Mountain Facets

On November 13, 2011, the
mountains above Salt Lake experienced a heavy winter storm. Because the fall
had been so dry, the snows from October had turned rotten. During the days prior
strong winds scoured most of what remained, but not all. There were twelve
human triggered avalanches reported in the Wasatch that day. Several of them
occurred within the boundaries of Alta and Snowbird preseason. One backcountry
user had broken his femur and another died from trauma. I’d been caught and
carried 400 feet and somehow managed to walk away.

That morning when I crossed
over from Greeley Bowl to West Rustler at Alta, I could hear snowmaking
machines humming as the resort made preparations for opening day. Like many
other skiers I was lured to the mountains by the promise of new snow. Behind me
muffled voices of two guys I had followed up the skin track trailed off into
the snow and wind. When they decided to boot the ridge toward Gunsight we split
paths. Soon I came to a fifteen-foot wide gully of snow. Looking down, it ended
30 feet lower. Looking up, it ran into the clouds. There’s not much to it. If it does go, it won’t go far. I recalled
thinking. One, two, three steps onto
the crusty snow and it collapsed. I felt the hollow echo in my chest. My head
and left shoulder received the brunt of the force. It felt like being tackled
high in a football game. My skis never left the ground as my boots were torn
from their bindings. I cartwheeled hard off the rocky surface, became
completely buried and then was released by spilling over a steeper outcrop.

“ Hey, Louis!” Charlie dragged
his words out slowly. “I heard you got avalanched.” God, it seemed everyone had heard about my close call. Charlie lives in
Wilson, Wyoming and I, in Salt Lake, so how in the hell?
  He’d left two messages earlier in the week,
but I had been reluctant to return the call ‘til now. After retelling the
episode for the umpteenth time by explaining how three weeks ago I had been
throttled, beaten and damaged, there was a moment of silence over the
phone.  “So, I guess you wouldn’t want to
come up to the Tetons this weekend and go ice climbing.  Would you?”
The funny thing, is that I did.

 When the avalanche first hit I was certain it
wouldn’t run far. After bouncing off the talus then tumbling farther down came the
realization that it would be much longer. Snow gathered as more of my body was
pulled deeper into the freezing flow. I wrapped an arm about my face hoping to
create a pocket of air. When my forearm exploded with pain and was jerked from
my head I opened my mouth to scream. Instead of releasing any sound, snow
forced its way in and down my throat. Unable to close my mouth or bring my arms
back to my face I was in the churning slide.

Entombed within the moving snow
of West Rustler, I was alone. No one knew where I was. I had deviated from my
original plan by following the two men that were now heading into steeper
terrain. Instead of reversing my path and heading back the way I had come I
chose to scope out other possibilities.  There was no chance of rescue. I prayed an
apology to my wife, stepkids, family and friends; quickly resigning myself to
the fact that death was imminent. Within this split second I was careening
through the air, limbs suddenly free and when I landed the snow, which was
packed in my airway, was ejected with any remaining breath. Immediately I began
fighting against the current of snow, one arm back to my face and the rest of
my limbs flailing. Eventually the slide stopped leaving me with one leg buried
to my groin. After regaining my breath I assessed my condition. Sharp pain in
my elbow prevented the hand from making a fist. Blood on the snow proved to be
only surface lacerations. Both knees throbbed despite having worn pads. I was
most concerned with my aching back. Slowly I straightened myself listening for
any sharp pain. None was noticed, but my body felt twisted. After a wave of
nausea came and went I traced the slide path. The starting zone was still obscured
by clouds. I’d traveled through trees into a shallow depression where more snow
had been entrained, then fell 20 feet onto the lower angled slope below. Able
to reach the cat track I hobbled down and drove to the hospital. Catching a
glimpse in the rear view mirror my face was green. They told me I was lucky to
be alive.

For weeks after the slide I
struggled to sleep. I’d find a comfortable position; doze off only to wake in
agony as my knee, hip and pelvis pulsed with pain. Other moments I awoke
suddenly gasping for air having dreamt about snow packed in my mouth and
throat. Sitting in darkness, covered in cold sweat, my wife would reach out and
comfort me. One night I told her about the fear I had of returning to the
mountains. Should I turn my back on
something that had given so much?
Could
I actually be trusted to make better decisions in the hills after such a grave
mistake, risk leaving behind all the people who care for me?
She hugged me,
“We’re not done with you yet, Louie. Remember that.” Hot tears streamed over my
cheeks. I wasn’t done with them.

