Although I felt incredibly lucky that I wasn't literally flattened, the avalanche of March 22 left me deflated, both physically and emotionally. After hiking down Thunder Mountain in a daze, I checked into a hotel room and lay awake for most the night, running the experience through my mind again and again — the startling "whomp," the concrete blocks of snow tumbling down the hillside, the way my brain screamed to run but my body didn't seem to work, the slow-motion moments as a waist-high wall of snow came upon me. But at least I jumped on top, and stayed upright, otherwise I might have been buried just enough to never come out. Even in slow motion, I was able to run far enough to meet the edge of the slide, where there was less volume of snow. The avalanche stopping where it stopped was sheer grace — had it continued over that cliff, nothing would have saved me. I recognize both my complicity and fortune in the situation. It was an intense life lesson I won't soon forget.
After my right foot was buried in the avalanche, panic set in and I yanked at it violently. At the time I believed I would probably pull my sock foot out of the too-large shoe, and was prepared to walk away without it, fully believing that another slide was seconds away. So I was yanking hard, and the force must have pulled or possibly torn one of my quad muscles. Enough of the shock had worn off to reveal the injury.
With renewed pain came a long-overdue shot of adrenaline, or at least cortisol ... something caused me to start reeling and become increasingly jittery. I still wasn't ready to face other people — solitude is my coping mechanism during distressing experiences; it's just who I am and how I deal — so I didn't call Anchorage or Palmer friends as planned. Instead, I drove to Eklutna Lake, limped a half mile onto the ice, and sat on my fleece jacket to soak in the warm (22-degree) sunshine. I'm not even sure how long I sat there. My hat and gloves were off; I wasn't cold. I looked at my phone to acknowledge 24 hours since the guessed time of the avalanche (4:45 p.m.) Gratitude is what I wanted to feel — damn I got lucky. I'm alive, mostly unhurt. That in itself is incredible. But I didn't feel any sort of relief. Instead, that deep, dark side of myself — the one I battle frequently to suppress — clawed her way to the surface. My inner nihilist.
"It doesn't matter. None of it matters."
First light came, and it was time to drive to Fairbanks to meet Beat, who was flying in that afternoon. I really looked forward to seeing him; had I kept to myself much longer, no doubt my jumbled emotions would have whipped into into a full-blown existential crisis. Outside the distant peaks were bathed in almost neon pink light; it was a stunningly clear morning, and cold — 13 below in Wasilla at 6:30 a.m.
"What are the trail conditions like on the Mount Healy overlook? Have people been up there recently? Is there avalanche danger? What's the weather forecast? Wind? ... "
The ranger was gracious with information and seemed to smirk a little when I grilled him some more about avalanche conditions. Here was a frequently traveled trail to an exposed, wind-swept ridge that hadn't seen fresh snowfall in several weeks. The risk wasn't zero; it never is. But he was clearly unconcerned about my chances.
There was a thick inversion over the valley. Just a few hundred feet higher, the air felt significantly warmer. My cluttered mind began to clear. The strained quad muscle loosened significantly. I was able to walk normally, almost briskly, as I traversed the wind-swept ridge. Incredibly there was almost no wind up there. It was warm enough to melt the frost from my face and hat.
Sometimes when I'm walking in the mountains, I emerge from those disjointed places deep inside to realize there's no barrier where I end and everything surrounding me begins. It's just this, here, now. Everything as one.
It seems appropriate in those moments to say "Thank you."