Friday, February 21, 2003
On a gray overcast day a few years ago, friends Larry Menard, Dan Burns and I decided to take advantage of a fresh snowfall to snowmobile. We met at Kleinschmidt Flat Road and the North Fork trailhead near Ovando. Equipped with avalanche beacons, probe poles, and shovels we headed up the North Fork.
As we played in the snow, we noticed that snow “slabbed” off a road cut. The new snow hadn’t bonded to the older snow. We all agreed to be cautious.
In the late afternoon, we headed into an area that was a little steeper and started crossing the lower half of the area. Later we moved up a little higher on the clear-cut, using a switchback road to get about half way up the hill. Larry and I crossed the clear cut at this higher level a couple of times, while Dan watched from below. When Larry headed down the hill the next time I started across. I got about halfway when I saw the snow moving.
I knew immediately what was happening and turned the sled downhill. The next thing I knew I was on the downhill side of my sled holding onto my right handle grip with my left hand. I was going down the mountain on my stomach in churning snow. I remember thinking this couldn’t be happening.
I was afraid to let go of the sled for fear I’d be swallowed up by the snow. Snow piled up over the top of me. I thrust my right arm out to clear a small pocket in front of my face to breathe. When I thrust my right forearm further from my face, snow fell into my air pocket but at least I could see a small opening of light.
My right forearm was all I could move. My legs, hips, chest and left arm, which still gripped my sled, were immobilized by snow. I yelled as loud as I could for Dan and Larry. I wondered if they’d been caught, too. I felt as if I was going to freeze to death in this snow tomb. I thought what an idiot I was to leave my pregnant wife and three children behind, because I ignored obvious signs that this was unstable snow.
Larry and Dan thankfully weren’t buried. They immediately turned on their avalanche transceivers and with probes and shovels began to move slowly across the large snow slabs. They picked up a weak signal on the receiver as they reached where Dan had last seen me.
It took them 20 painstaking minutes to get to me, a mere 300 yards from where they started, and about 15 minutes more to free me. My arm ached from being bent in an awkward, backward position. I just crawled out and lay on the snow while they dug out my sled. Snow in the middle of the slide was about 15-20 feet deep.
Although we all had some training in avalanche awareness and knew how to use our safety equipment, the fact remains we saw the signs of unstable snow and ignored them.
Since that day, I’ve told this story countless times in the hope that if just one person is swayed to say “I’m not riding in marginal conditions,” lives might be saved.