Monday, March 17, 2014

February 28th, 2014

Erin being lead away from the scene by a firefighter and our next door neighbor and longtime friend JJ. I am just out-of-frame to the right, digging. Missoulian photo

On February 28th, 2014 the unthinkable happened. An human triggered avalanche rushed down the side of Mt. Jumbo and hit the Lower Rattlesnake neighborhood in the city of Missoula. One house was completely destroyed, and numerous others damaged. Four people were buried, and one would later pass away. My step children were two of the victims. Coral was able to free herself, but Phoenix was completely buried for over 45 minutes.

Below is my best recollection of the events from that day. Time and details may be skewed due to the trauma of the situation, but the events hold true. The events are raw and may seem a bit disconcerting, but I hope everyone can see how every situation and decision that was made that day, even ones that seemed horrible at-the-time, played a connecting role to the outcome of these events for myself and my family. Upon reflection, everything is eerily but miraculously linked.

Words are beyond my deepest condolences to the family and community who lost so much more...

Good Morning

7:30am - 1438 Van Buren St. I wake to the forecasted blizzard conditions outside. Start making coffee and prepare to ski over the North Hills to the Orange Street trailhead, and then to work in downtown Missoula.

7:35 - Erin comes into the kitchen to yell at me, pissed that I woke her up on a snow day. We fight. I say perhaps the nastiest words I have ever spoken to her - something totally out-of-character - "It's not my fault all the men in your life die". She goes back in the bedroom. I instantly regret those words, not knowing where they came from.

8:10 - I try to make-up with Erin, understandably to no avail.

8:15 - Leave house, start skinning on Holly Street towards Greenough Park. Conditions are unlike anything I have ever experienced in the Northern Rockies, much less inside Missoula city limits. sustained 30+ mph winds and blowing snow.

8:30 - Arrive at the intersection of Duncan St. and Vine St., turn right up Duncan towards the trailhead. Snow is blowing so hard, and visibility is so low, I do not recognize my co-worker Jenn, who I pass right by.

8:40 - Conditions are even more intense on the road leading up Waterworks Hill. 50mph gusts from the east and north which require bracing. Poles blow sideways when trying to plant them. I briefly think about that tale of John Muir in the tree. Wind scoured bare ground sits next to 3ft deep drifts. Skinning on low-angle drifts sends 25ft cracks shooting. I'm freaked out. I decide to not head further back into the North Hills, keep the skins on, and take the most low-angle route directly to the Orange St. trailhead.

9:00 - Arrive safely at Orange St. trailhead. Drifts are so big I gingerly step over the fence and continue towards downtown.

9:10 - Downtown is a mess of snow. No need to take the skis off.


9:15 - Arrive at work. I'm stoked in awe at the conditions I just skied through. Not many people show up at work, and a large portion of those who do, used skis or snowshoes for their commute.

9:30 - My boss Carla cancels my yearly performance review. I finish updating flyers for the United States Bicycle Route System, which need to be done that day for Saara to take to the National Bike Summit in D.C. The Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route maps are flying off the shelves. Life is good.

10:00 - Me and Mickey decide - for certain - we are not going to winter camp over the weekend.

10:15 - Blake calls and asks if I want to ski after work. I'm on the fence.

10:30 - Travis and I hatch a plan to do a grand Missoula human-powered ski traverse that Sunday. It would involve us starting at my house on Van Buren, skiing the North Hills, walking through town, skiing Sentinel, and finally, skiing a line on Mt. Jumbo which leads right to my backdoor. We are aware of the closure, discuss it, and decide we would not disturb any elk if we ascended the treeless south ridge, and skied an open face. Everyone we invite is completely down with the plan. I am willing to pay a fine for trespassing.

11:00 - See on FB that Caleb skied Mt. Sentinel this morning, wonder if he had experienced the same wind crust cracking I had across town. He tells me he is thinking about skiing at the closed Marshall Mountain ski area after work.

12:00 - I publish a blog post about bucket-list skiing Mt. Sentinel. Mt. Jumbo looks beautiful center framed in the first photo.

12:30 - Me and Travis start talking about where to ski on Saturday. We discuss other places around we'd probably never be able to ski again. The failed Bitterroot Resort sounds like a good plan.

1:30 - John show us the best access to the Bitterroot Resort. We then talk about my Dynafit setup, and then, the avalanches which have taken place on Mt. Jumbo. John thinks one happened the year before he moved to Missoula. Which would be around 1992.

2:30 - Travis leaves work leaving me the only one left in the Routes and Mapping Department.

3:00 - Mickey asks if I want to ski at Marshall Mountain after work. I tell him I'll call him when I get home.

Going Home

3:15 - Leave work on skis.

3:30 - Stop at gas station on Broadway to pick up some Cold Smoke.

