OK, so it's early February and I'm buried in a hole in the Utah snowpack. But I didn't kick off a slide in the backcountry. I volunteered to get plastered into the pit. A burly engineer firmly stomped a couple of feet of snow over me — and now it's dark and I can't move an inch. For insulation I'm wearing a one-piece shell over a see-through layer of Capilene. Every breath I draw has to be exhaled through the tube of a Black Diamond AvaLung, a device that, in simple terms, directs your poisonous, CO2-rich breath behind you so you can continue to breathe in the fresh air trapped in the snow in front of you. A core thermometer dangles uncomfortably deep in my throat, and there's a second thermometer shoved up my ass.
I'm cool. Inhale. I'm Zen. Exhale. I'm Houdini in a friggin' box, David Blaine in a huge ice cube. Inhale. This is only a test. Extensive research has proven that an avalanche victim buried with an AvaLung can remain conscious and in good health for hours. The specifics of this test have more to do with hypothermia than whether AvaLungs work. I'm just a rapidly chilling guinea pig, a 150-pound, half-Italian meatsicle. A few feet behind me, on the other side of the wall of snow, two doctors monitor my vitals. Exhale. Above me, six guys with shovels are ready to pounce. Inhale. They wouldn't kill the editor of Skiing Magazine. Exhale.
Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale — oh shit, I'm gonna die! Because this is a test, the snow hasn't consolidated as it would in a real slide. The CO2 that's been building up behind me is free to pour around my body, flooding full-circle into my face. It's like getting smothered with a pillow — pant, pant, pant. Wife — widowed — pant, pant. Kids — fatherless — pant, pant. I'm the editor of Skiing, damn it. Trust me, you don't want this kind of PR — pant, pant. I moan into the microphone that's attached to my collar. "This isn't feeling right, guys.
MINUTE 5 AND CHANGE:
"His CO2 is spiking! Dig, dig, dig!
It was among the worst 90 seconds of my life: Because of the sugar snow, this somewhat routine test became a simulated live burial with no air pocket. Another minute and I'd have passed out. Shortly thereafter I'd have been looking at big-time, wipe-my-chin-'cause-I'm-drooling brain damage. I didn't think I needed to be taught that getting buried in an avalanche is a horrid way to go. I'm a reflective person. I'd thought about it plenty. But thinking about being buried and being buried are two different things. It's worse than you think. It's not thinking, it's dying.In this issue you'll find a 19-page collection of stories, stats, photos, and illustrations that'll make you think long and hard about avalanches. Because—and excuse me for being grim—the more you think about avalanches, the less likely you'll be to die in one.
Dyin' Ain't Much of a Livin'