Superior Avalanche: Ten Conclusions I Should Always Remember

Friday, April 19, 2013

On April 12, 2012, I was caught and tumbled by an avalanche while skiing Mt. Superior in the Wasatch.  My partner Jason Dorais wrote this report.  I've added my thoughts below.

1. I love the mountains; but the mountains don't love me.  Why is a rock deserving of any love?  How can a white-capped mound of dirt and debris be the sole object of my desire?  The mountains are my sanctuary. But they don't know I'm there.  Nor do they care.

2. The pull of gravity is welcoming when your feet are on the ground; but in free fall, not so much.  As I skied by Jason and into the chute, I heard him warn of the rocks below.  And then I felt a collapse, looked around me, and saw the snow around me begin to liquify.  I checked my speed, or attempted to at least, in an effort to resist getting swept into the funnel.  And then my sluff combined with the soft slab from above hit me.  The impact was unexpected.  How can a wave of snow pack so much energy?  It lifted me off my feet, and then I was airborne.  The immediate acceleration was horrifying--I had no control and all things must come down.  My instinct was to try and gain control and arrest my fall.  The first time I smashed into the broken, pointed, black rocks, I caught a glimpse of them.  My mass and my acceleration smashing into those rocks produced an immense force on my chest.  My hope of gaining control was extinguished, and I was overcome with fear.  And then it was a confusing, discombobulated cycle of churn, fall, impact . . . scream.  I waited for the lights to go out.

Jason took this photo just as the slab began to run.  You can see the crack above me.  Photo by Jason Dorais

3. I am not going to Alaska.  This was odd.  It may have been while I was falling that I actually had this thought.  Certainly, I had this thought while I was on the mountain.  For some time now, I've been planning a trip to Alaska.  Tickets, permits, etc. have all been secured.  I was set to leave in 6 weeks.  I was hoping to ski and do a speed ascent of Denali.  What is most odd is that the feeling I initially had was not one of disappointment, but of relief.

4. Once April comes around, not everything is always a "go."  I consider April a golden month for skiing.  Usually, the snowpack is stable.  The coverage is good.  Travel conditions are fast.  Racing is over.  Given the rough winter we've had in the Wasatch, I looked forward to April.  When it came, and the snowpack began to stabilize, a green light went on in my head.  I had big plans.  On April 12, 2012, it was snowing in the mountains.  Even so, I drove towards the Lone Peak trailhead, intending to work on a project on and around Lone Peak.  But after talking with Jason on the phone, and worried about the bad weather, I flipped my car around and headed up Little Cottonwood.  As we climbed Superior, both of us expressed regrets about not being on Lone.  Jason suggested that we ski out and head to Lone.  Soon were skiing Superior's north face.  There, I triggered and skied out of an avalanche.  As Jason says, we laughed at it.  The avalanche on North Superior didn't stop us from climbing Superior again and skiing the south face.  We had just looked the Dragon in the eyes and felt its fire, and then we kicked him in the crotch and laughed.  Why?  Because it was April.

Here is a sequence of shots skiing north Superior.  It started out good . . . 

Photo by Jason Dorais

Uh oh . . . "Avalanche!"  Photo by Jason Dorais

 

Feeling a bit of the Dragon's heat.  Photo by Jason Dorais

 

Gaining footing and skiing out.  Photo by Jason Dorais

 5. Listen to the mountain, not your ego; ski to ski.  Skiing does not need to be a competition.  Skiing does not need to be about getting that trophy photo.  Skiing does not need to be about being better or going higher or shredding faster than others.  Skiing does not need to be about being the first to ski this or that slope or mountain on this day or in the history of the world.  Skiing does not need to be about impressing sponsors or distinguishing yourself so that you can get sponsors.  Skiing does not need to be about that next blog post.  Is there such a thing as pure skiing?  I should listen to the mountain, not my ego.  I should ski to ski. 

6. Wear a helmet (and a breast plate).  In some instances, playing the "what if" game can be productive.  I'll play it here.  What if I had not, as an afterthought, thrown my helmet in my pack?  What if I had not been wearing a helmet as I starfished down Superior's face?  What if I had stuffed my beacon into my pack or pocket and not strapped it securely onto my chest?  What if my bindings had not released?  Answer:  I would be hurt worse.  I would have a hole in my head.  I would have broken ribs and collapsed a lung (there is a hole and cracks in my beacon instead).  I would likely be dead.

 

A new vent in my helmet.  I was wearing a beanie underneath my helmet and only ended up with a cut and a 3-day headache.  

The day after the accident, I was laying in my bed replaying the accident, remembering taking some rocks to the chest, and wondering why I wasn't hurt worse in that area.  Then it occurred to me that the scrapes on my chest were from my beacon straps.  It was only then that I realized that my beacon had absorbed the blow.  

7. I should be a better partner.  Sometimes I skimp on the rescue gear I carry.  Often, I carry a small shovel and a carbon probe.  Sometimes I don't carry anything.  I don't carry much in the way of a first aid kit, if anything.  I rarely carry matches or a knife.  On April 12th, I was carrying a plastic rando race shovel. Sorry Jason.  I gave Jason my aluminum rando race shovel because he couldn't find his.  Going forward, I will carry functional rescue gear--a good shovel, a good probe, and a good beacon.  I will carry a first aid kit and I'm going to look into what I would need to carry to build an emergency sled.  What will I do about the extra weight this adds to my system?  Grin and bear it.

On the flipside, I'm grateful for good partners.  Jason got me safely off the mountain, carried my pack, gave me his ski (on a powder day!), took me to the hospital, and then took me home. Andy was there to support as well.  Thanks guys.

8. I may never understand the contradiction of wanting to be safe at home with my family and wanting to be in the mountains.  After I came to a stop, I thought my femur was broken.  I could scarcely weight my leg.  So, while Jason called for help, I laid on my side with my good leg underneath, and began sliding down the mountain.  Initially, the pitch was steep enough that I made decent progress.  As the slope angle decreased, I slid my ski underneath me and used it as a sled.  At one point, Jason hooked his whippet on my boot and dragged me.  I left splotches of blood in the snow.  Eventually, I figured out that I could at least let my bad leg hang, and I skied the apron on my good leg.  As I made my way off the mountain, several thoughts crossed my mind.  I was angry at myself for getting into this situation.  I was grateful that I would see my family again.  I was sickened at the thought that I had nearly lost that chance.  I never wanted to ski again, ever.  I just wanted to be safe at home with my family.

Fast forward 3 days.  My wife was driving our family home from Tooele.  We had gone out there to watch our son's soccer game.  As we drove along I-80, the whole Wasatch range was in view.  It had just been cleansed by a spring storm.  Twin, Olympus, Lone, even the outline of the Pfeif were all visible, rising out of the clouds.  I looked over at my wife and gestured to the mountains, smiling.  She shook her head.

9. There are lots of good people in our community. Within a few minutes of Jason's 911 call, a small army of EMS and Alta patrol people gathered beneath Superior.  As I reached the lower apron, some of them had begun to hike up for my sake.  One of them was a friend, Chris Cawley who had been working at Alta.  Thanks.

10. I need to try harder to not let my loved ones down.  Just because I won the lottery once, does not mean that I'll win again.  Statistically, I think my odds just drastically decreased.  If the price of admission is your life, the game probably is not worth playing.  If that means not playing this game anymore or playing it less or playing a lower stakes game, so be it.  If that means becoming a golfer, then . . . . wait, no, stop!  Turn this thing off!

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