The Ursus Major Avalanche

An explosive roar, a long silence. Text messages and time. Catharsis for the unwounded.

The Ursus Major Avalanche

Texts between myself and Ken late on Tuesday, January 29th, 2019


Avalanche. Everyone alive. Might need to call later. Fucking shook. Half hysterical. Training paid off and saved a life. ‌‌Don't share w family or anyone yet please

Holy shit man, I'm glad you're alive. I'll be around for a call

Fucking laughing sobbing weeping hysterics over here, fuck. I rode it 2000 vertical feet in maybe ten seconds. The snow tried to fucking suffocate me. In my nose, in my mouth. It tried to pile on top of me but I fucking fought and fought and fucking fought to swim to the top, to not let it bury me. It stopped with my head and a shoulder out in the air. I screamed for the other guy I knew got swept. I screamed his name.  JAMES!! JAMES!!! Nothing, and I couldn't see him behind me. I freed my arms. I got my backpack off. I got my shovel out. I dug at the snow over my torso, my legs. It took me so long to get to my right foot. And so much time to get to the bindings off. Every second was James fucking dying, two little girls losing their dad‌‌‌‌

I found him almost immediately. His beacon pinged 30ft uphill from me. Fully buried but for the edge of a ski. I shoveled immediately, realized I was being dumb, got out my probe and felt around til I hit. When I unburied his arm I lifted it up, and it fell limp right back to the snow. I kept digging, hunting for his head. It was the deepest buried of all of him. His face was blue and swollen, his tongue sticking out of his lips. He wasn't breathing. I swiped the snow out of his nose and mouth. I checked his airway. Scream his name‌‌

He fucking snores like he hasn't taken a breath in ten fucking minutes‌‌

Fuck that made me so happy

Oh my god brother, that is the most terrifying shit i have ever heard

The suffocation dude. I was going to die.

I am so grateful for all my training and knowledge

The instincts that got me through that were fucking insane

That's unreal. I'm so, so happy you're alive

Fucking me too ken!!!
I want to give Jerry hamann and Myron Allen fucking bottles of scotch and giant hugs
They taught me how to save a life, and ten years later I remembered

No shit at all

To jump to the end. Heli rescue. James at least broke his left ankle. Of greater concern, though he had no injuries on his head, he was totally concussed. Asking the same questions over and over. Not remembering his age, my name, what happened. Asphyxiation and shock? O2 mask helped him be a little better. They're taking him to a big hospital for brain monitoring

Fuck‌‌
And you? Hospital? Anything fucked?

Totally fine. I feel like I was in a car wreck, and I pulled my groin but that's fuckin it‌‌
I'm fucking alive!!!

God damn right you are!

I've told the tale many times now, typically with fewer F-bombs. For weeks I didn't feel comfortable talking about it with ... anyone, really. I told Ken that night; likewise my boss, to whom I succinctly explained why I wasn't going to be around for the next few days. The next evening I called my parents while I was at the hospital waiting for James to be released. Maciej let Jenn know. At some point she passed word on to Jerry (Laramie's Avey instructor). When Jenn, Maciej and I had breakfast on Sunday I was happily surprised by another old ski partner, Brian, joining us - he knew. At some point, I sent Nate - the only other climber/skier I was close with - a link to the avalanche report and copy/pasted the same messages I'd sent to Ken. And that was it for a good long while.

The night we got back to Laramie, four days after the avalanche, I came home to Ken's place and surprised the niece. The two of them were watching Meru when I knocked on the door. Somehow I timed my arrival shortly before Jimmy Chin's exposition on his avalanche down the Sliver in GTNP.

Ken and I are standing in the kitchen talking in hushed voices after a strong hug. Jimmy's voice comes from the living room through the portal in the wall.

It's like something hits the pause button... and then all of a sudden, fast forward.

"It's exactly like that," I say emphatically. The longest single moment of that avalanche was its start, a shared moment of realization, James' and my eyes meeting, widening. A suddenly remembered remark from eight years ago: "Your skis act like a boat's anchor in an avalanche, pulling you down." and I'm reaching down, desperate to unbuckle even a single ski before the slide starts in earnest.

