Sunday, April 02, 2017


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. 

Wiser, perhaps, but everything else had been exhausted. It took an enormous amount of energy just to schlep my stuff to Juneau airport in the morning, trudging toward the terminal as snain pelted my face. I flew over the southeastern coastline with supreme indifference, landed in both Yakutat and Cordova without summoning the will to look out the window, and limped into the Anchorage airport in a surprising amount of pain.

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."

I again slept fitfully and briefly Thursday night, tossing as I churned through the unsettling memory of my initial reaction to the avalanche — my failure to run. I was disturbed by the realization that I felt no surge of adrenaline — as though on that deep, dark, inner nihilist level, I didn't so much care if I lived or died. That's not how I operate normally. Logically I know this, but it's a disturbing idea to chew on, nonetheless.

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.

A few hours passed on the winding highway as my thoughts continued to churn into a nauseating lather. Just before 10 a.m. I approached the entrance to Denali National Park and robotically turned left, without having made a fully conscious decision to do so. As I drove up the park road, I realized that I had a few extra hours to burn on the timeline to meet Beat at the Fairbanks airport. Those hours in Denali could do me some good. When I stepped out of the car, my right leg was still stiff and sore, but felt notably better. The temperature was still deeply cold, -16, but the sun felt warm on my face. I limped into the visitor center, where I found a ranger to ask a dozen questions about a familiar trail.

"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.

I won't pretend it was a good idea to hike up a snowy mountain less than 48 hours after the Thunder Mountain debacle. My right leg still ached and my energy levels were close to zero. I could have taken a nap and probably would have been just as happy in the peaceful oblivion of badly needed sleep. But something deep inside deemed it necessary to climb that mountain. Deep inside I needed to acknowledge that I was afraid, but I did care. Up the well-packed trail I trudged, feeling more at ease with each switchback. I watched three unconcerned moose nibble on alder branches a few hundred feet from the trail. I thought about turning around because, you know, moose danger — but it really felt right to be there. The moose acknowledged me with a sort of bored nod and went back to eating.

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.

You know when you're finally feeling happy after a few rough days, and you take a selfie in which you believe you're smiling, but it comes out as a pained grimace? Yeah.

When I turned around, my mind and body were filled with more energy and life than I expected to feel for a while. I noticed Denali peeking over the skyline to the south.

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."


  1. You know, the lack of running from danger isn't that surprising. You just never know how you will react. For example when I was charged by a brown bear near Sitka, I thought I knew exactly how I would react. Nope. It took everything I had not to run, the worst thing ever. I think there is an element of disbelief when life threatening things happen.

  2. Another "on the edge" avalanche close-call in Juneau:

    I'm so glad both turned out well.


  3. Thanks. That was beautiful. Did you hear? The mountains are still calling.

  4. Avalanche science is a great forensic science. A predictive science? Not so much....

  5. If there's no snow, or you're not in avalanche terrain, the risk is, in fact, zero.

    Avalanches are quite predictable, really. You can set your own level of risk, if you want the level to be zero, you better learn enough to figure out when and where that is. Instead of wallowing in self pity, you could try to learn something.

    1. I intend to. But really, no room for empathy? No acceptance that even you aren't 100 percent in control? I hope I receive my education from someone more imaginative.

  6. J, you are correct, avalanches are unpredictable, the idea that it is an exact science is laughable.

  7. To be honest none of that sounded self-pitying (I know, shouldn't bit on an Anonymous comment but still); it sounded like a "normal" response to a highly unusual situation (as no one ever really anticipates a dangerous event occurring) - and "normal" would be defined as a completely unique response to the individual having been through that experience!! I think you know yourself very well - and I love that you ignore "common sense" - if that is what conservative people might call it to climb up another mountain and reconnect with your love of the outdoors. As always love the pics :)

  8. I think "anon" is a "troll"... delete him.

  9. Wow! Glad you're alive! Loved how you expressed your gratitude. Thank you for sharing.


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