Peter Shelton

Outthinking the Snowy Torrents

Posted in Uncategorized by pshelton on March 9, 2012

We interrupt this Catalina Island coming-of-age trilogy to comment on the recent spate of avalanche deaths.

I wrote the news story this week about 18-year-old Norwood student Garrett Carothers, and it broke my heart. “Dear, sweet Garrett,” read the caption on a Facebook photo.

By all accounts Carothers and his three snowmobiling buddies were not behaving badly on Saturday when the last in line of their little motorized train was snuffed by an avalanche that released above them. They weren’t high-marking some wind-loaded, primed-to-slide alpine bowl. They were struggling in deep snow on a summer road and had decided to turn around. Too late, as it turned out. Innocents abroad.

Other accidents recently in the news revealed evidence of hubris. In November, there was famous skier, cliff jumper Jamie Pierre, ignoring all the classic signs of instability, including natural and triggered releases everywhere around him, to attempt a narrow, thinly covered chute at Snowbird before the ski area was open. The moving snow didn’t kill him, the rocks he bashed over did. He was beloved, too.

On Stevens Pass in Washington, a giant, unwieldy group of “experts and industry insiders,” 13 of them, decided to ski off the backside of the ski area immediately following a two-day, 26-inch storm that came with strong winds. They claimed they were using proper protocol – skiing one at a time, stopping in safe zones – but somehow five of them got caught by a monster slide. Three were buried and killed.

Then, there was Telluride’s own Nate Soules tragedy, though I don’t use that word. Soules chose to snowboard into Bear Creek, alone, on the first real powder day in a long time, with two inches of water and all of that attendant weight added to an especially rotten San Juans snowpack. He knew what he was doing. But he was blinded by what long-time avalanche forecaster Jerry Roberts calls powder shock. You’re not supposed to speak ill of the dead, but I was mad at him then, and I’m still mad. As a father and grandfather. Yes, as many have said, he died doing what he loved. But he also loved his wife and young son. What was he thinking?

I haven’t skied the backcountry for a few years now, after devoting the better part of the last 40 years to it. The reasons are complex and include two hip-replacement surgeries and the digging out, just before the first hip, of a friend who barely survived an avalanche on Red Mountain Pass. That friend was one of the most knowledgable and conservative wild-snow skiers I have known. His triggering a big slide, and getting tumbled and crushed blue by the weight of the snow on top of him seemed to prove the adage: that if you are out there enough, you will eventually get caught.

Now, I didn’t necessarily believe that axiom then, and I’m not sure I understand probabilities well enough to believe it now. There are lots of old skiers in the world, people who have danced the fine line between skill and luck. I spent a day with one 80-year-old climber/skier in Zermatt who was about to guide his 500th Matterhorn! The finger of fate does not choose incompetence over competence, the deserving over the undeserving.

Fans of Mountainfilm will remember the random obliteration of revered mountaineer Alex Lowe on Shishapangma in 1999. Lowe was the unquestioned “greatest climber in the world”: humble, graceful, and supremely athletic. He and two teammates were out after dinner on a casual reconnoiter from base camp, touring across a flat glacier, when a serac broke off the peak 6,000 feet above them, and the resulting avalanche spared only one of the three. And it was not the greatest climber in the world. Dear, sweet Alex.

I stood next to Yvon Chouinard outside the Sheridan Opera House on another Mountainfilm weekend. Chouinard had just survived an avalanche while retreating down a big peak in China. The slide was an unseen storm-within-a-storm that partially buried Yvon and claimed the life of an expedition cameraman. Chouinard was still shaken weeks later in Telluride and, in fact, vowed during the festival that he was finished with the kinds of big-mountain dangers that respected no level of skill, including decision-making. Sometimes the only decision that matters is the fact that you are there.

This has not actually been an exceptionally deadly avalanche year. The average is 25 deaths across the U.S. in a winter season. We’re at 24 now. Of course, March could bring more, but not likely a great many more. Given that so many more recreationists are out testing the snow’s strength these days, it’s a wonder the numbers aren’t higher.

I don’t want to be a statistic. I don’t fully understand my reasons for backing away; for the longest time, the high, pure-white world seemed as important as breathing. My change of heart has caused some rifts in relationships with old ski partners, changes that give me pain.

Perhaps I’m just getting old. More risk averse. More fragile. More mortal.

I do know one thing: I want to ski again, on in-bounds terrain, with my daughters and my grandchildren. My dear, sweet grandchildren.

3 Responses

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  1. kellie day said, on March 9, 2012 at 3:25 am

    Extremely well written, Peter. I love your thoughts, and have experienced similar changes. Your grandchildren will cherish them.

  2. Wendy Shelton said, on March 9, 2012 at 3:34 am

    To quote you: sometimes the only decision that matters is the fact that you are there. You are there for your family. Right decision – We love having you around! Your Sis

  3. Mary Ann Dismant said, on March 11, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    That was one terrific column, Peter. Thanks for your openness.

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