3:40 - While skinning up Van Buren, I stop and look up at the "L". I want to skin up to it, and ski the Mt. Jumbo gully down to my house. I think about the cracking in the North Hills this morning, and decide it would be too sketchy. And, Mickey is waiting for my call about skiing Marshall.

3:50 - Arrive home. Finally take my ski boots off, after have them on the entire day. Call Mickey. Tell him I am going to stay home and hang out with the kids, because I will be gone the next two days skiing.

3:55 - Try to apologize to Erin for my morning words - possibly the only words I could have said for her to be upset with me for so long. She will have none of it, and goes off into our room and opens the laptop while laying on her bed.

The Event

4:00 - I open a Cold Smoke, and sit down on the couch by the kids, who are playing video games.

4:05 - Coral and Phoenix announce they are going to play outside. I say "go for it!" Coral makes Phoenix put on thicker socks and more layers of clothing.

4:10 - I hear a snowplow coming around the back on Harrison St., which seems odd because they are having a hard time keeping the main road, Van Buren, plowed. The snowplow hits a pot-hole. Then, the snowplow is crashing into our house, and then stops. I breathe easy for a micro second. Erin is running out of the bedroom screaming "My babies, my babies", and runs out the front door. I go to the side door, open it, and see Erin's deceased father's canoe 20ft from where it sat center framed in the back of the house, and what looks like a wall from another house up against the back of our house, completely blocking access to the back yard. The amount of snow is a is a dead give-a-way that this is an avalanche.

4:11 - All emotion leaves my body. I go back inside. I put on my boots, gloves, and stumble around in the dark downstairs to find my shovel. I head outside and initially start digging on the south side of the the house because no one is there. After a few people show up, I leave to find Erin.

4:16 - The smell of natural gas is all around. People are yelling to be careful of live electrical wires. I find Erin on the north side of the house. She saw them get hit, and already has people digging in that area.  She is beyond hysterical. She has no shoes, socks, or any clothing on except an open robe. I get to her, she tells me to dig. Coral is crying. I look upslope and realize there use to be a house where now there is none. I assess where Erin saw the kids get hit, and where Coral landed, and where I assume the path would take Phoenix, and start digging.

4:18 - Chaos. People are coming onto the scene. I see in firefighter's and police officer's eyes that they are completely out of their element. One tries to hand me a probe. I calmly explain that probes are useless with this much debris, and we need to dig. I see backcountry skiers and snowboarders taking probes and shovels out of their packs. Neighbors have bigger snow shovels.

4:20 - There is an 80 year old man next to me in a well-worn Filson wool coat. He can barely move any snow, but is still digging.

4:25 - I start getting mad at people because I think they could be standing on Phoenix. I say nothing. I realize I am starting to feel emotion, and need to leave the scene. I also know the statistics. Phoenix is dead. I need to find Erin.

The debris from a garage rests against our house. Photo taken the day after.

4:26 - I head towards Van Buren and see JJ. I ask her where Erin is. She says Erin is in one of the vehicles lining the road. I walk down the center of the road. Police cruisers and ambulances flank me on both sides as far as I can see. Lights flash all around. I'm starting to slightly lose it.

4:27 - I finally find Erin. She is in an ambulance with Coral. She is still hysterical. She screams that she cannot lose another son - a reference to her son Wind, who died when he was 20 days old, 12 years ago. I regain what composeur I have lost. I hold her. A chaplain tells her that when they find Phoenix, they will bring him to St Pat's Hospital, which is where we are going to go. She looks at me, and says, "You know he is dead. You know avalanches. You know the statistics". I tell her this is not a standard backcountry avalanche. This is different. There is tons of debris, which can keep him alive. She is still hysterical, but sees I am sincere, and calms slightly.

4:30 - Erin wants to call her mom to tell her to pray. She does. I call Mickey and tell him to get off Marshall Mountain. I fear he could trigger a slide. He doesn't believe me that Phoenix is buried. Then, he does. I tell him to head to St Patrick's Hospital. I call my mom and tell her to pray. I am not religious.

4:40 - I head back to the house to grab some things before we head to the hospital. Someone tries to tell me I can't enter the area. I enter the area, the house, grab the stuff, and head back to the ambulance.

4:45 - Erin's feet are freezing. I try to put her Mercury Mitts on them. The chaplain and EMT's help me to calm Erin, and go over our plan. They say they need to get Coral to the hospital to check her out, which is complete bullshit, but works perfectly. I follow their lead. We also tell Erin we need to be at the hospital when Phoenix arrives.

4:55 - We leave for St Pat's. Nathan text's me asking if everything is ok because it looks like there is some activity in our neighborhood. Word is starting to get out around town. I tell him the news, and ask him to pray.


