Aspen, CO Colorado
The headline writers would have contrived the perfect cliche: “Experienced Backcountry Skiers Crushed by Cornice.” That could have been the epitaph for a moment of ignorance.
Looking back on it, the events were so unpredictable that it was more like entrapment than stupidity, though there may be challenges to that distinction. Regardless, we were very lucky to avoid grim headlines and a raft of regrets that would have come with them.
It all started with – what else? – a hut trip. Six of us headed off a couple weeks ago to the Betty Bear Hut in the upper Fryingpan on a beautiful spring day. The sun was hot and the snow was wet, so we sped along on waxed skins, reaching the hut by mid-afternoon. At the Betty Bear we did what hut trippers usually do; ate and drank and watched the sun set over a fine panorama of jutting, snow-capped peaks.
My son, Tait, had just observed his 15th birthday, so the tour was a celebration. Tait was jazzed to visit two huts that were new to him, and I packed in a double-chocolate cake that survived the trip intact. We sang Happy Birthday that night and Tait blew out some hut candles.
The next morning we packed up and skied over Hagerman Pass to the Skinner Hut, a lovely tour across vast meadows deep in pristine snow, with hardly a track to mark the route. We paused at the old Hagerman Tunnel, which formed a mere depression in the snow.
The day was warm and sunny, and soon we were over the pass and on to the Skinner, where we witnessed the enormity of the snowpack. The hut was literally buried, so the first thing Tait did was to ski onto the roof. We had to dig down to the front door and all the windows were snowed under. On the lee side of the hut, a 20-foot-high drift extended 40 feet to the east, totally blocking the east door, the deck and all the windows.
The hut was frosty cold from a lack of visitors, and the water caldron was frozen solid, so we started both the heat and cook stoves and soon had fires crackling merrily. Tait and two of his buddies shoveled out some of the windows to let the sun shine in, and the hut gradually emerged from its winter cocoon.
The boys had plenty of energy, so they began digging a snow cave at the far end of the big drift. Once the cave was large enough to gather in, they decided to tunnel to the door. An excavation began that would consume most of their youthful energy – and most of our food stores. In the end, their Herculean labor hewed out a six-foot high, 30-foot-long, candle-lit tunnel that was pretty awesome.
On our layover day, we toured back up to the pass, then up the ridge toward Lyle Peak at well over 12,000 feet. The wind was howling, so we abandoned that plan and skied back down to the saddle, looking for a sheltered lunch spot. We found it in an elliptical alcove scoured out by the wind from a 20-foot wall of snow at the base of a gently sloping snowfield.
The alcove formed a swale against a hummock of tundra and rock that sheltered us from the wind. Tait jumped off the lip of snow a couple times, then joined us on the tundra for lunch. Suddenly, there came a loud crack and the snow wall collapsed. Car-sized blocks of snow came tumbling toward us, then stopped just as suddenly.
We all gasped at the drama of the moment, feeling intense relief that no one had been caught by the collapse of this weird cornice. Only minutes had separated us from being crushed, since we had at one time stood directly beneath the wall remarking on what a great location it was for a snow cave.
What we had failed to realize was the amount of pressure exerted by the snowpack above, even on such a gentle slope. We had also failed to appreciate that anything can happen if you’re naïve enough to stand under a wall of snow…under any circumstances.
We processed the event with a variety of recriminations and self-flagellations, dug out Tait’s skis, which had gotten buried, and finished lunch. We skied down the valley, making turns on gentle undulations of pristine snow. We were happy, yet sobered.
In my mind, I revised the headline: “Experienced Backcountry Skiers Learn Life-Saving Lesson.”