A Cold Day in Hell

 

It was one of those picture-perfect days, with Utah’s Wasatch Mountains blanketed in the bottomless powder that had been falling steadily throughout the week. The skies were patchy blue with cold rays of February sun streaking through the openings in the clouds like stage lights. One of those days that make you exclaim, “It doesn’t get any better than this!” But what we didn’t realize was that before long, things would become bad, so bad, in fact, that by evening only two of our party of three would be returning home.

 

“Good afternoon, this is Alex Lowe with your Backcountry Avalanche and Mountain Weather Information. Today is Thursday, February 25, at 3:30 PM. The Utah Avalanche Forecast Center is brought to you by the Wasatch-Cache National Forest in partnership with the National Weather Service…”

 

So began the afternoon update issued by the Avalanche Forecast Center, due to climaxing avalanche conditions throughout the central Wasatch. Had cell phones been as common in ‘93 as they are today, we might have paused between runs to check for an updated report. But as it was, we were oblivious to what was happening throughout the mountains that afternoon. We were not unaware of potential dangers lurking in our little slice of heaven but we had heard only one small whumphhh during our initial approach, and that was on a slightly different aspect from the slope we intended to ski.

 

“In the 12 hours prior to the storm abating at around noon today, 14 inches of snow has fallen at the head of Little Cottonwood Canyon for a storm total of 33 inches. This amount of additional weight has tipped the balance and things are starting to move. Several reports of large slab avalanches as low as 7000’ in the back country indicate that instabilities are becoming rather widespread as lingering weak layers become overloaded.”

 

Pat Ellsworth had called me at work a little before noon, raving about the fresh powder that he just couldn’t wait to have his way with. He was not in the habit of coaxing me to leave work early, just as I was not in the habit of doing so. But all that fresh powder was crying out to be skied. I was totally psyched as I picked him up and we raced off to one of the Wasatch’s little-used trailheads. We drove up the canyon with the tunes cranked and huge grins on our faces, and then started breaking trail in the deep snow. Richie Hagio, a friend, co-worker, and avid free-heeler, had caught our fever and decided to follow suit, eventually catching up with us on the trail. We were now three skiers, a “safer” number, and four dogs-two of ours and two local tag-a-longs.

Pat Ellsworth skiing

“A rain crust and wind crust that comprise strong layers lie sandwiched between weak layers of faceted or sugary snow crystals. These layers, now fairly deep down in the snow pack, have been around for some time now without stabilizing appreciably. It seems that we now have enough weight on top so that slab avalanches are releasing naturally in some places but more importantly, need only a skier’s additional weight as a sufficient trigger. These instabilities are to be found on nearly all aspects but most activity has been reported on N and NE aspects at between 7000 and 9500 feet in elevation. E, SE and S slopes are extremely sensitive and have resulted in some mammoth slides in the Cottonwoods today.”

 

Snowstorms had been pummeling the Wasatch for days, and there was more unconsolidated powder than just from today’s storm. Equipped with transceivers, shovels, and ski poles that doubled as probes, we believed we were well prepared for the increased risk from the new snowfall’s instability. None of us expected it to turn out to be one of the worst avalanche days in the central Wasatch since I had started skiing its backcountry almost 20 years earlier.

 

We usually consulted the daily avalanche report, but that morning we were in a hurry. After dialing the number a few times only to receive busy signals, we gave up and continued on our merry way. Obviously, there were others out there with the same thing in mind, and they were tying up the phone lines. The last thing we wanted was our ski lines tied up too. Had we succeeded in getting through, we would have only heard the mornings less alarming report, issued before all hell broke loose.

