It was cold in those days. Bitterly cold. Long before global warming had even dawned as a concept. Your breath escaped in small white puffballs and instantly froze in a snow-white haze onto your neck gaiter, moustache, the top edge of your parka, and anything else it came in contact with before vanishing into the thin alpine air. One thing to be thankful for was that the wind hadn’t kicked up, at least not yet. Frostbite was a constant unwanted companion, and you had to be continually vigilant for it on yourself, and on your compadres as well.
Last night’s storm had left us with one to two feet of Colorado’s finest dry champagne powder. As professional ski patrollers, we were up on the mountain early making it safe for everyone to enjoy. We were eager to get our work done, as it was going to be one of those Colorado “blue bird” days that grace the covers of many ski magazines. The 12,000-to-14,000-foot craggy Rocky Mountain peaks that formed the perimeter of Arapahoe Basin Ski Area stood solemnly like silent sentinels. They appeared even more majestic this morning, adorned in their new white cloaks projecting up into a cerulean blue sky. Though it’s cliché to say the words, the beauty of the surroundings was breathtaking. We didn’t speak of it though, as we had more-pressing matters at hand.
The sun had just barely poked above Grizzly Peak, albeit still low, as it began its slow, inexorable arc over the East Wall. When the first glints of sunlight found us, we were evenly spaced in a line, one behind the other, preparing to kick off the snow cornice extending over the edge of the West Wall. As we approached the cornice, it became obvious that the storm had whipped it into a thick, creamy texture, like icing dripping off the top of a layer cake. Our entire pro patrol was present. All five of us marching in line like frozen stick-figure marionettes that seemed to be transported from some ancient Himalayan trek in search of the Yeti. The rising sun offered no real warmth, but somehow it provided a psychological comfort just knowing it was there. As my mind shifted gears, it struck me that, with our backpacks on, we were casting long, eerie shadows against the top of the cornice, making us appear like five Kokopellis inching our way across a great white desert. I kept those thoughts to myself.
Conversation was minimal this morning, as cold as it was. Occasionally T.R., the patrol director, would caution someone not to get too close to the edge of the cornice.
We were all aware of that, though. “Kicking cornice” was an acquired technique. The trick was to cautiously work your way out toward the overhang, taking considerable care not to commit your full body weight as you approached the edge. It was a delicate dance, but, to survive, you had to learn it quickly. You would begin by extending your ski poles out toward the edge of the cornice like remote antennae, and then start poking around and feeling for instability. When your senses told you that you were in a good position, you would firmly set your uphill ski toward the body of the cornice and then lift your other ski up as high as you could and slam it down just back from the protruding edge of the cornice. If you hit it just right, a big chunk of cornice would break loose and go cascading down the mountain. With the snow being cold and tender as it was that day, it was not uncommon to kick off a Volkswagen-sized chunk of snow from the cornice and see it crash like a tsunami into the snowfield below, immediately triggering an avalanche. Then, with kegs of adrenalin coursing through our veins, and to delirious hoots and hollers, we would all watch excitedly and with unrestrained pleasure as the avalanche went smoking, boiling and thundering its way 1,000 feet down the slope, finally coming to rest in a dusty white pile of debris at the base of Dercum’s Gulch. It was pure exhilaration doing this work … but somebody had to do it!
It required both luck and experience, however, to hit the cornice in the sweet spot, and the danger was real. If you were too far back when you slammed your ski down on the cornice, it was like landing on a slab of concrete, and painful vibrations would reverberate up through your entire body and shake your fillings loose. On the other hand, if you were too close to the edge, you risked the chance of dislodging the chunk of snow you were standing on and you could end up going ass over teakettle over the edge of the cornice yourself. If that happened and you were lucky … you might end up somewhere near the bottom of the cornice and somehow manage to stop yourself. However, your avalanche route was over at that point. There was no way to get back up onto the sheer cornice wall 10 to 15 feet above you. What was worse … you had to buy beer for the whole patrol that night after work. You also had to suffer the additional ignominy of having the rest of the patrol still standing atop the cornice eyeball you as you picked your way down the Rocky Knolls until you made it safely down to Dercum’s Gulch. Being unlucky wasn’t much better. Landing in the snowfield below the cornice, you might easily become the catalyst/trigger for an avalanche yourself and end up at the bottom of West Wall buried under 20 feet of snow. Well, the good news was … in that case, you didn’t have to buy beer!
