About twelve minutes past one on Sunday, February 10, 2002, Mike Morrisey found himself frozen suddenly and solidly into place. His left hand was extended up above his head, where he'd been trying to push snow away. His right hand remained down. He was sitting, seemingly on a chair, with his legs in front of him. Were it not for the fact that snow was crammed into his ears, his nose -- even under his eyelids -- it was as if he had landed in some yoga position for beginners.
Even so, he didn't panic right away. "I'm not claustrophobic -- I used to be a caver," Mike says. "And I've been doing this shit for 25 years, so I'm pretty good at talking to myself. I knew we were in a group -- that I'd get dug out soon. So I started talking to myself to keep calm."
"'It sucks that you're buried,'" he told himself. "'But you're alive and not hurt. Someone will come and dig you out.'"
Every serious backcountry skier has thought about what it would be like to be entombed in snow. Mike had always assumed that it would be pitch black, like the inside of a cave. But now he found himself noticing that it wasn't; it was white. Later, it was the white light that told Mike he'd died.
Barry Fisher and Mike Morrisey met more than fifteen years ago, during a climb on Independence Pass. By then, Mike was already an expert outdoorsman, having climbed mountains all over the West. When he was growing up in Ohio, his father would take the family on trips to the Rocky Mountains. So it was no surprise when, in 1976, Mike moved to Montana with no other ambition than to become a climbing bum.
The unstable lifestyle suited him fine. "I'd work three months and then climb six," he recalls. "I spent a year in New Zealand working and left with $850 in my pocket, and lived like a climbing bum king for almost a year. You get pretty efficient."
Just under climbing on Mike's list of passions was skiing, and soon he was combining the two. He was an accomplished backcountry skier. At times his routes bordered on extreme, and he'd had several close calls. The most recent had been on Mother's Day 1996, while skiing the north face of Torreys Peak, west of Denver.
"We usually climb what we're going to ski first," he says. "But on that day, we just traversed in. I always try to take a big jump on the first turn to test the stability of the snow, and this time the snow just slid off on the ice." Mike fell 1,200 feet. His femur snapped in several places, and he doesn't remember much else.
He stayed in the hospital for two weeks. "When I woke up, my entire family was there, so I knew it must have been bad," he says. "Evidently, I could've died at some point, but I don't remember it." Still, Mike always accepted -- even sought out -- risk, and factored it into the equation of his life. He has, for example, purposely maintained a life free of attachments (he has been "dating" his current girlfriend for seven years now). So as soon as his body would permit it, the adrenaline junkie was back up and skiing.
Barry was somewhat more cautious, though he was no less gonzo about his sports. As he and Mike became closer, Barry introduced him to his own passions, like barefoot waterskiing. They also began skiing the backcountry together. (Barry's kids called him "Uncle Mike"; Barry likes to say that Mike is "closer than a brother to me").
A native of Saskatchewan, Barry had started skiing in high school in the early 1970s. But years of hockey had trashed his knees. By the time he was an adult he could no longer ski any real bumps. His legs could still handle even hard turns, though, so instead of stopping he simply refined the conditions under which he'd go: Only big powder days, and, preferably, only heli-skiing.
Part of the thrill of backcountry skiing is the danger, and Barry had had his share of close calls, too. In 1999, he'd hit a chute right as an avalanche fault line ripped across the snow. He was lucky: His head stayed above the churning ice. His ride down was no more difficult than if he'd been dumped out of a raft in moderately fast whitewater. When the avalanche stopped, he simply stood up. "Dude, are you all right?" his son, Fuzzy, had asked as he rode up on his snowboard. They laughed -- but with snow stuffed into every nook and cranny in his body after only a fifty-yard ride, Barry skied away aware that he'd lucked out.
Barry and Mike decided to take their first heli-skiing trip to celebrate Mike's fortieth birthday -- the standard midlife tipping point. They settled on British Columbia, in the Selkirk Mountains, and in 1997, they flew to Calgary and drove west to the resort town of Revelstoke.
"There's three things I love about the trip," says Barry. "The skiing is fantastic. Riding in a helicopter is the ultimate gas; and there's nothing like being around good friends. We have huge memories." By 2001, when Mike and Barry invited Richard Hayward to join them, the heli-skiing out of Revelstoke had turned into an annual trip.
