9 Lives
Living to Tell a Backcountry Boarding Story
Mount Rainier, Washington

Photo: Peter Potterfield

This is a backcountry snowboarding story of how I lived to tell you about this backcountry snowboarding story. Usually people who make this many mistakes don't get the chance, so here goes.

November 24th was the first day of the 2001 season for me and I wanted to go backcountry. Mount Baker and Crystal Mountain were opening up the 25th, but I didn't want to wait in long lift lines for tracked up rocks and my body needed conditioning that only earned turns can give.

I was going up to Camp Muir at about 10,000 feet on the south side of Mount Rainier, solo or not. I knew the route well, knew it would be crowded and knew it had very little, if any, avalanche danger. If I sound confident and cocky, I was. The night before, my good buddy and touring partner Gorio called me and he was in. Between the two of us we'd done this tour over 40 times. I brought my compass, transceiver, probe, shovel, first aid/repair kit and enough food and clothes for the trip including an extra night if needed. If I had any concern at all it was of spending an extra night on the mountain, and even that was so faint I consciously didn't bring a map or wands knowing I could dig in and survive.

"In retrospect, I was all too confident in the snow and my ability to react to anything the mountain could dish out..."

Door to door, the trip is about 12 hours so I told Gorio I'd be at his house at 4am. We were at the Longmire gate at 6:30am and were told that, due to snow, the gate probably would not open until 11am, though very little snow had fallen overnight. We had breakfast and debated our options. With most of the roads in and around Rainier closed, our only option was to drive to Mount Hood and ride there.

I guess you could have called it a lucky break when the gate opened at 8am and we were in the Paradise parking lot getting ready to head up shortly after. While packing, Gorio told me he had not really slept and he forgot his transceiver (mistake #1). No biggie to me, my decision to go on was made without a second thought.

We were first on the mountain and broke trail as the wind and a little bit of snow had wiped clean any signs of an up track. We were still in the trees and lower section of the mountain, but the wind was serious even at this elevation (avalanche "avy" clue #1), which meant it would be even more ferocious above tree line. At one point a gust blew Gorio and I two feet back. Wishing I had a facemask, we climbed on.

Our first stop was going to be an old roofless shelter at the top of the steepest section of the climb, about 1500 to 2000 feet from the parking lot and 3000 feet from Muir. As we approached, the wind was in our faces and several times we had to lean to the ground to hang on. We finally had to take our skis off and scramble. Two skiers we had met in the parking lot, Jimmy and Sam, had caught up to us in the shelter. We were out of the wind, but without a roof there was a constant swirl of snow in the air. Any pack, glove or exposed hand was instantly covered or filled with snow. We ate and drank hot tea. Gorio and I were still up for going to Muir as Jimmy and Sam decided to head down and ski terrain less windy.

About 200 feet from the shelter, we ran into some climbers on their way down who had spent the night in tents at about 8000 feet and said it was like camping in the jetstream. I was impressed. The spare pair of socks that I'd tied together and around my face was not working, the two knots prevented my jacket from closing completely and it really didn't protect my exposed skin. Pressing on meant no exposed skin, so after about 10 minutes we turned back.

Our first turns were awesome as we were on the leeward side, though the wind had buffeted all sides, this was a deep, firm powder that was easy to board. By now we had 20 skiers, climbers and boarders in sight. The firm snow showed no signs of weakness and we did not plan on digging any pits (mistake #2).

Though neither of us had headed southeast of the parking lot, we could see it and the snow-covered road (closed in winter) heading east out of it. All we had to do was make it back to the road and ski back to the lot. Plus, we could see other skiers touring in all directions so we were not alone. On the way down Gorio spotted some avalanche debris (avy clue #2), the first we'd scene. After about 1000 feet of turns we switched back and headed for the more leeward slopes to the east. Gorio spotted a great line that was tucked in next to a top-to-bottom line of trees. We were at the top an hour later.

After windsurfing with our bodies at the top of the ridge and having lunch we road down one at a time. I'd say we were still being fairly safe by riding one at a time and keeping each other in sight. In retrospect, I was all too confident in the snow and my ability to react to anything the mountain could dish out. In fact I remember thinking that very thought only hours before and at that time I wondered if the mountain could sense my confidence. I would later regret that thought.

