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Sketchy Conditions in Verbier
What a day to forget my beacon

We awoke in Verbier, Switzerland, to what were becoming "normal" conditions: blue skies, tons of tourists (the busiest week of the year), a few too many good skiers (schralping our pow), and high avy hazard. Our local guide, who had been showing us the goods, Miriam Lang-Willar, was well published and fun to hang out with. Miriam wanted to go to a zone she had spotted the previous afternoon and shoot it in the morning sun. We were all psyched to have a plan.

We loaded one gondola, one tram, then two chairlifts before starting the half-hour hike up the ridge to the face we wanted to ski. After an avalanche had taken out the whole looker's left side of the mountain to the ground four days before, the face had two lines left on it. Gordy Peifer and I debated who would get the most obvious line on the face. We decided it should be mine, since Gordy already had two decent lines in the can.

"I wanted to stay with my plan and get out of the exposure zone as quickly as possible..."

With all of the lift riding, I knew we had to hustle to get to the face before the sun left it, so I started hoofing it up the ridge. I made it to the top of the line with about 15 minutes of light to spare — plenty of time to get ready and traverse the exposed face to the line.

I had been hiking on the ridge the whole time, so I had not thought to be concerned about my beacon. I usually turn it on at breakfast and leave it on until the sun goes down. As I was thinking about the face I was about to ski, Miriam radioed that the mountain directly behind the one we were about to ski (and had just made plans to ski the next day) just slid, wall to wall, four- to six-feet deep — down to the ground.

I looked down to make sure my beacon was turned on, as it had been from start to finish every day in Europe, and it was not there — Uh-oh!! Not in my jacket, not in my pack, "Oh #$%&!!!." I thought about whether or not I should bail and ski down the ridge. I let the others know of my idiocy and thought more about the worst case scenario. I figured I would be fine as long as I was light on my feet, fast, and didn't fall. I trusted my friends; they were there to back me up and I was the only one at risk.

Vance Shaw
I skied the line with no problems and was psyched about it, despite being disappointed in myself for spacing my beacon on a high-hazard day. I knew I would have to limit myself to small non-exposed lines and just be super aware of run-out zones.

We skied a few more cool lines, and then I spotted a good zone for the afternoon light that had a little exposure, but it seemed small enough to be manageable. Vance (our illustrious filmer) and Miriam set up on the moraine below while Gordy and I got in position for our lines.

Gordy went first and hit between 20 and 30 rocks in his line, but nothing more than surface slough moved. My line had a little more west exposure on it than Gordy's, and the added sunlight on the face had me concerned. From above, it looked pretty easy, as long as I got the first few turns in and headed off to the left pretty quickly.

I threw some snowballs over to the area I planned on skiing and Gordy thought I would be best exiting to the skier's right. I asked Vance to get on the radio, since he and I had discussed my line prior to the hike. Vance confirmed that my pre-planned exit was to the skier's left, although Gordy's idea of exiting to the right would work as well. I wanted to stay with my plan and get out of the exposure zone as quickly as possible.

"The slough from my first two turns was hitting the exit to the right. As I straight-lined out to the left, the whole face to the right broke loose..."

I made the first two turns in what people have called my "Dr. Lightfoot" style over the rocks. I hit the main powder field, where I could go left or right. The slough from my first two turns was hitting the exit to the right. As I straight-lined out to the left, the whole face to the right broke loose, stepping up to take out my first two turns and pulling out the entire skier's right exit ramp to the ground. Between the six-foot-deep debris pile and the cheese grater effect of the avy sliding over the rocks, I was either lucky or smart to have gone left.

I was already off the face and far from harm's way — unaware of the avy — when the call came over the radio to look back at the action. I turned in time to catch the tail end of the slide and then come back with, "I'm glad I didn't go right."

What a day to forget my beacon.

Dave Swanwick, MountainZone.com Correspondent


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