Richard knew Mike from work -- both were in the masonry business -- and they'd both moved to Denver at about the same time. They also had serious skiing in common. Richard had been skiing since he was four years old. His mother had raced and patrolled at Berthoud Pass ski area. "I grew up skiing," Richard says.
His first trip to British Columbia that year did not disappoint: beautiful scenery, perfect skiing, wonderful times. As soon as he got back, Richard immediately started selling his best friend, Kenny Peterson, on it. The two had known each other for 25 years, since they had started hunting and fishing together at the age of seventeen. When they were twenty, Richard and Kenny road-tripped to Alaska. They stayed for a month, sleeping outside, fishing, hiking, eating fresh-caught crabs. Richard even married Kenny's sister. When the two divorced, he and Kenny stayed close -- maybe even closer than before.
"Heli-skiing was his lifelong dream," Richard says. It wasn't an exaggeration. Kenny, a former ski instructor at Purgatory, had told his future wife, Peggy, the exact same thing when they met in Durango in 1984. "He loved to make first tracks," Peggy says. "Over the years, it was always there in his mind. He didn't talk about it all the time. But it was there." Instead, Kenny had passed his love for the sport on to his four children. By the time his young girl was four years old, the Petersons could ski together as a family.
"If you ever have an opening for me, tell me -- I'm there," Kenny told Richard. His chance came in June 2001, when a couple of men who'd planned to make the annual trip to B.C. canceled. With Kenny's July 17 birthday coming up, Peggy cut a picture of a skier out of a magazine and stuffed it inside an envelope with a note. "Go for it!" it said. "Happy birthday."
The group -- Barry, Mike, Richard and Kenny -- arrived in Revelstoke, B.C., on February 9, 2002. The first morning at the lodge dawned cloudy, but with promise for an uncharacteristically nice day. Blue streaks slid through the gauzy cloud cover. Barry, Mike and Richard knew what to expect of the day. But it was Kenny, the newcomer, who was the most excited. When Richard woke up the following morning, his best friend was already sitting on the edge of his bed, looking out the window toward the mountains.
Barry is firm in his Christian faith, and when he describes the mountains of Western Canada, he can't help but see a divine footprint. "When God made the mountains, I believe he made them with himself in mind: majestic, awesome, unsearchable, impressive, striking, touching and even, perhaps, fearful," he says. "Unless you have been there, you cannot imagine just how majestic the Canadian Rocky Mountains are."
One hundred sixty miles due west of Calgary, Revelstoke is practically surrounded by towering mountains -- the Monashee Range to the west and the Selkirks to the northeast. Although the town itself sits at less than 1,500 feet of elevation, three dozen miles away, peaks soar as high as 11,000 feet. The contrast is awesome.
Typical of most heli-skiing operations, the evening before and the morning of the first day out there are spent on avalanche training. Clients are taught how to use their beacons; they also conduct a mock search-and-rescue operation.
The Denver-area group had been joined by a half-dozen other guys from Seattle and England. Their guides were two men with plenty of experience: Heinz Mueller, certified by the International Federation of Mountain Guides, had five years with the heli-skiing company; the assistant guide and tail-gunner -- the guide who brought up the rear of each run -- was Stefan Seidler. He had been guiding the Selkirks for two years.
With half the morning already gone from the training, the number of runs during the first day was always less than that of subsequent days, during which a group can anticipate a dozen good trips down the mountain. Even so, by the time the group broke for lunch, halfway down Mt. Laforme, on a route known as "Old Man," they'd had two great runs through knee-deep powder. As they always did about this time, the men had regressed to primordial ski-bum mode.
"Typically, the food is great," says Barry. "So we're sitting around, seeing the helicopter off on the horizon, looking at this amazing scenery. Everyone is just quiet, eating and looking." Inevitably, the same conversation they have each year begins again: "We start speaking about how we're going to move to Revelstoke and just ski. At this moment, this is what we do."
Kenny was overwhelmed. He turned to Richard. "You know," he said. "I've tried to think about how to describe how beautiful this place is, how awesome the skiing is. And you know what? The words don't even come close." Richard snapped a picture of his friend. "You could see the excitement in his eyes," Peggy says.
For the first run after lunch, the group was flown up to a landing area on a shoulder of Mt. Laforme, just over 8,000 feet in elevation. The location was less than twenty miles from Revelstoke, but it seemed a world away. An open bowl of fresh powder lay before them. About a half-mile down, the run was peppered with trees, after which it leveled off into a creek bed. While not a killer decline, the 35-degree slope assured plenty of vertical drop.
