I wake up late, around 8am, with a headache from too much wine at the Gilmer Park Christmas party. It’s the first big powder day of the season and Little Cottonwood Canyon’s going to be a zoo. Figuring I’ll let the first wave go up the canyon and slowly make my way to the hill, I go through the morning ritual at slow speed. I stop at 15th and 15th, buy a Sunday NY Times and a bagel. Eating, I read twenty stories that all say the world is going to hell and decide that it really doesn’t matter, until Monday anyway, and then get into my old truck, Slouch (which is both the posture and nickname of my old T100 pickup), put it in four-wheel, and head for the mountains.
The road is clear and it appears that I’ve made the right choice. Sure, it will be tracked by the time I get up there, but I’ve got plenty of secret stashes where I can ski fresh throughout the day. My secret parking spots are all poached, but I eventually find a spot in a new lot and boot up slowly. I send a few text messages to see where the boys are skiing and get back a note from Scott Beck that says, Call me.
Where are you? I ask when he answers.
Getting faceshots on Baldy, he says.
They opened it?
Yeah, just a few minutes ago.
I arrange to meet him at the tram for more Baldy runs, but when I get near the Snowbird Center I see that the line’s wrapping around out the door. So, I wait at the Peruvian Chair to cut Scott off before he gets to the tram.
Scott, who heads up Ski Salt Lake, is skiing with Nathan Rafferty and Jessica Kunzer who are both from Ski Utah. Together we fill the quad chair, talking on the way up about ski business stuff, and finding on the way down plenty of fresh by cutting over into Hanging Bowl and skiing the trees down to 5-O Gulley. Two laps on the chair and the line at the tram isn’t getting any shorter, so Nathan and I decide we’ll hike from the top of the chair up to Baldy. Scott and Jessica bail on that idea and then Nato and I figure that since there are just two of us, we might be able to find a black-pass buddy or two to take us through the side door of the tram. The plan works then it’s old-home week on the tram dock.
There’s Scott Markowitz and his wife Veronique, and Rich Picot and his wife Molly. Nato introduces me to former U.S. Ski Team moguler Craig Rodman and another guy who’s with him named Mike. The tourists have exhausted themselves and stopped for lunch, leaving the tram mostly to the locals. It’s filled with the kind of energy that you only find on powder days, somewhere around lunchtime. By now, everyone’s had a handful of runs to remind them of why they’ve spent so much of their lives getting in place for days like this. There’s an openness, a joy to the ride up that you don’t find on other days. Standing in the middle of the tram car, there’s not a single person jabbing a snowboard’s highback binding into me, breathing foul breath at me, or leaning on me (it can be a bitch to be the short guy in the middle of not-short people in a packed tram). I have an overall feeling of rightness. These are the days that you remember.
Seems like everyone on the tram is headed out to Baldy and I’m figuring out where I want to be on the hike. I don’t want to be in front of Markewitz or Picot, who are both more fit than I and will push up the single-lane bootpack at a pace that will hurt me more than I want to hurt on this wonderful Sunday afternoon. But I also don’t want to be behind a lot of other people who are murmuring about Baldy and the faceshots because they will slow me down and get to the top in front of me and poach my lines on the way down.
I’m talking to Rodman about my book, which is mostly what I talk about these days, when I hear the tram operator start in on her announcement. Welcome to Hidden Peak and the Wasatch Cache National Forest, she begins, today the run closures include…
She adds Baldy to the end of the list of closures and there’s a general groan, to which she answers, Well, you might all just say a prayer for the guy who’s buried out there right now.
And now the groan is replaced by a moment of holy-shit silence.
We’re also looking for volunteers to help with the search, says a patroller standing behind the tram operator. If you can help, go to the patrol shack and give them your name. Expert skiers only.
Not a word is spoken between any of the people I’m with, and yet we all reach the same unspoken conclusion, moving quietly and quickly off the tram, across the snow, and into the patrol shack. The dispatcher’s working the radio calmly and in the air there’s a sense of urgency but also of confident preparedness.
This is Hidden Peak dispatch, Snowbird Ski Patrol, the dispatcher says into the microphone. I need an Air Med response…
There’s a feeling of heightened value to speech here … every word seems to suddenly count for more.
