✯✯✯ Personal Narrative: A Short Writing: Mountain Biking
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When it comes to the backcountry, there is usually not safety in large numbers. That is not only because of the physical impact on the snow. It is because of the complicated dynamics that large groups create. Deadly avalanches are usually the product of bad decisions — human nature, not Mother Nature. So I just followed along. He tried to convince himself that it was a good idea. After a few minutes, the small talk faded. Worries went unexpressed. Buddy system. Me and you. It was grab a partner so you. Jack, on borrowed Salomon skis, paired with Joel Hammond, the Salomon representative.
Carlson looked at Pankey, his childhood friend. Wesley gave a little whistle to Carlson and Pankey and nodded downhill. He wanted to be first. The conditions were too good to waste time, and he did not want to be slowed by the huge pack. With little warning, Wesley dropped straight through the large cluster of trees, using firs as a slalom course. Pankey and Carlson followed. Rudolph, always up for competition, sped around the trees, not through them. He curved around a banked C-shape turn that dropped him a couple hundred feet into the broad meadow below.
He arrived just in time to see Wesley, Pankey and Carlson burst from the trees into the open powder. Rudolph pointed his ski poles and playfully shouted invectives as their tracks crossed. Earlier that morning, Wesley and Carlson had skied the opposite side of Cowboy Mountain, in the ski area. It had been cleared of avalanches by the ski patrol at dawn, but the two still triggered several slough slides — small, shallow avalanches that washed at their feet and petered out before snagging victims. Pankey and Carlson followed Wesley and looked back, too, wondering why Rudolph and the others were not following them toward relatively safer terrain. Within a minute, long enough to be well out of sight of the group they left behind, the three men found something that made them stop.
Alarmed, the three decided to go farther left. They crossed through trees and avoided big meadows and steep pitches. They soon found evidence of another avalanche, this one cutting through the forest. Wesley had disappeared in the pale light. He left nothing but a track through the deep snow that the others tried to follow. Rudolph stopped on the left edge of the upper meadow, above a cluster of trees. Others filed behind him, spilling down the mountain in plumes of spraying snow. Erin Dessert did not follow. She was confused. She was once a Tunnel Creek regular, until a nonfatal avalanche captured five friends in and scared her away. He has instincts. I thought we were doing the front side. She headed hard to the right, away from the others.
The other snowboarders that she knew, Carlson and Wesley, were gone in the opposite direction. Some in the remaining group noticed Dessert heading away in the distance and dismissed her as an oblivious backcountry rookie. She dipped out of sight in a lonely panic. Rudolph and the others, now a group of 12, were focused downhill. It was a. Rudolph did not wait for the back of the pack to arrive before continuing to demonstrate the way. It was right there. Those are pro turns. She dipped through trees at a pinch in the meadow and disappeared out of sight. You know, several-hundred-year-old trees. A very good indication that this is a safe place. From where Rudolph and Saugstad stopped, they could not see the subsequent skiers approach. Castillo went past and cut left.
His camera recorded Rudolph and Saugstad whooping their approval as he stopped in a shower of powder, about 40 feet below them. His helmet camera showed that 14 seconds after Castillo stopped, Brenan appeared through the trees above Rudolph and Saugstad. Brenan had hugged the tree line on the left, avoiding the open meadow, then slalomed through the patch that the others used for protection. He stopped in a spray of snow a few feet from Rudolph and Saugstad. They were huge.
But he knew the direction of the slope did not follow the meadow. It dipped harder left into the trees, down toward a gully. And there were still a lot of skiers above them. Castillo kept his attention up the hill. Less than 30 seconds after Brenan stopped, he saw Tim Wangen cut through the trees above the earlier arrivals, gliding horizontally through the forest. Wangen had been taught how to navigate Tunnel Creek by his father. He knew that the farther down the mountain he went, the harder it would be to cut over the ridge and into the next big meadow.
He crossed the shallow gully and rose up the other side. Wangen had told Peikert to follow his tracks, and Peikert was close behind. Castillo watched where they went. A hurricane is foretold by wind and lashing waves. A tornado often is spotted before it strikes. Lightning is usually presaged by black clouds and rumbling thunder. Avalanches rarely provide such a warning. Unlike waves or wind, tremors or storms, they are usually triggered by their own victims, sometimes unaware of what has been unleashed. Back up the mountain, Jack never seemed worried.
That was his nature. Here he was, a rare weekend off, skiing with some of his best friends from Leavenworth and people from Powder and ESPN and all over the industry, on an epic run on a perfect powder day. Carlsen, the Powder photographer, had never been to Tunnel Creek. The first few easy turns gave way to a slope that fell steeply away, out of sight. He sidled up to Jack. We go out here, swing out, make a few pow turns, and get back in the trees. And that was it. Jack flowed through the thick powder with his typical ease. He skied the way other people walked down a sidewalk, a friend had said. Jack disappeared over the knoll, gliding through the trees in the middle of the meadow.