We were leapfrogging one another every 10 to 20 feet in order to efficiently dispatch the task at hand. When it was finally completed, I turned to look behind us as we began to move off. The cornice now had a neat, manicured and defined edge to it. It was odd seeing such a neatly trimmed section of the cornice juxtaposed against the wild, unfettered mountain backdrop. At the same time, there was a sense of accomplishment and the unspoken feeling of a job well done.
We worked our way down to the top of Slalom Slope and reconvened. After kicking off some more cornice on top of Slalom Slope, it was time again to move on. The team subsequently skied down one at a time to the next avalanche path on the route.
I watched intently as my fellow patrollers descended through the picture-postcard landscape, leaving a signature of distinctive powder tracks in their wake. Skiing through virgin powder was one of the perks of the job. After all, the snow had to be tested. We sacrificed ourselves!
The magnetic allure of standing atop Slalom Slope was overpowering. This was my favorite ski run and there it was before me a clean palette of fresh powder. Being a powder skier was like an addiction. At that time, and having little to no knowledge of the principles and dynamics of snow physics, I would dive into anything that was steep and deep, regardless of any inherent danger. Ignorance has its own rewards! This was a lesson I would be learning all too soon.
In the distance, I heard T.R.’s voice break the silence. “Hey, Josh, are you going to join us?” My reverie broken, I resignedly poled myself over the edge of the upper shoulder of the cornice and into the wide-open, expansive snowfield below it. In an instant, I was immersed in the deep and luxurious powder where I felt most at home. By the third turn, my rhythm was synched in and the white fluffy champagne powder was now smoking and billowing all around me. Beneath me, I could feel the soft yet forgiving resistance of the snow as my skis sank deep down into its womb. Ultimately, my skis platformed out at an immeasurable depth and then immediately began making their ascent back up toward the surface. A face shot of snow cleared from my goggles and I caught a brief glimpse of my ski tips finally breaching the upper surface of the snow. A split-second later, my skis and entire body erupted forcefully from the snow pack bursting out into the pristine alpine air in a poised carved arc before plunging back down into the soft depths. After paying your dues, it’s no longer necessary to think about planting your poles, weighting your skis, completing your turns under the snow, etc. As your body gracefully glides through the snowy milieu, everything happens seamlessly, rhythmically and without thought. Once you get it down, it’s one of the most sensual and orgasmic experiences on the planet. Moreover, when conditions are just right, you can find yourself imperceptibly transported into that quiet, timeless, spiritual Zen space. It was what I lived for!
Approaching the other patrollers, I sank down into a controlled stop. As I stopped, my mind raced back to a time not long ago when I was learning the subtle art of powder skiing. I remembered seeing more inexperienced powder tyros who would tend to overweight their downhill ski when attempting to stop in deep powder. They would immediately go into a downward, spiraling tumble, typically blowing a knee out in the process if their skis didn’t release. If they were fortunate enough to have their skis release, they would then have to search for them in the snow and, if found, subsequently attempt to put them back on again, not an easy task in deep powder. We didn’t worry about those concerns, though, as we were all experienced powder skiers and we all had our bindings cranked down to the “workmen’s comp” setting.
Looking back up, it was a pleasure to see the fresh sets of tracks emblazoned in the powder. A discerning eye would even be able to distinguish who had laid down each set of tracks. Jeff’s were a series of lazy arcs casually meandering across the fall line. Kirk’s were strong, deep set and straight down. T.R.’s were wide, round and balanced. Mine were immediately distinguishable as a tight-carved ribbon straight down the fall line in perfect symmetry. You could learn a lot about skiing by evaluating your tracks.