I credit that single split-second reaction for saving both my and James' lives.

And then time did fast forward. While I texted Ken that it took all of ten seconds to be carried from the summit of the mountain to the toe of the slide path, rough math says that would mean moving at least one-hundred-and-fifty miles an hour for each of those ten seconds. So the avalanche must have carried me for much longer than it felt. I suppose it's hard to distinguish any one moment of crushing darkness from another.

Conrad Anker's voice emanates from Ken's laptop now, telling the tale of his survival of the avalanche that killed Alex Lowe. McKenzie yells at us from the living room.

You guys! Both of these guys survived being in avalanches! Can you believe that??

This was a very surreal conversation to have come back home to.

"You didn't tell her, I see," I say to Ken.

"No man, I haven't told anyone."

"Thanks."

The avalanche, seen from the approaching rescue chopper. James and I are visible as tiny dots casting long shadows.

Silence After the Roar

I couldn't fully put my finger on why I didn't want to talk about it. Sure, to acknowledge the avalanche happened was to reawaken some of those overwhelming feelings from that afternoon. But there was something more

On the Monday after the avalanche I was on a flight to my company's yearly off-site retreat, the one time a year everyone meets in person. A week of being stuffed into an oversized house in San Diego with fifteen coworkers while still sorting through the fact that, a week earlier, I spent twenty seconds knowing how I was going to die, and a subsequent seven minutes fearing a family had lost their dad... wasn't something I handled too well.

I didn't share what had happened with anyone there, and my boss tactfully never mentioned it, even in private.

Friday night, on a layover in DIA, I had a phone call with James. It was the first time we spoke since Maciej and I had handed him off to his father in the parking lot of the Motel West in Idaho Falls, not far from the Harley dealership. The, and I hate even writing this, but the dread I felt anticipating that phone call helped me understand myself and my aversion to talking about the avalanche at least a little bit better.

We fucked up.

Those three words, that simple acknowledgement, carried so much guilt and shame for me. We fucked up. In the days following the slide I compulsively scanned through comments on news articles and Facebook posts about our slide, looking for the public shaming and scathing words on our ineptitude and poor choices.

The Canadians let me down in this area. "glad everyone is safe" - "Glad all ok!" - "Scary stuff! I am glad no lives were lost." No one verbalized the disappointment I felt for myself.

On the phone, analyzing all the what-ifs and could've-beens, James and I reached the same conclusion over-and-over. If any one little variable had been slightly different, if we tweaked any part of us being on that slope at all, things only could have been worse.

We could not have been luckier.

  • If I hadn't immediately unfastened one ski? I'm buried one eight inches deeper, and James and I suffocate.
  • If Maciej hadn't managed to sprint over the top of the crownline? I fail to dig out either Maciej or James before the 15 minute mark, and one of them suffocates.
  • If James and I hadn't been kept so close through the slide? I don't get James breathing in time.
  • If I hadn't come to a stop with my pack above the snow? I can't dig myself out, and James dies.

On the phone, we agree, there were no better scenarios. Only worse ones.

Except, of course, the scenario I don't want to talk about.

"Why were we up there, man?"

So late in the day. Both the snow and us melting in the sun. Unfamiliar terrain. No safe way in. Tired. Everyone exposed to the same path.

James has a seriously fractured ankle - the ER doctor throws James's X-rays on his chest with the announcement "Your ankle is fucked." - but Maciej and I walk (with a weird gait, in my case) away. Guilt.

I fucked up‌.


After getting back to Laramie from San Diego I spent two weeks in Lander. I lived in the basement bedroom of two climbing-world acquaintances, acting the part of a temporary roommate. We developed a deep friendship unreasonably quickly, and one night I gave in to my need to talk about what happened. So I told Justin. I used explaining why I was buying a new splitboard as the lead into the telling. I stumbled through the story as the act of recollection flashed the images and feelings through my mind once more. But I felt better having a friend nearby who knew, and to have told the story out loud in words.

I didn't talk about the avalanche again for nearly two months.

