Aspen backcountry skier shares his avalanche experience
Special to The Aspen Times
Editor’s Note: Mike Marolt is an Aspen native and avid backcountry skier who wanted to share his story to promote avalanche safety.
Twenty years ago, I got a lesson in avalanches that changed me forever.
My brother and I had been skiing for the previous week in the heart of the Wrangell/St. Elias range in southeastern Alaska, having the time of our lives. Our pilot would dump us out at the base of peaks ripe for skiing steep, long powder lines and then at the end of the day he would fly back and pick us up. The combination of deep snow, perfect conditions and “bomber” stable snow was a ski mountaineer’s bliss.
On the last day, our pilot, a ski mountaineer in his own right, decided he wanted to join in on the fun. We flew to a massive unnamed peak, he parked the plane and we jumped out. Immediately, as our boots landed on the snow, my brother looked at me and said, “Wow, snow has changed. I don’t like this at all.”
The pilot, who had longed all week to ski with us, steadfastly claimed, “The snow has been as stable as it has ever been for three weeks. This is my backyard, I know it well. I’m going.”
He proceeded to head out as Steve and I watched. Steve looked at me and threw his hands up. I mumbled, “If he goes up there and gets buried — unless you think you can fire up that Super Cub and fly let alone land it back at the lodge — we better go and make sure he stays out of trouble.”
Soon we were touring on our skis in a zigzag up the ridge of the peak. The snow did seem to get better the farther we went, and the face was covered in 3 feet of beautiful powder in a brilliant dazzle of reflection from the sun that required our glacier glasses to ponder. The day was perfect, we were in great shape from the preceding week and soon we caught our adamant pilot. We continued up the ridge kicking turns back and forth across the buttress it formed. After a few hours, we found ourselves on the flat top. The peak was a perfect pyramid with the tip chopped off leaving a perfectly flat spot to have a drink and eat a bit of food.
After catching our breath, we got our gear ready, clicked into our skis and pushed toward the small cornice leading to the face. The slope was not harrowingly steep, but was pitched at about 35 degrees with rolling pillows of untracked powder. Our hearts fluttered with anticipation of what was looking to be the best ski of the entire week. Notions of it avalanching were superseded by our excitement.
The pilot, as he started the day, was definitely not going to leave this face to anyone other than himself. He pushed off and his turns left a trail of snow dust as he turned effortlessly down the face. Steve graciously let me go second. I tested our radios and dropped in.
I had pushed off the face skiers right, farther toward the higher part of the cornice, and soon found myself floating down the slope. A few turns into the run of my life, I suddenly hit a whale of really deep snow where the wind had accumulated into a snow drift as it fell from the windward side of the peak. My reaction, however, was concern rather than happiness. I remember telling myself, “This is snow just like back home in Aspen.”
Suddenly, in the middle of bottomless snow, I felt sick to my stomach. I fell back on my tails, and out of the corner of my eye looked to see the entire face cracking behind me. I set off the face. I didn’t panic, but looked down between my skis to see that the snow I was on was moving.
My thought was: “Mike, you have got to push yourself up and get over to the ridge. You have to ski like you have never skied before, and you can’t fall.”
I yanked my ski poles from behind me, and pointed my skis down and across the face. Before me, the snow from the upper slope was forming a 15-foot wave. It was oddly beautiful, like a white ocean wave. I accumulated enough speed and skied to the back of the wave, jerking forward as I hit the edge of the stable snow. I pulled to the tracks on the ridge where we ascended, noting a rocky section that had been blown clean of snow.
I immediately radioed up to Steve that I was OK. My next concern was the pilot. I skied back out a bit until I could see him hiking back to the ridge himself, the slide path wiping out his tracks behind him. He barely made it out of the way.
We regrouped on the safety of the ridge, relieved no one was caught, but quiet in the reality of having used poor judgment, Steve and I condemning ourselves with having let our guard down, not sticking to our guns, letting the moment take us away. The pilot fell behind with his tail between his legs.
That was a horrific but valuable lesson on that peak. First, trust your instincts. If your gut tells you it’s not right, even remotely, listen to it. Don’t let group dynamics or actions deter you from that. Second, the basic protocol of snow science is limited to physics. If a slope has powder and is approaching 30 degrees, think. Dig all the pits, look at the conditions through a microscope, but at that pitch, be aware that it’s not a matter of if, but when. And above all, realize before you get caught, that it can happen. It can happen to you.
The vast majority of skiers never get caught in an avalanche, and sometimes we fail to realize that it really can happen to anyone at any time. That’s a difficult concept to “feel,” but trust me, you don’t want to find out the hard way like I did.
That avalanche forever changed the way I approach everything! From driving down the road, to riding my bike, to crossing the street, even to mowing the lawn, to skiing powder, I am a changed person. I realize that the worst-case scenario can happen to me, to anyone, and if not cognizant of that, it will. Without this realization, all the precautions or certifications won’t matter.
When the powder is deep and the sky is blue, the emotional tug of it all will override any sense of reality or even experience. I got really lucky that day. To be blunt, I fully understand how “experts” get killed. Ironically, in all the peaks I’ve climbed and all the slopes I have skied, this understanding alone is the only thing that makes me a bit of an expert. Trust me, it’s nothing to be proud of.
Know the snow. The past several years, the snow pack has drastically changed in the Elks and Colorado in general, and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has become a go-to for education on conditions today — but more importantly the future — so climbers and skiers know how the snow will be impacted by late storms, more sun, wind … everything.
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