Swept Away

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.

"It was a beautiful day--clear sky, barely any wind," remembers Chanos. "Yeah, a perfect day." This was no Everest expedition, just six kids pumped full of adrenaline, ready to rage in the backcountry.

The weather was beautiful, and it had been several days since the last snowfall, one indication of relative safety from avalanches. Most slides run soon after a storm, triggered by the weight of the snowfall, making powder-hounding a highly risky activity. "We heard the avalanche report on the radio," Shifferly remembers. "They were saying moderate or something like that...We talked about it, and we're, like, staying in the trees, low angle."

Skiing in trees can be safer than skiing on open slopes, although that's hardly a foolproof rule. (Trees can anchor snow to a slope, making it more stable, but only if the trees are so close together that they are "annoying," according to The Avalanche Handbook.) Most avalanches run on slopes that are on a 30- to 45-degree angle. Steeper than that and the snow tends to slide off frequently, so it never builds enough volume to run big. Less steep and there's not enough pull from gravity on the snowpack. Shifferly and the others knew this, and planned to avoid steep, open slopes.

Once in Pitkin, they loaded their gear onto the four snowmobiles at the trailhead leading up to Cumberland Pass, ten miles away. But they didn't sled to the top right away. They stopped short at the ruins of the Bon Ton Mine, a series of wooden shacks in various stages of decay, ceilings open to the sky. This would be their base camp, about a half-mile vertically below the ridgeline. Here they left Noddin's snowmobile. The plan was to take turns skiing: three snowmobilers towing three skiers.

All six strapped on beacons, small electronic devices that transmit and receive signals to and from each other. They have been standard safety items for highway crews and ski patrollers, as well as backcountry enthusiasts, since the late 1960s. If someone is lost--or buried--the others can search for him by using their beacons to pinpoint the missing person's signal.

From the Bon Ton Mine, the top of the ridge leading to Cumberland Pass is not visible. A series of gentle switchbacks climb the wooded slope. The friends sledded up the switchbacks until they reached the top one. That path traverses the pass on an upward diagonal from left to right, roughly southwest to southeast, dipping into a knoll before reaching the top. The road cut for the switchback also roughly marks the edge of the tree line. From there the summit ridge rises broad and bald.

While not particularly steep--the slope above the road cut measures about 34 degrees--it was heavy with snow that day. Prevailing winds had loaded the slope with snow, although there was no telltale cornice, an overhanging ridge of snow that forms at the top of a ridge when snow blows over from the other side.

"I looked up at the big snowcap on top of Cumberland and said, 'You know, guys, this kind of looks like avalanche territory,'" says Chanos. "I got a kind of weird feeling about it. But I was amongst a bunch of people who were a little more experienced than I was." Chanos wasn't the only member of the group thinking about avalanches. Karinen, Shifferly and McKenny decided to test the snow on the slope. They climbed about forty or fifty feet above the road cut and used their shovels to isolate a square column of snow, about two feet by two feet, all the way down to the ground.

A column of snow like this relates an enormous amount of information about the snowpack. It is usually easy to see different layers of snow, deposited by various storms throughout the winter. Brushing the side of the snow wall with a glove or a brush also helps reveal the layers. How stable the snowpack is depends on how well the layers of snow have bonded together. Slab avalanches, the most dangerous type of slide, occur when a section of bonded snow--triggered by some sort of stress, such as the weight of new snow or a skier--collapses and slides down a weak layer. (Imagine two books, one on top of the other, balanced on a slight downward angle. If a small shove is given to the top book, it will slide down the bottom book--just as one slab of snow will slide along another slab of snow. Or think of a house of cards: The vertical cards are like weak layers of snow, and the horizontal cards, balanced precariously on top of them, are slabs. Touch one of the horizontal cards and the whole house tumbles down, the way an avalanche crashes down a mountain.)

Karinen and Shifferly remember finding a layer of "depth hoar": loose, crystallized snow that is very weak, at the bottom of the isolated snow column. "We saw the layer of depth hoar, for sure," says Shifferly. "It was located in the rock there, in the heavy talus [a slope formed by rock debris]. We knew there was a rotten layer because we'd seen it all this year, and it was like, 'It looks like rotten snow in the talus, like it always does.'"

