Opinion » Alta States

Death in the mountains: A Cascadian tragedy in three parts



"The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time."

- Mark Twain

The avalanche slams into me like I was standing still. No transition. No warning. One moment I'm riding knee-deep fluff — effortless, beautiful, sensual, profound — the next I'm tumbling down the mountain in a crashing wave of snow. Swimming for all I'm worth. Dog paddling, crawling, backstroking — whatever it takes to stay on top of this mess. I don't know where my skis have gone. I don't know where my poles are. All I know is that I'm headed directly for a thick stand of trees — and the steep drop below that.

I was only gone for a week. You know, just a quick surf trip to the tropics with my college-aged kids; a rare chance to reinvigorate our sun-depleted bodies while eating fresh mangoes and papayas on the beach. Sure, I knew it would snow on the Wet Coast while we were away. Probably snow a lot — irony has ruled my life of late. But I didn't expect the mountains to steal another friend...

Damn. It happened so fast. From light to dark in the bat of an eye. So weird. And on such a nice day. How surreal. But there's no time for recriminations now. Gotta keep swimming. Gotta stay on top. Otherwise I'll drown...

It happened just down the highway. At a place called Stevens Pass in Washington's Cascade Range — and it happened just a short hike from the top of the resort's own Seventh Heaven lift. It's serious country up there. And it demands serious commitment. Just like our own coastal peaks. It's clearly not a place for dummies. And yet that's the screaming irony of this tragedy. For the individuals who got caught in last week's deadly slide were as pro as they come.

And then: WHOOMP! I'm driven into a tree with sickening force. The breath is sucked from my lungs. A lightning bolt of pain surges through my body. But I've stopped. For a moment, I think it's all over. I'm okay. I didn't get carried over the cliff. And then the debris starts to settle — and I realize that I'm getting buried alive.

I know. I know. Avalanches don't discriminate between experts and beginners. Still, the Stevens Pass crew featured an outstanding collection of skiers. Knowledgeable. Local. Fully prepared. There were no yahoos in the group. No one was looking for glory. And no one was walking in blind; everyone in that posse understood exactly how far out on the edge they were venturing. Still, the opportunity to tiptoe beyond the pale for some tribal soul riding was just too alluring a proposition to resist. And it was despite the risks — not because of them ("death happens to others") — that they found themselves in such dangerous circumstances. Which should make this particular tragedy resonate even more with Whistler's powder-obsessed hordes. But I digress...