We were now in the ride-it-to-the-bottom-with-as-little-hiking-as-possible mode. As on many of the volcanoes in early or late season this means keeping your board on at all costs (mistake #3). So we were heading southwest trying to make as many turns as we could without without losing elevation; maybe even hoping to keep a line that would deposit us back in the parking lot without anymore hiking. It was early season and I was pooped.

We were about 500 vertical feet above the parking lot and maybe a half-mile east when we started working the beginnings of a creek. At first it was a wide opening and I made some steep turns just in front of Gorio — nothing moved. We regrouped and looked at the terrain trap below as the creek got narrower and the slopes into it steeper. I could see a way out across a 100-foot wide mini-bowl, nothing that big at all. It was right next to the steep slope I had just come down.

I didn't even look up to see what could cut loose on me or look down to really see where I would go if it did (mistake #4). It was a classic avy slope ready to rip and I was too close to safety and too cocky to even see it. I had just entered it, trying to cut a high line straight across its belly (mistake #5), putting as much pressure as my 230 pounds of body and gear could put on it and still only thinking of making the high point 100 feet away without hiking.

At the same time Gorio yelled "slide!" I saw the snow in front of me start to move. I was only about five feet in and it looked like only the top 8 to 12 inches were moving, but for sure it was a big island of snow. At this point I thought I was still in control and there was no panic. I instantly turned my board back in the direction I had come and the moving snow forced me to sit though I had hoped to keep moving (as I had in many slides before). After about 20 feet I realized I was going to get forced into a narrow crux of the creek and I realized this was going to be big.

Everything was happening so fast and at the same time in slow motion. I didn't try to pull the ripcord that releases my board or take off my pack, both would be anchors and all avy training says to ditch the gear. About this time the secondary wave of snow from above, which had a 2- to 3-foot crown at its deepest point in a 20 feet wide section, hit me from behind with speed. This is the last time Gorio saw me as I was buried from this point on.

I traveled the next 40+ feet face down thinking I would be going down a long way and not really knowing what was around the bend in the creek. I was still calm considering I was buried. I tried to reach my board to pull the rip cord but it was uphill. Before I knew it things were coming to a stop and I just managed to get my right hand in front of my face and my left hand about 10 inches away.

The first 10 seconds:
Oh my God, Oh my God. Keep calm, everything you've learned says to conserve oxygen and keep calm. I was calm for one second and shitting my pants the next.

My goggles were still on and I could see; there was light. I tried to move, but the snow was cement. My body was stretched out to the fullest as my board was acting as an anchor with my body and pack being pulled downhill. My head was face down and well below my feet. I knew which way was was up. I tried like hell to free myself, to push up, but each time the effort would take up all the oxygen and I felt like I was hyperventilating. Then I tried to yell "Gorio, Gorio!" with the same effect.

I relaxed, regained my breath, and somehow felt calm for just a few seconds.

The next 20 seconds:
I remembered Gorio did not have a transceiver...did he have his probe? I knew he had his shovel, but how deep was I? I know from experience that avy snow is cement and digging someone out by yourself is compounded many times with each foot of snow that is on top of you. But how the hell would he find me without a transceiver? And if he doesn't have his probe, forget it. He has to have a probe. We're in a hole, no one saw us and there was not enough time to get help. Fifteen minutes is all I have, all Gorio has to save me.

Is this it? Am I going to die right here? What about Sara, Reilly and Ivy? SHIT! I try to push again and bring my left hand closer to my face, which fills my little air pocket and mouth with snow resulting in a double dose of panic.

The next 2 minutes:
All I can think about is my family. Reilly is 2 and Ivy is 4. How could I miss all the signs and die so early. All my backcountry experiences, training, first descents and shit talking and now I'm cemented a half mile from my car. I'm a f'in idiot! SHIT! They won't find me until next year; it will just keep snowing and sliding and getting deeper and deeper. I try to call out to Gorio again, but my breath has melted the snow, which is now starting to freeze around my head, greatly reducing the oxygen flow.

The last 3-4 minutes:
I've given up 100% hope of being saved. I think my goggles are starting to fog as it's getting darker and darker. All I can think about is my wife Sara and the kids, the best kids in the world. I know I'll be hurting them, hurting the rest of my family and friends. I think how I'm not going to be able to teach my kids how to love the mountains, and I think they will hate the mountains. I don't want them to hate the mountains.

