Tong Vagneur: Remembering those who died by snow’s dark side
As the afternoon approached its end, four or five of us longtime Aspen ski bums sat around, some drinking beer, others finishing up a woodworking project, and the stories started to flow.
“Do you remember so-and-so?” — “what about, you know, the Avalanchero’s girlfriend, what was her name?” and the stories were mostly about skiing, but if they don’t include people, they’re not about much.
Dick Bird, possibly the oldest surviving patrolman from the early days of Aspen Mountain (1950s anyway) and likely the longest serving ski ambassador of the Aspen Skiing Co., had made me a DVD copy of old patrol photos (the Aspen Historical Society has them on record) and I’d stopped by to pick it up, unceremoniously crashing the work project. There’s a column to follow based on that DVD.
Buddy Ortega, fellow ski patrolman with me in the 1970s and now a vaunted ski pro on the Aspen Mountain steeps, took a break long enough to commiserate with us about an unusual day in Walsh’s Gulch, long before it was opened to the public.
He and I had skied in there with a group of fellow patrollers, packing enough dynamite to scare half the dogs in Leadville. We lined those charges up along the top of Walsh’s, stood back as Robin Perry plunged the connector down and listened for the rumble of the slide to follow after the blast. It didn’t slide. We then cut the top of the bowl by skiing it, and still no threat of avalanche.
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Perry gave me the go-ahead and down I went, slicing through deep, virgin powder snow. As I stopped near the bottom, Ortega followed me down. All routine and according to protocol. Sweet turns he made and just as he got near, maybe 20 yards above me, there was that sickening “Whump” and the Bowl began to move. Ortega, alerted by the moving snow, skied into the trees on the ridge above Loushin’s Road.
Yours truly, anticipating the worst, tried my best to get the hell out of there, but in the second it all took, it was too late, my feet were locked in already concrete-hard snow and couldn’t move. Luckily, it all stopped moving about as quickly as it started. After deep deliberation and as a safety precaution, we bombed and skied the danger out of Walsh’s the rest of the day.
We’ve all read of the mighty avalanches that killed miner’s back when silver was king, but we need to know that almost from its inception as a ski area, Aspen Mountain has claimed the lives of many excellent skiers.
On Feb. 13, 1948, a party of four left the Sundeck at 2 p.m., headed to the bowls at the head of Difficult Creek. Two members of the party, Percy Rideout and Alex Cushing, started down what looked to be a stable slope. Ski patrolman, Morrie Shepard, bringing up the rear, saw the slide begin to run and alerted the others.
Alexander McFadden, skiing in the middle of the foursome and the basin both, tried his best to outski the huge slide but was soon overwhelmed and immediately buried. Shepard was caught, but not by much and Rideout and Cushing, who had made it to the edge of the slide, were buried up to their waists.
In the days before avalanche beacons and probe pole ski poles, let alone two-way radios or cellphones, Shepard was dispatched to go for help, the most direct route being to ski down Difficult to the nearest ranch, where he telephoned for help. Rideout and Cushing began the hasty search with almost nothing to work with.
The Aspen Mountain ski patrol and ski school both responded immediately, along with other volunteers who knew the territory, swelling the initial rescue party to about 30. Imagine looking through the debris of a slide nearly 300 yards in length, with a depth of 20 feet. You know in your heart that it’s a recovery at best, but still there’s an urgency, holding out hope against hope that it may be a miraculous rescue.
The main party of rescuers, over 100 strong (after it was realized that the first 30 responders simply weren’t enough), arrived at the scene about 8 p.m. after riding the lift up to the top. With no high-powered headlamps, bonfires were built along the trail going in and all around the search area. Many rescuers carried flashlights. The snow was ice-hard, very difficult to dig through and it wasn’t until sometime around 4 a.m. that McFadden’s crushed body was found, under approximately 8 feet of snow.
That may have been the first avalanche fatality of “modern” skiing in Aspen, but it certainly wasn’t the last. We all know several people who have perished at the hands of the “white death,” and we give somber recognition to them and their families.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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