We regrouped in the relative protection of a flattened-out tree-lined bench just above Lover’s Leap. The procedure on an avalanche route was straightforward. Each patroller skied down one at a time across any potential slide path and everyone else kept eyes on until you reached your predetermined safe destination.
It struck me as almost comical as I watched each patrolman ski down dragging about 20 feet of red avalanche cord behind him. Those were the days just prior to avalanche beacons and, at that time, avy cord was considered state-of-the-art protection. It was made of quarter-inch-wide red nylon cord that you tied off to your patrol belt. Remarkably, it also had an uncanny propensity for knotting itself up around any bush, root, stick, rock, snow snake or whatever you happened to be traveling through. Then this stuff that was supposed to be protecting you would invariably lodge itself around the object and stop you dead in your tracks. The theory was: if you got caught in a slide, the cord would float on the surface of the snow and quickly lead the rescuers to the buried, frozen, patrolman below. It wasn’t much in the way of safety, but it was all we had.
Lover’s Leap was a ski run that had a real pucker factor to it. Narrow and steep, it definitely wasn’t for the uninitiated. Later in the season, thigh-high moguls would replace the smooth white blanket of snow that now lay before us and it would no longer be a danger, but now it needed to be controlled. As T.R. moved closer to the edge, I sensed what he was going to do. The same recurring thought visited me again as it had been all morning. Why weren’t we using explosives? We had them with us in our packs. Were we just carrying them for ballast?
As a first-year patroller, it was my “quiet year.” Innately, I knew that it was best to remain relatively quiet and just absorb as much information as possible. As I was blessed and/or cursed with a keen wit, this was proving to be a challenge for me. I desperately wanted to ask “why don’t we throw a charge in here?” But, somehow, I knew it would be out of place for me to suggest it. As T.R. took another step closer to the edge, the answer began to form in my mind. Patrollers, I think it’s fair to say, are endowed with a full tank of testosterone. These guys, however, seemed to be topped off with an Imperial gallon of machismo. Taken individually, these qualities could be dealt with. Mixed together, however, and laced with a generous dose of hubris, this olio becomes a highly volatile substance and it’s only a matter of time before it finds a way to explode. It was becoming evident that this dangerous dynamic was playing itself out now right before my eyes.
Huddled together now, the rest of us looked on with heightened anticipation as T.R. sliced his ski into the upper edge of Lover’s Leap. Instantaneously, the entire slope began moving as an ephemeral, undulating wave, until its entire contents were deposited in a billowy white berm in the transition at the bottom. Once again, riotous cheers and gleeful shouts ripped through the frozen air. Collectively, we moved forward and were all poised on the edge, peering down at the rocks and frozen ground left exposed from the avalanche as T.R. scooped up a gloveful of snow from the fracture line. “Depth hoar,” he announced decisively! “Depth hoar,” I said to myself. It was a relatively new term to me and I knew it to be the bane of powder skiers and avalanche forecasters worldwide. It presented as the sugary, unconsolidated, ball-bearing-looking snow layer that could readily be found in cold climates just above the ground at the bottom of the snow pack. It served as an unseen lubricating layer for the more consolidated snow pack above to slide on. I thought to myself it should be called “death hoar,” as it would silently lay in wait for the unsuspecting skier to ski upon, triggering avalanche, and, in the process, very likely chalking up another avalanche statistic. It could be controlled, however, with explosives and continual avalanche control techniques.
As exciting as this all was, there was also something disquieting about it for me. I feared that something was inherently wrong. As I looked into the faces of my companions, they almost looked deranged in their excitement. The group dynamic had taken another dramatic turn. Without any discussion, it seems we had opted for kicking off avalanches rather than using the explosives that we had readily at hand. Machismo had replaced reason!
