Mind Games: An Unplanned Night in the Vermont Woods

January 16, 1997. It was a beautiful day at Smugglers Notch. There was a clear
blue, sunny sky and the temperature was about 20 degrees. I had shed several
layers, finally finding comfort in long underwear, windpants, hat, goggles,
gloves and a windbreaker. In the previous week, it had dumped powder galore.
In the woods, there were still many freshies to be had. I had rented a pair
of Elan SCX’s and was in love with the way they performed in powder. So much,
in fact, that I ended up buying a pair. There were still places in the woods
with untracked, thigh deep powder. That’s where I was, whooping it up all day.
I darted back and forth through trees with reckless abandon.


At around 2:00, I was in the Wishbone/Hershey Highway/Short + Sweet vicinity
where I noticed several sets of tracks going every which way. I gave in to my
curiosity and started following them. A couple sets of them zig-zagged all over
the place, but eventually looped back to the Long Trail, without making any
descent. I decided to give one last set a chance. These led me through some
thick pines before coming to a small clearing. The tracks stopped here, where
someone had a change of heart, turned around and went back. I did not know it
at the time, but all of this poking around had me a little disoriented. There
was an opening on the opposite side of the clearing.  I went over to take
a look. It was very inviting. It was a little bit narrow, steep and untouched.
I could see about 6 to 8 turns in it before it dropped out of sight. The snow
glistened in the afternoon sun, beckoning for someone to ski it. Not unlike
a drug addict, this powder junkie could not resist the high quality temptation
that was right in front of me.

I went for it. It was epic. After the initial burst of turns, the chute got
steeper and wider, twisted and turned into some dense trees, got wider again,
lost some pitch then gained it back and then some, then it spilled me out over
a surprising 12 foot ledge, dropping me into a gully with an ‘in your face’
powder splash that covered me head to toe. All of this in the first minute or
so! I stopped to wipe off my goggles. My heart was racing, adrenaline pumping.
I had just begun the best powder run of my life. It also was the beginning of
a very harsh adventure.

I could see about 20 yards or so down the gully until it made a sharp right.
Near the turn, the gully became deeper and wider. I was guessing that I was
on top of a frozen-over brook. With clear goggles, I was back in action. When
I reached that first corner, it became quite a thrill ride. The pitch had increased
and for a while I skied up and down the sides as if I were in a giant, powder
filled halfpipe that meandered back and forth down the mountain. It started
getting narrow again, which prompted me to just let gravity do it’s thing. I
stayed in the middle and floated effortlessly around corner after corner, just
spiraling into the unknown. In retrospect, I think this was very symbolic of
unknowingly being flushed down a huge toilet.

The guess I made earlier was correct. I had come upon a waterfall. It was about
a 15 footer, frozen over and covered with snow.  I could hear the water
rushing below the surface. There was a way around it, but with all that powder
pillow of a landing and my blood being about 90% adrenaline by this time, what
do you think I did?

Poof!!!!  It felt like punctuating a joyous exclamation. 
The landing was flat, which stopped me completely. This was fine because, once
again, my goggles were full of snow. I lifted them up, wiped off my face and
checked my watch (I had one back then). This started to take the wind out of
my sails. It was almost 3:00.

Not including the time I spent poking around the Long Trail, I had been skiing
for at least 25 minutes. I should have come out on a ski trail about 23 minutes
ago (hence the name “Short + Sweet”) The gully pretty much flattened out at
this point and the walls had become tall, rugged looking cliffs. I pushed on
a little further hoping to see something, anything familiar. No such luck. It
was a bit of a sinking feeling. I was still taking in all of the wild scenery,
but was also feeling the dread of making the upcoming decision.

I was guessing that I had skied down the backside of the crotch where Sterling
and Madonna meet each other. Not knowing the geography of what or how far the
next town was in this direction, only one choice seemed to make sense: Go back
the way I came. All of my glee was long gone by now. I was very angry with myself.
Walking back through all of that snow was going to be a lot of work. I remember
thinking it would probably take a couple of hours, and that I would be late
for work. I was working for a restaurant at the time, and my shift that night
was 5:00 to 11:00 pm.

I stood there sulking for a couple of minutes. I had worked up quite a sweat
and was starting to cool off. I could feel that the temperature was dropping.
It was time to get moving. I clicked out of the bindings and instantly sank
almost to my waist in powder. Great.

Progress was slow. After 20 minutes of angrily trudging, I still hadn’t gotten
back to the waterfall. I was already getting tired. I had stopped for a little
rest when I heard a strange, low pitched, muffled noise. Then I began to feel
it.  Just as the synapse occurred in my brain, I was helplessly dropping
through the ice.

It all seemed to happen in slow motion. All in one motion, I let go of the
skis and stuck my arms out, catching myself on the way down. As if I wasn’t
scared enough; while supporting my weight completely with my arms, my feet were
not touching bottom. I kicked wildly for a moment. Instant and intense fear

I must have been in shock, because it seemed to take no effort whatsoever to
pull my self out, grab the skis (luckily, they landed next to the hole) and
roll towards the side of the gully. There was a big hump in the snow, presumably
it was a big rock. I clung to it for a while, nervous and shaking out of control.
I looked over at the hole. It was about 4 feet in diameter, and from my angle,
the water looked very dark.

My poles were not in sight. I thought they had either been swallowed up as
I nearly was, or they were buried in the snow. In either case, there was no
way that I was about to go walking back near the middle again.

