December is Avalanche Awareness Month and this is the story of my close call last season. My hopes is that this will motivate you to brush up on your beacon skills or sign up for the next level in avalanche classes. We throw ourselves into hazardous terrain all in the name of fun but bad things do happen… and they happen quickly.

It sounded as if a bomb had gone off. Massive blocks of consolidated snow were literally hanging in balance upon this steep slope and the pressure release made the most terrifying sound. There was absolutely no time to react. I remember glancing over to Tony, seeing his face turn white as a ghost, and scream, “AVALANCHE!!!” At that point, I was all of four feet away from the safety of the ridge and was already being consumed by the flanks of the slide.

Waking up that day, I had assumed it was just like any other winter morning. The alarm clock went off at 4am and I hurried out the door by headlamp to dig out my car from the few inches of fresh snow. The objective for the day was to ascent 3,500 feet of the Argenta slide path to summit Kessler Peak, then descend the West Couloir. The climb was more or less routine until we started reaching the summit cone. About 100 feet shy of the peak, I was ahead of the group and decided to step off the ridge to dig a pit and analyze the stability of the snow.  After just moments of digging, I could immediately tell something was terribly wrong. The snow was much shallower than expected with a thick sugar-like layer towards the ground. A thin snowpack is a weak one and this was about as bad as it gets. My partners had already continued up the ridgeline leaving one member to stay behind with me. It was at this moment that the rest of my party remotely triggered a deep slab avalanche directly above my head, breaking out at over three feet deep and eighty feet wide.

It was here that the whole idea of grabbing a tree just goes out the window. It may be feasible in smaller avalanches but the shear force of this mass consumed me and gigantic blocks of snow began to rush over my head, pushing downhill at unstoppable velocity.  The only thing that saved my life was a set of two small trees immediately below me. My board was bent around the first tree as I slammed into it and branches were snapping off in every direction, threatening to stab me as unimaginable amounts of snow began to pile onto my back. I threw myself around this first one with full adrenaline pumping through my veins, but it was as if my arms were a couple of toothpicks. I was ripped straight off like a rag doll. As the snow sucked me downhill, I saw the next tree that would be my last hope. Trying to avoid the sharp, broken limbs, I ran into it with the core of my body and locked arms around the trunk. More and more snow began to pile on top of me as I prepared to be buried alive. Just as the snow level reached the back of my head, everything immediately froze in place and I was trapped against the tree as if I were in a concrete mold. I was still breathing and the feeling of relief was unreal. I was as if I’d just escaped from a monster.

After Tony and the rest of my crew helped me out of the hole, I realized that all of my gear, including thousands of dollars worth of camera equipment, had simply disappeared. As for the rest of the slide, it had traveled down slope over 2,000 feet, sympathetically releasing two other avalanches, equally as large. The cumulative mass ran at high speeds and shot over ice waterfalls and cliffs at the bottom. If I had not hung onto that second tree, (right of the sucker hole pictured above) it would have been all over for me.

^^^ One of the sympathetic releases downhill from the main slide

We all realize the risks we take while climbing mountains, but this really drove it home for me. If there was any error made by a member of my party, it would be mine for stepping out onto the exposed slope to run those tests. I knew that I was entering the danger zone but felt it necessary to attain the crucial data required to evaluate the stability of the snowpack. If I had not done what I did, it’s likely that our group would have continued on and ridden our line of choice, which would have most likely resulted in a fatality. If all that I broke was a binding and all that I lost was a snow saw, I consider myself very, very lucky. We all learn something everyday, even if it is the hard way.