Off the shoulder of highway 189
south of Kemmerer, Wyoming, four weeks after the slide, I sucked December air
into my lungs. The surrounding sage plains contained only a few inches of snow.
The sky was clear, blue from horizon to horizon. A plume of steam rose quietly
from the Elkol Coal plant. At the top of this cloud a smear of pollution
streaked eastward. Uncertainty had made me stop the car. The slide had taken my
confidence. Phoning my wife she told me to come home. I knew that I couldn’t. I
needed to do this and do it now. Get back out there and do it right. Holding my
breath for three counts I exhaled deeply pushing out the doubt. I returned to
the car and headed north.

About a week after the slide I
had a different dream. It was set in Strawberry Canyon, Utah, the birthplace of
my mother. I was in a car with my aunt driving back from Indian Canyon to her
house near the western inlet of Starvation Reservoir. As we pulled into the
drive I saw my parents walk into her house. They have both been dead for over a
decade. I knew this in the dream. I followed them in and found my mother
drawing a bath. I wanted to ask her a question. No words had been exchanged,
yet when I opened my mouth the voice that was heard was not mine but that of a
young child.

While I felt completely content
the child’s voice stammered and sobbed, “Did… did you save me? Are you my…
guardian angel?” There was no response from my mother only a warm sense of
comfort and care.

When we left Charlie’s house
early Sunday morning the thermometer read -5. The full moon illuminated the
inverted surroundings of Jackson Hole. Parking nearly a mile from the summer
trailhead of Death Canyon, Charlie sprinted from the car to ward off the cold.
Beneath tall conifers I wrestled my boots on and shouldered the pack. Stepping
into the skis that I had been wearing four weeks ago I sagged under the weight.

Three days after the slide, though
Alta had yet to open for the season, their patrollers found my skis at the
point where the avalanche hit. It looked as if someone had just stepped out of
them and walked away. After hearing my story they too told me I was lucky to be
alive.

Catching up to Charlie my knees
creaked, hip squeaked and pelvis groaned. My gait had changed since the
accident. Skinning in a straight line was uncomfortable. The approach to
Prospector’s was more than five miles. I wanted to tell Charlie the pain was
too much, but didn’t. The moon was perfectly framed in the “V” notch of Death
Canyon. We’d climbed out of the inversion and now had twilight views of Phelps
Lake from the overlook. A blanket of fog was retreating from its surface. The
first rays of sunlight hit Prospectors Peak and quickly ran down to the
prominent flow of ice that stood left of Apocalypse Couloir. “ Wow! I’ve never
seen it so fat!” Charlie pronounced.

Closing in on the slide path
beneath Apocalypse Couloir I fell back. The main hazard for the falls was this
couloir. It hadn’t snowed in weeks so the local forecast for avalanches was
low, but the crossing still physically repulsed me. I wished for any reason to
retreat, any sign that there might be instability, but there was none. Staying
to the right for as long as possible Charlie finally crossed the path.
Discovering ice beneath a thin layer of snow he quickly transitioned out of
skis and into climbing boots and crampons. Taking a deep breath I swapped out
my boots, exhaled and sprinted across.

The falls presented itself in
hues of blue and green. The ice had formed in solid curtains. As the sun fell south
behind the ridge Charlie lead his way up a fat flow of Water Ice 3. I followed
slowly, but was impressed with the quality. One swing is all it took to set the
pick, but being nervous I swung twice with each placement. Taking over the lead
I began sprinting up the second pitch, but before long my knees yelled, my hip
caught and my pelvis whimpered. Relegated to a snail’s pace my body inched its
way up. Charlie took us past the steepest section and into a gully. Having
previously climbed this route more than a dozen times this was his high point. On
past visits the ice above had never been in shape. I then stretched the ropes
to the base of a short, narrow step. Looking east out of the canyon there was a
sense of bitter cold in the wild. I was inspired. It was something I hadn’t
felt in a while. Despite the inhospitable environs we were actually thriving. We
were warm, hydrated and fed. Continually moving, not much talking, just doing.
It felt idyllic and perfect. As Charlie scampered up this final section to the crest
of the falls I enjoyed the chill against my face. Topping out we congratulated
each other on how smooth the climb had gone. After several raps and while we
transitioned back to our skis came the realization that I was no longer afraid.

            We made our way down to the lake and
back into the inversion. Somewhere along the way I found my forgotten stride
and for a moment felt injury free. My heart pumped, my breathing quickened and
sweat formed on my brow. Above the shadowy pines came the warm glow of the rising
moon. A halo caused by the inversion was cast about. We climbed to meet it. At
the lookout I stopped and took it in. A deep breathe in through the nose and I
thought back to the slide and the weeks of uncertainty. I released the breath
through my mouth in a cloud of steam. The moon radiated down. I waited for a
response from the frozen wilderness, but heard none. I was left with only a
sense of peace and contentment not unlike the feeling of coming home.

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