After testing the snow's stability by digging a shallow pit, Heinz directed the skiers to begin heading down the mountain about 150 feet apart, or about one every fifteen seconds, so as to minimize the potential of setting off an avalanche. As they plowed through the powder cutting fresh tracks, Richard flew to the ground.
"There's nothing but snowfields, and somehow I hit a rock," he says. "It just pole-axed me -- I literally flipped through the air." With his equipment spread out in the snow, a couple of skiers stopped to help him back on his feet. "Every time you fall, it's a struggle," Richard says. "The snow is just so deep."
For his part, Barry, the last one to drop into the bowl, ignored him. "It's a big powder day; you see a heap of people, you say, 'Yeah, whatever.' I mean, you're just in the moment. We're a pretty wild bunch of cowboys. We let our hair down; we play hard and ski hard."
After the group gathered together with everyone accounted for, Heinz instructed them once more to keep their distance, then headed downhill. Seeing that no one else was going, Richard followed. Next, John, a guy from Washington state, went. Kenny followed. Barry and Mike, who liked to ski together, lingered. So did Stefan, the tail-gunner.
As the group started following Heinz down the slope, skiing slightly to the left, a second group of skiers was just being let off the helicopter at the landing area above them. While they assembled their equipment, their guide hopped down beneath a cornice to dig another quick pit to check the snow's stability. As he landed, a crack opened just below him.
For reasons that continue to mystify him, at that moment, Mike happened to look up the mountain. He saw the crack spread across the slope like a cartoon ice break, zigzagging from rock to rock in an impossibly deliberate path. And then, as he watched, a massive wall of snow released.
"I saw a huge cloud -- or at least I that's what I thought," he recalls. "That range is always socked in, and I just thought that a giant cumulus had settled into the valley. But the more I stared at it, the more I could see it was churning. If you've ever seen the video on the JumboTron at the Avalanche games, it looked exactly like that."
In a study completed in 1965, a U.S. Forest Service researcher set out to discover who, exactly, had died in Colorado avalanches since records had been kept. He found that in the 82 years between 1883 and 1965, 206 people had perished under the snow. For the first fifty years, the fatalities had been exclusively miners -- 175 of them through 1935.
In fact, the first backcountry skier death due to an avalanche doesn't even appear until the 1947-1948 season, when two skiers became the first in the state's history to die. Over the next twenty years, the pattern more or less held, with six more skiers succumbing to avalanches. But during the same period, 21 other Coloradans lost their lives to snow burial, the vast majority of them on the state's roads, where they were either driving or working.
Today, of course, the economy has shifted dramatically toward recreation and away from mining and other backcountry work. These days, only a fraction of snow burials happen to people who are working. This is true in the rest of the country as well. Between 1985 and 2001, 327 people were killed in the United States by avalanches. Of those, only eleven, or a bit over 3 percent, died while on the job. Thanks to a modern economy, the remaining 97 percent perished while playing.
(World avalanche deaths generally follow that pattern, although in second- and third-world countries, as well as in mountainous parts of Europe, deadly avalanches are still a fact of everyday life. In September 2001, more than one hundred Russian villagers were buried by a snowslide. This past December, five Iranians died under snow while driving a mountain highway.)
When most people think of avalanche fatalities these days, they tend to envision backcountry skiers -- those who like to combine their skiing with wilderness. And there are many instances of this type of accident; the seven high school students who died on February 1 in British Columbia during a wilderness education trip were skiing. Yet statistics show that most avalanche fatalities occur during other sporting activities.
In the United States, more people die from avalanches while riding snowmobiles than during any other activity. (In Europe, where the sport is less popular, skiers and hikers die at a greater rate than snowmobilers. Colorado is another exception; more people here die while backcountry skiing.) The high numbers are due to the machines' weight, which can trigger a snowslide easier than a single person; in addition, snowmobiles can roar up and across snowfields numerous times, weakening their structure on each pass.
Nationally, the only exception to the trend of high snowmobile mortality was a period from 1998 to 2001, when snowboarders, feeling their radical oats by riding out of bounds and in the backcountry, overtook snowmobilers as the most likely to perish under the snow. In winter 2001-2002, however, after three seasons, the order was restored. So far this year, snowmobilers are once again dying at about two times the rate of backcountry riders.