Depth-hoar crystals form when there is a large temperature difference between the bottom of the snow pack and the top (the difference must be 5.5 degrees Fahrenheit per foot). The Rocky Mountains are notorious depth-hoar breeders, and the 1998-1999 winter had been all too typical. Temperature variations are greater in shallow snow than in deep snow. The first snow fell around Thanksgiving, but the next appreciable storms didn't occur until January. By early February, the layers of snow from the early storms had mutated into the depth hoar that Shifferly and Karinen saw on Cumberland Pass.

After eyeballing the snow column, Shifferly stuck his shovel behind it. "I tapped on the handle--tapped twice--and nothing happened; three times and nothing happened; pulled twice and nothing happened; pulled on the handle three times, and at that," he remembers, "the two-foot layer popped out, and that was it." Shifferly is describing what experts call a "shovel-shear" test, a way to find weak layers in the snow that are not easy to eyeball. The test showed that in addition to the bottom layer of depth hoar, there was a thin, weak layer of snow about two feet down in the snowpack.

(Early reports on the February 6 avalanche stated that the party had done a different test, one known as a "Rutschblock test." In this test, a larger column of snow is isolated. The tester climbs up the column with his skis and then gently jumps on the block until it slides. The more pressure required to make the block slide, the more stable the snowpack. Though a Rutschblock test is far from foolproof, it is a more reliable predictor of stability than a shovel-shear test. The confusion about what sort of test the party had done probably came from the survivors themselves. In interviews, Shifferly referred to the test as a Rutschblock but then described the shovel-shear procedure. Shifferly learned everything he knows about avalanche safety from other skiers in the backcountry rather than the classroom; he didn't know the right name for the test the group had done.)

Karinen and Shifferly both thought the shovel-shear test showed there was some danger, but not excessive danger. There were no telltale signs of trouble on the slope. No shooting cracks in the snow as they moved across it. No hollow "whoomphing" sounds, which can reveal that one layer of snow is settling onto another.

"We talked about how there was potential for an avalanche," Karinen remembers. "And that we should not do a massive attempt on the slope."

"It was pretty bomber, I thought," Shifferly says, "pretty tight down to that layer of sugar at the bottom. As long as we're not trouncing down this at the same time, if we go one at a time--that's what I thought."

During the test, Chanos skied down the trail about fifty feet and was "shooting the shit" with Vork, who was on a snowmobile. Chanos remembers Karinen, Shifferly and McKenny saying that everything was okay.

Time to ski. Karinen, Chanos and McKenny went first, starting at tree line to skiers' right on the slope, then running down through the trees all the way to the Bon Ton Mine, about a half mile below. "We met up with the guys at the bottom," says Chanos. "We did that about three times in a row, where we skied down to the bottom and the snowmobiles had already driven down to the bottom. Then we'd get towed up to do the same thing again.

"What we'd do," Chanos continues, "is put our skis on, hold our poles, take out a rope with a carabiner, put it on the back of the snowmobile and literally get towed up the hill with our skis on."

The group was "snowmobile dependent," Shifferly says. "They didn't want to hike; nobody wanted to hike." Snowmobile shuttles meant more runs--and besides, the snowmobiles were more fun.

The morning flew by.
Eventually the skiers decided to switch places so the three snowmobilers could ski. Chanos, Karinen and McKenny took over the snowmobiles, and Vork, Noddin and Shifferly put on their skis. They were then towed to the top, to a spot on the highest switchback about 100 feet higher than where the others had skied. The idea was to give the three new skiers a bit more vertical. "We let them off, turned the snowmobiles around, and Joel and I started heading down the mountain to the pick-up area," Chanos remembers. "Casey wanted to kind of screw around with the snowmobile up there, so we were like, 'Okay, we'll see you at the bottom.'"

"Casey was supposed to be on his way down," adds Karinen. "Josh and I discussed the route they'd take. They were going to traverse the tree line to the southwest-facing slope a little to get a little more vertical, come out further."

Karinen and Chanos sledded the mile of switchbacked trail down to the Bon Ton Mine, where they would wait, out of sight of the ridge.

It was getting toward afternoon now. Before skiing down to the Bon Ton, McKenny and Noddin wanted to fool around with the snowmobile. Noddin loved snowmobiling, and he was a good driver. He was having a great time "raging in the trees" below the road cut, Shifferly remembers. "Matt wanted Casey to sidehill across. He was so good at that, and no one else there was good at driving sleds. Andy had three phat snowmobiles, $2,000 apiece--they were sick, brand-new. But he couldn't drive them worth shit. And Matt was so psyched to drive them.

"Matt was, like, 'Let's sidehill across the hill.' So they sidehilled across."

