came out on top and unscathed. Mark was fully buried except for one exposed hand. We were able to dig him out quickly, and he never lost consciousness. Garrett was fully buried except for the heel of his boot; his head was buried three feet under the snow.  By the time we uncovered him he was unconscious and not breathing.  How was it that I was only partially buried? Did I do something right?  Was I in the best spot possible? Why did I stay on top?  Why? Why? Why? How? How? How?  These are the questions that plagued my thoughts continuously in the months following the avalanche. Even today, when I let my mind wander on this subject, it causes many sleepless nights and moments of panic and worry.  The scenarios and possibilities of outcomes replay in my head and lead to endless “what ifs” that I will never know the answers to.

Is it healthy to ask questions, especially when I know I will never have an answer to them?  I often find answers that I justify in my head as truth.  But as time moves on, I find my conviction of this truthfulness slipping away and becoming just another void that cannot be filled. I often wonder how others deal with tragedy and grief. Should I categorize my experience as a lesson? One that I can pull valuable bits of knowledge and experience from for the rest of my life? Or do I work towards forgetting about all the pain and agony it has caused me so I can return to my passion of skiing with less fear and inhibition? I feel there are endless possibilities of how to deal with the memories and that a happy healthy medium must exist somewhere between these two extremes. The true challenge, one I believe I’ll be overcoming for the rest of my life, will be to find that medium and hold to it.  

Garrett was a very honest and blunt individual with only one fear: the fear of someday being trapped in a position where he would not be able to seek out adventures and share them with the world through his artistic talents as a photographer.  It was important to him to live and learn and share – with passion.  I often imagine the conversation we would have had if he had pulled through. I am sure he would have been very grateful that we helped him get out alive. But – he would be more concerned about what went wrong. Where did we cross the line? What can we learn from this experience? He would tell me that this experience has made us stronger and that we would be safer as we continue to explore all the possibilities in the mountains as they continue to teach us valuable life lessons.  Perhaps this is what makes the experience such a great tragedy. The man, the friend we lost, is the one who could have taught us the most about how to grow from a loss like this.

Skiing: the grace of the season

The 2011-2012 ski season in Utah has been called the worst in 30 years.  We waited and waited, but the snow never came. We had to make do with a rotten 3-inch base until the end of February. And when a little flurry of snow finally came, our base was so shoddy that no one dared to step onto a slope over 30 degrees. It was almost eerie to look up at all the great peaks and lines of the Wasatch and not see a single track on them or any sign of ski life anywhere near them. We were all happily skipping meadows and cruising low-angle treed runs. 

In a way, this was a blessing for me and my attitude entering the season. I hadn’t skied since the accident, and I wanted to put my game face on and approach the season like any other. To use a combination of metaphors, I wanted to “get the monkey off my back and get back on the horse again.”  And though I was trying to have a positive attitude and get my stoke level up, inside I feared that I would never be as excited as I was before the avalanche. I feared that my anxiety and worry would drown my joy of being in the mountains with friends – with skis on my feet and looking out at the beautiful panoramas that surrounded me.  I have always enjoyed a challenge; exploring new areas and getting a little out of my comfort zone. But now, would that sense of being challenged turn into being uncomfortable with big mental blocks that paralyzed me? I knew this season would be an interesting one and that I could not enter it trying in any way to predict the outcome. 

Due to the snow and the terrible snowpack, I was easily convinced to stay home for the majority of the season. I would get out when I felt I needed exercise and fresh air. I was definitely not going out for the skiing itself. Having been raised in Utah and always having the best skiing in the world within 30 minutes of where I was residing, I admit I’m a powder snob; I don’t even try to pretend that 4-6 inches of new snow or less is enough to get me super excited about putting in a big day on skis.  I take quality over quantity any day, which is probably why I stay in Utah and love it so much.  In a typical season, I don’t have to sacrifice quantity for quality; we normally have an abundance of both.   

My first day back on skis was on Thanksgiving, and actually, it was one of the best days of the season for me. The snow was good, I was with good company, and I was skiing in a familiar location which was safe and comforting.  It was similar to the feeling of returning home and indulging in a big cheeseburger and fries after traveling abroad for a while and eating lots of food that I can’t even pronounce, let alone recognize. It just felt good.    

