Slide Rules

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

Regardless of who dies doing what, though, what is clear is that there has been a slight but unmistakable inching up of avalanche fatalities in this country. The 1998-1999 season smashed a longstanding record for fatal accidents, with 32 people dying. That was broken again in 2000-2001, with 33 fatalities, and again last year, during which a record 35 people died under the snow.

Another change has been in the type of person most likely to die in an avalanche, says Dale Atkins, a forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. "About fifteen years ago," he says, "the typical victim was a male in his mid-twenties, a backcountry skier who was very skilled at his sport, but with little or no avalanche training."

"In recent years, though, the victims have still tended to be males, although they're now in their mid-thirties. But they've also received some level of avalanche training."

Richard Hayward
Mark Manger
Richard Hayward

Which raises a question: If people these days are more mature and better trained, why are they still dying in record numbers?

Richard remembers the avalanche arriving as a breath of air, almost lifting him up and ahead so gently that at first he didn't even realize what was happening. "I started falling forward," he recalls. "I don't even remember a push. Just, 'Why the hell did I fall?'"

In retrospect, he realized that what he'd felt was the big balloon of air being pushed in front of the rushing wall of snow. An instant later, he was tumbling in the churning white. Despite being surrounded by physical violence, however, he remembers an almost eerie muffled silence, like pillows being thrown against each other. "It's totally quiet," he says. "But you're a rag doll."

The snow stopped at least two times and then started sliding again. Each time, it was like he'd been hit by a freeze gun, then released: "When the avalanche would stop, there was no movement; I just couldn't move at all. And then when it started again, I could -- until I stopped again."

He kicked and pulled, trying to keep the snow out of his face. But the force was enormous. In the short distance he was tumbled down the mountain -- he estimates it was only about forty yards -- he lost his poles, skis, gloves, hat and goggles. When the snow finally stopped for good, Richard was on his back, slightly reclined. Summoning a tremendous burst of energy, he managed to dig himself out. He remembers being surprised at how hard the snow seemed.

"The first thing I saw was Heinz, walking in his skis toward the slide," Richard recalls. "Then I looked up the slope and said, 'Oh, fuck.' It was huge. And I didn't see anybody."

Thanks to Mike yelling "Avalanche!" Barry knew the snow was coming -- but only for a split second. Still, it gave him an instant to react, and he instinctively tried to get out of the way. "The last thing I remember is planting and pushing with my poles, trying to move off to the side," he says. "Then I got hammered." Later, he would notice that the snow had hit him so hard that the strap of his watch left an indentation etched in his wrist that lasted a full day before his skin recovered.

The blocks of snow were the size of pool tables. Avalanche survival training teaches that if you are caught in a snowslide, you should "swim" in an effort to stay on top of the snow. But "I couldn't swim or even think about swimming," Barry says. "I was totally helpless. It's not my attitude to resign to anything. But it was so big."

Yet he also remembers feeling an odd but unmistakable sense of calm and clarity. "I have a good life-insurance policy and a deep faith in God," he recalls thinking. "I was expecting and anticipating heaven. I was totally at peace. So I was phenomenally surprised to stop."

Barry came to rest in a nearly sitting position. The snow made a diagonal line across his chest, leaving only his head, right shoulder and right arm free. "The snow is rock hard," he says. "You're totally packed in there." About one hundred feet below him, though, he saw a man from Seattle whom the group had made fun of earlier because he'd insisted on carrying his own shovel; usually only guides carry tools. In fact, Barry had nicknamed the guy "Shovelman."

Now, though, he was grateful. He called to Shovelman to come help him, and with his help, Barry was extricated. Once standing, Barry looked to his right, where Mike and Stefan had been when the snow hit. Neither was visible. "We have some big problems," he remembers thinking.

As the only guy who'd seen the avalanche coming, Mike was the sole member of the party able to prepare. He took the estimated two seconds between seeing the snow and getting hit by it to reach up to the top of his coat, struggle briefly with the zipper, reach inside and pull out a tube.

Mike is a self-described gear freak, and the previous Christmas, he'd asked his girlfriend to buy him a new device called an AvaLung. Its inventor, Thomas Crowley, a Denver psychiatrist, had wrestled with the basic problem of avalanche burial. Snow is quite porous, and thus there is plenty of air to sustain someone who is trapped. The problem comes when the person breathes out. The carbon dioxide does not disperse back into the snow. Instead, the victim's warm exhalations form a bowl-like crust in front of his mouth. Carbon dioxide is trapped there, and he soon dies of asphyxiation.

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