I'm sad, I'm mad, I'm calm then I'm fighting again.

It's dark but I'm still conscious.

I believe in God in my own way and I ask for his help. It was weird; it felt like I was asking on behalf of my kids and not for me. I felt so sorry for them.

Then I hear it, muffled and about 10 or so feet away.

"Luke, Luke."

Oh Shit, Oh Shit...

It's Gorio, f'in a, it's Gorio. I could only manage one or two "Gorios," not sure if he heard me or not, but just like that, with a heart attack of excitement, I knew I was going to be dug out.

The next 10 minutes:
It seemed like they only took 10 seconds, could have been a minute I don't know, but Gorio got my face free and I gasped for air screaming, "You saved my life, you saved my life!" Gorio says I was pretty out of it, saying all kinds of shit. All I remember is feeling euphoric and telling Gorio how he saved my life. Gorio was moving fast as we were still in a very dangerous place. It took a minute to dig out my board and get it off my feet when Gorio accidentally knocked some snow in my face, blocking my breath. I yelled "Gorio, Gorio, my face!" as my arms and head were still locked in place. The helplessness was overwhelming.

The strange thing was my goggles were not fogged, I guess the no-fog stuff I put on the inside and outside the night before worked and it was my brain that went dark. I wanted to hug Gorio and Gorio wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. We had to hike back up the slide path to get out as below us was an even bigger terrain trap.

My head was pounding from the lack of oxygen. I had no more strength left but the thought of being ripped by another slide and being able to see my family again after giving up hope was more than enough motivation to climb out. We still had one last 20-foot section of exposed slope to climb across until we were in a safe zone. Gorio repacked his gear in another safe zone across the creek while I slowly, even though I was going as fast as I could, made my way to it. Once there, I collapsed.

Twenty minutes later we were in the parking lot.

I'm still shaking my head and asking questions, feeling so happy to be alive, to have a second chance to be with my family. And I can't explain it, but also feeling depressed and everything in between.

Photo: Peter Potterfield
Gorio said he saw the second wave coming and it hit me hard, he went to a safe spot 20 feet away and grabbed his shovel and probe and assembled them, having done both without having to take off his moist gloves which saved time. From the point he last saw me, he probed down the narrow creek avy path until he saw a piece, the size of a dime, of my ski binding poking out on the outside of my pack. The size of a dime! In five to six minutes he had my face exposed to air, beautiful air.

His experience was as traumatic as mine; only difference is he had oxygen. He was thinking about how he was going to have to tell Sara, how shitty that would have been.

Sara said she wouldn't have been mad at Gorio. It was my decisions that got me into the mess, so she would have been mad at me. So many times I've cheated death. Before I had my kids I needed to get that rush to feel alive. And I'd get it in the mountains, riding bikes, anything to get the rush of feeling invincible. Many times I've paid the price with pain, coming close to the edge and living to tell about it. For the most part I've mellowed out since having kids.

On November 24, yesterday as I write this, I paid the ultimate price. I crossed the line so far I was dead in my own mind.

It's still too close to really know what kind of perspective this will give me, but guaranteed, perspective will be gained. To my family, Sara, Ivy and Reilly, I love you more than anything. More than solo trips, more than first descents and more than life itself. To my family and Sara's family, who would have had to deal with the mess, help raise my kids, and for the trauma this would of caused you, I'm sorry. To Gorio, what can I say or do? From my family and from myself, thank you. I'll ask the backcountry community what the going rate is for full body retrieval and life saving while putting yourself at risk. And to you I'm sorry for putting up my blinders.

To anyone who reads this and travels in the backcountry, read the signs, they're out there if you look for them. Take the training, learn from the training and use the training. Always bring your tools: transceiver, probe, shovel and, most importantly, your brain. This was a teeny, tiny slide practically next to the parking lot. I could have been swept down into a creek hole and buried under 20 feet of snow or sent over a cliff, through rocks or trees, and, in all, been totally helpless.

I'm not going to stop living life, but I plan on making sure I'm around to enjoy it with my family and friends as long as humanly possible. I still have a few of those nine lives left, but I plan on saving the rest for a long, long time.

Luke Edgar, Correspondent

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