Van Beek: The pleasure and pain of mountain living
We come to the Rocky Mountains to seek a different path, a life of new challenges and adventure. Living so close to nature tempts us with its beauty, yet there is always that sense of danger in the background. We become enticed to push beyond the limits of our comfort zone, and for many, it’s like a dare on the playground, we simply must go all out and test the boundaries of what most would consider insane.
It is why we produce so many Olympians. Breaking bones is simply a right of passage. Knee surgeries, commonplace. Frostbite is just another day outdoors. We live in layers that are the envy of the Michelin Man, and squeeze into boots that could be used in torture chambers, and we respond by saying, tighter please.
There is nothing like zipping in a snowmobile, across an open plain of fluffy white snow, with wind hitting your face so hard you can no longer sense anything above the neck, yet the exhilaration is worth every chapped lip, every red nose, and every frozen finger.
While others sip warm drinks in front of the fireplace, we are busy waxing skis, inserting boot dryers, and checking snow reports. A prime adventure is securing a remote hut and hitting the slopes in our famous backcountry.
To tread where none have gone before is a fantasy. Danger stares you in the face, you smile and say, bring it on! If it requires specialized equipment and extensive planning, the better. The tougher it is to get there, the bigger the bragging rights.
And so, it was last week, for a group of guys who regularly push the boundaries of human endurance with a wink and a smile, as when told that something is impossible, they respond, watch me! Part of the excitement comes from facing danger head-on and emerging sweaty, exhausted, but with a huge sense of accomplishment. Yet, always in the back of their mind, is the cost of the thrill.
In one week alone, 15 people died in avalanches across the country. Four were here in Colorado, making it eight avalanche deaths in the state so far this winter. Our community has half of those Colorado losses. Vail local Johnny Kuo was lost in the East Vail Chutes last week, while Eagle locals Adam Palmer, Seth Bossung and Andy Jessen were lost in the San Juan tragedy.
While wildlife, the elements, and terrain, can all quickly become deadly in our valley, avalanches are the most treacherous. They are caused by unstable snowpack from heavy snowfalls, after warm temperatures, and prompted by wind. A fault develops and any vibration or other disturbance can cause the surface snow to loosen, slide, and build momentum as it works its way down the slope at speeds of up to 150 mph. When it lands, the force creates a cement-like consistency that leaves little ability for mere mortals to work their way out.
Remember that it will take a rescue team as long to reach you as it took you to reach the site. When survival is measured in minutes, preparation and training become critical. In my next column, we will discuss preparation and survival strategies.
Our unsung heroes are the volunteers in search and rescue. They take their passion for the outdoors and adventure to new levels as they risk their lives to save others. They understand the exhilaration and danger inherent in our desire to explore the unknown and the challenges that come with testing Mother Nature. They are there, against all odds, to help create a more positive outcome.
In San Juan County, the search and rescue team worked tirelessly to recover the three men who had been buried so deep that their fellow team members, after hours of digging, still could not reach them. They faced the heartbreak of switching their efforts from a rescue to a recovery.
The snow was so heavily packed that it broke a multitude of devices from shovels to snowmobiles. Yet the team refused to give up. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s final report on the avalanche, searchers recovered two of the men on Tuesday and the search team returned on Wednesday with over 30 people and recovered the third skier. One was buried 9 feet deep, another 11 feet, and the third was buried 20 feet deep. They had to use chainsaws to cut through the wall of snow.
Our local search and rescue teams are run by volunteers. These are people who put themselves in critical danger, year-round. This is in addition to their regular careers, which range from executives to students to retirees, and from every conceivable background and experience level.
The requirements for participation depend on your interest and physical condition. You can be someone who is out in the field, climbing mountains, rappelling across cliffs, whitewater rafting down rivers; or you could be coordinating with agencies and volunteers at the command center. You can be a fundraiser, or someone who brings food to the site during a rescue. Or you could be the one who consoles victims and their families as they wait. There are so many areas in which your skills would be immensely valuable.
Last week, Mother Nature whispered in the wind to four of our most treasured community members… “I’m bringing you home.” Our heart and deepest sympathies are with the families of those we lost; you will be truly missed. May they rest in peace.
James van Beek is the Eagle County sheriff. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.