Where It All Went Wrong: Swept Up in a Colorado Avalanche

Blue River, COIt started out innocently enough. Just a quick little jaunt on a nearby mountain to get a few powder turns. Par for the course for all of us who are lucky enough to live in the High Country.

I won’t ever look at the view outside my bedroom window the same way again.

The author awakes to this view of Quandary Peak each morning.
The author awakes to this view of Quandary Peak each morning. 

With partner Winter, the northeast face of Quandary Peak forming a backdrop.
With partner Winter, the northeast face of Quandary Peak forming a backdrop.

The author's tracks lead right into the slide.
The author’s tracks lead right into the slide.

Footprints lead to a red arrow that points out the location where Winter was buried.

Footprints lead to a red arrow that points out the location where Winter was buried.

It was one of those calm, sunny, yet frigidly beautiful winter days. The temperature was somewhere around zero as I chose to skin to the lower northeast face of Quandary Peak in late November, and something awful happened. Someone please kick me, because I screwed up, really badly.

As I do almost every time I ski, I brought my best friend, Winter, along with me for her companionship. She’s a lab mix with a passion for snow unequaled even by mine. I very ignorantly thought that it simply was not steep enough to tear loose. That was my critical error. It caused other mistakes, but they all fall under the umbrella of slope-angle underestimation. This is what caused me to ignore the danger rose. It’s also why I didn’t dig a pit; and it’s why I was up there with a dog as my only partner. Bad, bad, bad.

I’ve looked at that bowl on a daily basis for well over a year now and I had never seen a slide on it. I’ve seen plenty of ski tracks though. And I made some of my own in the exact spot last May. After that, I just thought it was too tame of a place to be worried about. Kick me, now.

At the start, the snow was thin, yet smooth and creamy. It soon became blower and powder was whisking up my thighs. It was building toward euphoria when something alarming appeared about 50 feet ahead of me. I saw snow curling up in the air and then it registered: avalanche!

Without a thought, I stopped turning and tucked to gain speed. I escaped the slide, angled to the side and took a look over my shoulder.

I caught a glimpse of Winter swimming down a river of moving snow. I thought that she was going to make it. When I looked up again, however, the avalanche was slowing, but my little girl was gone.

I stopped instantly. Oh my God, what had I done?

I stopped instantly, and I don’t really remember clicking out of my skis, but I did. I probably called out her name, but I’m not sure. I remember running back to the slide, even as it was still running toward me. It had pretty much stopped when I was getting near and throwing off my gloves. I began fumbling for my beacon on a dead, post-holing sprint to the area I last saw her. She wore a transmitter duct-taped to her harness, and it became her only hope.

My hands were shaking, but even so, my thumb depressed the red button long enough to switch my BCA Tracker to search mode. I remember giving out a desperate shriek of “Winter!

Oh my God, what had I done?

I was about to become frantic beyond logic when my beacon started to slowly beep. A flashing “32”  appeared on the display. The lights on it flickered under arrows and I wasn’t even looking at where I was going anymore. I was fixated on the arrows. Running blindly, taking my eyes off the horrid mess of debris, and being guided by instrumentation kept my panic level from rising any further. I was right on top of her in a matter of seconds. After tightly circling her twice, the closest I could get the display to register was “3.1,” “3.1,” “3.1.”

I threw my pack off, and flung its contents everywhere. I picked my probe out of the strewn mess of gear and assembled it; my hands were still shaking. Beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, sounded my dangling beacon. Then there was another sound. I heard a desperate howl, through three feet of snow. It was muffled and barely audible. It was the sound of a dying dog, right next to me. A swan song, of a sort.

The probe fell to the snow unused. The handle clicked into my shovel and went to work. More crying. Both me and her. Everybody hurts, sometimes. Sometimes everything is wrong. But when you feel like letting go, when you feel you’ve had too much, hang on. Sometimes everybody cries.

The blade of my shovel found her nose first and it was pointed straight up toward the sky. I used my bare hands to uncover her face. Snow was caked into her eyes. I removed it and wept “daddy’s here, daddy’s here, daddy’s here!”

She opened her mouth, which was full of snow, and began gagging. It was a miracle.

“Daddy’s here, daddy’s here, daddy’s here!” Her mouth opened and closed, spat out some snow, and she was coughing and wheezing, but alive. There was a tiny pause before I continued working.

My hands were still shaking.

Only her head was sticking out of a wall of snow now, but at least she could breathe. I tried to minimize snow falling on her face as I dug around her, with only moderate success. Her body was twisted awkwardly, and I remember shuddering, thinking her back was probably broken.

Oh my God, what had I done?

When I had her mostly uncovered, though, there was another miracle. She squirmed the rest of the way out on her own. She jumped up, shook herself off and then started licking away my tears. I’ll stop the world
and melt with you.

I put my arms around her, held her tight and gasped. I started hyperventilating. There was immense relief in there, but even more self-loathing. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry.” I think back on how terrified I was, then I realize how much more fear she must have felt. She made a mess while she was buried. It was all my fault.

Winter, heading home after her ordeal.
Winter, heading home after her ordeal. 

The author and his dog will enjoy many more happy turns together.
The author and his dog will enjoy many more happy turns

We took a slow pace away from the slide, looking back often, and I couldn’t help but say aloud, “Oh my God.” About 45 minutes after it all happened, a rescue helicopter was circling above us. I gave a thumbs-up sign, wrote the letters “OK” in the snow, and eventually it flew away. We headed back into the trees and followed our ascent route all the way down to the unplowed road on the way to an entourage of SAR and police folks.

I had a great conversation with Brad Sawtell that night. He’s the head of Colorado Avalanche Information Center and was the first to say that, “Any live recovery is a perfect 10, you did a great job.” Then, he diplomatically educated me on my errors.

My critical mistake was underestimating the slope angle. Anything above 25 degrees can slide, and I knew that, but I thought the pitch was lower. Kick me, now.

When he told me: “The average pitch up there is 28 degrees,” I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I made several other  mistakes, such as having a dog as my only partner in avalanche terrain, but they all stemmed from my thinking that the slope was not steep enough to let loose. Don’t be like I was.

Always carry the proper gear, including that which I used, and add an inclinometer to eliminate the guessing. I have. Practice with all of it to the point where it’s automatic. It needs to be, because believe me, emotions disrupt logic in those situations.

But inside, I feel ugly. I keep flashing back to her wheezing and gagging with just her head sticking out of the snow. You can say we were lucky, but I don’t think she felt too lucky at that point in time. I know that we were, or more accurately, that I was. It could’ve easily turned out much worse, yet I still feel sick about it. It was all my fault. I’m so sorry, girl. Will you ever trust me again? Will I trust myself?

Kick me, now. String me up and beat me like a piñata. I deserve it.

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