I’m a Doc, says Molly Gorman, Rich Picot’s wife. In case you need one.
Thank you, says the Dispatcher. We have a ski doctor on the scene, but thank you. Good to know. Hope we need one.
More patrollers come in, get instructions, and rush out, quietly taking orders and moving without questions as half a dozen of us stand to the side, waiting to be told how we can help.
You two come with me, says an older patroller with an air of unquestioned authority as he points to Markewtiz and Picot. He hands them frame packs with large snow shovels lashed to them. The rest of you stay here.
The room feels like a military command center, and I feel decidedly civilian. Lame. Like a reporter about to be embedded.
None of us have packs, probes, shovels, or beacons with us, I say to the dispatcher.
That’s all right. We need probers. We have probes.
Into the mic, he says, I have a probe column ready. Where am I sending them?
He listens, then turns to me and says, Shot Ten Gate. You know where that is?
Go with Seth.
Nato and I are herded into a group of five others, our names written down. Part of Seth’s group now, we’re steered outside to a shack on the other side of the peak where bundles of probes (aluminum pipes of about fifteen feet) are stored. Making a line, each of us shoulder a bundle and move toward the trail off the peak. Following closely behind patroller Seth we ski down the Chips side of the mountain, cutting into closed territory and traversing toward lower Baldy. Under ropes, across cliff bands, Seth leads us into a tight chute of about fifty vertical feet, barely the width of a ski’s length. He exposes rocks and roots as he sidesteps down. I come behind him, the probes on my shoulder catching on a tree at the top, twisting me and nearly sending me sliding down the chute. Righting myself, I slip-slide and hop over rocks until I’m through the choke. I’ve scraped most of the remaining snow off the rocks and roots. The six guys behind me are going to have it even tougher. I’m looking back at them when Seth says, You in the red jacket, traverse high. Go now!
I cut high across the steep slope and traverse toward the section of Baldy known as Needle’s Eye, which has a cliff on skier’s left and a chute to the right. I’ve skied the chute a hundred times, always cutting to my right to avoid the cliff. The cliff is all smooth rock now, a fracture line in the snow near the top of it. Below it is a fifty-foot wide swatch of avalanche debris. A probe line — twenty people lined up along a rope, shoving the long poles into the snow on command (probe down, probe up, advance forward) — moves up the hill toward us in one-foot increments. More people with probes are pouring out of the woods behind us. I kick off my skis and posthole, as ordered, to the base of the cliff where a single ski, a red Atomic, is stuck in the snow.
Do we know how many we’re looking for? I ask patroller Dean Cardinale who I recognize as one of the more famous (Everest, etc.) of the Snowbird patrollers.
We’ve only found one ski, he says, not bothering to interpret the evidence.
A rope line is strung across the hill, each end held by a patroller, and we’re directed to get shoulder-to-shoulder, lining up on the small orange flags that are tied together every foot or so down the rope.
On my command you will drive your probe down until you hit rock or ground, says one of the patrollers holding the rope. If you hit something that feels soft, like a body, you yell out. We have shovelers ready. If you hit something soft, you do not move the probe up. You leave it where it is.
Okay, now, when I say probe down, it’s down. Probe up, pull it up. Then we advance the rope and you step down the hill to the rope again.
The commands start and we’re punching black holes in the snow. Probe down. My pole hits rock. A scraping feeling and a muffled sound from ten feet below me. Probe up. Step down the hill. Probe down. The feeling of something softer, dirt? I twist and wiggle the pole. It goes in. Dirt.
I wonder how long it’s been since I stood on the tram. It must be at least 15 minutes. Maybe 20. We’re already at the edge of the amount of time someone can stay alive when buried.
I want to feel my probe hit something soft. I long for it. I want to scream out for the shovelers. And yet I don’t want it. I don’t want to be the one to feel that sickening softness at the other end of the pole. But I want someone to feel it. And now.
Five feet to my right someone feels softness. A patroller grabs the pole and wiggles it.
Shovels! He yells.
Before the shovelers get to us, the guy who’d felt it starts digging with his hands. Someone else with a small avalanche shovel starts digging. And then the big shovels are there. Snow’s flying.
The calm cadence of probe up, probe down continues and we move past the hole they’re making. I peer in as we work past, looking for something dark in the whiteness. We’re thirty feet down the hill before they give up. A ten foot crater in the snow. False alarm.