 

We were working up a sweat on the approach but not minding the effort. It was, after all, a stellar day, and the fruits of our labor would be skiing one of Pat’s favorite slopes, just a short tour from his house. Even though this was one of the lesser canyons of the central Wasatch, this afternoon it was considered by the avalanche report to be within the proscribed danger zone. But due to Pat’s familiarity with it and having skied it numerous times without ever having seen it slide, we were more than willing to give it a go. We were euphoric after our first run. Bottomless and effortless, it was everything we had hoped for. Each run added more exclamations to our repeated refrains of ecstasy. We took four runs each, then hiked once more to the top of the ridge. It was getting late, and Pat had to be home soon.
“I feel that the situation in the back country is immensely complex right now and it is extremely difficult to make accurate assessments regarding safe terrain and snow stability. While some areas will certainly yield great powder skiing, they will have to be on low angled slopes, which, given the depth of new snow will be hard to ski. I for one am going to lay low, let things stabilize for a while and enjoy some incredibly good skiing at the resorts.”

 

Each successive run began a little farther out the ridge than the previous one, with a slightly different aspect and increasingly steeper slope. Lulled into a false sense of security, we didn’t realize that we were about to push the limits just a degree too far. Pat went first, heading down for his last run, the fateful 13th set of tracks for the day. Richie and I immediately lost sight of him as he rounded a thick clump of tall conifer trees at the top of the slope. Following standard safety precautions of skiing one at a time, Richie and I were waiting our turns, blissfully ignorant as to what was occurring below. Dulled by our exertion and a bit complacent from the slope’s apparent stability during our previous runs, we hadn’t made an effort to keep an eye on Pat during his final run.

Pat Ellsworth and dogs

Richie headed down next; seconds later I heard him yell “AVALANCHE”!  Until that moment, it had been so peaceful and quiet, save for our ecstatic rants when we caught our breath after each run. This sudden reality “harshed my mellow,” as Pat himself would have said. In a split second, my heart was pounding and the adrenaline was pumping through my veins.  I skied around the clump of trees with a blend of urgency and caution; I wanted to be careful not to send more snow down on the others. A few more turns and I saw the fracture at the breakover, where the angle of the slope increased, and below it, the avalanche’s slide path. We hadn’t heard a thing, and the scene confronting us was surreal. We began calling out desperately for Pat, since we could see neither him nor his tracks beyond the fracture zone. We quickly set our transceivers to receive and, hands trembling, inserted our earplugs. Richie skied down the smooth slide path, straight for the deposition zone in a small terrain-trap gulley at the bottom of the slope, while I skied the edge of the slide path, hoping for a signal where the slide had swept past a large spruce tree, depositing a huge, ragged pile of snow. Shortly after that, Richie yelled up to me that he was detecting a strong signal from Pat’s transceiver.

 

I was encouraged at how little time it took to determine where the signal was the strongest, but after linking my ski poles together, I couldn’t remove one of the baskets, preventing them from probing. Confident that we were at ground zero, I decided to start shoveling straight down, but during the ensuing minutes, I became appalled at how long the digging seemed to be taking and at how quickly the strength in my arms was ebbing. Hoping he could hear me, I repeatedly yelled out to Pat to hang in there- that we would soon have him out. We continued to dig feverishly but the cold, powdery snow kept sloughing back into the hole, forcing us to widen our excavation. It seemed a Sisyphusian task: one step forward, two steps back. We dug for all we were worth, all the while thinking that we needed to be careful not to injure Pat with our shovel blades. The exhausting effort allowed few words to pass between us, but more than once I repeated, “I can’t believe that this is really happening.” When we finally reached him, we could see that he had come to rest facedown, with no air pocket for breathing. We had some difficulty turning him onto his back since both ski pole straps were still on his wrists and one ski still attached. This had, no doubt prevented him from surfacing as the avalanche swept down the slope.

 

As the sun slipped below the horizon and the air grew numbingly cold, we at last got his upper body face-up. There were no obvious signs of trauma as is often the case with avalanche victims. Richie proceeded with mouth-to-mouth; I kept digging to try to free his legs, which were still twisted around. In this contorted position, he would not be able to breathe easily, if this were even still possible. We heard a long exhale, and our hopes soared, but nothing followed.  We decided it was only some air escaping from his lungs. We continued until we had no energy left and were becoming overly cold; hope abandoned us. By now, too much time had elapsed for a successful resuscitation. It must have been at least 30 minutes, maybe more. What had been a very dream-like afternoon had so quickly become a waking nightmare. With twilight on our heels, we decided to head down. I now found myself skiing down the trail, my mind paradoxically racing through all that had just happened, yet also feeling as numb as my hands. Thoughts of the ordeals that lay ahead began to creep around the edges of my consciousness. We reached the junction of the trail with the snow-packed road and continued skiing down towards Pat’s house and his wife Jessica. As we approached the house, Richie asked if he could continue home, and I assured him that I could handle it. I noticed that he had failed to put his gloves on for the ski down, despite the bitter cold.