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."
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.
Crowley's reasons for wanting another tool to help him survive an avalanche weren't complicated. "I kept thinking, 'I would really hate to suffocate under two tons of snow,'" he recalls. His prototype -- a snorkel covered by a filter made out of his wife's pantyhose -- worked so well that he refined the under-snow breathing apparatus. A year later, he convinced Black Diamond, a Utah-based outdoor-gear manufacturer, to make the Ava- Lung. The device is worn like a vest, with a snorkel-like tube in the front that is designed to draw air out of snow. The system then directs the person's exhalations behind him, delaying asphyxiation.
The company arranged tests in which subjects agreed to be buried under the snow both with and without the device. Those buried without the system were provided a small pocket of air in front of their faces -- the same thing that experts recommend victims try to create before the snow settles around them. The results of the tests made it into the Journal of the American Medical Association. With the AvaLung, "victims" could almost always stay buried for up to an hour. Without one, their carbon dioxide levels began reaching dangerous levels at around eight minutes.
Mike had wanted an AvaLung because he always needed the latest gadget. But all the time he'd spent in the backcountry had given him a funny feeling of inevitability, too. "I'd been taking avalanche and snow science for fifteen years," he says. "I'd never been caught in one, but I knew the law of averages was going to catch up with me sooner or later."
Still, "I didn't know what it was going to feel like getting hit," Mike says. "I'd heard that it was like being slammed by a bus. But this was more like being nudged by a bus. It was like being in a big tumble dryer full of towels -- very soft, very quiet, like a wave in the ocean. All around you are these soft 'whumping' noises."
Mike agrees that "there was no chance of swimming at all." Still, he was grateful to learn that what he'd heard about orientation inside an avalanche -- that when you are caught in snow you can't tell which way is up and which way is down -- was also wrong. "When I was tumbling, I could always tell whether I was upside down or right side up," he says. "At one point my head popped up and I saw the sky, but then I was dragged under again. Most of the time when I was down, I could feel the hard ground underneath me. Then I went over this rock 'band,' and I lost the ground."
Scientists who have studied avalanches know that a snowslide very closely mimics the movement of water as it flows and moves downhill and around objects. As it pours over an obstacle, for instance, snow -- like water -- creates an eddy, or a spot of calm where it moves back toward the direction of the main flow. Mike had landed in one.
As the snow began to fill in around him, he remembers reaching up with his left hand to try to clear the snow that was still racing by away from his head. Then, with a giant "whump," the main flow of the avalanche charged over him, and he was covered.
Although snow has been studied in one form or another for thousands of years, there still remains some debate over why avalanches set up so hard immediately after they stop. Most people who have been caught in one, or who have spent time digging people out of avalanches, describe the snow as "concrete." Some researchers maintain that it is a simple matter of compaction -- that the sheer weight, combined with the velocity of the slide, crushes the snow into what is, in effect, a giant snowball.
More recent research, however, has hinted that the enormous amount of kinetic energy created by snow racing down a mountain actually creates heat, which in turn melts some portion of the snow. When an avalanche stops, it then re-freezes nearly instantly, molding into a form around whatever happens to be inside. Rescuers often say that if you could cut around a buried person with a saw, you would see a perfect indentation of the person's body -- like that of an injection mold.
The actual number of people who perish each year in Colorado as the result of an avalanche is relatively small. In any given season, about seven people will be buried to death. Statistically, that means you are more than three times as likely to get struck by lightning as you are to die by avalanche in this state. Yet Colorado remains the avalanche mishap capital of the country; in a typical year, about one in every three avalanche accidents will happen here.
Many believe this is the result of the state's phenomenal population spurt during the last decade. "A million more people in Colorado, a million more people recreating," Atkins says. Yet other states have seen similar growth without a comparable increase in fatalities. The real cause of Colorado's high mortality rate is the snow. The state's fluffy white stuff, which draws hundreds of thousands of powder-hungry resort skiers, is also a liability.
Many metaphors have been used to describe how snow becomes an avalanche. Bruce Tremper, a Utah forecaster, tells people to imagine a dictionary resting on potato chips. Others liken it to snow sitting on a pitched metal roof. The mechanics are the same: A heavy layer of snow lying on top of a steep, slippery surface will slide. In snow science, the slippery part of the equation is referred to as "stability"; the art of forecasting avalanches lies in calculating the slipperiness of the roof.
