Lost in bottomless powder, the only way to survive a storm like this is to keep skiing –
I’d always thought the massive winter storms that slammed Wolf Creek collected in Canada and then funneled down the continent. Then someone told me, no, the really big systems get knocked up somewhere over Manchuria, gestate as they arch the Aleutians and hit the San Juans full-term. I believed it—full-term and head first. One late-January dump heaved eighty-eight inches in thirty-six hours, closed the pass for four days, and buried my Subaru like a peanut in a quart of Rocky Road. Before that a set of seven bulging systems that stretched from the Bugaboos to Baja ran one up the back of the other and piled on the San Juans like a train wreck. It snowed ten-days non-stop. Even at the base of the pass the after-skiff of the range shadow buried horses up to their bellies.
Through the first week of March the fronts came charging, rolling over the Rockies like tank columns over barbed wire. Ten inches. Six inches. Thirteen inches. Then a whumph of twenty-eight inches dropped overnight. Gale swept, another eighteen frothed in by noon. Flags outside the lodge thrashed like salmon tails flithering in spillway roar.
I was napping under a table in the balcony of the lodge after a night of drinking Wyomings, a half-gnawed Saran-wrapped roast beef sandwich for a pillow. I’d watched the storm through the vertical slit of one eye. The snow seemed to explode into existence as if a white fire driven by its own wind generated the combustion. Blasting ground blizzards zipped up coils of snow that gathered RPMs as they drilled into the branches of thrashing spruce. Fat, squatty twisters spun open like blooming lopsided pots on an accelerating wheel. The storm had the crush of uninterrupted surf, snow slamming incessantly.Everything in its path seemed to turn to whipping, white lentils. The wind kicked at the double doors of the lodge until they were locked shut. Incongruent with the storm’s sheer, the snow stacked on the sun deck, burying the railing. In the night, picnic tables had disappeared under mounds of shredded coconut.
I was ready to wonder if anyone was skiing this howl when a couple of green-weenies, my fellow-instructors, slogged in off Treasure Flats, moustaches sagging like dish rags. Their green coats came off sweaty and dropped like saddles on chair backs.
“What’d you do?” I mumbled. “Snow shoe through a carwash?”
“Unskiable,” they said. “You can’t turn in that stuff. Too deep. Even on The Face. We had to dig out every turn. It took 45 minutes to break trail from the bottom out.”
Out the great window behind them I saw the big Thiekol snow cat churn under the upper chair and directly up the stream bed where they had emerged from behind a high snow bank. The machine disappeared into a white abyss packing behind it a smooth drive-way two king-sized mattresses wide. I watched one empty chair after another circle the bow-wheel, rise silently and disappear into the blur of the storm.
Can’t turn? I thought. Too deep? The storm was desolate. In the time it took me to boot up and button down, not one skier appeared out of the confluence of runs from the upper mountain. I still had the sting of citrus in one eye and my blood sugar was in the basement, but somebody had to ski this storm—for Ur, for Wolf Creek, for Wyomings. I backed out into the wind like a diver dropping into the wake of a speeding boat. Five minutes up into the gullet of the storm I realized the heat in my feet was 3/4 of the way into its half life. It was too cold to be wet, too wet to be cold—and ruthlessly both. My coat took on water like a sponge. I could only hope that the material would act as a wet suit and the water soaking through would warm a little as it coated my skin. On the crest of the Divide, 11,700 feet, I was moments from true suffering. The walk around the ramp was like snow shoeing through a carwash.
Down in the white hole of the valley, I heard the climbing Diesel growl of the Thiekol. I knew I’d be all right if I could get to the flats and its track. Once on the groom I’d be to the lodge in two minutes or less. If I didn’t get to the cat track, I’d be hypothermic soon.
Straight back down the lift line would be fastest. It was steep, maybe 40º over the brow. I aimed right of the first lift tower. The skis—208cm Nishizawa GS planks—picked up speed, but they didn’t float. I sank to my knees. Then the Nishis dove, as if I were backing down a ladder and missed a wrung. Then another wrung was gone, and another. I was up to my neck in the undertow and the only way to resist the suck was to dive headfirst into the wave. I held my breath as the snow splashed on my goggles and washed up over my back.
Panicked and submerged, I gasped for air and gulped down a fist of carbon dioxide enriched Upsik. I choked. Immediately I wondered about my speed, because I wasn’t sure I could hold my breath long enough to make the bottom. I’d heard of skiing Utah with snorkels. I’d heard of skiers drowning upside down in collapsed tree wells. Was it possible to drown right side up? Without the aspiration of breathing to distract me, I was oddly aware of the snow’s hiss as it moved up the front of my coat and passed over my shoulders. I stared out my goggles. Visibility: one inch.
I made no effort to turn, but my feet moved under me. The skis had come alive with their own pendulous consciousness. They veered with the flow, their noses perceptively sniffing out the horizon and incline of the slope, nuances I had no hope of seeing. My legs were tugged along. I stretched for the surface, but the buoyancy the skis had found was a compromise.
As the run lost slope, the deposition of the snow became shallower and my goggles finally broke the surface. A moment later I dropped out of a wall of snow carved from the hairpin of the Theikol track. My blow-hole raled for air. The near white-out of the storm raled back. Under the bottomless powder I had escaped the massive thromb and howl of the front. In the calm, I’d forgotten my numb feet. I’d forgotten I was wet to the bone. Under the snow, the temperature was relatively warm, the wind nonexistent. Oddly my extremities had felt flushed with warmth, perhaps the rush of newly oxygenated blood compensating for its temporary starvation. The return to the draw and quarter of the air was a shock. But I realized I had to stay out in this snow. I craved the calm and the insulation of the powder. Against my better judgment, which told me my toes were headed for frostbite, I knew I was going to stay out. The only way to survive the storm was to keep skiing, to get back into the womb of the bottomless snow. Still gasping, I tucked for the chair, following the faintly shadowed sidewalls of the cat track.
Maybe that’s why I kept going back up into the maw. Alone, I felt sure I was doing something that hadn’t been done before—at least not here, not today, not in this storm. Even when I knew my metabolism had dropped dangerously—my breathing short, my heart slow, my body temperature dipping, I kept going back up. I felt sure that this storm, these conditions, would never come again, or if the storm did come again, it would return like an old half-forgotten comet, to indicate the end and death, when all I could do with my thin will and thinner bones was watch it pass in the distance.
Finally the storm got too wild and too warm. The snow succumbed to its own weight, packed down in stratified layers. The wind pounded a top crust. The snow cat trail drifted in. The flat light went convex, impossible to interpret. Ten runs later I slogged into the lodge and threw down my drenched coat. Apparently, the green weenies had been sipping cocoa and watching me do my laps. With sadistic satisfaction, they asked, “How was it?”
“You were right,” I said. “You can’t turn in that stuff.”
They grinned, their brushed mustaches tipped with whipped cream.
I finished my roast beef sandwich and went back to sleep under my table in the balcony. But I didn’t sleep. I watched the storm through the vertical slit of one eye. Empty chairs descended from the wooly crawl of the blizzard, about faced and then climbed back into the squall.
– Wayne Sheldrake
Wayne Sheldrake’s Fat Boys are racked up and ready and his Adams State College students assume writing class is cancelled when storm clouds appear over the Divide.
Wolf Creek Ski Area is located between Pagosa Springs and South Fork, Colorado; 80 miles east of Durango, Colorado; 65 miles west of Alamosa, Colorado
This article appeared on page 18 of SkiCountry Magazine 2005. Photo by Ken Gallard.