Still feeding on the excitement of the last avalanche, the group was in an ebullient mood as we skied up to The Finger, the final avalanche path on the route. All eyes fell on me and, without a word, I knew it was my turn to do the honors. If you were to rate Lover’s Leap as a “10” relative to the pucker-factor scale, The Finger would be completely off the chart. To be fair, it would be an injustice to call it a ski run at all. It was simply a super-steep, super-narrow avalanche chute that funneled straight down about 80-100 yards, culminating in a thick spruce forest configured with trees at the bottom arranged like pins at the end of a bowling alley. Unlike Lover’s Leap, however, you could not stand at the top and attempt to kick off an avalanche. The upper part of the path was a concave dish, so you would have to jump into it to gain access to the starting zone. If there was ever a place to use an explosive, this was it.
The peer pressure was thick and pervasive. For some reason, I didn’t want my comrades to know that I had missed out on my gallon of machismo. Even though I was a first-year patroller, every fiber in my being was telling me that this was an unsafe situation. The time was at hand and I comforted myself … “surely the patrol director and the other experienced patrollers wouldn’t willfully put one of their own in mortal danger … ”
I took a deep breath, then dutifully, and with some trepidation, leapt out and into the top of The Finger. There was no turning back now. For a brief moment, I was suspended in mid-air before finally landing with my full weight in the starting zone of The Finger with my skis perpendicular to the fall line. Initially, all was well, as I felt the snow settle and crush under my weight. I looked up quickly to bask in the approval of my comrades. Suddenly a loud crack broke the silence, and, as I was looking up, I saw that a large fracture line had propagated up and around me in the shape of an arc. Oddly, my friends appeared to be moving uphill away from me, and, as they were receding in the distance, I perceived the looks on their faces change dramatically from excitement and machismo to shock, horror and even a hint of guilt.
In an instant, I realized that it was me that was moving downhill. Instinctively, I turned to face the direction I was going, leaving all my earthly thoughts behind me. To my shock and horror, I’d been sucked into the vortex of a white tornado traveling at warp speed heading straight down the mountain into the bowels of the earth. The sound was overpowering … crunching … breaking … rumbling … howling. Time seemed to be compressed and irrelevant. Initially, my arms were outstretched in a feeble attempt to ride the storm. In a nanosecond, I felt a wrenching, breaking sensation and, without thinking, I somehow knew that my skis were gone as I involuntarily rolled forward into my first summersault into oblivion. I was spinning out of control now in the white swirling tumble dryer of snow. Out of the corner of my eye, part of a ski flew past me on a tangent traveling at an even higher speed … it seemed to be heading out to another planet. No thinking now … just a pure sense of being. Abruptly … all stop! The rumbling faded in the distance.
Death was quiet … reflective … upside-down … the other side of the mirror … a left-handed world … drifting … drifting … drifting … soft white light … deep silence … drifting.
After an interminable amount of time, and from an unimaginable distance, something began pulling at me, pulling me back from my quiet peaceful retreat. “What is it?” I asked myself from some unknown place. “Leave me alone!” my mind screamed without speaking. Imperceptibly at first, I felt my eyelids begin to move … trying to open. Then I felt an odd sensation on my cheek. My eyelids finally became unstuck. Incredibly, as my eyes began to find their focus, there appeared to be some giant guy positioned there in front of me … standing upside-down. It was patrolman Jeff. Big macho Jeff! He was upside-down and he had just kissed my cheek??? “This must be hell,” I said to myself. “Yuck!” “I can’t believe you’re alive!” Jeff exclaimed, beside himself now. “Nobody could survive that,” he spurted out loudly and excitedly.
My thoughts began streaming now in staccato bursts like a slide carousel in fast-forward, out of control. “Where am I?” ”What’s happened?” ”Am I dead or alive?” Questions seemed to pour out simultaneously. Slowly, my senses began drifting back and I started to feel pine needles, snowflake dust and bark particles raining down on me. Suddenly I realized that it was me who was upside-down. The avalanche had apparently spit me out halfway up a tree, and I was now suspended from a large branch that managed to get hooked around the backside of one of my knees. Dangling down from the branch by one leg, I must have looked like a broken, twisted Christmas tree ornament.