5:05 - Arrive at the hospital. We are taken into an ER room. Coral is assessed to have a bruised tail bone. The staff is more then nice. Some are crying. They have found Phoenix and he is on his way to us. No other info is given.

5:25 - Phoenix has arrived, and is breathing. Erin won't get up off the floor. She says she needs to be in the most humble position possible. Mickey arrives.

5:30 - Two big tough-guy teddy-bear police detectives arrive. They are all but in tears, and get down on the ground to hug Erin. They ask if we knew of any other people who might be buried. We say no. They ask if we saw anyone up one the hill before the slide. We say no. I ask what they know. They don't know much.

5:45 - Someone give us the skinny. Phoenix is breathing, but has a breathing tube hooked up. He doesn't appear to have any major external damage, besides a few surface scrapes and bruises. They are still looking into possible internal injuries. No one will know if he has brain damage until he wakes. He needs to slowly warm up, and is doing so. He is sedated to reduce hazardous spikes in temperature rise. Stacy, JJ, and Sage arrive.

6:00 - We are taken to see Phoenix. He is in a room with a ton of people monitoring him. He is still sedated. They say we can hold his hand and talk to him. His hand is cold. I fight back tears and tell him we are going to go ski "black diamonds" when he gets out. I tell him we are going to shred some trail when he gets out. The dam breaks and the tears flow.

6:01 - They say he is warming fine, but is not in the clear yet.

6:10 - I go out into the hallway to sign release papers for Coral. I have a larger conversation about the event with the detectives. They tell me they have received word that this was probably a human triggered event. I explain to them what that means, and draw a map of the slope, path and runout zone - to the best of my abilities. I tell them I am intimate with the slope and gully in question because I trained on it last fall before the elk closure was in place. I tell them the steepest part is the last few hundred feet before the bottom. I tell them how the winds are blowing in the perfect direction to load the gully with snow.

6:20 - I call and talk to Phoenix's father for the first time ever. I tell him the news. He sounds stoned. He laughs, and says, "I thought you were going to tell me he was dead". Then, laughs again.

6:40 - Phoenix is warming. We are told two other people were found, and are alive.

7:00 - Phoenix is transferred to the ICU. We head upstair to the ICU waiting room, and wait.

7:30 - We go see Phoenix. He is still sedated, but warming better then expected. There is a possible cut on his spleen, but not of immediate concern.

8:00 - We call people. We txt people. We talk to people. We wait.

8:30 - We call people. We talk to people. We wait.

9:00 - We wait.

9:30 - Phoenix has woken up. He immediately is confused about his surroundings, but makes a dumb joke. A look of concern washes over the doctor's face at the possibly retarded comment, but we know Phoenix, and instantly realize he has no brain damage. We laugh tears. He wants to talk about the avalanche. He remembers being in the snow. He tried to yell for Coral, who always takes care of him. He tried to bite his way out, but when he realized he couldn't he went to sleep. I think how some might view this action as asphyxiation taking over, but I think how it would be a completely normal Phoenix response to think, "Ehhh, no one is coming right now. I'll just take a nap". I think about how this non-panicked childlike thinking process might have saved his live.

The man who probed Phoenix showing where he was found. Photo taken the day after.

9:40 - Only two visitors are allowed in the room at one time. I leave so Coral can visit with her brother, and best friend, Phoenix. I send out a mass txt.

10:00 - Phoenix's temperature is back to normal. He still has to keep his back brace and neck brace on until conclusive test result come back saying otherwise. Which, should be in the morning.

10:30 - Our friends visit with Phoenix. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief. Caroline visits and drops supplies. Then, heads out for more.

11:00 - Mickey brings back some food for us. Phoenix can only eat ice cubes. Coral leaves with Stacy, JJ, and Sage to stay the night at Stacy and Ruben's place.

11:30 - Knowing Phoenix will be ok, I leave with Mickey to try to get some sleep. I know ether me or Erin will need to be awake tomorrow, and there is no way she is going to get any sleep.

The world is full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana
- Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

Above is my best recollection of the events from that day. Time and details may be skewed due to the trauma of the situation, but the events hold true. This crisis is not my story though. This is everyone's story. Everyone who picked up a shovel and fled towards the scene and not away from it, it's your story. Our friends who were there for us when we needed you the most, it's your story. To everyone who prayed their hearts out around the country, it's your story. The people who are still helping us put our lives back together, it's your story.

People have asked if I am surprised by the reaction and response to this crisis from the Missoula community. They seem shocked when I say no, I'm not. You see, I've known for a long time Missoula is the proverbial last-best-place, and I've secretly believed what Maclean said to be true. Although, I don't think he meant for those words to be taken at face value, it just sounded better that way when he wrote it. More shock value. He was implying that the world is full of normal folks, the number of extraordinary ones decreasing rapidly the further one gets from Missoula, Montana. So yes, I'm grateful, humbled, and forever thankful - but surprised, no. Around these parts, extraordinary people are the norm, and both merge into one, and in 2014 Missoula, the heart of the community runs through it.