Behind him, the five remaining skiers watched in silence. It was deep and light. Not everyone saw it. A couple did. They caught it in their peripheral vision and were unsure what to make of it. The five others listened. Not a sound. They stared for clues through the flat light below a murky sky. Silent seconds ticked. Finally, Hammond spotted the first sign of evidence. It came from a tree, one among thousands, far down the hill, almost out of sight. Only the top of it was visible, and it was covered in snow. And I could see the powder falling off the tree. A few hundred yards down the mountain, a ghostly white fog rushed through the forest. But it was weird because it was coming through the trees.
It was like snow billowing through the trees. It literally felt like a freight train went over my tails. I could feel this rush of air. It was a blur of white, its shattered pieces moving about 50 m. Saugstad tried to stride right, hoping to escape. She barely moved before snow flowed through her legs, dragging her down like a riptide. She pulled the cord on her air bag. She was overwhelmed so quickly by the rising snow that she did not know if it inflated. It was like being in a washing machine and all my body parts flailing every way.
She is likely to have tumbled just past Castillo. He groaned and turned his face away. He stuck his head between two trees, like a prisoner in a stockade. For 16 seconds, snow and ice pounded his back and washed over him. His shoulders were jammed against the trees. His face pushed into branches of pine needles. He could feel the heavy assault of snow lashing at his back. Trees cracked around him. Some in the path were chopped in half — the stumps left in the soil, the rest carried away in the growing torrent. The avalanche, a relatively small one, started with about 6, cubic meters of snow and collected 7, cubic meters more on the way down. It probably weighed about 11 million pounds. The trees Castillo hugged in each arm swayed but held.
He told himself that when he felt the flow slow, he would pop a hand in the air so that it might stick out of the snow and make him easier to rescue. Castillo saw daylight again. His camera captured snow sliding past his legs for another 13 seconds. The forest sounded as if it were full of sickly frogs. It was the trees, scrubbed of their fresh snow, still swaying and creaking around him. He did not know who or what set off the avalanche. He did not know how far down the mountain it went. All he knew was that about a dozen people had been above him a minute earlier, and that the gully below him descended another 2, vertical feet to the valley floor.
Johnny Brenan! The scope of the disaster was too much to comprehend. He wanted to find his partner. Streams of snow still flowed downhill as he scooted toward the heart of the slide path. It flowed into a wide gully, maybe feet across, that narrowed as it descended. Across the gully, unable to see anyone else, either, Peikert and Wangen had gone into search mode, too. Chances of survival drop precipitously every minute. According to a recent study, the survival rate for individuals completely buried in an avalanche falls to about 40 percent after 15 minutes of burial and to 25 percent after 30 minutes.
About 75 percent of avalanche victims die from asphyxia or suffocation. The other 25 percent of fatalities result from trauma. Castillo spotted Peikert and Wangen across the gully. Wangen stayed mostly on the banks. Peikert and Castillo crossed the gully a couple of times, reluctantly and quickly. It was soon apparent that the victims, however many there were, suffered one of two fates: they were hung up on the banks of the gully, snagged by a tree or buried in snow, or they had been flushed to the bottom, thousands of feet below.
If searchers spent too much time looking along the gully, they might squander a chance at rescuing someone at the bottom. If they rushed downhill, they might pass someone in need of saving. The dispatcher asked him to slow down. Castillo, occasionally shouting at others nearby, tried to explain where the avalanche occurred. He was asked how many people there were. It rolled through pretty heavy, man. I just found a ski about 1, yards down. Or 1, feet down. The call lasted four minutes. Near the top, the five skiers who planned to follow Jim Jack deciphered what happened through a series of increasingly blunt clues. Loose snow. A shaking tree. Hammond was due to ski next.
He took a couple of turns through the fine powder of the meadow and stopped. There was a sudden drop, nearly three feet deep. The fluffy snow was gone. A surface of bluish ice stretched down the hill, into the trees and out of sight. He shouted for everyone to go into search mode. The other four skiers moved quickly to see. And I called Jim Jack. Others started dialing numbers, too. They called Chris Rudolph and Elyse Saugstad. There were no answers. Hammond dropped onto the slick slide path. Another clue lay on the ice, pointing downhill.
Her voice was steady and sure. We have a large group. Word was relayed to the ski area. Chris Brixey, manager of the Stevens Pass Ski Patrol, had 17 patrollers working on the mountain that day, two more in the aid room, and a dispatcher. He did not know that a group of friends, including Rudolph, his Stevens Pass co-worker, had gone to Tunnel Creek. I called Megan directly. My gut feeling was that this was a group of inexperienced people who are now dealing with tragedy. He also enlisted other patrollers and a pair of avalanche rescue dogs. Word of a large avalanche in Tunnel Creek soon echoed around Stevens Pass, from the patrol room to the R.
