Slide Rules

An avalanche buried their friend -- and a Denver trio is still digging out.

A couple of weeks ago, near the first anniversary of Kenny's death, she pulled the children out of school. One of the boys had told her that he was starting to forget about his father, so Peggy kept them home and they spent the day looking at photographs and watching old videos of all of them together. "It was very healing," she says. "It was fun to see him and hear him again."

In a way, Richard has sought and found comfort in the absolute random power of an avalanche -- the sense that the snow, once set in motion, has a mysterious plan all its own that is beyond human understanding or control. "The second the avalanche started, your fate is pretty much set," he says. "Wherever you were at that moment, it's set. We could've been in different places and it would've been me they were digging out. There was no order in how we skied. If Kenny had skied behind me, we might have been digging for the Washington guy."

Richard spent the days after the accident shadowing Kenny's body as it navigated the complicated regulations of sending remains across international boundaries. "I invited my friend to go with me, and I'm not going home without him," he told anyone who seemed irritated by his presence.

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

Mike and Barry stayed behind. The day after the accident, they saw Heinz Mueller and asked him if he'd take them up skiing again. The guide burst into tears. "You mean you'd still go skiing with me?" he asked incredulously. It never worked out, though, and the two left without skiing another run.

Despite his outward speedy recovery, Mike struggled with his near-death experience. On Sunday evening, when he and Barry were asked to go to the hospital and identify Kenny's body, he hung back and didn't enter the room. That night in the hotel, he didn't sleep. And two days later, when he entered the funeral home where Kenny was lying in the casket, he began shaking uncontrollably.

"The thing about a traumatic skiing or climbing accident is that they're generally over in a matter of seconds," he explains. "My fall at Torrey's, when I landed, I knew I had a broken leg -- but I wasn't gonna die. But with the avalanche, I had thirty minutes to think, and ten minutes when I absolutely knew that I was going to die.

"When you've been through something traumatic, you start thinking about all kinds of strange things. Statistics say I shouldn't have survived. And there were so many flukes: turning to see the avalanche coming, getting the AvaLung in my mouth, Stefan and I crossing paths on the way down. I could have been buried where he was.

"That first night in bed, I couldn't sleep. I thought at some level that maybe I really wasn't alive. I wondered about how, underneath the snow, it hadn't been black, like I'd expected, but white. And I thought about the white light that people are always saying they saw when they are dying. I thought, 'Maybe it really is dark when you're buried, and I'm dead.'

"In the morgue, Kenny was laid out in the casket. It was on the far side of the room, and as we walked in, my palms started sweating and I started shaking all over. As we got closer, I realized that I was thinking, 'Am I going to look in that casket and see myself?' Because even then I wasn't sure if I had really survived. So many people tell you that you shouldn't be alive, you start to think that maybe it could have been a dream. It sounds crazy, but there was a sliver of doubt in my mind.

"Going into that room was like a horror film: You don't want to see, but you have to. As we got closer, I started to see Kenny's face. And that's when I finally realized that I was still alive."

During the past year, Mike says he has made an effort to connect with anyone and everyone with whom he'd fallen out of contact. Relationships, he says, are important. He's started what he hopes will turn into an annual trip with his father.

Barry says the accident also had an impact on their close friendship, although he doesn't understand all of it. Last May, he says, Mike suddenly dropped out of sight -- not returning calls, not stopping by, nothing. Barry even contacted his friend's parents to ask what had happened.

Finally, after six months, they met on a November night. They stayed awake all night, talking through the details of the accident, resolidifying their relationship. Mike says he just got caught up in work and didn't have time to get back to Barry. Barry isn't so sure. "He told me, 'When I look at you, I remember being buried,'" Barry recalls.

When the time came to decide whether to return to British Columbia this year, only Richard could not bring himself to go. On the day before the rest of the group left, Barry and his son Fuzzy visited Kenny's grave in Parker. They also had T-shirts made up: "In memory of Kenny P." They gave one each to Peggy and the kids, too.

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