Once triggered, most avalanches are pretty much the same: Snow, usually (but not always) in the shape of a book-like slab, slides down a slope. That said, different regions of the country have different avalanche risks. On the West Coast of North America, higher temperatures and proximity to the ocean mean that snow is heavy and frequent. During and immediately after heavy snowfalls, avalanches are common as the snow comes to terms with gravity. Yet it doesn't take long for the wet snow to settle and stabilize -- maybe a few hours or a day.
By contrast, Colorado's snow is drier -- the so-called champagne powder -- and less frequent. In a typical year, the mountains will see a heavy snow in November, and then a long period of dry weather. Over time, that initial layer of snow loses stability, turning into dry, sand-like crystals. The relative infrequency of storms, combined with the region's dryness, means that the snow never really gets a good chance to settle.
As a result, while Colorado sees fewer avalanches during and immediately after a storm than the West Coast does, the danger of avalanches here exists days or even weeks after the snow stops falling. Over the past couple of years, this pattern has been intensified by the state's drought. "Drier years have a weaker, more dangerous snowpack," says Atkins. He likes to say that Colorado's avalanche season "ends around August 31 and starts about the first week of September." But most of the state's snowslides occur between November and April.
Even with perfect avalanche conditions, a trigger is required to set the snow sliding. In ski areas and on high mountain roads, this is done artificially, to control when and where the avalanche occurs. Wind and other natural phenomena can also set off a snowslide.
Yet studies of avalanche accidents have consistently shown that, in nine out of ten deadly avalanches, it was a human that set off the snow. In other words, the odds are overwhelming that if you find yourself "caught" in an avalanche, you -- or one of your party -- started it.
After nearly four decades of working in and around avalanches, Tom Kimbrough is ready to retire. "I figure I'm not dead, so I'd better get out soon," he says. An employee of the U.S. Forest Service, Kimbrough has been caught in avalanches and pulled countless people, both alive and dead, out of snowy tombs.
Now with the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, he says he has been impressed with the advances in avalanche rescue tools. Take beacons, the transmitters that have become standard equipment in backcountry sports. Worn by responsible skiers and snowmobilers, a beacon emits a magnetic signal that rescuers, using their own beacons, can pick up and use to locate a buried person.
Despite their promise, beacons take a fair amount of training and finesse to use, although a new generation of machines makes pinpointing a buried signal much easier. But even the new beacons aren't foolproof, and recent research shows that the majority of people persist in underestimating the practice required to become proficient in using a rescue beacon. In field studies, Atkins, of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, says that ski patrollers, professional guides and others who perform search-and-rescue operations for a living can use a signal to locate a buried body in an average of seventeen minutes.
By contrast, the average recreational beacon user takes an average of 35 minutes to find the same body. Subtleties -- such as the fact that, depending on how the rescuer is holding his beacon, he can actually lose a signal the closer he gets to a body -- continue to confuse the occasional user. "Most people who have transmitters," says Atkins, "can't use them quickly enough."
Worse, rescuers don't tell you that even the time it takes a professional to dig out a buried party is not particularly encouraging. For years, searchers had operated under the assumption that if a person had been buried for fifteen minutes or less, his chances of survival were excellent. After that, it was thought that asphyxiation occurred slowly over the next fifteen minutes, with mortality rates shadowing the gentle curve.
A decade ago, however, a team of Swiss scientists looked at avalanche victims in Switzerland between 1981 and 1991 and found that assumption to be wrong. Although the researchers confirmed that a person uncovered in fifteen minutes or less had an excellent chance of survival -- about 92 percent -- his likelihood of living past that time did not decrease gradually at all. Instead, it plummeted dramatically. The study concluded that by the time a victim had been buried for 35 minutes, he would have less than a one in three chance of being revived. (Interestingly, once he has made it that long, the odds of living stay about the same through ninety minutes.)
There have been exceptions. The record time for burial in snow, set by a Canadian highway worker, is just over 25 hours. In the mid-'80s, a Colorado miner at the Bessie G. mine in the LaPlata Mountains outside of Durango was trapped in snow for seventeen and a half hours and lived to tell about it. He was saved by his waterproof suit, mining helmet and a cover of loose snow.