They were in my white-knuckled right fist. I really needed to calm down. I
gave it a minute, then struggled to my feet and was eventually able to click
into the bindings with a squish, squish. I contemplated taking off my
boots to dump out the water, but decided not to expose my feet to the rapidly
cooling air. It didn’t matter if I dumped them out, my feet were going to be
wet and I needed to keep moving.

Progress was even slower with skis on my feet, but I felt safer with them.
When I finally reached the waterfall, I was forced to take them off again to
make the climb. This made me very nervous. I stayed as far to the side as I
could and never fell through. The sidewall of the gully was too steep to attempt,
I would have to climb up next to the ‘fall. It was extremely frustrating. I
could not get any leverage at all. It was like trying to swim uphill.

I went through a painful process that I would be forced to embrace throughout
most of the way up the mountain. I would toss my poles up above me, take my
skis (which were locked together, the way you would carry them) and stab them
into the snow as far as I could reach above me. I then would grab them and pull
myself up a few feet at a time, hoping they would hold. These steps were repeated
over and over, hour after hour. Very often the skis did not hold, and I would
slide back, further down than I started. Finding my poles was not always easy
either. If they were not the expensive composite poles that they were, I would
have left them behind without a thought. I almost did anyway.

Climbing the 15 feet or so next to the waterfall took almost an hour. By this
time, it was dark. It wasn’t quite this difficult the whole way. Sometimes there
were trees to grab onto, and there were brief sections where the pitch relaxed
a bit, too.

I never stopped for more than 30 seconds to rest. I knew that to do so would
put me at great risk for severe frostbite, even hypothermia. Having been submerged
in freezing water from the waist down, I was already at risk.

Outside of being very cold, the weather was actually cooperative. There was
almost no wind at all, and the sky was crystal clear. I remember thinking everything
was so very beautiful. The stars sparkled, the moon was bright, and the snow
shimmered like glitter. It was so pure and natural. Just beautiful.

I did not spend the entire time taking in the scenery. In fact, most
of the time I was oblivious to it. I would notice it now and then, and it would
help keep me sane. About a million things went through my head that night. I
certainly had plenty of time to think. It ended up taking me more than 9 hours
to get back to the Long Trail. Thoughts of my then 3 year-old. old son Alexander,
my family, friends, what if I lose limbs out of this deal, I just want to lay
down and pass out, etc. filled my head.

Several times I came very close to crying out for help.  I knew it would
be futile, and never did it. I thought it might put me over the edge and make
me frantic. I tried to keep a clear head the best that I could. For almost the
whole way, I never really felt terribly cold, except for my feet. I was actually
sweating profusely, the entire time.

At one point, when I was most of the way up, I heard a thunderously loud noise
that sounded like…well…thunder. Given my situation, I didn’t spend much
time pondering. I just put it on the back shelf and pressed on. When I finally
reached the top, at about 12:15 am, after all that battling, I was very relieved.
I remember feeling a great sense of accomplishment, as well as a great sense
that my feet were numb, and I’d better get down this hill, ASAP!

I stepped back into the bindings, noticing my boots were missing several buckles.
They were never the same again, although I made them last another whole season
by using pipe clamps for buckles! I headed for the first familiar way down that
I could find. It ended up being the Highway, which I skied rather gingerly.
When I came out onto a ski trail, I really felt the effects of the cold. My
goggles were completely frozen and useless. The temperature was below zero for
sure (I later found out is was -6). My eyes were stinging, but I bombed it anyway.
There were a few groomers out, and I wanted to avoid them. I also needed to
get to warmth, quick. I made it undetected to the bottom. I walked to the upper
parking lot, which contained only one vehicle – mine. I got in, started it and
began to peel off my boots. This was not easy, as my socks had become frozen
to the insides of my boots.

I was noticing how bad my feet looked when a snowcat came crawling into the
parking lot, it’s lights blinding me. A guy stepped out and walked up to me.
I stared stupidly for a second until he motioned for me to roll down my window.
“You the lost skier?” he asked, to which I dryly replied: “Not any more.” I’m
not sure how I reacted so quickly to his question. I was running on fumes and
had been for hours.

He informed me that my father was waiting with the state police in the lobby,
worrying. Great. I was kind of hoping no one knew. I guess not showing up for
work had caused a chain reaction.  A couple of my friends, that know my
skiing habits, spent a few hours hiking and searching the Back Bowls. I guess
the were at best hoping to find me with some minor injury somewhere, just waiting
to be rescued.  Others waited at home, worrying.

I felt and still do feel enormous guilt for putting people through all that.
After answering several questions from the police, I went home and crashed for
about 14 hours. Luckily, I escaped with just a little frostbite on my toes and

I awoke that day to a phone call from Anne Geggis, a Burlington Free Press
writer. I was completely cooperative. Big mistake.  I probably should not
have been. My life hasn’t been the same since. It is just starting to go back
to the way it was, although there will always still be the usual people who
find it fun to give me a hard time. People were talking to me like I was an
idiot. It was really hard to take. Of course I expected/accepted/deserved a
certain amount of ribbing, but there are those who have gone overboard, ruining
it for those people who are genuinely curious and caring. I’ve gotten better
about it, but for quite a while I was so sick of hearing about this subject
that I would bite the heads off all those who brought it up.

I later found out what the thunderous noise was that night.  It was a
Stowe snowcat falling through the ice into Sterling Pond. It was quite an eventful
night at the ‘Notch!!

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