Sidehilling is tough, though, when you're not an experienced driver. McKenny flipped the sled trying. Noddin and Vork took off their skis and went over to help him. While they worked with the snowmobile, Shifferly decided to hike to the top of the pass.

Shifferly loves to hike for his turns. This winter was the first that he was spending more time on snowmobiles; the previous three, he'd hiked more than he'd sledded. "Me, with my baby, I don't get out very much, and when I do, I like to hike," he says. He'd been trying all morning to convince the others to hike up another ridge nearby, but nobody wanted to.

Shifferly put his skins on his telemark skis and told the others he was heading to the top. He wanted to get a view of Taylor Park. It was the first time anybody from the group had gone above the road cut since they'd dug the snowpit in the morning. "I skinned up really quick," he remembers. "It only took ten minutes. I hung out up there and looked around for a while."

After taking in the view, he saw that the three were sitting on the road, waiting for him to descend. So he skied down the slope in a broad zigzag pattern. "I cut away from them and then cut back to them. I didn't want to ski right down on top of them." Shifferly was nearly at the bottom of the slope when he fell. He stood and pulled his goggles up on his helmet. That's when he heard Noddin yell.

"Matt's like, 'Slough! We're fucked!'" Shifferly says. He pushed away instinctively. People talk about swimming in avalanches, but Shifferly couldn't, didn't. He remembers the snow flowing, pushing him along, not slamming him exactly, but not allowing him any control, either. He remembers lunging as he went by some bushes and getting thrown behind the tree.

It all happened so quickly, in just a matter of seconds. And then there he was, on his back, half-buried by snow. No sounds from his best friend, Noddin. Nothing from McKenny or Vork--Shifferly didn't know if they'd even seen the avalanche coming. Just quiet and terrible cold. The force of the avalanche had ripped off his gloves. He freed a hand, reached back and grabbed a spare pair of mittens from the top of his backpack.

He wanted to be at home, on his couch with his son, watching The Simpsons and drinking a beer.

Down at the Bon Ton Mine base camp, Karinen and Chanos were taking it easy, feeling lazy after the morning's skiing. "I'm laying on my back with my eyes shut," remembers Chanos. The run from the road cut took about fifteen minutes, but when more time went by and no skiers showed up, neither Karinen nor Chanos was worried. They figured the four others could have stopped, taken a break, hung out in the trees.

All of a sudden, Chanos heard a gust of wind come down through the trees--not a huge gust, but a breeze. "It was kind of weird, because it wasn't windy at all that day," he says. "I was thinking, that's interesting, but I didn't really think that much about it. I was like, 'We're in the mountains; sometimes there's gusts of wind in the mountains.'" They kept waiting.

Finally, Karinen decided to start up his snowmobile and look farther down the trail, in case the others had cut over a little and come out lower than the mine. But he didn't see them, so he returned to the camp. After waiting a few more minutes, Chanos headed up the switchbacks toward the top of Cumberland Pass. "By the time I got up there, I noticed there was a major snowslide. I got off my snowmobile and, I don't know, I was kind of in a state of shock," he says. "I started looking around and didn't hear anybody yelling--nothing--so I got back on and flew back down the hill to where Joel was."

The two rode back up to the site. "I'd never seen a slide that big," says Karinen. An entire slope of snow had fallen, all the way down to the rock, leaving a jagged, six-foot-deep perpendicular crown at the top where the slab had broken off. Trees were bent; huge blocks of snow and ice as big as cars piled everywhere. The snow was as hard and dense as cement.

Karinen remembers switching into emergency mode. He and Chanos jumped off their snowmobiles, switched their beacons to receive their buried friends' signals and started searching the slope. But Chanos had never practiced with a beacon and wasn't sure of what to do. They decided that he should go to Pitkin for help, while Karinen stayed and searched.

After Chanos took off, Karinen finally heard someone yelling. He followed the noise and found Shifferly lying on his back, half-covered with snow, pinned in place by thick branches and debris. Shifferly was in a panic. "I was like, 'Thank God, Joel!'" Shifferly remembers. "I started saying shit like, 'We're all going to hell!'"

"I killed them, Joel," is what Karinen remembers Shifferly saying.
Karinen realized that it would take considerable effort to dig Shifferly out of his hole, while time was of the essence in finding the others. Who knows how long before the avalanche had run--maybe twenty minutes, maybe thirty. For people who are buried by an avalanche--if they're not killed outright--the chance of surviving is over 90 percent if they're dug out in the first fifteen minutes. After 35 minutes, however, 70 percent are dead.

