By Eino Holm
I was 21 when I started wearing contacts. I got tired of foggy glasses under goggles, yes, but the kicker was a ridiculous crash I had at the bottom of Green Valley. One won't be surprised, as one should never be, that there was a woman involved. I wasn't quite 21. Crystal had stayed open (or reopened, but that isn't important) that year, a big winter and an interesting spring that was largely cool, even most of the way to Memorial Day. Snow to the water in Vancouver after Mother's Day.
Chair 3 had good coverage. Moguls, slop, sun, what you'd expect for June. I was trying to learn a 193 Völkl P40 with a Voilé 3-pin cable I'd modified into a hardwire. I ripped the base off that ski the Bad Winter a few years later. I felt I was on top of things, sending it, really. Confidence makes confidence. To be clear, this woman plays an incredibly fleeting role in the scroll of things that make up my life. She wasn't a good skier. I know that doesn't matter. I was 20 and didn't have the best of social skills, so when I say we made some runs together, it was really just that I was much faster and waited at the bottom. She invited me to make après turns up at Chinook, which I of course interpreted as something other than just filling the conversational space during the ride up. A+B=EVERYTHING, or something like that. One run she threw a shoe at the top of the Valley. When we hit the top of 3 that round, my old boss stopped me to chat, thinking that I had been the one who crashed. I laughed, I think, probably said something along the lines of "I don't crash," and then skied off. This lady--I never learned her name, as those who know me could expect--was at the bottom of the first pitch already. I simply straightlined through the moguls, almost comfortably, thinking I'd catch up.
The bottom of the first pitch has a compression followed closely by a rollover and then another compression. I've tucked this sequence successfully likely hundreds of times since I was a wee kid. It only takes once, though. I had to have been doing over 40, maybe pushing 50. The compression threw me off, the rollover sent me into the back seat, skis starting to meander. The second compression tackled me flat out, head through the skis. My memory is a blur of white then blue. I think, with fair certainty, that I flipped three times, and spun at least once. I know for sure that I lost my hat and my goggles and my glasses, the glasses permanently. I know I hit my face hard enough to break my nose. I was on my feet again surprisingly quickly; the world was the fog near-sighted folks will know from waking each morning before grabbing their glasses. I can't and couldn't then see even arm's length clearly without corrective lenses. You'll understand when I say that I had no reason to grasp why the snow was rapidly turning pink. Snow disperses blood efficiently, so there's that, but I was bleeding like the simile of your choosing, as well. I had finished my EMT the previous fall and worked the Heather Meadows aid room at Baker all winter, so had recently seen my share of bloody noses. Snow is effective. It mops and it ices at the same time. I'm sure my face was a mess, but I got the bleeding stopped.
I borrowed some paper towels from the liftie at the bottom of 3, and stood near-blindly wiping what I couldn't see regardless off my face. Two folks passed that I remember. The first was a volunteer patroller who said "Hey! That was you?! Nice crash!" The second was the woman I'd been skiing in front of, who said, "Oh! Hi!" and then motored off, into an appropriate never-to-be-seen-again. If I am not mistaken, Rex didn't have coverage down to 5280', so I hiked across the ridge and downloaded. I couldn't have seen anyway, so it was better that way. I toured the rest of that spring with glasses, but since 9 July '02, I have not worn glasses while skiing.
This crash was violent. My neck was stiff and sore for the entire summer. I don't remember when it finally let up. I am still dealing with it in the form of periodic headaches from a stiff neck; it is rarely aligned correctly when I visit the chiropractor. I remember the feeling still: the dull thump each time my face hit the snow, the spinning and the rapid alternation of sky and snow. The complete panic. It could have been worse, and for many it is.
