Montana Headwall » Head Trip

White noise

The last thing you hear before an avalanche sweeps you under can be as subtle as trees rustling in the breeze


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I caught up with Jason as he was already on his way down from the summit. “It’s nasty up there, let’s cruise down,” he said. I picked up on the concern in his voice and thought maybe he had seen the slough.

“Did you see that slide?” I asked.

He hadn’t. We talked briefly about what I’d seen as I removed my skins and put on my jacket. We both had a sense of unspoken urgency.

The flat light and clouds made depth perception difficult, so I felt my way down the first 200 feet. Skiing virtually blind, Jason yelled directions to me from below. After a couple hundred feet the visibility improved and the snow transformed to epic conditions, leading Jason to yell his usual suggestion: “Point it!”

Instead I made wide, sweeping turns and savored the dreamy surroundings. I wanted to charge like Jason, but my fatigued legs lacked the necessary strength. With our route pretty clear, Jason took off and I puttered down the mountain. My earlier concern faded as I skied in blissful, casual ignorance.

Jason later told me that when he dropped into the bowl, something didn’t seem right. He realized that the small slough I’d seen wasn’t small at all. Huge amounts of snow must have slid while we continued our ascent, and now two-thirds of the bowl’s cornice had moved. He told me later this was an “oh shit” moment.

Montana Headwall

None of his concern was apparent to me at the time. I skirted the edge of the main bowl before dropping in, then stopped for a minute to adjust my boot and take in the surroundings. That’s when I heard a slight whoosh behind me, like trees rustling in the wind.

Just then I was knocked off my feet. Everything went dark. My world felt turned inside-out. It took a second to realize I was in an avalanche.

I was powerless. The third of the bowl that hadn’t already slid was hurtling down with me somewhere in the mix. My mind struggled to make contact with my limbs, to coordinate movement, but my attempts proved futile. There was no up, down, right or left. I thought about trying to swim, but that wasn’t happening. The information flow between my mind and body couldn’t comprehend the situation.

Pressure from the snow was light at first, and then intensified, squeezing the air from my lungs. My body slammed against unseen objects, trees most likely. I couldn’t tell what parts of my body were being pummeled, but grunts of pain were forced out of me.

I remember having one complete thought: How long can this go on?

Then it ended.

My head and shoulders were protruding from the snow. I was dazed and unable to move. It took a few seconds before I realized I was yelling. Not consciously yelling for anything in particular, not making any sense, just yelling from pure adrenaline. Picture a man buried alive finding his way to the surface. That was me.

Jason had seen the avalanche coming and skied out of the bowl before the slide surrounded him. He skied up to me and used his shovel to loosen the snow’s grip. He gently moved my arms and legs, checking for injuries. His main concern was the blood pouring from the top of my head, something I hardly noticed.

I felt a great amount of pressure in my lower left arm; I was sure it was broken. The entire right side of my body throbbed and I was having difficulty breathing. A strange gurgle came from my lungs when I inhaled.

As I started to get my bearings I knew that we needed to move—first from the avalanche’s path, then to the trailhead. Jason assured me we could do it.

He phoned a friend in East Glacier, Cory Pine, and told him where we were and what happened. He asked Cory to bring some skis and meet us. Next, he called 911 and calmly explained the situation. Jason asked if I thought I needed a helicopter. Embarrassed, I declined. It didn’t matter. The operator told him a helicopter probably wouldn’t work due to poor weather in the area, and suggested we start moving.



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