According to the Stevens Pass Ski Patrol log, the area closed public access to the boundary gate atop the Seventh Heaven lift at By then, the group that had started off together less than 30 minutes earlier was strewn up and down nearly 3, vertical feet. No one knew how many were missing. The others headed down, scanning the path and its edges with their beacons. Carlsen methodically checked the upper meadow. Jim, are you underneath me? Jim, where the hell are you? Is this possible?
Is he really underneath here? Am I about to dig Jim out? Farther down, others followed the path into the gully. As it descends toward the valley floor, it carves deeper into the mountain. In some spots, canyon walls are 20 feet high. There were steep, icy drops that would become gushing waterfalls during the spring runoff. It was still clogged with rocks and trees that had not been fully scoured away. Where the ravine bent, the avalanche rode high on the outside wall, like a child on a water slide, sometimes breaking over the top of the bank and unearthing trees on the ridges. It became increasingly evident that whoever was caught in the avalanche would be found at the bottom.
T im Carlson and Ron Pankey, having split from the big group at the top, nervously negotiated the roundabout route to the bottom of Tunnel Creek. They could not catch up to Tim Wesley, but followed his snowboard track to the valley floor. It was p. They glided past the foot of a mound of chunky debris. One of the ravines had spewed a sizable avalanche, but there was no way to know it had occurred in the past few minutes.
It was sticking up right at the very end of the pile. Handle up. Carlson clicked out of his snowboard bindings and climbed onto the pile. Pankey turned his beacon to search mode. It beeped immediately. His skis off, Pankey climbed onto the debris pile, too. He saw the ski pole and two gloves. He was sucker-punched by dread. I got a strong signal, traversed over, got a weak signal, went back, got a strong signal, went back and I was basically on top of a body. Ron started giving him breaths and I was searching for his body, underneath his chest. And then I started digging around, and I could see he was folded up into this ball.
His feet were above his head. And just pulling him out of the snow you could feel it and see it. Giving him a couple of breaths, it just came out so quick. And you push on his chest and it would just collapse. There was nothing there. Pulled the other arm and it was the same feeling. And I pulled his legs out, and there was nothing connected to anything. It was completely crushed. Pankey pushed his eyelids closed. Rumors of a big avalanche in Tunnel Creek had reached the base area of Stevens Pass. Pankey looked over at the ski pole sticking straight out of the snow.
It looked familiar. Pankey had noticed it on the hike up the ridge to Cowboy Mountain. At the upper end of the meadow, more than yards away and out of sight, Elyse Saugstad waited in the silence, unable to move. Her hip ached. Her mind wandered. She wondered who else was caught in the avalanche. She wondered who was left to rescue them. She felt herself getting colder. When she had come to a stop, one of the mittens was on her hand. The other was off, hanging from her wrist. Saugstad could not claw the hard-packed snow with her mittens on. She took them off and picked at the ice until her fingers ached.
She put her mittens on again until they warmed up. She had not spoken since the avalanche stopped. It had not occurred to her to cry for help. Someone would come. She hoped. The walls of the ravine slowly fell away and opened onto a wide, sloping meadow. It was covered by an enormous pile of chunky ice cubes, some fit for a cocktail glass, others the size of couches. The debris was filled with dirt, rocks and shredded tree parts.
It stretched about yards down what remained of the slope. I took my skis off because it was so hard to ski on that stuff. And as I got close to that signal, I saw two pink gloves sticking out. And a little bit of orange from her backpack. I started digging her out, trying not to hurt her. But then I realized that more snow could come down. I found someone alive, and I needed to get her out of here. Even a ski boot gets locked in. I dug to get her ski off. It probably took five minutes of digging to get her out. It looked like a war zone. It was chaos. Michelson took charge as an impromptu site commander. No one was sure who was missing or how many victims there might be.
Michelson used her beacon and pinpointed two spots for others to search, then continued sweeping the meadow to search for more. I started probing, and I hit a spot where there obviously was something other than snow. Peikert and Rob Castillo dug through the ice. It had been more than 30 minutes since the avalanche. Johnny Brenan was discovered about three feet below the surface. He had been buried a few feet from Saugstad all along.
I tried to dig a hole through his armpit, to his head, thinking I might be able to get his face turned to give him C. There was blood. His chin was split open. His helmet was pushed back onto the back of his head and was filled with snow. One leg was off in a weird position, like he had a broken femur or hip or something. I finally got him out. Everything comes to light when Daunis witnesses a shocking murder, thrusting her into an FBI investigation of a lethal new drug.
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