Personal History: A Fatal Avalanche, A Hard Return to Skiing

March 26, 2011, was the day the love of my life dealt me a heartbreaking blow. I have spent the past 25 years searching for a way to satisfy my endless hunger, a hunger we all know well — for the perfect run, in perfect conditions, with the perfect group of friends. Every season, it was my priority and my expectation — until that day, when all my priorities and expectations about skiing were lost. I’ve spent the better part of two years trying to find them again.

On that day, I was involved in a class 3-4 avalanche in the Manti/La Sal Mountains of Utah. The slide was about 400 feet wide. The crown measured six to eight feet in most places and was caused by a cornice collapsing beneath me. Two friends, both 200 feet away, and I were caught and trapped in the avalanche as it ran 1,000 vertical feet. I came to a stop partially buried while my friends were completely submerged. Two of us survived; one did not. Garrett slipped away the following day from his injuries.

When the cornice fractured, I was instantly thrown into a freefall. I can’t remember having any visibility until the slide came to a stop. I don’t know if I had my eyes closed or if the powder cloud simply disoriented me; it probably was a combination of the two. My other senses seemed heightened at the time. The large chunk of cornice, carrying me with it, slammed into the slope. A shock wave of sound shot across the cirque echoing – deafening and fracturing. It was like a starting pistol that initiated instant acceleration down the mountain.

Avalanche training rushed through my head, and I started flapping my arms. “Swim. Stay on top!” were the words that kept running through my brain, when all of a sudden the outside world rushed in as I heard the snapping of logs and trees all around me. With those sounds, my mind shifted to other thoughts, questions, and doubts. “This is big! I’m going under any minute… I may not live through this! I have to see my wife and son again!” Finally the noise stopped, though I felt like I was still moving. The powder cloud began to settle, and I looked down to see my legs buried up to my knees. The rest of my body was above the snow and uninjured. I looked to the ridge to signal to my partners that I was okay, then, in complete shock, stumbled my way over to a safe zone.

The avalanche ended my ski season for the year. Even though it continued to snow and there were many perfect powder days left in Utah, I couldn’t even entertain the idea of sliding on snow again that season, let alone actually skiing. As the winter continued for what seemed like forever, each day I found myself not skiing – just battling with my thoughts and doubts and a confused state of mind. Primarily, I thought of my fallen friend and what we should have done differently to prevent his death. Second, I questioned how I came away from such a large avalanche unscathed. And finally, I kept wondering how it would affect my future. Up to this point, everything I had done or wanted to accomplish had been based around enjoying the outdoors and spending as much time as possible in the mountains, on rivers, and in the ocean. What if I was too scared to get my life back on track? What if my passions had become consumed by fear?

LOSS
Garrett had inspired me every time our lives brushed. He made me feel that I could do anything – and if by chance I tried something and couldn’t do it, he would convince me that simply trying would make me ten times stronger. It was impossible to say no to an adventure with him. He was aware of the risks, he knew that something unfavorable could happen, but this awareness didn’t deter him from giving one hundred percent to every undertaking.

These were my thoughts as we searched for him, located him, and then started digging him out of the debris pile with downed trees and large chunks of avalanche debris all around him. Finally, we uncovered his face. It was blue, and he was lifeless. At that moment, the first thought racing through my mind was that if anyone could recover from a situation like this, Garrett could. His strength and tenacity could will him away from death, back to life, back to us. We performed CPR for almost an hour, his heart began beating again, and he was breathing on his own. We knew he could do it, giving one hundred percent, even though he’d left us for awhile.

The rescue team evacuated and transported Garrett to the hospital, where he continued to battle for his life. It was calming to me to know that we didn’t have to leave a friend on the mountain. I was also comforted in seeing that he was continuing to fight to see another day and another adventure.

Sadly, the calm and comfort were short-lived. The following day, Garrett passed away from the trauma of the accident. His brain had swollen to the point that it was causing irreparable damage to his cognitive functions.

A funeral followed six days later. The gathering of people who came to pay their respects was astounding. The power that Garrett had to motivate obviously wasn’t limited to our circle of skiing and climbing friends — he’d touched the lives of literally thousands. I’m sure each had experienced his influence in a different way, and Garrett probably never even realized it.

LUCK OR DESTINY
On the day of the avalanche, there were seven of us in our ski party. Three of us were involved in the slide: Mark, Garrett, and me. All three of us ran the entire length of the slide path. I came out on top and unscathed. Mark was fully buried except for one exposed hand. We were able to dig him out quickly, and he never lost consciousness. Garrett was fully buried except for the heel of his boot; his head was buried three feet under the snow. By the time we uncovered him he was unconscious and not breathing. How was it that I was only partially buried? Did I do something right? Was I in the best spot possible? Why did I stay on top? Why? Why? Why? How? How? How? These are the questions that plagued my thoughts in the months following the avalanche. Even today, it causes sleepless nights and moments of panic. Alternative outcomes play and replay in my head, lead to endless questions that have no answers.

Is it healthy to ask questions, especially when I know I will never have an answer to them? I often find answers that I justify in my head as truth. But as time moves on, I find my conviction of this truth slipping away and becoming just another void that cannot be filled. I often ponder how others deal with tragedy and grief. Should I categorize my experience as a lesson? One that I can pull valuable bits of knowledge and experience from for the rest of my life? Or do I work toward forgetting about all the pain and agony it has caused me so I can return to my passion of skiing with less fear and inhibition? Surely, there are endless possibilities of how to deal with the memories, surely a healthy medium must exist somewhere between these extremes.

RETURN TO SKIING
My first day back on skis was on Thanksgiving 2011. The snow was good — we of course had no idea how bad the snow season would turn out — I was with good company, and I was skiing in a familiar location which was safe and comforting. It was like to the feeling of returning home after traveling abroad and indulging in a big cheeseburger and fries.

On the first run, nervous with the anticipation, I let everyone drop in before me. I was thinking about Garrett, about how the light was good for a photo op and how he would want me to ski to get the best shot. I planted my poles and pushed away and began to turn through the condensed, creamy powder. A tear formed as I once again felt why I do what I do. After only three turns, I knew that my love for skiing was still inside me. It may have matured or changed, but it was still there. I knew that my search would continue for the perfect run, in perfect conditions, with the perfect group of friends.

Photo by Garrett Smith. To see Smith’s portfolio on Adventure Journal, go here. This story is shortened from an essay called Getting Back on the Skin Track.

{ 4 comments…read them below or write one }

  • AKP

    This almost brought a tear to my eye, and definitely resonates for anyone who has lost a friend in the mountains. On my first tour after losing a friend (I was not with him, but was skiing with another party nearby the day he died), I stopped in the middle of the skin track and cried, the same whys and hows in this article running through my head. If you spend any time in the mountains and don’t have these thoughts, I worry about you. I believe the power to stoke our awareness of our own mortality is part of why the mountains are spiritual home to so many.

  • Kim Kircher

    Thanks for sharing this piece. I’m glad that you were able to return to the sport, with perhaps a little more judgment in the bank. On your quest for the perfect day, don’t forget that every day can be perfect–even if you decide to turn around.

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