Slide Rules

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

"I didn't feel sad," he continues. "I felt bad -- mostly for my parents. I don't have any kids, so they don't have any grandkids; I'm all they have. Thirty minutes is plenty of time to think about this. I mean, you can't balance your checkbook in thirty minutes. But somehow it's plenty of time to think about a lot of important stuff.

"I remember thinking, 'Boy, I wish I'd told my mom and dad I loved them.' I thought about all the things I'd done wrong. Like how I wished I'd embraced life more before I'd left. You know how they say your life flashes before your eyes before you die? That's what I think it's about. I mean, I couldn't have wished for a better life. But you don't tell the people who are important to you how much you love them."

Mike began planning his death. As an experienced backcountry skier and outdoorsman, "I knew that hypothermia would cause intense, uncontrollable shivering," he remembers thinking very rationally. "And I thought that if it came to that, I'd just spit the mouthpiece out and go to sleep. That'd be the easier choice."

Craig LaRotonda
Craig LaRotonda

Whether or not he actually did that is unclear. Mike doesn't remember the next few minutes. When he was found, however, the AvaLung mouthpiece wasn't in his mouth. His breaths were short and slight. Rescuers later calculated he was less than 120 seconds from death.

"I watched him regain consciousness," Barry says. "Can you imagine going from death to life in a microsecond? It's pretty amazing. He began talking pretty quick. He thought a leg and arm was broke, so I dug him out pretty carefully."

"I remember looking out through this long tunnel, and Barry's face was the first thing I saw," Mike says. "He was crying. I remember being overwhelmed with emotion. I thought, 'I hope he's not gonna kiss me.' But I was pretty glad to see ol' Barry."

"I gave Mike a big kiss and jumped up from his pit and ran over to Stefan," Barry says. The rescuers had finally found his body. "He was still pinned in the snow, but they'd already started giving him CPR." The assistant guide's ski suit had been completely shredded by rescuers as they'd attempted to pull him out of the snow. One of his legs was twisted in a complete turn.

After a few more minutes of digging and pulling, Stefan was flown away in another helicopter. "I knew he was dead," Barry says. Stefan had been buried 44 minutes under twelve feet of snow.

Looking back at that one terrible hour on the slope, the thing Richard remembers the most is time, a presence whose significance grew and grew until it enveloped him like a blanket. "You have no idea of the realm of time," he says. "Walking on a jumble field of snow on ski boots on a slope -- it takes two or three minutes. Everything takes time -- and you do not have time, and it is slipping away through your fingers so fast. Every ten or fifteen seconds you gain knowledge, but two minutes ago, when you needed it most, you didn't know it. So you've still lost time."

Richard left on the last helicopter off the mountain. He carries a vivid memory: looking out on the vast and empty expanse of white, unbroken snow as he flew away. "It's so beautiful," Richard thought. Then: "Why us?"

A year later, Richard continues to be haunted by the death of his best friend. "You wish you'd never have asked him to go," he says, still unable to talk of the incident without choking up -- or in the first person. "But if you deprive one of your friends one of his lifelong dreams, that'd be just as wrong."

Peggy, Kenny's wife, agrees. "My kids still ask me, 'Why'd you let him go?' Well, I'm not his mother; I didn't tell him what to do. But I also tell them that we only get one shot at this life, and it was a dream of his. His knees were shot from high school, and his time was running out for him to do this."

Still, Peggy says that skiing was a sensitive subject in her family for a while. "All last summer I kept saying to the kids, 'I don't know if we're going to want to ski this year,'" she says. Usually the family would turn in its equipment from the previous year over the summer. But this time they just couldn't seem to get around to it.

As skiing season approached, however, one of the kids allowed that he might be interested in trying snowboarding. That seemed to break the spell, and two others cautiously added that they thought snowboarding might be something fun to try, too. In January, the Petersons went skiing together for the first time this year. A month later, Richard and Mike took the three boys to Winter Park on another trip. Peggy says she is trying to encourage the children to do all the things that Kenny taught them to love: skiing, snowmobiling, dirt biking, hunting.

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