And Jeff was right. This had to be a miracle. Nobody could survive that. As I looked up into the branches above me, I thought to myself, “This must be the Tree of Life.” I said a quick prayer of thankfulness with a promise for more prayers later. As Jeff was anxious to get me down, I quickly did a self-assessment and I was amazed to discover that everything appeared to be working. It didn’t seem possible. Jeff was almost twice my size and he had no trouble reaching up over his head to lift me out of my precarious perch. By now, the other patrollers had worked their way down the now-barren slide path and they were showering me with hugs and expressing their disbelief that I was alive. Temporarily, the cold was no longer a factor for me, as adrenalin was churning inside me like a dynamo.
The avalanche had literally devoured all of my equipment. My equipment assessment went as follows: skis: broken in half; poles: broken in half; goggles: destroyed; company radio: destroyed; bottom of one ski boot: completely torn off with my bare-socked foot protruding from the end.
As bewilderment and shock had set in, it is still unclear to me how they managed to get me out of there. When we finally made our way back to the base area, the adrenalin was wearing off and I began to feel a throbbing pain in my left arm. Upon further inspection, I discovered some significant deformity in my lower left arm and realized that I had broken my wrist. I shrugged it off. It was a small price to pay for surviving such a traumatic ordeal.
Jeff volunteered to drive me to the medical clinic in the company vehicle. He talked excitedly the whole way down there, but I didn’t hear a thing.
It was late afternoon and the resort had already closed when we returned from the medical clinic to A-Basin. Darkness had descended and the cold had settled in completely, now unchallenged by even a hint of sunlight. When it was this cold, the snow was unforgiving underfoot and it made loud creaking sounds as you walked across it. Kweek … kweek … kweek. Jeff and I fell into a rhythm as we made our way to The Pub, the local watering hole at A-Basin, where virtually all of the employees congregated after work.
A question lit up in my mind: “Shouldn’t I be going to church?” My legs kept moving forward toward The Pub, providing my unspoken answer. There would be time for church later. At that point, I felt obligated to buy some beer.
Several lessons from the day began sifting down like new-fallen snow as we made our way over to The Pub. First of all, I was determined to enroll in the next available avalanche school. Apparently, there was a lot more I could learn about snow physics. A-Basin had also taught me a profound lesson: RESPECT! A half-drunk, late-night conversation scudded back to me as I recalled something that Remle (Elmer spelled backward), an itinerant old patroller, used to say. “Ya gotta know mountains, man.” I also had a strong suspicion that there was going to be a dramatic shift in patrol protocol. Patrollers would no longer be using themselves as human explosives.
When we got to The Pub, Jeff opened the door for me, and I must admit that I felt a bit awkward and somewhat self-conscious walking in, sporting a sling and cast.
When the door opened, a welcome blast of warm air immediately embraced me, and a collective cheer erupted from the crowd inside. This was something I always loved about A-Basin in those days. No matter what you did on the mountain — ski patrol, ski instructor, lifts, maintenance, restaurant workers, etc. — when you stepped into The Pub after work, everyone was an equal, and we were all friends. It was family!
That first beer was going to taste good, and I looked forward to buying. Everyone started to gather round, and there were plenty of hugs, kisses, handshakes, high fives and embraces to go around as the A-Basin family welcomed one of their own back to life. News travels fast on the mountain, and everyone was eager to hear about the ordeal first hand. It felt good to finally be able to shake off the cold and revel in the warmth of the family. And, apparently, there was another unwritten rule that I was unaware of. When you returned from the dead, you weren’t allowed to buy beer! It was going to be a long night. Life was good. Very good!
Josh Galvin is a professional ski patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Resort and a singer/songwriter/performing artist who has released an all-original CD, “Ten Mile Ranger.” He is also a past winner of the Colorado Powder 8 Skiing Championships. This is his first story for the Gazette.