Buried Weak Layer

Guilt

It’s a strange thing to wish you were dead, I mean I don’t really, except I do.

December 23, 2007 I was involved in an inbounds avalanche accident at The Canyons Ski Resort in Park City. All the facts and story are out there if you look so I won’t get into the nitty gritty here. Suffice it to say that at around 11:20 that morning, nearly 24 hours after the slope had opened to the public it avalanched. Resulting in 3 or more people getting caught, one of them fully buried, rescued and resuscitated, one partially buried and uninjured and one killed by the trauma of hitting a tree at high speed. It resulted in the absolute best and worst day of my twenty plus years patrolling.

I made the final call to open the slope. I went out there alone, looked at the explosive mitigation work that had been done, examined the resulting avalanches and the layers they failed on and looked at the slopes that didn’t slide and the number of explosives and ski cuts they had been subjected to. The place resembled a mortar range more than a ski area on the morning of December 22 and after an extensive snow pit, I made the call to open. But before I did, I traversed over and skied Red Pine Chute, alone, no chance of rescue. I didn’t have a death wish that day, I was confident in the work my fellow patrollers had done over the previous weeks and I was confident in my ability to assess snow. The skiing was ok, but I hardly remember it now. What I remember is arriving on the scene the next day, marginal visibility and confused people searching randomly, and the few patrollers who arrived ahead of me frantically trying to save a young man’s life from almost un-survivable injuries. We made some quick probe lines and found the other young man fairly quickly. He too was dead, at least he wasn’t breathing and his heart wasn’t beating, good CPR on route to the helicopter would change that.

Investigations were started, lawsuits were filed questions were asked. It was brutal. I went to the funeral, sat quietly in the back and paid my respects. The young man killed was a volunteer ski patroller in Colorado, part of the extended family in a sense.

Eventually we went to a jury trial and the hours on the stand were some the most agonizing of my life. Trying to stay objective and professional, tell the facts, good bad or indifferent as I knew them. Trying hard to keep your shit together, this happened on my watch, my job was to keep him safe so he could enjoy a day of skiing with a childhood friend, and in my head the questions swirled what did we miss? What did I miss? Could we have done something different, were we under pressure to open? These questions and many others I can still face myself in the mirror and answer positively that we did our job, we did the best we knew how based on what we knew about that slope. We even did extra that day because we wanted to make sure. But one question still lingers, it won’t go away, I haven’t been able to answer or reconcile it over ten years later.

Why didn’t it kill me? I traversed into the slope almost exactly at the point where the crown was. My tracks and path completely wiped out by the slide. Why didn’t it get me? I was working, I might have been better trained, ready or able to escape the slide, or maybe I would’ve been dead. But that was a risk of the job I understood well and was more than willing to take. I had plenty of close calls and near misses in my patrol career, why wasn’t this one of them?

After the smoke clears and the lawyers, judges and jury go home, you think the pain would start to heal but it doesn’t. The wound is as fresh today as it was that December afternoon. The disbelief that I’m alive and he isn’t. He was married with a young child, I was a professional ski patroller, living my dream job of challenging myself in the mountains, making a reputation of being very good at what I did. Enjoying the challenges of a constantly growing resort and patrol, but mostly I enjoyed the challenge of the snow and the comradery of my fellow patrollers.

I worked a few more seasons but the thrill was gone. The guilt of surviving was too much, it still is. People who were there, people who know a lot about avalanches remind me of the uncertainty involved in this game. Of our true lack of understanding about what exactly happens in that moment when failure becomes fracture and avalanche occurs. There are plenty of stories of “Post Control Avalanches” in the industry, this one isn’t unique or isolated. Except it is, to me, no one did what I did, no one else lives with the same question and wished it had happened to them.

It takes a toll. Physically you see it in photos, my face aged about 20 years in the 5 years between the accident and the trial. Mentally it causes nightmares, stress, anxiety and self-destructive habits. For lack of a better descriptor, it’s survivors guilt, or some variation of it. Despite my intimate understanding of snow and avalanches, I still fail to truly reconcile the ‘why not me?’ question with myself. I carry a little void around inside thinking about that two-year-old who would never really know her dad, I wonder what lay in store for him and somehow grew to place a higher value on his life than my own. It triggered a lot of years of reckless living and decision making. My risk tolerance increased, not decreased for a while. I drank hard, not so much to medicate, but more to try and hurt myself, to feel pain so I felt something other than guilt. I got caught in a lot of avalanches that next few years, both on and off the job, some small, some large, I think it’s just dumb luck and chance I wasn’t killed. Thankfully I survived that phase, I snapped out of it with the help of some patient friends who put up with more shit than they deserve, but called me on it when I went too far. They taught me to stop feeling sorry for myself and focus on what I could learn from all of this and how to pay it forward, so eventually I did, or at least I’m trying to.

I must remember too, the life we saved. The young man who is now away at college with a promising future ahead. How proud I am of the patrollers I led and how well everyone did their job during the rescue. If one piece of that machine had broken the outcome would have been two dead. You train for those moments and hope they never happen. It’s so rewarding to see it work the way you designed it. And the Christmas card and occasional encounter in the grocery store remind me how much good came out of that day as well.

Eventually, this accident made me a better avalanche forecaster. It made me stop and think, to start looking at the snow through different lenses and from different angles, to approach it differently and more holistically. I pay more attention when my wise old friends want to talk about what they see or saw, and I think my patience and empathy for those I teach has increased a thousand-fold or more. The nightmares are less and the self-destructive tendencies found a new home in the gym, but the void is still there and the pain survives and the question lingers.

Why didn’t it kill me?

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Jake Hutchinson

Jake Hutchinson

What is a big issue your backcountry community is facing?

Growth in the population and sport popularity have made an already crowded mountain range even smaller, add in a bad snow year and tricky avalanche conditions and it's hard to get inspired to recreate in the Wasatch.

4 Comments

  1. Janie
    March 15, 2018 at 5:24 pm — Reply

    Good stuff. Thank you for laying it out. Some questions never get answers. One of the things about “adulting” I generally don’t enjoy. You, though, have an inspiring journey. And I’m proud to know you. Again, thanks.

  2. March 17, 2018 at 1:29 pm — Reply

    Jake, the man you wrote about is my little brother. Thank you for writing this article. I’m sorry you have carried this pain for so long. I don’t believe you did anything wrong. God decided it was his time and allowed him to be doing one of the things he loved most. Thank you for being at the funeral. I didn’t know.

  3. AmyK
    March 17, 2018 at 8:58 pm — Reply

    Wow. I can’t fathom how you feel but I love that you have a strong base of solid people in your life to remind you of the goodness in this world. It seems like dumb luck that I haven’t been swallowed whole by the mountains or rivers…thank you for doing what you do. I’m glad you’re still here on earth.

  4. B
    March 18, 2018 at 8:57 pm — Reply

    Thank you for having the courage to share your story.

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