“Powder snow skiing is not fun. It is life, fully lived, life lived in a blaze of reality. What we experience in powder is the original human self, which lies deeply inside each of us, still undamaged in spite of what our present culture tries to do to us. Once experienced, this kind of living is recognized as the only way to live — fully aware of the earth and the sky and the gods and you, the mortal playing among them.
— Dolores LaChapelle, writer, skier, scholar, mountain-lover.
"The study of slides is a science, and the study comes pretty close to getting the answers but not close enough. About the only good rule, is not to go in a storm. They ask us how an accident could have been prevented in many slides. The best answer to that is — They should have stayed in bed.”
— Louie Dalla, longtime road supervisor for the Silverton District of the Colorado Department of Transportation.
January 6, sometime in the not too distant future
Randy Glaxson leans his tall frame against the trunk of a spruce tree to catch his breath and looks out across the field of snow, its surface glistening as if it were crusted with diamonds. The effort- and elevation-induced hypoxia has fogged up the vocabulary portion of his brain almost as severely as his breath clouds his eyeglasses, and he can’t find the right word to describe what he’s looking at. “Field” doesn’t cut it. Maybe tilted plane? Anyway, this particular tilted plane is the loading zone for the North Battleship, a sizable avalanche path and, when the conditions are right, an excellent ski run that plummets off of a ridge west of Silverton, Colorado.
Glaxson is a snow scientist. That is, he’s a hydrologist whose focus is snow, its composition, structure, dynamics, and, particularly, the ways in which the structure of the snow on a tilted plane like this one can disintegrate catastrophically. He’s an avalanche guy, in other words. And the tiny town of Silverton, which sits at 9,318 feet in elevation, surrounded by mountains that rise up some four-thousand feet higher, that are covered for several months out of the year by a notoriously unstable snowpack, has more snow scientists per capita than anywhere else on the planet.
The fifty miles of highway over three mountain passes, with Silverton smack dab in the center, is the most avalanche-riddled in the lower forty-eight. Snow slides once buried miners with frightening regularity, crushed and splintered entire boarding houses, took out mining trams, killed snowplow drivers. On St. Patrick’s Day 1906, two dozen died in this tiny county in a single twenty-four hour period. Back in 1963, a reverend and his two daughters and their car were buried so thoroughly that the bodies didn’t emerge until the May thaw.
These days the victims are still numerous, but are more likely to be skiers or snowmobilers or snowshoers, folks who end up dying "doing what they loved."
Glaxson, standing in the relative safety of the forest, looks back out at the slide path and, despite his avowed atheism, genuflects out of respect for his lost comrade. Just days earlier, the North Battleship had claimed its latest victim, a snow safety professional and one of Glaxson’s former students. Glaxson is here to try to understand what happened, or maybe just to come to terms with it. He’s read the accident report already, and with an additional six inches of snow piled atop the accident scene he’s unlikely to glean any new information by coming here. And yet something about it all bothers him, like a subtle itch that he just can’t reach.
He takes off his pack and hangs it on a branch poking out from the tree and pulls a long, icy draw off of his water bottle. He removes the little shovel from the pack, and then pauses, opens the pack again, pulls out a Butterfinger, unwraps it, takes a bite, and revels in its frozen crispy sweetness. He’ll save the Dr. Pepper until he’s done. He peers through foggy glasses in the direction from which he came, looking for a sign that his companions are near, but sees nothing but spruce and fir boughs and a pine marten bounding across the snow.
Glaxson’s thoughts drift to Mary, his girlfriend or lover or companion or whatever the correct term is these days, and the tension that has throbbed between the two of them as of late. Officially they’d been together for four months, making it look as if they hadn’t even met until long after his divorce from Sandra was official. In reality his fervor for Mary was the reason the marriage blew up in the first place. The hunger's still there, but now when he's with her he also feels hesitance, maybe even trepidation.
He looks back out to the loading zone, its smoothness interrupted by the jagged crown where the snow's bond had failed, and mentally maps out how the accident occurred. The report said that Scott had dug a snow pit. Glaxson sees no evidence of one. Perhaps it was wiped away by the slide, or the skiers had entered the slide from the opposite side — the quartet had been brought in by chopper, after all — and dug the pit there. The witnesses said Scott hadn’t liked what he saw, so he told his companions that he would ski a line skirting the trees while they kept a close eye on him from a relatively safe place. He’d only made three or four turns before triggering the slide. The witnesses said they immediately lost sight of him, and called for help right away. It was too late. His body had been found face down under three feet of snow.
Had Scott known what was coming? Did he feel the snow settle with the telltale whoomph before the entire upper layer failed? Or had his deep powder rapture mercifully wrapped him in a cocoon of oblivion as the wave of white inundated him? More importantly: What the hell had compelled an intelligent, cautious guy like him to try to ski this thing? He could have bailed and had the chopper come back and pick them up, or at the very least found a safer way down. And what had driven the group to come out here in the first place, just after a big dump had piled three feet of snow on top of a deep, rotten layer? It didn't add up.
