Slide Rules

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.

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Eric Dexheimer
Contact: Eric Dexheimer