I’m a hardcore snowmobile rider with enough experience to get into and out of tight spots where a person shouldn’t be in the first place. Not surprisingly, I’ve had two close calls with avalanches.
My first brush with an avalanche was the winter of 1999-2000 when I nearly lost two friends in an ocean of snow. There wasn’t a sound, just the wind created by snow moving toward me at over 100 mph. This near miss taught me respect. I don’t fear slides, but I do have the fear for my kids.
Then this winter a new breed of sled came out with an 1,000 cc, four stroke engine with a 156 inch track. I couldn’t wait for the first flake of snow.
In December, my daughter Erin, my neighbor’s son Beau and Beau’s friend Shawn loaded our sleds, beepers, shovels and probes and headed for Cooke City. In Gardiner, we went under the arch for luck. It was sunny and 25 degrees with a foot of fresh snow.
We met friends Wayne and Lori and headed for Daisy Pass, where we were knee deep in fresh, over-the-hood powder. We did some highmarking on a gradual hill, normally safe in this kind of snow. I looked at the hill behind it, about 200 yards up with cliffs at the top. This was not a hill I would climb, but we were low enough to be out of trouble.
I hit the hill, and was just in sight of Beau’s highmark track when my sled started slowing. I kept going until the last possible second before attempting to turn out. I had the highmark, but it didn’t count because I lost too much speed and the back end of my sled sank.
I got off my sled and looked down the hill when, as if I wasn’t embarrassed enough, I fell on my butt and started sliding down this gradual hill.
Suddenly, a wall of snow came over me from behind, pushing me downhill and burying me. I didn’t see, feel or hear it coming.
I took what I hoped wasn’t my last breath and breathed in snow. I tried swimming and the backstroke, neither worked. I reached up with everything I had, stretching and twisting to keep my hand out. The second the slide stopped the snow packed in tight all around me, even into my helmet. It crushed my chest tight, but my hand was still out so I waved. Within about a minute after the snow stopped moving someone found my hand and I thought, “I’m going to be alright!” But I couldn’t breathe or move.
My friends dug snow off my chest until I could get raspy, shallow breaths. Once uncovered, I coughed up fluid and was dizzy until my lungs cleared.
The slide was 200 yards across and 300 yards long. The whole hill slid from the top and piled eight to ten feet deep at the bottom. I am very thankful to everyone who helped me that day.
I know I wasn’t as cautious as I should have been. Staying off the steep hills doesn’t keep you safe. You have to look at the tops of these hills, along with the grade. If snow looks like it hasn’t bonded, it hasn’t. And when you tell yourself you’ll take the risk, it is a real risk.
When I got to the bottom of the hill, I realized for the first time my daughter had witnessed the whole thing. She was shook up, but put on a good front. When we were all sitting together Erin said, “Dad, I thought it was good luck to go under the arch in Gardiner.”
How much luckier could I be than to be alive?