Vail Daily letter: Ducking a rope is dangerous
Vail, CO, Colorado
It’s the first powder day of the year, and the first thing that comes to mind is Vail. The alarm wakes our crew of four at 7 a.m. From here there is a blur of breakfast, boot tying, and a cramped car ride to the mountain.
Vail Mountain is known for having legendary terrain. Being the freshman from Minnesota that I am, I wondered what could go wrong at such a planned out, safe resort? The first runs of the day are great. Each carve sending a wave of cold white powder into the air, an experience my friends and I could not get enough of.
Earlier in the year my brother, who attends Denver University as a senor, had told me about a place called Blue Sky Basin, so that was our next stop. We rode up the chair peering out over the playground of snow, cliffs and unmarked trails. This was heaven, I thought to myself.
As we rode down the first catwalk, the snow was too much. I needed my fix. We stopped, took a hard left under a small line labeled “Do Not Enter.”
This was our first mistake but who could complain with fresh snow up to your waist, right? Wrong. The next thing you knew, the path had opened up to a large, open field that to even an untrained eye looked avalanche-prone.
The group sat atop the ridge debating what was our next move when out of the corner of my ear I caught a small grumble beneath me. Instantly a web of cracks separated where we were standing and the trees above.
The ground gave loose, and I was swept over the ridge. The avalanche I was caught in picked up speed and size every second. I was thrown and tossed helplessly, and my every effort to stay on top was trumped by the power this monster possessed. The decision to duck the fence had ultimately ended my life.
Needless to say, I did not actually die from this experience and in fact there was no actual avalanche this day but this story is in fact non-fiction. The four of us did decide to chase the snow and cut the rope and did get stuck atop an avalanche-prone ridge.
What is different is how it ended. Luckily for us ski patrol had been called and followed our tracks just in time. They stopped us from making that fatal decision and helped us get out of the situation in a safe way.
Now that I have been in this intense situation, I got to thinking how exactly does an avalanche happen. Dangerous avalanches happen when large slabs of snow break loose from a mountainside. The snow plate then shatters like broken glass and gains speed as it moves down slope. These moving masses can reach speeds of 80 mph within about five seconds, depending on the slope on which they fall.
Avalanches are most common during and in the 24 hours right after a storm that dumps 12 inches. How the layers bond often determines how easily one will weaken and cause a slide. When snow quickly piles up over the underlying snow pack, the new snow can cause a weaker layer beneath to fracture.
In 90 percent of avalanche incidents, the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggers the snow slides. Avalanches kill more than 150 people worldwide each year. You do not think this is a possibility when skiing inside the boundaries of a big resort like Vail, but in fact many resorts are filled with avalanche slide zones.
This is why when they put up a sign say do no enter they mean “Do Not Answer.” We found this out the hard way. By making this decision we endangered our own lives and on top of this, the two brave ski patrollers who came to our rescue.
One year after a local skier was killed in an in-bounds avalanche, a veteran Jackson Hole ski patrol member died Jan. 9 from injuries sustained while performing routine avalanche control duties. Mark “Big Wally” Wolling died doing his job, making the mountain safe enough to allow the skiing public to enjoy themselves. This is serious stuff.
What I have learned from this whole experience is you have to respect the mountain and the people who know it best. I know I have come away from this a more aware snowboarder and will share what I have learned with the people I ride with.
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