The Swiss study was not very encouraging overall. Of the 422 victims included in the report, the researchers found that 241, or 57 percent, were dead upon extraction. They also found that there had been no decline in the mortality rate from 1981 to 1991, despite significant advances in search-and-rescue techniques, as well as better emergency medical care. Once again, the reason was simply a matter of minutes: By the time a search party could be mobilized, in most instances it was already far too late.
The majority of backcountry athletes who are honest with themselves will admit that the study confirmed what they already knew -- that despite all the advances in rescue appliances and survival gear, one factor more than any other influences whether a person lives or dies in an avalanche: luck.
By way of example, Atkins notes a rash of recent Colorado incidents. On February 22, a young man was covered by an avalanche while ski touring on Mt. Belford, near Buena Vista. The following day, another young man was swept up in snow while skiing out of bounds near Beaver Creek; that same day, a man was trapped by an avalanche while navigating a backcountry hut trip near Vail Pass. One day later, on February 24, a 24-year-old man was covered while skiing out of bounds at Arapahoe Basin.
The cases were remarkably similar. After being trapped by snow, in each instance the victim was freed by the quick work of his companions. Depth of burial didn't seem to make a difference, either. The Mt. Belford man was barely covered at all. In fact, his backpack, which he was still wearing, was visible on top of the snow. And he was the only one of the four who perished.
Perhaps in recognition of the lead role of luck in avalanches, there has been a subtle shift in the type of equipment being marketed to, and purchased by, backcountry users. Whereas gear once focused primarily on rescue-oriented equipment -- beacons and RECCO, a system that uses a series of pulses and reflectors to locate a buried victim -- the latest avalanche-related stuff is more survival-oriented.
In addition to the AvaLung, which becomes useful once you are buried, outdoor retailers have also started offering several air-bag type devices that strap to a person's back. When activated by a gas canister or spring, a giant balloon inflates. The idea is that the big bubble will keep a person caught in an avalanche floating on top of the snow instead of being dragged underneath it.
Still, neither invention has been proven to be significantly helpful, although they eventually may be. There has been only one documented instance of an AvaLung working in an actual avalanche burial. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the air bags may help -- if a person has the presence of mind to tug on the rip cord that inflates the balloon. Atkins also worries that backcountry athletes, confident that the new equipment will save them in an avalanche, will start to feel invincible.
And so, he concludes, he will, for the moment, stick to what he knows. "Survival of an avalanche," Atkins says firmly, "is more a matter of luck than skill or equipment."
The rescue on Old Man in British Columbia went about as smoothly as it could. A helicopter pilot flying overhead saw the slide and immediately radioed in for help. On the ground, the head guide, Heinz Mueller, heard the radio transmission and managed to escape the avalanche unscathed by skiing to the side of the slide. He waited it out behind a small ridge.
By the time the avalanche had stopped moving -- estimated at half a minute from start to finish -- three people were partially buried; Barry, Richard and John Gould, a Seattle skier. Three others -- Mike, Stefan and Kenny -- were nowhere in sight.
Still, the rescue effort was proceeding rapidly. Only two minutes after the snow slab broke loose, a helicopter had already dropped off two guides on top of the run, and they'd begun to ski downhill to assist in the digging. Richard soon freed himself. With the help of Shovelman, Barry, too, was able to extricate himself from the packed snow.
At first, Richard saw no one. A moment later he spotted Heinz hurrying toward the slide. Another look up the slope revealed a forehead. Richard ran over and scraped snow away from John's face and dug a pit down to his neck. John was breathing and could speak. Richard asked if he was okay. John said he thought he was hurt. "I'm sorry," Richard told him. "But I gotta leave you. I'll be back."
He helped Heinz assemble the long probe from the guide's pack. The two then switched their beacons from "transmit" to "receive" and began listening. After a moment, their two signals converged about sixty feet upslope from John. Heinz instructed Richard to begin digging there; the guide then left to follow other signals.
"Digging was terrible," recalls Richard, who is 6'5" and athletic. "It's like shoveling wet concrete." Despite the strong beacon signals, he also couldn't hit anything with his probe. A moment later, the guide from the second group who'd been checking the snow when the avalanche started showed up. He was bloody and seemed disoriented, but the two dug as fast as they could.
