Swept Away

Six friends headed off for a day of backcountry fun. But then came the fast slide to disaster.

Josh Shifferly hacks with a shovel at the icy hole in the snow where an avalanche had trapped him the month before. An evergreen just up the slope stands tall, part of the scraggly tree line some 500 feet below the broad, bald ridge leading to the 12,020-foot Cumberland Pass. This tree saved Shifferly's life, protecting him from torrents of snow when the whole slope suddenly slid. "It was like looking at an eddy in a river," he remembers. "It was like I was in the calm behind the tree."

About fifteen feet away, a little farther up the slope in a small clearing between trees, 22-year-old Matthew Alan Noddin suffocated under five feet of thickly packed snow. Not far from him, Andrew Patrick Vork, 20, and Casey James McKenny, 20, also suffocated under a smothering load of snow.

The February 6 Cumberland Pass slide was Colorado's worst avalanche accident since 1988. A huge, hard slab of snow, 1,500 feet wide and 6 feet deep, scoured the mountainside down to the bare ground. The snow packed so densely, so quickly, around the three men's bodies that they probably couldn't expand their chests to take a single breath.

Now a light snow is falling. Shifferly scrapes away at his hole. It's hard to imagine this feathery stuff killing. He remembers lunging as the avalanche carried him off. He landed below the tree on his back, his face uphill. He was halfway buried under snow. "I was completely twisted," he says. "My legs were all tangled. I couldn't wiggle my fingers. I couldn't move my legs."

His skis are still there, swallowed under the snow somewhere. He finds a black glove and tugs at it, but it's frozen solid. He'll have to wait until the spring melt to get it.

It was a sunny, blue-skied Saturday when six friends set out for a day of backcountry snowmobiling and skiing. Shifferly, a 22-year-old on-again, off-again student at Western State College in Gunnison, was best friends with Noddin, who lived in the apartment above him and attended the same school. McKenny and Vork, also students, shared an apartment in town with Vork's older brother. Joel Karinen, 21, a geology major, knew the others from school and skiing. Andrew Todd Chanos, 21, a childhood friend of Vork's, had road-tripped from Greeley, where he attends the University of Northern Colorado.

All six were accomplished skiers, and all but Chanos had plenty of experience skiing the backcountry around Crested Butte. They knew something about avalanches, mostly self-taught knowledge. They had safety equipment--rescue beacons, shovels and probe poles. They were aware of avalanche danger, talked about it throughout the day, listened to the warnings on the radio. They dug a snow pit to evaluate the stability of the snow and discussed what routes were safe to ski. Yet three of them died, and one survived by sheer luck: Shifferly owes his life to the sturdy evergreen tree.

At the time of the slide, Karinen and Chanos were out of sight and reach of the avalanche, waiting for the others at an impromptu "base camp" about a half-mile away that they'd set up at the ruins of the Bon Ton Mine.

"It sounds like these fellows tried to do a lot of things right," Dale Atkins, an avalanche forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, speculated in a phone interview a few days after the accident. A project of the Colorado Geological Survey, the CAIC provides avalanche forecasts and education through its hotline and Web site. "They had the right rescue gear, dug a pit. It sounds like a case of bad luck."

Two months later, however, after more information had been collected through site visits and interviews, the CAIC would have a different analysis of what happened that day. Statistically speaking, the party of six were in a high-risk category--simply because of who they were. Most people who die in backcountry avalanches happen to be young men. Between 1950 and 1997, 182 people between the ages of 20 and 29 died in avalanches in this country--42 percent of the total, according to the CAIC. Meanwhile, fatalities linked to snowmobiles have increased exponentially. Between 1985 and 1990, snowmobilers accounted for 5 percent of avalanche deaths. Between 1992 and 1998, however, more than one-third--34 percent--of U.S. avalanche fatalities were snowmobilers. In March 1999 alone, six snowmobilers died in an avalanche at Turnagain Pass, a popular recreation area in Alaska.

This winter, 27 people lost their lives in avalanches across the country. Six of them were in Colorado. Three were on the mountain with Shifferly.

Shifferly woke up that Saturday in the small two-bedroom apartment he shares with the mother of his son, Jack, then four months old. The apartment is typical student-issue--a bit run-down, with dark mildew on the ceiling in the bathroom and posters tacked on the walls. Noddin, Shifferly's best buddy, came down and helped him with the baby.

Then the two friends left, meeting up with their buddies and heading toward Pitkin, a town of about eighty an hour's drive northeast of Gunnison. Between them, they had four snowmobiles. Three belonged to Vork and one to Noddin. They were psyched to use the snowmobiles and ski lots of runs in the Cumberland Pass area.

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