Vagneur: Trouble can find you | AspenTimes.com

Vagneur: Trouble can find you

Tony Vagneur
Saddle Sore

In today's well-manicured ski world, it may be hard to imagine, but there used to be a large sinkhole, about 12 feet deep and 30 feet across, at the top of the Ridge on Bell Mountain. It was just a bit northeast of what was called the Hanging Tree and was clearly visible from the lift. Early in the season, the ski patrol roped it off to keep errant schmucks from falling in, and as the winter snows fell, we'd side-slip the new stuff into the chasm until it became skiable.

It was one of those days, a veritable blizzard of snow with winds whipping the ski-patrol shack until it seemed the windows might explode inward. We readied for the end-of-the-day "clear the mountain" assignments, and I volunteered to ski the Ridge for my route. It was a great way to end the day, and I thought the certain battle against the wind and drifting snow would be a worthwhile challenge.

As I came around the Dark Side road and headed toward the Ridge, with vision at a minimum, a little voice told me to watch out for the sinkhole. It resonated about the time I tumbled into the deep abyss. Wind and drifts had completely obliterated the bamboo and rope cordon we had used for marking the disaster area, and I fell right in. Literally.

The sides were, true to sinkhole engineering, nearly vertical, so there was no real chance of climbing out, although recent snowstorms had filled in the hole to some degree. We ran those clearing routes alone, eventually reconnoitering at well-staged rendezvous points along designated trail confluences. If someone didn't show at the rendezvous point, it would ultimately lead to a small rescue party retracing the route to see what might have gone wrong. Not an easy thing to do in those days.

Let's face it — no one wants to be the subject of a search-and-rescue operation, particularly from one's own cadre of professionals, so it was with a mixture of embarrassment, anxiety, mountaineering experience and cowboy ingenuity that I finally dug and climbed myself out of a terrible predicament. My arrival at the rendezvous, albeit it so late as to be almost inconsequential, was greeted with curious silence, as the clear could now proceed without worrying about where I'd vanished to. "What the hell happened up there?" was the question I finally got.

About the most that could be said was that it proved to be an "interesting" experience, and the next day several of us went down with shovels and good intentions toward filling the sinkhole with freshly fallen snow.

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Interesting, yes, but not tragic as has happened in the more recent past, with the death of Wilder Dwight, a 12-year-old successful ski racer with his eye on the Olympics. On Dec. 7, 1986, he skied over an unprotected mine shaft in the trees along a popular ski trail on Aspen Mountain and unwittingly fell to his death. He didn't see it coming. Today there is the Wilder Dwight Memorial Classic, a perpetual ski race and celebration of Wilder's life and his love for skiing.

Back in the day, before Bingo was open to the public, the ski patrol regularly ran avalanche routes in the area to protect Spar Gulch and the Bingo Slot, which is to say Bingo didn't get a lot of traffic, other than from patrollers and sometime poachers. At the top of B(ingo)5, or maybe it was B6, there was an open mine shaft just where a left turn was demanded to miss a rock outcropping. It was unmarked (out-of-bounds terrain), and if one missed the turn by a foot or two, it would have been curtains for whoever the unlucky SOB was. Throw a rock in the shaft and wait — it would eventually hit bottom.

The difference between a good day and tragedy is usually no more than a heartbeat. I'm not preaching safety, because that's not my job, but be aware that there are unmarked, existing mine shafts out in what folks today like to call "side country," just off the ski-area boundary. You might think it's reasonably safe, and it sometimes is, but not always. In December 2008, a much-loved giant of a man, Cory Brettman, a family man and ex-patroller, was caught in a fatal avalanche in Power Line, a well-skied diversion just off the area.

Tragedy can be waiting to swallow you up, so think about your circumstances before you get in trouble. No one thinks they will get caught, but some do. Ski hard, ski fast, and take chances, but remember, the road home, once compromised, may be forever barred to you. As my friend Margaret says, "The mountains have no favorites."

Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at ajv@sopris.net.