We pass through the line of probers coming up the hill. I see a few I know by name — there’s Dean Cummings, Gordon Stachan, Matt Sheriden — and many I know by face. It seems that most of the people on the tram car have turned out to help.
I don’t quite know what to say. Do you acknowledge someone? Say Hello? How ya doin?
Good to see you, says Dean. Sorry it’s here.
We turn and see two patrollers waving. Already someone is digging.
We have a strike, I hear someone say.
Downhill of us, a flare goes off, a dark orange column of wriggling smoke blows up the hill toward us. A man stands by it with his hands in the air, guiding in the Air Med helicopter. I’m watching the pilot as I probe, noting the way he judges the wind from the trajectory of the smoke. I’m remembering another rescue pilot from Chamonix. That time I wrote a whole book to help me make sense of it. And here I am again. This time I’m a bit player, an insignificant witness, yet I’m still wondering if any of this makes any sense. Another freak accident in storied place.
We turn around at the base of the slide and start working back up toward we’re they’re digging.
A man tries to run up the hill past us. He’s carrying a black box that must be some sort of emergency defibrillator. He runs out of gas and someone else takes the box. He hustles up the hill like a fullback with the box under his arm.
All right, clear the slope so that the dogs can work, says a patroller over a megaphone. Get your skis and equipment off the hill and form up at the base of the debris.
My skis are stuck in the snow right above the hole where they’ve had a strike. Trudging back up to my skis, I pass by the hole where there is now a body. A pink jacket. A white face. A patroller is pushing rhythmically on her chest. It’s a woman. I stare, hoping that I cannot recognize her. I cannot. I turn my eyes away and climb the rest of the way to my skis, feeling guilty, sick.
Sled, someone yells.
A toboggan is produced. She’s moved onto it quickly and I watch as they ski the sled down the hill to the waiting helicopter. This team works well, fast yet calm. I envy their well-trained calmness. I wish that they did not have to use it. I find myself wishing that none of us were here at all.
I click into my skis and carry extra probes back to the base of the debris. We’re formed up into a probe line again when someone asks Dean Cardinale if he knew her name.
The victim? He asks.
Heather, says someone else.
Red Atomic skis. These two facts are repeated down the line.
And then we’re starting up the hill again in one-foot increments. Now there are many more people probing. So many that there isn’t room for all of us on the rope. Two younger guys climb in my footsteps, eager to help.
If anyone needs a break, says one of the guys. I’m here.
Was she with anyone? I hear someone else ask.
There’s always that one car left in the parking lot, says someone else.
You’d hate to find a body in the spring because you didn’t spend the extra half hour, says someone else.
It’s been more than an hour now since I stood at the patrol shack. I realize that we’re probing for corpses. And then I trip. The guy who’s been climbing eagerly behind me has stepped on my foot. I step out of the line.
You need a break man? He asks.
I don’t need a break, not physically anyway. But I tell him I do.
Take my spot, I say.
I walk back down to the base of the slide, quietly put my skis on, and ski off the hill.
At home, I kiss my wife and kids, and then climb into bed. I wake up at 11pm to see messages on my phone. My friend Dave Fields, the spokesperson for Snowbird, has left a message. He says, I just want to make sure you’re all right.
I suddenly realize that I was probably supposed to tell someone I was leaving the rescue scene. Maybe there’s someone with a list wondering where a guy named Bill Kerig went. I feel suddenly quite stupid. I text Dave that I’m fine and that I hope he is. I know he will be the one to answer the reporters’ questions.
In the morning I read his quotes in the paper. They’re good and responsible and safe. The story says that the woman, a 27-year-old linguist who’s a grad school student at the U, is named Heather Gros. She’s described as an avid Snowbird skier. There’s a quote from her father in the story too.
At my office, I type Heather Gros into my Facebook search. Facebook says we have three friends in common. Facebook asks me if I want to invite Heather to be my friend. On her page and I look at her picture. It’s impossible to connect that face with the one I saw on the hill.
I read her last two status updates:
On December 4th she wrote:
Heather is dropping out of school to ski freshness
On December 11th she wrote:
Heather is skiing freshness for the next mannny days and maybe does not have to drop out of school.