On the playlist: Jeff Turman, Doug Brinkerhoff & Erin Snyder - Winter's Come and Gone

Friday, February 28, 2014

Skiing the West Face of Mt Sentinel

Travis heading towards the Northwest Ridge with Missoula to his left, East Missoula to his right, and Mt Jumbo center frame.
Last Saturday, me and Blake were sitting around looking at his new book, 50 Greatest Ski Descents in North America. He was showing me the ones he had done, including Mt Rainer. I listened in awe, then flipped to the Idaho/Montana section and found Castle Peak. After a brief bike/ski approach discussion, my mind clicked-in on a question: If you could ski any mountain in the world, which would it be? 

On paper there is nothing special about Mt Sentinel, and it certainly doesn't qualify as a "greatest" of any kind. The mountain rises abruptly from the football stadium at eastern edge of the University of Montana, just across the Clark Fork River from downtown Missoula. The most heavily traveled hiking trail in the state heads up 800' feet of switchbacks to a iconic giant white "M". Which is viewable from anywhere in the valley below. From there, a number of trails spread out across the face and it's gullies before converging 1200' higher on the summit, a barren windblown place. At any inbounds area, the West Face run would be labeled as a "blue", and a fairly mellow one at that. Unfortunately, and in accordance with reality, this could never be. Mt Sentinel's seasonal accumulation is usually measured in inches, not feet. Most years you could be mountain biking the lower half in late February.

When I first moved west from Ohio, I landed in a student housing apartment right at the base of Sentinel. On it's slopes is where I first mountain biked. It's where I went on my first trail run. It's the mountain that first inspired me to climb it in the winter. Sentinel just does that to you, and in my estimate, it does it to roughly 100% of the students upon their arrival at the University of Montana. Needless to say, when I got onto my first pair of skis, I dreamed of rippin' down it's face so much it became bucket-list material.

There have been tales of people skiing it over the years. Those usually get drawn out in late night bar conversations: "There was this one time back in 94" or "96' was the year to ski the thing". There's also people like Blake, who ski Sentinel every year, but they ether stick to the North Face, or rock-hop down the West. Neither of which sound appealing to me. I've always said the only time I'd call off work to go play, is if the snow conditions were perfect on Sentinel to do a proper run.

Me high above downtown Missoula. Photo Travis Switzer
Tuesday dawned cool and cloudy, and a fresh 8 inches had piled overnight. I hopped on my bike and headed for work. Within an hour of sitting down at my desk, the sky opened up blue, and the sun lit up the entire valley. This was the day. I wanted to run home, grab my skis, and take off for the summit. I'd finally check this one off the list. But unfortunately, this would be the one day I couldn't do any of that, for all of my work at Adventure Cycling Association in the past year-and-a-half would be culminating on this day. It was the release of the Idaho Hot Springs Mountain Bike Route maps, and there was no way I'd be able to get this one off.

I sat at my desk fielding questions and talking to journalist late into the day. In the evening, Travis and I hatched a dawn patrol plan. Meet at 5am. Start skinning by 5:30. We made our way up the "M" trail on a solid skintrack, and continued on to the summit marveling at the sun rising in the east. Then, after a brief stop on top, and a couple big grins, we let'r rip down 2,000 blissful feet.

On the playlist: Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers - Dire Wolf

Thursday, February 27, 2014


The terraced pools at Goldbug Hot Spring

A whole lot of things have been a long time coming, but Goldbug Hot Springs has been up there for awhile. Not that I haven't been hearing about it for years, and not that I haven't passed by the trailhead at least 8 times in the past 12 months. It's just one of those side trips which never seems to fit into a larger itinerary. There is nothing else around it. If your going to Goldbug, your going to Goldbug, and let me tell you, you want to go to Goldbug.

Erin hiking to and from.

Lucky-me happened to be going with my beautiful fiancee to celebrate her 32nd 23rd birthday. We drove down the snowy Bitterroot Valley and hopped the pass to North Fork where the road condition improved. After a brief stop at the One Way Club in Elk Bend - it's a sin to pass this establishment without stopping in - we headed up the 2 mile trail to the springs. It took a few moments to set up camp, and then we got into the most breathtaking pool I've ever soaked in.

Birthday girl in her birthday suit.

The morning brought the same unseasonably warm temperature the night had held, and with nothing else to do, we soaked more until we couldn't. After apologetic mumblings of "being back soon", we had to exit the fairytale, head down the trail, and back to snowy Missoula life.