Ryan Summerlin April 17, 2014
On a snowy day in 2005, Michael and two friends skied up into a basin in the San Juan Mountains. The three discussed conditions and employed cautions but, in skinning up the second time, were tempted a little far. A slope cut loose from above, and Michael and his friend Sara were swept 500 feet down.
Michael had been skiing in the backcountry for decades. He had taken an avalanche course; he signed up for and studied daily bulletins on conditions, he discussed protocol with friends and guides, and he practiced beacon hunts and avalanche-probe assembly.
He had more than the usual reasons. I had known Michael for more than 20 years and was aware that his brother, his sole sibling, had died at age 21 in an avalanche in the Canadian Rockies. Once in visiting my husband and me, Michael had gazed at our two sons, then perhaps 4 and 7.
“They remind me of my brother and me,” he said. “Two little blond guys running all around and pouncing on each other.” He added honestly, “It’s kind of hard to see.”
That day of the slide, Michael was sucked down, buried, immobilized. He beat out a small air hole before stopping, and he switched on his watch. The third person in the party, Donna, skied down from behind and dug him out of the hard-packed snow. He hastily switched his beacon to search; they both found a signal. Michael, agonizingly aware of every minute passing, pulled out his avalanche probe, assembled it hurriedly.
The written account he sent to me, as an outdoor-magazine editor, was riveting:
“Four, five, six [feet]. Sara. Seven, eight. … I think I feel something soft. Is it Sara? It has to be. There is no time for no.”
He left his probe upright, and shoveled frenetically: “I go anaerobic, gasping and screaming for air. Jesus, where is she?” After at least 12 minutes and from under a ton of snow, he uncovered her — blue and still. “No!” his account read. “But what did you really expect after so long?”
Then Donna crawled down into the snow cave and started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, and Sara began to breathe.
Sure we wanted to use the story. I edited it, prepared it. But we lacked a photo, or rather, had only a simple documentary one, taken of Sara the next day standing in the hole where she had lain.
“Ask Michael to come over here,” our publisher Duane said, “so Cliffy can get some photos of him.” Cliffy, who was on staff, is a superb photographer.
“Good lord,” I said. “We can’t ask Michael to drive three hours here to get his picture taken.”
“Sure we can,” Duane said. “Tell him someone’ll go climbing with him, we’ll give him a nice dinner, he should stay over. He can have the outtakes. Maybe he could use some high-quality photos.”
I called Michael, and to my pleasant surprise he agreed. He also informed me that he and his wife had split up.
“Put on your thinking cap,” he said, “and introduce me to some of your friends.”
My husband, Mike, thawed out some elk steaks, we asked the animated Cliffy along to dinner, and I invited graceful Joanne from work. I had no idea if she and Michael would hit it off, but I liked her and she was, like him, savvy about music. After Joanne left that evening, Michael turned to me and said, “She’s heard of Pavement!” — a former indie rock band.
“I’m interested,” he said.
Two years later, Michael and Joanne were married. They hoped for children, and when those did not materialize, pursued travel and their many other interests. Last summer they bicycled through Spain. In February I saw them, and Joanne had, the day before and to her surprise, tested positive for pregnancy. It was the best news I had heard in a long time; and still sometimes, when I feel overly busy or burdened, I think of it and smile all over again.
As I write, she is 21 weeks along. Michael wrote me, “It’s all your fault!”
Life brings the most amazing turns. Great good can arise from bad — in this case a harrowing experience, without which Michael would never have written his story, come to Carbondale or met Joanne. Baby X would not now be floating, serene and all unknowing of an avalanche that was his or her creation.
— “Femaelstrom” appears on the third Friday of each month. Alison Osius lives in Carbondale, where she is a climber, skier and magazine editor. Contact her at email@example.com.