Where it all went wrong
QUANDARY PEAK ” It started out innocently enough. Just a quick little jaunt on a nearby mountain to get a few powder turns. Par for the course for all of us who are lucky enough to live in the High Country.
I chose to skin to the lower northeast face of Quandary Peak, and something awful happened. I won’t ever look at that mountain the same way again. Someone please kick me, because I screwed up, really bad.
As I do almost every time I ski, I brought my best friend, Winter, along with me for her companionship. She’s a lab mix with a passion for snow unequaled even by mine.
We started our run with the snow blowing and powder whisking up my thighs. Euphoria was building, when something alarming appeared 50 feet below me. I saw snow curling up in the air and it registered: avalanche.
Without a thought, I stopped turning and tucked to gain speed. I escaped the slide, angled to the side and took a look over my shoulder.
I caught a glimpse of Winter swimming down a river of moving snow. I thought that she was going to make it. When I looked up again, however, the avalanche was slowing, but my little girl was gone.
I stopped instantly.
I remember running back to the slide, even as it was still running toward me. It had pretty much stopped when I got near and threw off my gloves. I began fumbling for my beacon on a post-holing sprint to the area I last saw her.
She wears a transmitter, duct-taped to her harness, and it was her only hope.
My hands were shaking, but even so, my thumb depressed the red button long enough to switch my BCA Tracker to search mode. I remember giving out a desperate shriek of “Winter!”
I was about to become frantic beyond logic when my beacon started to slowly beep. A flashing “32” appeared on the display. The lights on it flickered and I became fixated on the arrows.
I was right on top of her in a matter of seconds. After circling her twice, the closest I could get the display to register was “3.1,” “3.1,” “3.1.”
I threw my pack off, and flung its contents everywhere. I picked my probe out of the strewn mess of gear and assembled it. My hands were still shaking.
Beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, sounded my dangling beacon. Then there was another sound.
It was the muffled sound of a dying dog, right next to me. A swan song of a sort.
The probe fell to the snow unused. The handle clicked into my shovel and went to work. More crying. Both me and her.
The blade of my shovel found her nose first and it was pointed straight up. I used my bare hands to uncover her face. Snow was caked into her eyes. I removed it and wept repeatedly, “Daddy’s here!”
Her mouth opened and closed, spat out some snow, and she began gagging and wheezing. It was a miracle.
Only her head was sticking out of a wall of snow now, but at least she could breathe. I continued to dig frantically, and found that her body was twisted awkwardly. I remember worrying that her back might be broken.
When I had her mostly uncovered, though, there was another miracle.
She squirmed the rest of the way out on her own. She jumped up, shook herself off and then started licking away my tears. I’ll stop the world and melt with you.
About 45 minutes after our emotional reunion, a rescue helicopter was circling above us. I gave a thumbs-up sign, wrote the letters “OK” in the snow, and eventually it flew away.
I had a great conversation with Brad Sawtell that night. He’s the head of Colorado Avalanche Information Center and was the first to say that “Any live recovery is a perfect 10, you did a great job.”
Then, he diplomatically educated me on my errors.
My critical mistake was underestimating the slope angle. Anything above 25 degrees can slide, and I knew that, but I thought the pitch was lower. Kick me, now.
When he told me: “The average pitch up there is 28 degrees,” I wanted to bang my head against the wall.
I made several other mistakes, such as having a dog as my only partner in avalanche terrain, but they all stemmed from my thinking that the slope was not steep enough to let loose. Don’t be like I was.
Always carry the proper gear, including that which I used, and add an inclinometer to eliminate the guessing. I have.
Practice with all of it to the point where it’s automatic. It needs to be, because believe me, emotions disrupt logic in those situations.
It could’ve easily turned out much worse, yet I still feel sick about it. It was all my fault. I’m so sorry, girl. Will you ever trust me again?
Kick me, now. String me up and beat me like a pinata. I deserve it.
Matthew Duffy covers rec sports for the Summit Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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