BIG SLIDE: a dead man talks
Told to Vermont Storytellers, September 2019
Names have been changed. Story fictionalized but based on live events.
“Hey Cart, slow up. This sled doesn’t go so fast on this slope,” yelled Dan.
Our group on skies with skins was one mile from the Roaring Brook Campground to Chimney Pond Cabin in clear weather at the base of Mt. Katahdin, February 9, 1984.
“We do the Cathedrals tomorrow?” Dan asked as he secured the sled packs.
“Think of all the planning we’ve done in meetings the last six months,” I answered as expedition leader. “We gotta check out the snowpack and ice condition on Chimney Pond first. Then we can take on the Cathedrals.” We had met all the winter climbing regulations for Baxter State Park and I was playing it conservative.
“Nothing like a 360 view, said Cart, the first one to reach the cabin clearing.
Baxter Peak of Mt. Katahdin shot up to the South. Howe’s Peak to the nor’east. Chimney Pond is the easy route to Baxter peak; Cathedral Trail is tougher. Cart pointed out the trails to the less experienced members of the group – Dan, Miner and Shank.
The next day, all five of us summited Baxter Peak by Chimney Pond on stable snow. Strong and happy to be out, we skied around the cabin after the climb. Next morning a steady, strong wind woke us at 5:30. am.
“Whoever wants to try Cilley-Barber today, we leave at 6,” I said. This climb goes up several hundred feet of elevation and then starts into a lower ice section. The next snow ramp is 3/3+ climbing, but the crux is a 4/4+ ice formation 75 feet high.
“Me an’ Shank will do Chimney Pond again. We wanna get one more day at that grade,” said Dan, less experienced and playing it safe.
Two hours after leaving, at 8 am, winds were gusting to 25 mph and it was getting warm, making the snow unstable. Me, Cart and Miner headed back to the cabin and caught up with Dan and Shank to Chimney Pond.
“Welcome to the tourist trail,” said Dan.
Fifteen minutes out of camp, just past First Cathedral, the avalanche hit. We wore goggles and ski masks to protect our faces from the blowing snow. The wind roared in our ears. So, none of us saw it or heard it.
A mad river of snow hit me from the front, knocked me on my back, set me sliding headfirst down the hill. My mouth filled. Granite boulders came down with me. Within minutes, my pack cushioned my back against something hard. With arms pinned and twisted under me, I was maybe a meter down.
Dan was closer to the surface. When the slide stopped, he could wiggle an arm to dig himself to the surface. The first thing he saw was Miner’s head sticking out of the snow.
“Jesus, Miner,” he swore.
Dan was breathing hard, his chest heaving with sobs as he ripped off Miner’s facemask to clear snow from his face.
“There’s somebody beneath me. Get him out,” yelled Miner as soon as he could speak.
High winds had compressed the snow into hard pack, so Dan couldn’t dig with his hands.
“I gotta get a shovel. I’m gonna break into the ranger station just ahead and radio for help. Hang on Miner,” yelled Dan above the shrieking wind.
Taking off over the snowpack, Dan legs pumped furiously to make time. His throat strained to take in as much air as possible to push his lungs and heart and move his body and hopefully get back in time to…. to what….
Back to us in 10 minutes, Dan heard Miner shout and moan in pain from the compound fractures to his leg and pelvis. He ignored him and shoveled madly to find another buried climber.
“Oh god, it’s Cart’s head. He’s not breathing,’ Dan cried.
With tears streaming down his face, he started mouth-to-mouth.
“Oh Jesus,” he called between breaths.
Cart regained consciousness.
“Oh god, the pain. Where are the others? Oh god, please don’t….”, Miner whimpered as Dan and a ranger who’d arrived ignored him and Cart’s head but started digging for me and Shank.
Dan got to me first. I was obviously dead.
“Son of a bitch. Son of a bitch. Oh no, no, no,” Dan sobbed and tried mouth-to-mouth anyway. The ranger found Shank a few minutes later. Also, dead.
Shit. We’d backed off the technical climb and were on the easy route on apparently stable snow. What we didn’t know was that rain, cold and 15-25 mph winds had caused a 20-inch compressed slab to form on top of granulated snow that had no stickiness. Set at an angle, it was waiting to be triggered. Most likely, yesterday’s hike set up the delayed slab release.
Also against us was the fact that windblown snow tends to make needle shaped snow crystals, which further decreased the snow slab shear strength and stability. We happened to be on a 50-degree angle slope that has a higher avalanche potential than a greater or lesser angle. The only thing we technically did wrong was not carry a shovel. And the Park had no avalanche hazard evaluation based on weather temperatures and precipitation. That changed after our incident.
I could say I regret being out there. But I don’t. I’m sorry for the people who love me that I left behind. I lived my life knowing that whatever happens; happens. I believe that. Even though, I’m gone.