Glaxson steps away from the tree, just to the edge of the clear area, and starts digging, methodically removing the snow in blocks so that he has a flat cross-section of the snowpack to analyze. Layer after layer of snow, with subtle differences between each — a timeline of the winter every bit as revealing as the geological timeline that is laid bare in deep road cuts and gorges. Beneath the first several centimeters of new snow he sees what Scott must have seen: a layer of snow about a meter thick that has bonded well, and in which major slabs could form. That is from the storm that had preceded the accident. But it sits atop another meter of granular, faceted depth hoar with about the same bonding power as sugar, i.e. none. Together it is a recipe for catastrophe.
Glaxson stops digging and steps back into the trees, again looking and listening for his missing companions. “Where the hell are they?” he mutters. “I knew Malcolm was out of shape, but damn it’s taking him a long time. And Mary should have been right behind me.”
A burning sensation rises from his gut to his throat. Something is wrong. He considers going back. Decides instead to wait a few more minutes. Surely they're fine. He reaches into his pack and pulls out the Dr. Pepper, opens it, and takes a swig. It feels like needles in his throat.
He looks back out at the North Battleship. The poet, the casual observer, or the artist would see tranquility in the vast field of untracked snow, all a homogenous shade of white: A blank canvas on which an aspen tree casts a shadowy self portrait, where even a tiny mouse’s tracks are visible. But to the snow scientist it is a world of heterogeneous motion: multifaceted, stratified, dynamic, seething.
Even now, as Glaxson observes, the snow is changing. It is flowing, thawing, freezing, gliding, creeping, settling, subliming, rotting, transpiring, trickling, diffusing. It is, as the great snow scientist Ed LaChapelle put it, “a granular disco-elastic solid close to its melting point. You can’t make it much more complicated than that.” It is constantly experiencing destructive metamorphism. Flux.
Snow is a quasi-living organism, in other words. And like all living things, it has the power to kill.
One month earlier
“This isn’t a bus stop. This is a parking lot. Are you sure this is the right place?”
“It’s the bus stop. Believe me.”
“Why? You take this bus a lot?”
“Me? Hell, no! I’m not riding… I’ve got a car. Remember? But I dropped Sarah off here. You know, after she dumped me.”
Malcolm Brautigan looked out the dirty windshield at the sea of cracked pavement before him. No bus-stop sign. No bench. No shelter. No nothing indicating that this was the place to catch the bus to Durango.
“You sure you can’t just drive me to Silverton? I mean, it’s only a couple hours from here.”
“I told you, I have to work. I’m already catching shit for coming into the office late and hungover the last few days since you got here. And now I’m supposed to be at the dentist, getting my teeth cleaned. So no.”
Without his car, Brautigan felt both unmoored and trapped at the same time. The transmission or axle or something had given out on his 1985 Toyota Corona just as he was topping out on McClure Pass — a sharp clunk and a sudden loss of power. The intelligent thing to do would have been to stop, hitch a ride into town, get a tow. Instead, Brautigan continued on, a horrible grinding sound coming from the car’s innards, for the next thirty miles into Paonia, where his friend Blake Peterson was an editor at High Country News.
He holed up on Blake’s couch for a few days, scouring the Google in hopes of reaching a diagnosis on his car and watching dozens of YouTube videos instructing him on the repairs. Then he’d go outside, open up the hood, jack up the car, crawl underneath, and gaze listlessly at the incomprehensible mess of rods and gears and nuts and bolts. He might stay under there in the warm dark for fifteen minutes, maybe an hour, even. Sometimes he’d pound on this or that, or mess with a nut or bolt, or wriggle a hose or wires hoping for a miraculous fix to a loose connection. Then he’d go back inside, wash up, and flip through Blake’s collection of seventies-era New Yorkers and Playboys that he had stumbled across while looking for a wrench, and while away the time reading ten-thousand-word John McPhee stories on the steel industry, or flipping through pre-Photoshop, pre-silicone, misty photos of topless women until five o’clock rolled around and he could pour himself a drink from Blake’s meticulously curated liquor cabinet and prepare a meal for him and Blake. Then the two of them would sit up late, drink themselves into a stupor, reminisce about old times, and commiserate over ex-wives and lovers — Melissa for Brautigan and Sarah for Blake.
“Well, I guess this is goodbye. And hey, I promise I will replace that bottle of Scotch. I had no idea … ”
“It’s okay, Malcolm. Oh, and those old magazines? Dead man’s talk, yeah? If anyone finds out about those I’d end up jobless and homeless and unemployable.”
“Kind of like me.”
“Yeah, kind of like you.”
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