I let everyone on the first run drop in before me: I was nervous with the anticipation of how it would feel. I was also thinking about Garrett; how the light was good for a photo op and how he would want me to ski to get the best shot. I planted my poles and pushed away and began to turn through the condensed, creamy powder.  A tear formed as I remember why I do what I do.  Skiing brings a strong, healthy sensation that puts a smile on my face no matter what the conditions are.  That feeling is elevated when I’m with good friends, sharing the experience of what I love with those I love.  After only three turns, I knew that my love for skiing was still inside me. It may have matured or changed, but it was still there. I turned into where the group was gathered with a huge smile on my face. It just felt good.

Mid-season, I was feeling like the actual ski season had not really started. I hadn’t skied nearly as much as I usually do by mid-January. I knew I needed exercise and to get out and wander a little bit in the mountains. I left work early one afternoon and headed up for a mellow tour to check out what was going on in the backcountry.  I needed to clear my mind of all the other distractions of everyday life:  work, commitments, and general junk that no one really wants to think about.  I cruised to a location I knew was safe with plenty of options to get down no matter what the conditions were.  After about an hour and a half, I found myself with a friend – cruising along a divide boasting a great panoramic. To the west was the area we were going to ski, a mellow slope of meadows and aspen glades. To the east of the ridge was an infamous slope in the Wasatch. It’s famous not only for the great skiing but also for the regular, large slides it produces. It’s very similar in size and shape to the bowl where Garrett was buried. As soon as I looked over the edge, peering at the avalanche debris below, my heart sank. I instantly had to back away and sit down on the wind-scoured ridgeline. A rush of nervousness and panic filled my mind and caused a slight sensation of vertigo. I thought I had progressed a long way in managing the post-traumatic effects of the avalanche, but it had only taken one small glance to cause me to relapse. Will I ever ski an open slope over 35 degrees again?  Definitely not this season and possibly not for a while. It took a minute or two to calm my nerves and focus on what I was there to do; ski some mellow terrain.

Nearing the end of the ski season in Utah, we were finally graced with what this great state is famous for POWDER.  Almost three feet of fluffy white stuff fell in just three days. It was almost too late as most people had already put their skis away for the season and started pedaling bikes. The best part about the storm was that the snowpack had settled substantially, and the new snow was staying put and was safe to ride.  It was a Monday morning, and I could not believe I was sitting at work. I could focus on work-related things for about 3 seconds at a time before my mind would wander, thinking about what conditions were like up Little Cottonwood Canyon. I finally convinced a friend to bail from work early and head up the canyon with me. We skied a slope that was around 32 degrees. Each turn, I was greeted with another face full of snow. My teeth were hurting at the bottom of each run like I had just bitten into a thick Popsicle. This was due to the huge smile plastered on my face and the snow continually rising up off my tips and blowing past my chin and cheeks.

The day grew late and the sun set on our glorious runs. We came prepared because we knew we were experiencing what could be the only truly good day of the season. We pulled out our Ultra headlamps and made two more laps by starlight with a little help from our friends at Petzl. Each lap became a little slower. We could tell we had not had a day that really merited multiple laps yet this season. It was the end of March and I was having my first powder day of 2012. We weren’t skiing anything scary or risky. We were only concerned with a slope angle steep enough to keep our momentum up and the ability to turn around and make another quick lap. No big bowl, steep chute, or committing line was present. Only great snow and a good friend, and the day quickly became the best skiing of the season. Maybe my priorities have changed, but if a day like this one in late-March becomes my focus, I am okay with that. It just felt good.

Will this day become the theme of my ski passion for the rest of my life? I don’t believe it will. I know that there will be a day when avalanche conditions, snow conditions, partners and confidence levels will all align again, and I’ll have the opportunity to ski a steeper slope without anxiety. I believe the search is still on, and it may require more patience, a new search method, or perhaps a shift in the ultimate goal. No matter what changes, the means to that goal will remain the same. I need to get out, explore my options, learn from my experiences and keep my mind open to new opportunities. I still believe this will lead me to the perfect run, in perfect conditions, with the perfect group of friends.

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