Skiing is famous, or infamous, for being dangerous. Folks die all the time, so the story goes, or have gory injuries and do broken bones. Unfortunately, I could make a long list of names to back that up, but either you already know their stories or they'll mean nothing to you at all. In practice, skiing is just another activity. There are studies and clickbait discussing our sport, and the numbers aren't really convincing. There are obvious dangers, such as slides and collisions and simple falls, that correctly or incorrectly convince people that folks like me are crazy and out for death just by getting up in the morning. A frank discussion of "exploits" like knowing for sure that I've hit at least 70 outside of a racecourse with zero protection of any kind, or of teleing a pitch that overtops 52 degrees while aiming directly for a 100 foot granite wall coming in hot from skiers' left as the last run of a 7 hour tour-and-lift day, or skiing the King in four turns, or, you get the idea, might not dissuade them. This isn't bragging, and not even in the "it ain't bragging if it's true" sense. When one possesses specific skills, things that to most are difficult or impossible can seem mundane. I won't claim that turning left off lower Nose Dive on the marbles of a two week drought didn't raise my BP a good bit, but I truly wasn't scared. The trees came up quick, dern near to my feet, but beyond that nothing happened. Maybe that last pitch before the hard left was where I topped 70, I don't know. I sub-audibly giggled, though. As well, that huge right-hand sweeper out of the Toaster, knee to the ski, is euphoria. Especially if it's deep, especially if one is on the rivet, especially if the choke isn't filled in yet and one must straightline a bit.
I won't claim to conquer fear, or that fear makes me feel alive. It doesn't. It makes me scared. Sad. Apathetic. If I am scared, I listen. I stay home. I didn't tour in Utah because I didn't know the snowpack. I don't mean I didn't study it and read up on it and hear what the UAC had to say, because I did all those things. I mean I didn't know the snowpack like a Chilean puma doesn't know the terrain around Smithers, BC. Snowpack is one of those things that can surprise damn near anyone, given the chance. Little pockets, microclimate effects that are only visible when one travels through on a regular basis. For a good bit of time, I knew the snowpack really well around Crystal, and just the same I would tread quite lightly. Storm skiing is best on well traveled pitches. Skier compaction. For the big stuff, the adventurey bits, letting the new snow settle and dispassionately studying the results is called for, and still shit can go sideways.
This is macabre, but true: I know more people who have died in tree wells than have been murdered. I don't really know what to make of that except to repeat, over and over and over and over, the tree skier's mantra. Look where you want to go. Look where you want to go. Look where you want to go. Look where you want to go.
One afternoon, some random pitch out North--alone, natch--I ended up cantilevered on the uphill side of a tree with a surprisingly deep and obvious well. I don't remember which winter, but I'm pretty sure I was working for Brad. I got stuck with my weight balanced between my right, downhill foot, and my right hand, which was on the trunk of a midsized conifer of vague recollection. I was in this predicament, as I every so often am, from being adventurey. I remember it as lower on the hill, down toward the new chair, though more than that I can't remember. I know it had been snowing like it does in the Cascades, and the tree wells were starting to get deep. These little sandtraps are legendary and terrifying and easy to miss. I describe some snowpack as spooky, but nothing compares to a tree well.
I somehow managed to transfer my weight around and get resituated below the tree, and all was well. I skied out, and I'm now twelve plus years older and hopefully much the wiser. Wiser doesn't keep your airway clear when you are upside down and panicking, though. Wiser doesn't convince nature, or Ullr, or God, or whomever, to cut you some slack. There's a reason why so many backcountry deaths are reported with "experienced" somewhere in the copy. (Yes, the MSM doesn't understand skiing and a writer may add adjectives simply to sound expert, but I do hope that's not the common motif here.) Snow Immersion Suffocation gets more of us "experts" than any other group.
I am thinking of all of this because recently I was reminded of a woman I knew tangentially who passed away in a tree well. She was a good, strong skier, many days on snow every year for many decades. No one is sure quite how it happened. Every story is like this, just us survivors standing around scratching our heads and wondering, a, how, and b, why, and c, why not me? I don't want to die in any such manner, nor does anyone I have ever met, but still the thought is there. What have we done, or not done? Do we deserve our respite, or is the other shoe just out of sight above our heads?
