A slab avalanche occurs when an area of snow breaks loose from a slope, fracturing laterally across the top, freeing it to slide. Potential to kinetic, a mountain in motion.
Right after college, I moved to Jackson Hole, WY specifically to ski as much as possible. A bunch of us did – my boyfriend, our friends. We didn’t want more traditional careers, at least not yet, maybe not ever. We wanted to ski, and ski we did. It was pretty spectacular, really.
A handful of the best years of my life were spent in those impossibly gorgeous Tetons, in the bars of the notorious ski town, in its coffee shops slinging muffins and espresso.
We were well aware of the dangers of backcountry skiing, including the ever-looming possibility of getting caught in an avalanche.
We carried collapsible avalanche shovels and wore beacons to transmit a signal from beneath the snow if one of us disappeared from sight. We took avalanche safety courses and learned how to test the aspect, digging pits in search of clues about the snow’s stability. We learned words like graupel and hoarfrost.
But as with life, and with parenting, preparation isn’t necessarily prevention.
It’d been an excellent day of skiing the area around Mt. Glory at the top of Teton Pass under bluebird skies.
We were going to take one more run before we called it. We’d ski the bowl into the run out and head home.
I was first to ski into the shimmering expanse of untouched snow. It was like a present, getting to go first, but it was also a safety precaution. As much as possible, we avoided skiing all at once.
If we all skied together, we’d be more likely to trigger a slide. If we all skied together, who would be watching to see where the skier went under? If we all skied together, then maybe none of us would survive instead of some of us.
We knew several inches of snow had fallen the night before. But what we didn’t know, what our earlier probing and digging hadn’t revealed, was that in the lee of the ridge, the powder was windblown into a thick, cohesive sheet. What looked light and easy, skied more like cream cheese. Eight inches down, the underbelly of the sheet was a slippery layer of ice dividing what the National Avalanche Center calls a “hard slab” from the crustier, older layer of snow below.
I took fewer than 5 turns before I knew I was in trouble.
Just below my knees, I was busting through the crust, crunching against my shins as I skied. It threw my balance off and I tipped forward, heels free on my telemark skis, landing face first, dropping into the snow and through the crusty layer.
A hard stop. For three seconds everything was perfectly, eerily still.
Then there was sound. A deep and low thrum, like a sheet of metal held over head and snapped back down exactly once. I dropped again, another several inches deeper. The mountain was going to slide.
The sensation, the sound — it was exactly what had been described in avalanche class. When unstable snow settles you can hear it, like a warning, and if you’re in it, you’ll feel it sink below you. It’s the mountain’s way of saying: shit’s about to get real.
I heard my friends call my name. Maybe I called back, I don’t know. What I knew was that I was in the worst possible position with my head downhill. Heaving my skis up and over my body, I righted myself.
At first it was slow, like a train leaving the station. As the friction warmed and lubricated the snow, it picked up speed moving faster and faster. And there I was: speeding down a mountain on a football field-sized slab of angrily churning snow headed for a drop off.
I think about that day and I’m still surprised that it happened, and that I wasn’t hurt, that I didn’t die.
It’s become one of those touchstone memories I return to when I need something to remind me: hey, you dealt with that avalanche, remember that?
Looking back, it’s easy to see that the things we did that day – my friends, myself — are the very things we need to do every day, as parents, as people.
1 | Educate ourselves. None of us knows everything about anything. I’d been backcountry skiing for many years before I finally signed up for an avalanche class, admitting I knew nothing particularly useful about keeping myself, or anyone, alive. What I learned in that class saved my life.
So, that parenting book you pick up, that therapy session you try to get to, that confession to a friend whose been through whatever emergency you’re experiencing?
It could be the thing that saves you, saves your kid, saves your family. The learning is never done.
2 | It’s the quality of what you have, not the amount. In the avalanche it was quite literally the quality of the gear I carried that mattered – skis with quick release bindings, an avalanche beacon, a backpack I could slide easily slip off.
So it goes with kids, it’s the quality, not the quantity. It’s that you were present for a full 20 minutes, that you read the book, that you walked together.
3 | You gotta let go. When that mountain moved under me, yanking at my skis, pulling my legs, I had to let it all go or get swallowed up. I dropped my poles, frantically kicked at my bindings, and freed myself of what was once useful, but now potentially deadly.
Even in that avalanche, I was kinda sorry to see those skis take off at full speed ahead of me, out of reach, and disappear under the roiling crush of wet snow. But we can’t take everything with us – every mistake, every what-if, every shoulda/coulda – it won’t help. It’s just more ways to pull us down.
4 | Swim for the trees. In avalanche class, I learned that sliding snow will eventually build up behind an obstacle in its path – like trees or boulders – and slow to a stop even as everything else keeps sliding. You’ve got to get to safety if you can. I flailed my arms behind me in a backstroke kind of move, trying to stay on top, trying to reach the trees.
The backlog of snow piled up and stopped behind the giant pines, leaving me sitting still on top while the avalanche crashed ahead on either side of me.
Swim for the trees.
5 | Sometimes there’s nothing left to do but swear and pray. When it comes like that — a last resort, a final effort — it’ll be instinctive and real and justified. Let it fly.
6 | There’s more than one way to ride out an avalanche. My dog was beside me for the duration of the slide. She was moving forward, her legs were instinctually running backwards, and she was smiling. SMILING.
While I was thinking HOLY SHIT WE WILL DIE, I’m pretty sure she was thinking, THIS IS CRAZY FUN! She might have also been thinking DUUHHH. Either way, her approach worked too.
7 | You can’t do it alone. My friends watched the snow crack open, dividing safety from danger. They knew I was in trouble. They knew what to do. Two of them stayed at the top with eyes on me, and the other skied left until he was in a stand of trees just on the edge of the slide, chasing me down.
When it stopped, my friend was there, 20 yards off, looking directly at me, speaking to me, telling me I was okay. These are the people who help keep you on your feet when parenting is punching you in the face. We have to accept their help. We need it.
8 | You have to get up and walk if you want off the mountain. I sat for a long time. I heard my friends’ voices speaking to me. I heard them say: you have to get up and walk across the path. You have to get up and come here. NOPE.
I sat with my dog, refusing to move. Then my friend said: don’t you want to get off the mountain now? YES. GET ME OFF THE MOUNTAIN. Then get up and walk, he said. You have to get up and get yourself off.
And so we do. We have to get up and walk. No one else can do it for us.
9 | Take it in. We stood together at the bottom of the mountain, looking back up at the slide. We stood there, purposefully staying for a while, taking it all in. I wanted to memorize it. I wanted to be able to recall its size, its shape, its fury. I wanted to recognize that I was lucky enough to be standing there, looking back at it.
Raising kids is sometimes a disaster — it’s loud and stupid, and we hate it. Even so, we’re always at least lucky enough to still be here.
10 | When it’s all said and done, it will only matter that you lived surrounded by people who loved you enough to chase down an avalanche to save your life, and that you loved them back.