 

Now I had to break this terrible news to Jessica. What would I say? Would she become hysterical? Should I call the Search and Rescue? 911? I knew Jess well; she worked with Richie and me. This was going to be gut-wrenching.

Pat Ellsworth skiing powder in the Wasatch Mtns.

I went into the house and, before explaining, tried to put my arms around Jess to comfort her. She shrank away in horror, reading the tragedy in my face. I blurted out the horrible truth, then called my wife Harriet and told her to come quickly. Jess was going to need help getting through the evening. I then dialed 911 and reported the accident.

 

Before long, I could hear sirens coming up the road. Soon after, the narrow lane in this tiny mountain canyon was choked with emergency vehicles, police, and reporters. I recall sitting in a police car giving my account of the events and the policeman remarking that I seemed pretty calm for someone who had just experienced what I had gone through. I had the odd feeling that he thought I was making the whole story up. In retrospect, I realized I was probably in shock. It wasn’t until waking the following morning after a restless night that the tears would flow, that the realization of the whole thing began to set in. But for now, I was cognizant of the sound of the helicopter, which by now had probably reached the avalanche and was shining a light on the grim scene. My thoughts drifted up the trail.

 

I also remember being interviewed by a TV reporter that evening, and wondering who would be watching the news and recognize my voice, since I would not go in front of their camera. I knew that there were a number of people who would immediately think of Pat when they heard of an avalanche near his home. And sure enough, before long they were calling his house. I fielded the calls, since Jess was in no condition to do so. I answered, briefly and to the point. I have no memory of going home, except for the fact that Harriet and I took Jess to our house.

 

In the succeeding days, countless thoughts passed through my mind. I would live that afternoon over and over again, contemplating the lessons so harshly administered. My thoughts would stumble across ironies, coincidences and overlooked omens but always return to the profound feeling of loss that I, as well as all of Pat’s friends and family, was experiencing. Pat’s approach to life had always been passionate yet gentle, and now this man, whom more than a few considered among their best friends, was gone.

Pat Ellsworth eyeing previous run.

It is ironic that the forecast had been updated that afternoon by Alex Lowe, who himself died in an avalanche in a 1999 expedition to Shishapangma in China. Both men, one a recreational skier and the other a world-class mountaineer, wasted no time in living life fully in quest of their passions, perhaps sensing that life can be all too short. They each understood and respected the inherent dangers of their pursuits and accepted responsibility for their actions. But objective hazards exist in mountain sports, and even the best training and experience can be trumped by a moment of inattention due to the exhilaration of the experience, sheer exhaustion, or just plain bad timing.

 

This event took place 21 years ago, but the wound it left has still not healed. In my life today I ski, cycle, trail run, and rock climb. My friends and I have a saying after an epic day: “Cheated death once again!” But the joke rings hollow with me, because I know the truth. There is no cheating.

One Response to “A Cold Day in Hell”

  1. A terrible tragedy. One that many of us who love the outdoors, have been probably so close to experiencing, but lucky enough to “cheat death”. I remember doing a tour up Pink pine, when I had nearly no experience, nor backcountry skills, and chatting with some other people headlining up. They ended up going over the ridge, while my partner and I decided to head down, after feeling uneasy about things. Later that night we heard of the terrible tragedy of the skiers and the rescue helicopter crashing while trying to rescue them, after an avalanche. Your recounting of that day is a reminder of how dangerous backcountry skiing can be, and how close many of us have come to death without really knowing it!

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