Processing

I needed to replace my splitboard - half of my previous one was buried somewhere under the slide - in preparation for a month-long trip to Alaska I'd already bought the plane tickets for. That quiet, sucking part of me that held all the guilt and shame didn't want me to buy a replacement board, didn't want me to ski again. But the better part of me knew that I had to do it again, before I lost something that had been part of my life for over a decade. I had to face this again while it was fresh and before it could grow into something I couldn't surmount.

So in Anchorage, Alaska, I found myself sleeping on Sagar's couch. And I told him the story of the Ursus Major Avalanche. Again, there was no shaming. Maybe this guilt wasn't something I had to carry around forever?

That same week, figuring out logistics for my week in Valdez with compañero Reese Doyle on the phone, I told him about it too, though I stayed away from the details.

Valdez

On my first day in Valdez Reese and I went skiing with three of his neighbors hoping for an afternoon of corn. The slope we tackled was at the limit of what I'm willing to skin straight up, no switchbacks or side-hilling. The surface was heavily sun-affected: a chaotic jumble of ice, slush and breakable crust.

Nearing the top, sweating, fighting for any bit of friction to grab onto and get another inch uphill, my vision wrapped up fully with the features of the snow under my feet, time froze. I watched as the snow under my feet broke away, felt its slide begin to take me with it. My heart shot into my throat and stayed there. I kicked out a foot, stabbed a pole, and caught myself - just a little bit of snow slushing around. But even as my body stayed put, my mind was there again. I saw the entire mountain peeling away under me. It was taking me, enfolding me and crushing me in the dark grays of the white snow. My blood was thundering; I could hear every beat of my heart in my ears, and it was sprinting. My vision blurred with tears. I couldn't catch my breath.

But I was fine.

A deep breath. Another. The world was still. I wasn't moving. This wasn't an avalanche. I wasn't in an avalanche. The snow was just a little wet and slid under me. I was in control. I was fine.

I looked up, away from the snow that had enraptured me. Reese was almost caught up to me and was saying something. I smiled at him like I'd been listening and took another step uphill.

Reese's house was the community gathering place. Every night for a week a dozen faces would spontaneously appear as though we'd planned the party a week in advance. When I was introduced to Jessie he shook my hand and said shortly, "I heard you were in an avalanche." I went cold for a second, and doubtless whatever turmoil was playing out in my head was visible on my face.

Jessie apologized later, and I don't think either of us were quite sure what for. I reflected, and assured him that this was the case. He had nothing to apologize for. I should talk about it more. I'd be happy to tell him about it.

I was surrounded by people who had not just made their homes in the rugged backcountry of Thompson Pass, but who had made that backcountry their lives. There wasn't any shaming or judgement or bro-ification of "riding the white dragon". They understood the risks of what they did, but they thirsted to always know more. They needed to hear of these experiences so they could search for any bit of wisdom that might be squeezed out of the telling.

So. To a room of half-strangers I told the story again, with all the gory details. I shared the photos. I answered questions. I didn't feel self-loathing, I wasn't afraid of reproach for my perceived failures from this room of understanding and caring people.‌ I was safe, and it was time.

The hole I dug myself out of

Boise

When I got back from Alaska I had dinner with my friend Shane in Salt Lake. I told him, and it was easy this time. I didn't feel overwhelmed in the telling. The next night I left Salt Lake City for Boise.

So it was on another Tuesday, perfectly eleven weeks after the avalanche, that James proudly rode his bicycle to meet me for a round or two at a brewery in his city. With his left ankle being busted and his car being a manual, he was happy to have regained some level of independence post-surgery. I came by his house and met his partner and his younger daughter and retrieved a mug he'd stolen from me. We talked about this-and-that, the avalanche at times, but not exclusively.

It's an odd bond we share, only sort-of knowing each other from a ski trip (the guy couldn't even remember my name right after I'd slapped him back to life, how's that for gratitude) and yet, well, life-and-death and all that. At least I'm not afraid to tell people the backstory to that bond anymore.

It's not something I just bring up, but I'm not afraid of having people know anymore.

Not afraid to write it all down.