So Karinen made sure that Shifferly was breathing, switched his beacon from transmit to receive, and told him he'd come back after he'd found the others.

He was one person searching for three signals, which was difficult, since it's hard to zero in on just one signal. And he had a standard analog beacon, which meant he had to use the "grid" method, which requires great concentration. Using that grid method, the searcher walks a straight line down the slope, listening for the beeping sound on his beacon to grow louder, and continues to walk until it fades. Then he walks back to the point where it sounded strongest and walks a horizontal straight line, again, listening for the beeping to get louder and then fade. He then goes back to the strong point and walks a vertical line, repeating the process. Ultimately, the searcher finds the buried beacon by following this pattern of interlocking grid lines. (The next generation of digital beacons enables a searcher to follow a curved line directly to the buried beacon.)

Karinen tried to concentrate as he carefully followed the straight-line grid pattern through the wreckage, tried to be patient as he searched for friends to whom every minute counted. By all accounts, Karinen was a hero that day, keeping his head, doing everything right. "I really commend Joel. He'd had everything going on," says Shifferly.

After a few minutes, Karinen pinpointed a signal and dug. Even that was a challenge. Avalanche debris is so dense that you can break a shovel on it. It's not like tossing powder snow over your shoulder--you have to hack at it. Five feet down, he found Vork. He wasn't breathing. "I felt his jugular vein. There was no pulse," says Karinen. "Then I felt his pulse at his wrist. Nothing."

Shifferly remembers Karinen yelling that he'd found Andy and that he was dead.

Karinen left Vork and continued to search. He found another signal and dug down about three feet. There was McKenny. Again, he felt no pulse at either the jugular or the wrist. McKenny was dead.

At this point, Shifferly says, he "freaked out. I was claustrophobic in the hole, I needed to get out. I was like, 'Get me out of here, man!'"

Karinen walked over to Shifferly. There was little hope that Noddin was still alive, and Shifferly seemed in danger of hypothermia. So he took out a utility knife and hacked at branches to free his friend. He had to dig down into the snow to release the bindings on Shifferly's skis.

Finally, Shifferly was able to climb out of his hole. He and Karinen had just resumed the search for Noddin when the first rescue snowmobile showed up on Cumberland Pass.

After Chanos had left Karinen, he'd gotten onto his snowmobile and "practically buried the needle all the way back to the town." He saw a sheriff's car in front of a house, knocked on the door and found Sheriff Charles Meredith. The sheriff alerted locals as well as authorities in Gunnison. An army of help--more than two dozen people, all told--headed up the pass to help the young men.

Russ Barr, a local, was one of the first to arrive. He knew something that the six young men did not: The slope that had slid does so almost every year. One time ten years before, he'd almost gotten caught himself. He'd been on a snowmobile and managed to outrun it. "It really flashed back to me," says Barr, "that it was so close that I could have been on the bottom of that mess."

Other Pitkin residents had heard Barr's story, and in the intervening years, none of them had ventured above the top switchback on their snowmobiles.

Shifferly was taken down the mountain and sent by ambulance to the hospital. In the meantime, the rescuers found Noddin. He, too, was dead. The EMTs worked for a long time, trying to revive the three men who'd been buried, but they had no luck.

Through this, Karinen sat to the side, looking "like he had seen a ghost," Chanos says. Chanos himself was put to work directing rescue people up to the site.

Eventually, though, it was time to descend to the trailhead, where Karinen and Chanos gave formal statements for the record. It fell to Chanos to identify the bodies.

"I think it was the coroner who took me to a big, long white car and opened it up. The first bag was Matt. He zipped it back up and unzipped the second one. That was Casey. It was just a process of elimination for me. I started losing my shit before he even unzipped [the third] bag. And that was Andy."

Andy Vork, his best friend since he was ten years old.

The six young men did a lot of things right that day. They had safety equipment--beacons, shovels, probes. They listened to the avalanche forecast and discussed it. They did a snow-pit test to examine the stability of the snowpack. They discussed the routes they would ski. But did they do anything wrong?

Figuring that out is the job of Rob Hunker, a CAIC avalanche forecaster who studies such disasters so that others can learn from the experience and perhaps avoid similar tragedies. The fifty-year-old Hunker has been with CAIC for just five years, but he's been in the avalanche business for 28, working as the snow-safety director and also a ski patroller at Crested Butte. He examined the site the day after the accident and determined that the avalanche had run on the bottom layer of weak depth hoar. But how?