We have likely all had near-misses, like my face-smash of June '02, where different forces would have yielded far more disastrous results. We stand around at bars, or end-of-season bonfires, or on this new-fangled technology stuff, and wonder at where we are and how we got here. The human factor is huge in most skiing accidents. Sometimes it's a cycle of hubris regarding our own abilities. Sometimes we're just skiing alone in a place where it'd be better to have a buddy. Sometimes it's a collision. At that fireside, it's easy to dismiss these misfortunes as things we would all avoid because, well, haven't we done so forever? We're all here, after all. I wear a helmet, so that means I can't die from a head injury. I have been skiing for 39 years, basically my entire life, so I can't misjudge the pitch and roll over a 50 footer skier's right of Pinball. In the dying light of a passing season, this is comfort. Melby, though, was 100 or so feet skier's left of Iceberg Gulch, a main, regularly groomed run at Crystal, when Kristin--"Ten"--found him the summer after he disappeared. The guy back in '03 or '04, he was just below the top of 9, near Patrol's Dyno AP cache. Had he a clean airway, he could have been heard by a patroller sitting bump or me when I was out shoveling. These things can, and do, happen to us all. Jim Jack was an incredible skier, very intelligent, and unfortunately he now watches over Tunnel Creek from wherever he is instead of making another run off 7th Heaven. Slides, tree wells, simple mistakes, they spook us all. Each accident causes introspection and resolution. Some time passes, it happens again. We can limit our exposure, we can make the right choices, follow our guts when they say to stay away. Then one of us catches an edge and another light blinks out.
I haven't been hit too closely by these deaths, but that doesn't change anything and doesn't make me special. The snow still falls. The trees still abide, and the Mountain will win any contest we take to it. Some folks are pushing that boundary every damn day, either getting lucky or just good at timing. Some folks make a living doing things none of us understand, but through courage, a good bit of skill, and--no offense Jaime--some luck, keep pushing on, only to get hosed in bounds at Alta in the early season, and another light blinks out. There are always ghosts about.
In a sense, skiing chose me. I didn't chose skiing. I started the lifelong process in '82-'83, somewhere around 18 months old. One cannot make the argument that I was learning actively at that age, but with repetition and exposure I eventually got to where I am, somewhere along the long road to wherever it is I am going. I have balance on my skis that is hard to learn beyond childhood. Not metaphorical balance, as I routinely stare blankly at folks who might ask what else I do besides ski and work. I mean edge-to-edge, core-over-feet sort of balance. I can make mistakes and still bring it right 'round. I fell three times in '019, three more than my average winter. I do not ski with only a mind to not fall. I ski to ski. Angrily, with patience, with and without purpose, happily, sadly, I ski. I do not avoid falling, but still I rarely fall. Even so, there are always ghosts about. I will always think of my Grandfather, gone these sixty years. He skied, taught Pa to ski. He is always around me, as I hope Pa will be someday when he moves on as we living things tend to do.
There are so many others. I don't pretend they are watching me, or looking out for me, even though I think maybe they really are watching us all. This thing, this turn, skiing, it isn't necessary. It doesn't fix things that clear eyes and full hearts and a good mind for problem solving can't. The raven, though, and the marten, and the gray jay, they can keep tabs on a good few folks. In my more metaphysical moments, I feel their presence. I am not arrogant enough to think anyone is around specifically to keep me out of the creek under Chair 6. I don't think that is what they need to do. If I die on the hill, though, I hope Grandpa or Sarah or someone who's gone before is there to walk with me, just as I hope Hans Saari or Sondre Norheim or some to-us nameless legend from the Altai was around for Jaime Pierre. To show us how they make turns on the other side.
Title from Emmylou Harris's "One of These Days", written by Earl Montgomery.
An incomplete compendium of snow safety resources:
- Your local Pro Patrol. They are in it every day, ski-cutting, throwing charges, digging pits, making observations, living under the hangfire.
- Snow Immersion Safety Information
- Northwest Avalanche Center
- Colorado Avalanche Information Center
- Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center
- Sawtooth Avalanche Center
- Mount Washington Avalanche Center
- Sierra Avalanche Center
- Mount Shasta Avalanche and Climbing Information
- Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center
- Snow Sense: A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard by by Jill Fredston and Doug Fesler (1994), published by Alaska Mountain Safety Center.