I’ve found that while good things often require time and patience to occur, bad stuff seems to happen in a heartbeat. I call them “Oh, s**t” moments.
You’ll be driving down a highway that you assume is dry. But what you thought was blacktop is really black ice and, in an instant, you’re doing 360s at 55 miles an hour. When that happens the first words that pass your (or at least my) lips are often, “Oh, s**t.”
A word of advice if you find yourself uncontrollably spinning circles at 55 mph: Make sure you pump your brakes. This won’t do you any good but it will give your feet something to do while your mouth is screaming.
As bad as those moments are in normal life, they are that much more frightening while recreating away from civilization; there are no seat belts and guardrails in the backcountry. The news in the last several weeks has been full of deaths, injuries and near misses by avalanches in the backcountry.
Steve-Tim-Mark-Bob-Patrick-Jackson-Cory. It took me about 30 seconds to come up with those names; those are just a few of the people I’ve known, fairly well, who have died over the years while skiing.
You always hear the expression, “He died while doing something he loved.”
I’m sure the victims’ friends and families can take solace from that. But personally, I’d much rather survive while doing something I love so I can do it again the next day.
That is not to say I haven’t had a few “Oh, s**t” moments over the years; one was as recent as last winter. It caused tears of fright to roll down my legs.
My mate and I were on the tail end of a four-day trip in Colorado’s Elk Mountains. On this day we hoped to get in some turns in the morning and then head home. We had vague directions to a glady bowl that could be accessed by climbing up in the trees just next to a steeper bowl.
The climb up was easy at first but kept getting progressively more abrupt as we approached the ridge. The thought of my mate spending my 401k after I’m gone with her new 25-year-old Swedish husband causes me to be conservative while skiing. I felt we were well within our window of acceptable risk; but as the climb got steeper, the trees thinned and we approached the crest, the window grew smaller.
It was only about 40 feet across a fairly steep bowl to a safe spot that would allow us to access the gentle glade. Unfortunately, the closer we got the more suspect that 40 feet appeared. Our choices were to take a chance on crossing that bowl or ski back the way we came through the trees — safe but boring.
“What do you think?” I asked my mate. “What do you think?” she answered.
“I think we need to turn around,” I surmised.
We were so close; only a few minutes to the top of the ridge. As often is the case, my judgment was clouded by fatigue and frustration. Had I not already made all that effort to get to that crux spot I would have looked at that slide path and said, “No way.”
But as I said it was only about 40 feet and a few minutes of risk.
I decided to dip my toe in the proverbial water and take a step out of the safety of the low angle trees to see how the snow-pack felt. When I did, the entire slope fractured. Anyone else would only have had time to say, “Oh,” but I can speak very quickly while I’m wetting myself.
At first I thought the slide was going to pass well in front of me but the very edge caught the tips of my skis spun me around and sucked me in the river of snow. I slid with the slope about 10 feet before I was able to dive back toward the woods, grab a tree and swing myself out of harm’s way.
Ellen skied over to me; she was shaking. “I’m fine,” I said, trying to calm her down.
She said, “Watching you get caught in that slide even for only a few seconds reminded that sometimes I forget to tell you what’s on my mind.”
I said again, “I’m OK. I was foolish but lucky,” I repeated. “But what did you want to say to me?
I waited while she collected her thoughts.
“I forgot to tell you,” she said, “I ordered some boots, skis and bindings last week and used your credit card.” For the second time that day, I said, “Oh, s**t.”
Jeffrey Bergeron, under the alias of Biff America, can be seen on TV-8-Summit and read in several newspapers and magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.