Taking the big ride

I'll never forget my first flirtation with avalanches. I was a naive 13-year-old, skiing out-of-bounds not far from my front door in Telluride. All alone, I gave not even a thought to the danger lingering beneath the soft powder. In a state of blissful oblivion, I somehow managed to rip the slope, hear the thud of the fracture and ride that white beast down the incline. Fortunately unburied, I dusted myself off, recovered my equipment and went straight home.

Up until now, I've never breathed a word of that slide to anyone, and for good reason. My father was the leader of the Telluride Ski Patrol. Having word get back to my dad that I'd been trapped in a slide out-of-bounds would have been worse than getting busted with a baggie of smack and a hypodermic. More than a couple lashes would have been in store.

That secret accident took place during a tough year in the San Juans for avalanches. About the same time of my secret slide, three poor suckers triggered a massive avalanche in Temptation Gully. Only one of them survived to tell the tale, and just barely.

Trapped inside the belly of the speeding slide, he was yanked down the flume and over a major cliff band, his ski boots smacking him in the back of the head throughout. After coming to a rest, only his right hand was not trapped within the settled pack. Able to dig his head and arms out with his ski pass but still buried up to his chest, hypothermia took hold, and during those desperate moments, he stopped digging, his deluded thoughts strangely turning to Richard Nixon. Giving up hope and making his peace, he got lucky a second time and was rescued by some fellow Bear Creek aficionados.

His friends were not so fortunate. Both of them were found, but not until many days later, badly mutilated and buried under 20-plus feet of snow. The survivor immediately discovered that he was haunted by mountains. Everywhere he looked he saw terror and tragedy, and shortly after the slide, he left Colorado permanently for a safer land, free of bitter memories.

The "Tempter" slide and my 13-year-old avalanche apparently did not haunt me enough. Somehow, I managed to take the ride again while backcountry skiing in the West Elk Mountains not long ago. And somehow, I managed to ski away a second time. Drawn by the lure of early season powder, I had blatantly ignored several warning signs as well as basic avalanche protocol. Somewhere around my second turn, the fracture ripped open and the slope exploded. My body's weight alone had turned the virgin bowl into a trap.

Stuck deep in the avalanche's middle and beginning to accelerate past my surroundings, I was far from safety and eager to be elsewhere. The elsewhere option was clearly not available. During the course of the slide, any avalanche theory went out the window and was replaced by the simplest kind of human struggle, struggle that was eventually rewarded with continued life.

Regardless, my efforts were relatively meek, and I know basic luck was mostly responsible for keeping me on top of the slide. I was outmatched before and during the event. You can do your best to stay in daylight, but I highly recommend keeping your fingers crossed as well. Once the slide stopped rolling, I'd covered close to 200 yards in a few seconds. Up above, my ski partner frantically yelled, "Are you OK?" Instead of answering, I waved my pole. I was alive, but not OK. The experience shook me to the core.

I was still shaken two years later when I got word that my friend Susan Hoffman had died in a small avalanche not far from that spot. I was still shaken last Sunday when I heard those four magic words, "Avalanche Warning in Effect." It was more than enough to put off a planned backcountry ski in Minnehaha.

Instead, I threw the skate skis in the back of the car and pointed it for Molas Pass. All along the drive, I saw shades of my former self. Dozens of cars littered the sides of Coal Bank and Molas. In a mere 4 miles of road I counted eight people skinning up to make turns. More than 20 were either hiking back up to their cars and holding out their thumbs for rides (How's that for earning your turns). The look on every face was a familiar one. Big ga-ga grins covered their powder soaked heads. The winter lust was running high, and as a result, the backcountry was being violated. The line between adventure and recklessness had been blurred.

Drawn by the promise of pristine turns, a whole new host of backcountry recruits are venturing into the unknown and often not considering the consequences. They are taking their first, blind steps, just as I did many years ago. I sincerely hope they wonhave to stumble as much as I did. As a friend pointed out this week, the snow's going nowhere fast. But if any of us gets careless out there, we just might be.

- Will Sands



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