Fifteen feet to their left, Heinz had zeroed in on another signal. He planted a ski pole there and moved on. A couple of minutes later, another skier from their group located a third signal, about a dozen yards on the other side of where Richard was still digging. Two skiers began digging there.
Several dozen yards upslope, Barry, Shovelman and a couple others had started walking a grid pattern with their beacons on, listening for sounds. After a few minutes of hearing nothing, and with the activity growing below them, Barry decided to ski downhill to help out there. Recognizing Richard, who was still frantically digging, Barry found a shovel and started to help.
It was at that point that one of the strangest parts of the whole incident occurred. Richard and Barry had been exchanging tools as they searched -- first probing, feeling for a body with the pole and then shoveling. At one point, they'd jammed the probe into the snow to the side of their hole while they both dug. Suddenly, the probe started gyrating wildly, whipping in a circle -- "like an antenna in the wind," Barry says.
"It was going crazy," says Richard. "There was no wind, nobody had hit it." They stared for a second and then, thinking that whoever was buried beneath them had somehow managed to grab it, they started digging frantically, with shovels and hands. But underneath the probe was...nothing. "In my life, I've been able to explain 99 percent of what has happened," says Richard. "That was part of the 1 percent." They'd also wasted time.
After a few minutes, Richard looked up and over to his left and noticed that one person had been pulled out of the snow. It was Kenny. Two of the English guys were already performing CPR on him. Richard ran over. "This is my friend," he yelled. "Let me help."
He started breathing into Kenny's mouth. "I was screaming at him, 'Come on, Kenny! Come on! Do something!' I kept shaking him," Richard recalls. After what seemed to take forever, some others came over, strapped Kenny to a backboard and carried him to a waiting helicopter. According to a timeline later constructed by investigators, Kenny had been buried for twelve minutes. Despite statistical reason for hope, "I knew it was bad," Richard says.
A few minutes later, Barry heard someone yell, "We found a hand!" Abandoning his digging at the first hole, he rushed over. When he saw the flash of clothing, he knew immediately who it was under the snow. "When I realized it was Mike, I pushed the guide away and turned into a snowblower," he says.
At that point, he was certain he was on a recovery mission. "I knew for a fact that Mike was dead," he explains. "I'd seen Kenny getting CPR out of my peripheral vision, and Mike had been buried much longer. So I knew that my best friend was dead, too. But you keep digging, because it's your job."
By the time Mike's head was uncovered, nearly 35 minutes had passed. He was unconscious. Barry reached down under his chin and felt for a pulse. It was there, but it was weak.
Mike had been buried under six feet of snow. He heard nothing. "Everything had happened very quickly, but when I was buried, things slowed down to a crawl," he says. He concentrated on keeping his breathing even. At first, he was confident. He'd been skiing in a group; surely someone would find him soon.
After some time passed, though, he began to wonder. His listening for sounds grew so concentrated that he began to imagine them. He began to consider the possibility that the others all had been buried, too. Maybe, he thought, this will take longer than I anticipated.
Finally, he knew that he was alone. "I thought, 'They're not coming,'" he recalls. "This is the last thing I'll ever do."
He also remembers getting angry. "Right before the trip," he says, "I'd had several setbacks, and a half-dozen people had told me I shouldn't come on the trip. First, I blew out my back; I was laid up in bed for a few days. Then I got the flu. Then, the night before I left, I got an infected root canal. My face was all swollen up. The day before I left, I started mega-dosing on penicillin and Percosets.
"My girlfriend said, 'Don't you think this is a sign?' I told her, 'Nah.' Then my secretary said, 'It's a sign -- don't go.' So I'm buried in an avalanche and I'm thinking, 'What the fuck does it take for me to get a clue?'
"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."
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.
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.
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.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
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.
Mike says that, on balance, nature has given him back far more than it took from him that one day. "Of everything in nature, from the sublimely beautiful to the haphazardly disastrous, I'd say 90 percent of the stuff I've been through in the mountains has been sublimely beautiful," he says.
Still, he adds, "Me and Barry, we watch each other a lot closer now." A month ago, on the group's first day out, the clouds that normally blanket the Selkirk Mountains broke open, revealing a blindingly blue sky. The conditions were perfect. Mike stepped to the edge of the empty bowl. He looked both ways, jammed the AvaLung into his mouth, and pushed off into space. "It was one of the best days skiing in my life," he says.