The closest call
For myself and John “Izo” Isaacs, the morning of Feb. 19, 1982, dawned clear, calm and filled with excitement. At 3:30 a.m. we strapped climbing skins to our skis, and began the long climb via the Highlands Ski Area to the summit of Highland Peak.
We intended to ski Highland Bowl, the stupendous amphitheater formed by the north and south ridges of the peak. Hundreds of avalanches fall here each winter. Most of these grind to a halt on the low angled “flats” midway between the summit and valley. But during heavy winters, monster slides roar almost a vertical mile to the valley floor.
Back in 1982, Highland Bowl was closed by law to most skiers (it is now part of the ski area’s “extreme” terrain). The ski patrol would take the occasional guided tour, but neither Izo nor I cared to deal with red tape, nor have someone tell us where to ski.
The bowl dominates the view from Aspen Mountain, Aspen’s ski area. For years, backcountry skiers have proudly scribed bowl tracks for all on Aspen Mountain to see. Moreover, the bowl is federal land. It had been part of the Aspen Highlands ski permit for years, but was rarely used by the ski area, and was always “closed.” Such closure gnawed at many a skier’s sense of personal freedom. Thus, aside from artistic statements or braggadocio, locals cut tracks in the bowl to assert their property rights.
I was no stranger to this arena, having played the powder games many times, and for many reasons. But I’d never skied the bowl’s most radical line: “B-1” (now known as Be One on the Highlands trail map), a steep gully dropping 1,300 vertical feet down the east face of Highland Peak. As local wags said, you weren’t a member of the “Highlands Bowling League” until you ran B-1. Because of its frequent avalanches, the same jokers called B-1 the “the mainline to the grave.”
Izo and I were at the top of our sport. Since early fall we’d skied big bowls and steep avalanche chutes. With several friends we had just completed a traverse of the Elk Mountains that included more than a week of extreme descents. During the previous winter, Izo had completed an awesome three-month ski traverse of the California Sierra. Our knowledge of slide danger was tuned to a fine pitch. Yet success would be my fall. I had lost my fear. A mountaineer with no fear has no judgment.
Alpenglow gleamed off the high peaks as we climbed past the last chairlifts of the ski area and turned toward the ridgetop. To our left was Castle Creek and Aspen Mountain, to our right loomed the 14,000-foot Maroon Bells, Aspen’s most famous mountains. The rising sun was warm. I felt happy, strong ” and anxious. Izo and I knew that the ski patrol would be leading a guided tour of steep-and-deep skiers into the bowl early that morning. Hence our early start. If caught, we would be arrested and fined.
Pushed by our egos as well as a thief’s concern for not being found, we hurried. We made mistakes. We didn’t dig a snowpit to check for dangerous snow. Test skiing was deemed unnecessary. We didn’t think back on the history of the slope. Faced with the vast area below our skis, we had choices for safer routes, but I’d lusted after B-1 for too many years to pass this chance. Izo sensed my drive and said little. After a brief rest on the summit I jumped onto the steep slope.
We did take basic precautions. We carried avalanche beacons, shovels and probe poles. We were warmly dressed in the latest outdoor clothing. We also skied one at a time ” a crucial factor in avalanche safety. These things would save our lives.
Izo watched as I began my turns. For 100 feet the skiing was superb. I reached an old avalanche fracture line (from several weeks earlier when the ski patrol dynamited a slide). I examined this evidence of nature’s fury, then skied to a safe area on a rock pile. Izo skied down to a point above the old fracture and watched as I traversed into the gully. The snow was crusty, then I felt a marked change under my skis. I shouted this up to Izo as my tails sank deep into a layer of depth hoar (the ubiquitous “sugar snow” that causes most Colorado killer avalanches). My optimism vanished like snow on a wind-scoured ridge.
Safety was about 50 feet away at the edge of the gully, and I turned that way, intending to take a decision-making break on safe ground. It was too late. I’d only moved a few feet when a vertical fracture opened between me and my only hope for safety. A split second later, the snow I was on began to slide. I fell uphill. I didn’t know what size avalanche I was in. If the slide was small, I had a chance. So I dug my ski poles into the slope and tried to stop myself. My effort was futile. For a moment I slid slowly and gazed with forlorn longing as the side of the gully moved out of reach. The snow picked up speed. I flipped on my back and my skis came off. For an instant I saw the snow boiling around me in a terrifying vortex. I was caught in a gigantic snow avalanche.
The danger in a large slide is trauma inflicted by the tremendous force of moving snow. Burial and suffocation are secondary. With that in mind, I had always imagined balling into a protective position if I took a ride.
I tried to protect myself. It was no use. I was caught in a comber of snow ” a maelstrom like the break of a tsunami. Spun and flipped over, I felt my arms and legs thrown like a rag doll’s. All was darkness and violence as I tumbled faster and faster, losing all control. With a bone-jarring explosion my left femur broke as it surrendered to impossible force. I hadn’t hit anything ” bone had sheared in crosscurrents of snow. Then I slammed into a hard surface which, reconstructing the accident after, I realized was the lip of a headwall near the bottom of the bowl.
The lip launched me into space. As I flew through the air, still engulfed in the powder cloud, I had a brief respite of unearthly quiet. A flash of light, then the avalanche hit the flats and skimmed with spine-bending force over blocks of snow from past slides. Why my back and neck are still intact, I’ll never know. The snow slowed down quickly, I felt G-force like a car screeching to a panic stop. Fear engulfed me. I was to be entombed. A panting breath, then all was still. I passed out.
I flailed my arms toward a glow of light. Then ” a miracle: After the maelstrom only a few inches of snow covered my head. I shook off the snow and finished freeing my arms. I was lying on my side, head downhill, packed tightly in the slide. Both my legs were broken. I struggled wildly but pain forced me to lie still.
I looked up the slide path and saw Izo on foot, still near the top of the bowl. He moved closer, stopping to search piles of snow with his beacon (avalanche beacons have a short range). He couldn’t see me in the shadow far below. I didn’t shout ” I didn’t have it in me. Later we figured I’d dropped from near the top of Highland Peak to the flats in nine or 10 seconds ” at speeds around 100 mph.
Izo reached me and dug me out. Now a speedy rescue was our priority. I was in danger of shock, hypothermia, and internal bleeding from my broken femur. Indeed, in medical triage a femur break is considered a life-threatening injury: 50 percent of broken-femur victims die.
After he fixed my clothing and arranged me on a bed of snow, Izo climbed back to the rim of the bowl, then to the ski area. To his surprise, the ski patrol was on its way. Unknown to us, an Aspen man, Bob Limacher, had been watching Highland Bowl from his house. Through a telescope he saw the entire event.
Thanks to Bob, Izo and the ski patrol, at 11 a.m. I was in Aspen Valley Hospital. My rescue took two hours, including a harrowing toboggan ride in a cloud of pain ” until I passed out. Any longer in the bowl and I would have died on the flats after surviving the slide.
In the emergency room, my body temperature was 94 degrees ” I was in the secondary stage of hypothermia. But I was lucky with my legs, the bleeding was light. My first night in the hospital was frightful; a needle dripped whole blood into my vein; a breathing device hissed; the heart monitor chirped; a traction cable pulled my femur straight. I floated in a sea of pain ” but I knew I’d been saved. My girlfriend and mother hovered at the edge of my awareness. I muttered about angels. Two weeks and two surgeries later I was out of the hospital.
Looking back, that fine morning climbing the peak, the first turns in B-1, and my whirling ride seem to have passed in a few seconds. My months of recovery gave plenty of time to ponder this closest call and my life.
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