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December 2004, Week 1


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Matt Duffy <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Vermont Skiing Discussion and Snow Reports <[log in to unmask]>
Thu, 2 Dec 2004 06:21:21 -0700
text/plain (189 lines)
From the Summit Daily News:

"Mike Schmitt, spokesman for Summit Rescue Group, said a backcountry
skier was on Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge at about 1 p.m.
Monday afternoon when he caused a 300 foot wide avalanche.

The skier made it out safely, but his dog was buried in about three
feet of snow, said Schmitt."

I screwed up really bad. Tear me to shreds right now, because I
deserve it. I feel sick.  Go ahead, kick me, maybe it'll make me feel

It started out innocently enough. I look at this through my window every day:

I won't ever look at it the same way again.

It was one of those calm, sunny, yet frigidly beautiful winter days.
The temperature was somewhere around zero when we were getting close
to the goal.

That view makes it look steeper than it really is, and 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,

The following are not rationalizations, nor excuses. Just some details
that led to the poor judgment. 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 mt own in
that exact spot last May. After that, I just thought it was too tame
of a place to be worried about. Kick me, now.

After a good long conversation with the head of the Colorado Avalanche
Information Center, I am now aware of more things about that bowl. The
average pitch is 28 degrees, with very brief max of 34 at exactly the
spot that it released. There are few, if any sizeable rocks in it.
It's pretty much all a smooth, grassy meadow.  In other words: There
are no anchors to hold the snow in place.

This is a picture I took about five minutes before descending into it:

That's Winter, aka "Black Dog", staring down into the place where her
fate would soon be decided.

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 it registered. I was skiing on a
moving slope. Without a thought, I stopped turning and tucked in a
straight line to gain speed. I shot through the billowing cloud rather
quickly, angled to the side and took a look over my shoulder.

I caught a glimpse of Winter swimming down a river of moving snow
before losing sight of her when I had to pay attention to my own
route. I remember thinking that she was going to make it. When I
looked up again, the avalanche was slowing, but my little girl was

Oh my god, what have 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. All
I remember is 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. That orange thing
duct-taped to her harness in the above picture is a transmitter, and
it became her only hope.

My hands were shaking, but even so, my thumb depressed the red button
long enough to switch my Tracker to search mode. I remember for sure
at this time that I gave out a desperate shriek of "Winter!"

Oh my god, what have I done.

I was about to become frantic beyond logic when my beacon started
beeping at a slow pace. I looked at it and a flashing "32" appeared.
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 of 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 that beautiful BCA Tracker to register
was "3.1" "3.1" "3.1" "3.1".

I threw my pack off, unzipped it and flung its contents everywhere. I
picked my avi-probe out of the strewn mess of gear and assembled it;
my hands still shaking. "Beep-beep-beep" "Beep-beep-beep"
"Beep-beep-beep" went 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 have 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 my face. 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. I won't show
you that, but still, it was all my fault.

Minutes of reuniting had passed when I snapped this one off:

We took a slow pace away from the slide, looked back often, and I
couldn't help but say aloud, "oh my god." About 45 minutes after it
all happened, this thing started hovering and circling directly above

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. Here she is, back in action after all that trauma:

It's a miracle.

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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