The Cake Factor | by Stephen Eginoire
My good buddy often points out the similarities between excessive powder skiing and excessive cake eating. Both are extremely enjoyable. Both are fairly hedonistic activities that pose considerable health risks to the participant. Cake eating causes the brain to release pleasurable amounts of dopamine in an almost identical fashion as when one is carving at top speed though deep, blower powder on a steep slope. Both can, and should be enjoyed responsibly, but the lines between risk and reward easily become warped when one is in the midst of a cake or snow bender.
Let’s face it. Most powder days blend together, and we should be so lucky to end a season with even one that will live on in our memories for years to come. The very best days, the ones we really remember, are usually a culmination of conditions, fitness, good partners, and a common objective. We like to believe that we have enough common sense and experience to be able to assess the risks posed by a certain slope, but sometimes it’s hard to deny that second serving of cake.
Two winters ago, my friends Andrew, Alex and I were enjoying over-the-head powder in familiar terrain. The snowpack was in classic mid-winter San Juan condition; Depth hoar on the ground, a few thin slabs on top of that, and a thick slab from a substantial old storm on top of that. And then a few more thin slabs, topped off with a fresh helping of around 3 feet of new, low density snow. It’s what my friends and I like to call a shit sandwich. Potentially catastrophic? Absolutely. Which is why we chose to ski in an area where avalanche starting zones can be easily avoided, and sub 35-degree terrain through the trees can be easily followed.
It was one of those freezing cold afternoons with no wind, and although it had stopped snowing hours before, shimmering snow crystals were suspended in mid-air, filling the space around us. The three of us climbed up our skin track through old growth fir and spruce, back to the top of a run we had just skied down. We moved along the ridge to where the snow hadn’t been touched, and the slope was just a little bit steeper.
Some things are worth the risking your life for, but let me tell you skiing deep snow in trees is not one of them. Even IF the skiing is really, really good. Two seconds after the above image was captured, the entire slope began moving. Several large cracks shot out from my stance behind a tree as the slab shattered like a pane of glass. I had just enough time to scream "Avalanche!!", as loud as I could, hoping Andrew, who had just skied past, would hear.
These are the final images captured on my camera's memory card. My finger must have been stuck on the shutter button as I was ripped from my stance and swept downhill. The first tree I hit rung my bell. The second tree I hit, I thought had broken my jaw, and the third, well, I always wondered what it would be like to die in an avalanche. The snow accelerated with incredible speed over every downhill inch. I was well beneath the snow for a second or two, but emerged back on the surface just in time to slam into the trunk of douglas fir, pinning me and breaking my fall. The force of the snow pushing my helpless body against the tree was outrageously violent, but the pressure began to ease off, and everything stopped moving. The woods were absolutely silent. The peacefulness that followed was one of my life's defining moments. I was still alive. My subliminal state of consciousness was snapped back to reality when I realized Andrew was calling our names. Then I heard Alex call out. Holy fucking shit everyone was still alive.
Alex reached me first, and helped dig me out. His skis were gone, his knee severely blown, and was probably moving on pure adrenaline. Andrew was able to dodge the slide by cutting a hard left away from the slide path to relative safety. Although largely able to self rescue, we were in pretty rough shape and texted a friend in Silverton, who placed a 9-11 call for us.
I arrived within sight of the highway, hypothermic, well after dark. My shoulder was dislocated, I had decent sized hole below my bottom lip and some severe contusions around my tailbone and inner thighs. Andrew was still helping Alex, who was basically post-holing through waist deep snow with his one useable leg. If surviving the avalanche wasn't already sobering, then the sight of two ambulances, search and rescue vehicles, the sheriff, and state patrol, all with their emergency lights collecting in the otherwise quiet peacefulness of the mountains, surely drove it home.
Our friends Susan Hale and Mark Gober, both avalanche forecasters, came to help me walk the final length of hill to the highway, and into an ambulance. I have a lot of respect for their work and their wealth of experience, and I felt terribly embarrassed. An hour or so later Alex and Andrew arrived. The whole show moved to Mercy Medical Center in Durango, where we spent the night in the hospital being x-rayed and dosed with morphine.
I'll never forget seeing Page, my wonderful partner, nervously waiting by the double-doors outside the ER, how happy I was to see her, and how overwhelmingly embarrassed I felt; Skiing in the backcountry, when I knew the conditions were questionable, playing games with my life for some face shots. What the fuck.
Coping with a near miss in the mountains is a real eye opener. The implications raise many questions ranging from how we justify risk to what's most important in our own lives. At the end of the day, I suppose it's all about balance, and for us skiers, it's about not eating too much cake.
Right now, I'm sitting in my house in Tucson, Arizona, far far away from the nearest avalanche prone slope. Page is finishing up graduate school, and we're talking about where our next move will take us. It has been good for me to be removed from skiing, and honestly, I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would. That said, I feel compelled to look at the online data collected by weather stations in the northern San Juan Mountains, and have been reading the CAIC forecast discussions on a regular basis. I guess I have a bit of FOMO.
I do know that right now, typing this very line, the avalanche conditions are in the red with more snow and wind on the way. It's only November, and if El Niño continues to deliver, this season is going to be a good one.
Stay safe out there everyone.