A thirty-year old snowboarder was found dead today at Alpental, the ski resort nearest my house. His body was found in a tree well and he apparently died from suffocation. Another snowboarder died last week at Mount Baker, a popular Washington ski resort several hours away and home of the World Record for most snowfall in one calendar year.
I was at Alpental last Friday and Saturday enjoying the abundance of fresh powder that had fallen last week. On Saturday afternoon I followed a skiier into a section of woods I usually ride through. I was following his line through the fresh when he caught a ski and went head-first into a tree well. I turned hard to stay uphill of him and promptly started sinking into a well of my own. I unclipped my left foot and went to push backwards out of it and my foot poked through to open air underneath the boughs of the tree and snow. I was able to get both feet out of the buckles and swim out of the hole using the board as a giant snowshoe. I then sledded over to the other guy and helped dig him out. Fortunately, another boarder decided to follow out tracks into the trees and helped me dig the skiier out of the well. It wasn't easy and, to be honest, I really don't know if he could have gotten out by himself.
Earlier this season my wife and I headed to Mount Baker on opening day to enjoy the waist-deep powder. We're unfamilliar with the mountain and I inadvertently led us to a roped-off cliff area adjacent the mountain's toughest run, "The Chute". We asked a guy who was about to duck the rope and tackle the cliffs which was the easiest way down from there and he suggested The Chute. Both my wife, a timid intermediate skiier, and I were thankful that there was a way around the cliffs and although The Chute proved far too steep and narrow for her abilities (she slid down on her butt carrying her skis while I carried her poles) it was much better than the alternative. Last week a snowboarder opted for the alternative and died shortly after ducking the rope and suffering fatal head wounds.
People die in fatal car accidents every day yet it never makes me stop to consider my driving habits. But when a couple of guys die doing the same things I like to do and at the same places I like to do them... it produces a very uncomfortable feeling. I tend to think of myself as a cautious snowboarder, I stick to areas I know well when I'm alone, I always have a radio with me, and I wear a helmet, but still... one can't help but wonder.
Of course, the obvious difference here is that the guy at Mount Baker ducked a rope and headed into a notorious section of cliffs -- something I wouldn't ever do on purpose. And there seems to be conflicting reports that the guy who died today at Alpental was on a closed run. But still... sometimes it hits close to home and you can't help but wonder if you're really any different than the unlucky ones. I bet neither of those two guys thought for a second that they would die that day. Really makes you think about what you're doing.
Not enough to stop doing it, but enough to take stock of how I do it.