I consider myself in a class of people called “adrenaline junkies”— people who push the limits of safety in the pursuit of freedom, exhilaration, and exploration. No sport defines this love more then backcountry skiing, and few regions better capture its essence then the Grand Teton's of Jackson, Wyoming. Jackson Hole, Wyoming is to skiing what the North Shore of Oahu is to surfing. It’s where the best come together every year to push the limits.
The ski patrol of Jackson Hole and their world famous avalanche rescue dogs work to keep the balance between man and nature. In this rugged terrain, they are the sheriffs of the Wild West. Their word is law on this mountain.
But things still go wrong, sometimes with deadly consequences. Avalanche deaths are rising in North America at an alarming rate, and three people died by avalanche related deaths by November 1st in this year alone. Easier access to the backcountry coupled with advancements in technology have made winter athletes feel invincible...especially young males, ages 18-35.
I was intrigued. I wanted to educate skiers on avalanche safety in a manner that creates awareness but also addresses why we will still do it.
To do this, I agreed to participate in a live avalanche drill. The drill requires that all the groups involved believe it is real. There were no frills. The avalanche team buried me in a tiny hole, four feet beneath hard snow pack. Once inside, the opening to the hole was covered and the small cavern I was stuck in turned black. I could not move. I was buried alive.
The rescue drill in its duration was to take 20 minutes tops. It took 55 minutes. As time passed, delusion set in. The snow felt heavier and heavier. I heard voices above me but they couldn’t hear me. I was afraid to scream because oxygen was in short supply.
Eventually, I heard distant barking followed by a scratching that sounded like digging. The digging became faster and faster, louder and louder, until finally, a black lab was staring me straight in the face. He wagged his tail because he knew he had succeeded, and I’ve never been so excited to see a four-legged friend. As they pulled me from the hole, I realized that hypothermia had set in, but I was so glad to be out of that cave.
The experience was humbling. I ski the backcountry with much more awareness now. I bring the a beacon, shovel, and probe, check with ski patrol when thinking of exiting the resort boundary, and always ski with a buddy. The fact is though, even with an acute awareness of and preparation for the immense dangers associated with avalanches, no one is invincible. But so goes a sport built on adrenaline.
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--Charlie Annenberg Weingarten, Exlpore.org.