Burial, 2-13-05

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Swallowed up by a mountain 

BY PETER SHELTON 

MARCH 8, 2005 

SPECIAL TO THE LOS ANGLES TIMES 

IT IS A LOVELY SUNDAY for a ski tour. A bright midwinter sun counters a chilly north wind as the five of us — old friends, new friends, one pretty girl — round the southwest shoulder of Red Mountain No. 3 and prepare to ski the face below.

Jerry Roberts drops in first, but I can see him for only a couple of turns before he disappears — skis, then hips, then head — behind the convex shape. Then suddenly, from below, the screaming starts. It is a woman’s voice, and the shrieks are repetitive and insistent, like the cry of a displaced bird. Something is wrong, and then I see the powder cloud billowing into the basin, far below us.

This is not a test, I think; this is it. This is the nightmare we never wanted to experience. A large avalanche has swallowed my friend and carried him down the mountain — I don’t know where — somewhere in that mass of fallen snow, with its television-sized blocks of soft-slab tossed together like cottage cheese into a funnel narrowing between trees.

We are not thrill-seekers. We deride the moniker “extreme.” On the other hand, as mountaineers, we regularly climb up and ski down, carefully down big, steep mountains. The rewards approach the ecstatic and the risks are, for the most part, manageable.

The first thing we do is check our rescue beacons. We do this every time we head out into the winter backcountry. One of us will switch his transceiver to “receive” and listen, as the rest of the group files by one-by-one, each beacon transmitting its steady, electric pings.

Jerry is historically the most cautious among us. He refers to himself, smiling, as a Republican skier because at 56, a lifetime studying Colorado’s fragile snowpack has made him conservative. Every time a foot or more of new snow lands in these mountains, hundreds of natural avalanches pour down the slopes. And every winter an average of five Colorado skiers and snowmobilers die in slides they trigger.

There was reason for caution this day. Six inches of new snow lay unruffled in the trees, but above timberline where we were headed, overnight winds had moved it around, like cake frosting layered on top of older, weaker snow. We talked about it, poked it with our poles, dug hasty pits to gauge its stability. We chose our route accordingly. It was a beautiful day, clear and cold with long, blue shadows defining the pure-white shapes. There would be soft-snow turns for sure.

Then, the nightmare.

Now we’ve got to organize our group — and the other group below, the one with the woman who watched the hillside explode — and turn our beacons to receive mode and ski down and find him, without endangering anyone else. You’ve never done this before, incredibly, although you’ve danced around the possibility for 30 years in the wild snow with these same people, brothers and sisters of the graceful arc, the turn in the deep snow. You’ve taken all the snow-science courses; planned for this, in theory anyway; dreamed about it; written unpublished short stories about it, about being the victim, entombed, reminiscing about a life slipping away “Snows of Kilimanjaro”-style; but now it’s not you who is buried — it’s your ski buddy Jerry Roberts, and yes this is really happening, and yes it’s up to you — up to all of us — to find him, find him quickly or find him dead.

The middle part of the ordeal is mostly a blank — the part where you are out on the debris, beacon in one hand, poles in the other, moving at the edge of control, zigzagging, listening, fighting for balance on the lumpy surface. What I remember is Matt’s voice — Matt Wylie, our friend visiting from British Columbia — shouting, “I’ve got a weak signal!” And then there’s a stronger signal, and everybody’s careening down as fast as they can, homing in, hearing it too, the pings of Jerry’s electronic heartbeat, and Matt is already into a fine search and yelling for probes and shovels, and we’re flinging down packs and staggering forward, ramming together shovel handles and blades, and someone is shouting, with his probe in the ground like a golden aluminum thread, “I’ve got something!” Dig! Dig! Come on! And sure enough, a couple of feet down there is Jerry’s backpack. Now which end is up? This end, Jesus, yes, come on. Dig!

(L-R) Greg Harms, rŌbert, Matt Wylie, Lisa Issenberg, D. Wheeler

His face is blue. And a cut on his forehead drips red blood onto his brow. In a flash, the screaming woman has arrived and jumped into the hole. She is a doctor. The cyanotic face looks grave to her, and she thinks aloud that we may need a helicopter. But she can feel Jerry’s blood moving, feel his heart pumping, and she thrusts her hand down underneath his chest to push some snow aside and open up space for his lungs to expand.

Meanwhile, everyone is pleading with the blue face. Jerry’s girlfriend is crying and talking: “Come on, Jerry. Breathe! Jerry. Jerry!” Breathe, dammit. And, in a matter of a few excruciating seconds, he does, and the eyes blink, and the fingers on his right hand twitch, and the pink flush of oxygenated blood works across his cheeks and mouth.

Thirty minutes later, I’m lugging Jerry’s backpack out the logging road toward the pass and the cars. There are no straps left on the pack; we cut it off him to ease his breathing while digging the rest of him out. It’s awkward dragging the heavy thing along, and I’ve fallen behind the rest of the party, which includes Jerry — wearing someone else’s hat and extra down parka, skiing out on his own, insisting that he is fine. I don’t mind the effort. In fact, the work seems to be flushing some of the spent adrenaline from my system, pushing the nightmare back into its corner.

It refuses to stay put, of course. It pops in and out of focus, fracturing, tumbling out of sequence, receding into the past but still capable of scaring holes in what has become a cherished, full-body sense of relief. Everybody’s OK. The uncaring, beautiful mountain came close to taking a life but did not.

I picture the gash on Jerry’s head. I had thought he’d clocked one of the tough little trees he’d passed through in the avalanche’s run-out zone. Or maybe the ski he lost cut him as he hurtled along. Matt has a different story, and I like his best. He thinks he bashed Jerry in the forehead with his shovel in those frantic first seconds of digging. If it scars, I think, shuttling the extra pack through what has become a completely still afternoon, what a fine, permanent reminder that this was not a dream.

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