Paul Andersen: Haunting memory of probing for a body after an avalanche
“What is life…?” — Andre, ski mountaineer
It was January 1988. I was an Aspen Times reporter of four years. One of my beats was “backcounty,” of which I took full advantage with any excuse for an outing. One adventure I’ll not forget is described below, starting with what I reported in The Aspen Times.
“At about 10:30 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 10, one day before Colorado Avalanche Backcountry Safety Awareness Week officially began, an avalanche swept 600 feet from a jagged ridge in Pearl Basin and covered three skiers. The bodies of Roy Poteet, 31, of Carbondale and John Logsdon, 32, of Boulder, were dug from shallow graves by their friends.
“Still missing is Teeny (Kristyne) Jueng, 38, a Glenwood Springs councilwoman and emergency room supervisor at Valley View Hospital. She is believed dead and buried in the avalanche debris, along with her dog.”
I decide to report on the avalanche by skiing early the next morning into Pearl Basin and joining rescue teams. Waxing up the Pearl Pass Road for a couple hours, to just below the Tagert Hut, I come upon two body bags unattended in the snow.
The realization that these rubberized bags hold human remains is macabre. The finality of these skiers’ deaths is frightening. The encounter leaves me stunned by the fatal choices they made.
Wood smoke drifts from the stovepipe of the Tagert as a fickle wind whips the smoke around with reckless force. The door is unlocked, so I enter. The hut is deserted, but warm from a fire crackling in the stove. I bring in my skis, dry them, and adhere my climbing skins.
I eat, drink and hurriedly pack my gear, relieved to be leaving the lonely hut and the fresh memory of the victims whose gear is still on their bunks. I pull on another sweater, draw on my wind pants, retie my leather boots and set off.
I plod above tree line to where a rescuer in a long parka, his head hidden by a hood, his face covered with mask and goggles, beats his arms against his sides.
The trail is marked by small, orange flags that flutter and pop in the swelling wind. He gestures toward the flags and thrusts several probe poles at me. I tuck them under my arm and march awkwardly on.
The wind has a vicious bite. I jerk my hood over my head to keep the icy missiles off my cheeks, which burn from the cold. My wind shell snaps like a luffing spinnaker.
I set down one of my ski poles to adjust my load and a sudden gust sends it skittering across the sastrugi. I leap clumsily to catch it. A minute of heavy panting is needed to get my breathing back to normal.
On a rocky rib, I unclip the cable bindings of my tele skis and hike the last 10 minutes to the avalanche site, pushing against the wind that fills my ears with a steady roar as it sweeps over the western ridge where the avalanche broke. I see others plodding before me, stopping occasionally to turn their faces away from the cruel, icy gusts.
In the massive debris runout there are three probe lines wobbling in the wind like a loose fence in a hurricane. A strong gust knocks down one of the probers, and the whole line falls with him, like dominoes.
Probe line leaders direct their teams like choreographers.
“Forward … probe! Forward … probe!”
In synchrony, the teams step forward and plunge in their poles. Some probers sink their shafts to the hilt.
I join a team and we move through slab chunks the size of refrigerators. My fingertips are numb, and I hope they’ll come back as I begin probing. But, as the wind gusts to 70 mph, my toes lose sensation and my feet become stiff and plastic.
We don’t find Teeny Jueng. The search is called off because rescuers are literally freezing. Her body is finally discovered in June — six months later — when an observer notices the furry paw of her dog emerging from the snow. Teeny is not far away.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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