Smiles and Sadness in the San Juans
It was one of those days where if you didn’t love powder so much, there’d be really no reason to leave your couch.
The weather was raw and up on red Mountain Pass, the weekend’s storm stubbornly persisted into Sunday afternoon. I was working with my FLC students who are taking an upper division Avalanche Technician Course- a cool mix of Level 2, Avy Rescue, Leadership, Forecasting and AE Field instruction. It’s the type of class you probably wanted to take in college but it didn’t exist. Lucky kids for sure…But after a couple hours of low vis, high winds, arctic temps and negative wind chills we had decided to point it downhill back to the van.
Despite the abbreviated ski tour and the desperate conditions making learning difficult, our smiles were wide. Braving the challenging weather allowed the participants to make their first foray into the white room. We’ve spent a lot of time on skis lately, but mostly skinned up, practicing avy rescue skills.
It was time to watch these students shred and they did not disappoint.
Deep storm/powder skiing often leaves me with a snowtee- where my beard and mustache get caked with frozen snow, ice and snot. I think one could argue a direct correlation with the amount of fun equaling the final length of crystal stalactites dangling around one's mouth- When it's blower, I look like a dog who’s had his head in the snow and my backcountry bliss is often worn frozen on my faceparts- represented by a wide, all-telling smile. We debriefed at the road and complimented each other on our frozen grins. When the snowtee gets this large, it takes some serious defrosting on the way down the hill. I wash in no rush to melt away the joy.
We rolled off the top of the pass at 1430ish and I sat in the cab of my co instructors truck, chewing on my frozen beards parts. I was awash in feelings of pride, accomplishment, hope and excitement for future tours with these students who already have grown so much. Rounding the hairpin at Chattanooga, I could see a seam of sunshine down valley. The light undergirded the clouds to the south and it felt like we were riding off into the sunset, albeit in a snow globe. The warm horizon beckoned us downward as the storm continued swirling around the 550 corridor.
We made small talk about the Coyote Face, Ohio Peak and the Cemetery Shot.
After passing the Artist Cabin, we took note of three vehicles parked on the west side of the highway and debated whether Riley Boy or Imogene is the better name for the gully forming the southern boundary of Sam’s trees. I mentioned how my spouse has been un-amused when I’ve soloed that shot in the past. The truck slowed so we could look up at Sam’s. I rolled down the window for a clearer view. In a funny voice, I pointed at the snowed in trucks on the side of the road, their occupants obviously up skiing in the trees, and said “Sure thing boys- always green light up there!” the smug, pretentious quip intentionally implying a “don’t die” tone to my message.
“It’s got to be tough to see in there today” I continued “I don’t know why people think that place is safe?” The gravity and ill-timed nature of my comments were soon to be amplified.
Approx. 20 minutes later, the text from SAR came in and the oxygen spilled out of the truck’s cab. We both sat their bewildered and breathless. Had we rolled past SAMs while this was unfolding? Had I just besmirched a victim still under the snow? My stomach sank. I felt sick and dis-empowered.
We slowly crept around more switchbacks towards Silverton. I fought car sickness while trying to pull up emails and contact info on my phone- desperate to find out more about the accident now in our rear view. We were leaving the storm and the madness behind. Was this the right call? LaPlata County SAR was told to stand down. I heard from a good friend on San Juan County TRT and they were also not dispatched. San Miguel county SAR was on scene. They’ve got access to a bird. That’s never a good sign.
Hours later, I finally made it home and chose to turn all my communication devices off. I needed to put the day’s action aside for the moment. The novelty of a cozy house, reconnecting with my sweetie, a warm shower and a hot meal distracted me for the remainder of the evening. The drama surrounding that afternoon’s events would be there for me in the morning. My bliss was for sure to melt. But for now, I was desperate to hold on to the joy, frozen to my face atop Red Mountain Pass.
On Sunday afternoon, twenty seven year old Abel Palmer of Durango was killed in an avalanche in Sam's Trees. "The slide occurred on a northeast-facing gully slope about 11,200 feet in elevation, according to an initial report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center."
This young man studied at FLC so the link between my student's experience and Palmer's accident is direct. I'm sure Abel was also wearing a smile on Sunday. Undoubtedly, this Thursday's class will be unique. I"m sure we'll have lots to discuss.
I spent yesterday working with the FOSJ BOD on a message to our community. As an organization that exists to educate and save lives, this incident is profound gut shot. I can't hep but think we're failing-Why does this keep happening?
I wish to extend my deepest condolences to the friends and family impacted by the unfortunate avalanche accident this weekend in the Northern San Juans. I wish all of my backcountry family love, light and healing in this difficult time.
I'm sure we'll spend some time in somber reflection at our event Wednesday night.
The danger persists. Please be careful out there and hold each other close.
For now, I'm gonna try to keep smiling through the sadness.