At first Hunker thought the avalanche might have been triggered when Noddin, McKenny and Vork were working to get the overturned snowmobile upright. An avalanche can be triggered from below, and rocking a snowmobile back and forth would certainly produce stress to release a slope.

But then Hunker interviewed Shifferly, the only eyewitness, who described how the snowmobile had been on the road cut, not the slope. The road cut didn't have much snow on it. "There wasn't barely any snow on the road in places," Shifferly told him. "Just a little bit of a drift...We weren't on the fall line with the snowmobile at all."

As a result, Hunker now thinks it was Shifferly who triggered the avalanche, probably when he fell after zigzagging down the slope. "I can't be sure 100 percent," says Hunker. "But I think the slope failed right above the road cut. The road cut contributed to the weakness--the actual terrain itself has been cut, so there's not a smooth transition over it. The slab is kind of hanging above the road cut."

Still, Hunker doesn't think Shifferly made a bad choice when he decided to ski the slope. The shovel-shear test had shown that there was a definite weakness in the snowpack, but not necessarily a terribly dangerous one. Shifferly's judgment--that it would be okay, probably, to ski the slope if they did so one by one--was sound, in Hunker's opinion.

The big mistake the four men on top made wasn't when Shifferly skied but when they broke another basic rule of avalanche safety: exposing the whole party to danger. Noddin, Vork and McKenny were all clustered in one place, a possible avalanche zone. To ensure safety while Shifferly skied, they should have either spread themselves out down lower, below the tree line, or climbed up to the top of the ridge along a safe path so that they would be too high to be caught by an avalanche.

The sheriff found what he suspected was marijuana on the bodies, but Hunker doesn't address the role drugs might have played in the disaster. According to the Gunnison coroner, autopsy reports won't be available for several more weeks.

Hunker believes snowmobiles add a new dimension to backcountry dangers. "In the old days," he says, "we went out in the backcountry and we got one run in. As we approached the slope we wanted to ski, it was a slow approach. We were able to feel the snow below, observe the wind loading and even climb to the top of the slope, taking a safe route. We'd do a snow pit. And then we'd make one run."

Hunker hypothesizes that the snowmobile, while it didn't trigger this avalanche, contributed to the tragedy because it occupied the party's attention, got them thinking a little less carefully about what they were doing. "It distracted their attention away from awareness of the avalanche conditions," he says, "so they let their guard down and broke some basic rules by putting all four of them on that slope at the same time."

Avalanche education and prediction hasn't yet adjusted to the growing prevalence of snowmobiles. Existing tests for snow stability are geared toward the weight of a human, not massive machines. Educators themselves, often men in their forties or fifties who are used to hiking for their turns, are only now starting to think about how to teach the younger generation of backcountry enthusiasts, who might be more likely to motor up a mountain than hike it.

All that said, avalanche prediction is an art, not a science. The six young men involved in the February tragedy were more aware and careful than many--perhaps most--who venture into the backcountry. In Colorado, where the snowpack is notorious for its nasty, rotten layers--a crucial ingredient for slides--there is always danger. Even experienced people who do everything by the book can and do die.

"Backcountry skiing during the winter is like the ocean," says Karinen, who was inspired to take an avalanche course after the accident. "It's so huge and it's so powerful that people can just get killed instantly. That's something I knew before, but it wasn't such a reality."

Even if the three had been more careful and tried to spread out, it would have been a close call that day, Hunker says. The slide was so huge that to be safe from its path, Noddin, Vork and McKenny would have had to descend quite a distance into the trees below the road cut.

Truth is, Shifferly and Karinen say, they'd knowingly taken lots of what they thought were worse chances before and survived. That's part of what makes it so difficult to accept what happened that February day. "There's so many times in the backcountry that I think we should have been killed by an avalanche," says Karinen. "And to be killed by such a small slope--600 vertical feet of like a 35-degree pitch--and we're at tree line. It's insane."

Two days after the accident, Shifferly went back up to Cumberland Pass with a friend. "I needed to go up there. That day after it, so many people talked to me about it, it was unreal," he says. "Everybody wanted to know everything. When you talk about things like that for a while, you sort of lose track of what you're thinking about. I just wanted to go up there and see it again, you know, and make sure I had everything straight in my mind."

The two friends placed a wreath of evergreen branches near the slope. And Shifferly took photos. He keeps them in a small, black leather photo album. A circular cutout in the cover reveals the first photo in the album. That's where Shifferly put the picture of the wreath so that it's first thing he sees.


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