Chapter 14 Terror on the Slopes
Sunday April 23, 1972 My worst moment in skiing finally arrived on the 16th day of the 25th year. We were on a weekend trip to Mammoth Mountain, my son Brian, old skiing buddy Jim Wegner and I. This is taken directly from my Journal and was written immediately after it happened while it was still very fresh in my mind.
It all came about on the first run after lunch, never a particularly good time for me. Brian and I rode Gondola to the top of the Mountain and decided to take the Col on Climax directly under the Gondola cable. Brian went first, took three turns and stopped.
I took the first turn, which was to the right, and as I put weight on the downhill ski it came off. I was barely moving at the time but it threw me forward and in a split second I was on my back sliding downhill head first. I had absolutely no chance to do anything to stop my descent. The acceleration on that steep slope was unbelievable. Brian who saw the whole scene agrees with that. I slid over the tips of Brian’s skis and fortunately he did not try to stop me. That would have been impossible at the speed which I was moving.
My recollection at that time was to consciously stay flat, as flat as possible. We had skied the same run earlier in the day and I remember thinking that there were no rocks showing if I fell straight down the fall line. My other ski, and both poles were gone, I think even before I passed Brian. I was very much aware on how fast I was traveling. A couple of times I tried to turn my head to look down the slope but snow kept flying up and blinding me. To the side I could see and remember seeing an outcropping of rocks flash by. From above Brian thought I went over these but later my track showed I missed them by about 10 ft.. I remember thinking I was in the clear after seeing the rocks but my speed still seemed to accelerate. About this time I started bouncing off the snow as I hit rough spots much as a toboggan will at high speed. I bounced about four or five times and then my speed seems to decrease.
I stopped sooner than I expected—one moment I still seemed to be travelling fast, the next moment I had stopped. I got to my feet right away but I had a bad case of the shakes in the legs. At first I just couldn’t believe I could take a fall like that and not be hurt. I had also lost my hat and glasses and I could see the wind carrying my hat farther down the hill. It soon stopped in the flat area at the bottom of Climax and I walked over and got it being very happy to find I didn’t hurt anywhere. Looking back up the hill I could see my track and Brian who hadn’t moved. He was a long, long way up the mountain. My guess is that I fell about 1,000 vertical feet since I stopped well below the top of Number Three chair.
I was very, very lucky. If I had tumbled end over end, like the times at Timp and Mt. Lassen, I would have been sure to be hurt. Missing the rocks was luck because I could have done nothing to avoid them. Brian did a good job retrieving my skis, poles and glasses—and of skiing Climax with all that extra gear. I had snow everywhere and had a busy time shaking it out of everywhere. Both Safety straps had broken. Finally we skied over and down to Number Five chair. I was o.k. physically but mentally I was completely shaken. Once we got up Number Five chair we decided to ski down and call it a day. Some tea and then some sherry and with Jim to drive I finally got my nerves together at Bishop.
It had started as a good day. We were up early and out ahead of the crowd. We took runs on No. 1, No. 3 and No. 5 and then moved over to No. 9 for some great runs on spring snow through the trees, down the Vail. I think we did this on five runs. As the sun got to the snow we moved over and took gondola and skied down Col at Climax, the same way I later did on my back.
Anyway it all came out o.k. but the thing is never lose a ski on that steep of a slope. Before the fateful run I had checked my right ski and boot on the binding but I didn’t on the left foot and it was the one that came off. Two final conclusions—the old man (I was 47 years old when I wrote this) has to start skiing his age and 2. don’t take difficult runs in the afternoon, especially after lunch and finally there is the danger of being too relaxed on skis.
So much for the 1971-72 season. Sixteen days for Dad and l5 for Brian. Brian showed great improvement during the season.”
While that may have been my worse moment on a mountain it was not the only time when there were hair raising episodes.
I have never been caught in an avalanche but there were a few times when I really felt the snow was about to go. One of these times also occurred at Mammoth Mountain.
There had been one of those fierce Sierra storms that drop huge amounts of snow. The next morning it was clear skies and as usual I was one of the first on the lifts--this time taking Gondola to the top of the mountain.
I was alone. On top I followed two ski patrolmen down the nose of the mountain, then along the cat track to the top of Scotty’s and Chair 14. I had checked the bulletin board at the top of Gondola and it stated all runs were open.
The two patrolmen continued down to the bottom of Number 14 Chair. I skied to the top of Scotty’s and then moved to my left which is a super steep slope known appropriately as Paranoid. The fresh snow here was very deep, at least two feet of typical Sierra snow, not the lightest of powder but very skiable.
Once on that super steep slope, and seeing how much fresh snow was on it I had the feeling that it might avalanche at any moment. I stood perfectly still for I do not know how long with my heart pounding. Finally I decided that maybe the Patrol was right in leaving it open to skiing. So after one tentative turn I skied it with my usual determination.
It didn’t slide. The Patrol had it right but I have never forgotten those first terrifying moments when I thought that it would.
I had another one of these heart stopping frights in almost the same conditions at Heavenly Valley at Lake Tahoe. Again there had been a heavy fall of fresh snow with clearing the next morning. And again I was one of the first on the Mountain taking the Tram to the top of what is called Gun Barrel.
In those years most of the time Gun Barrel was a horror of moguls, deep sided and as often as not with icy snow. On this day so much snow had fallen that the slope showed only slight humps where the moguls now lay hidden.
I was on one edge of Gun Barrel right at the top when the snow cracked in a straight line both in front and behind me for a distance of about 50 yards. I was alone, in fact there was not a single skier in sight.
I thought sure the snow was about to go but it didn’t. I stood there for some minutes and finally decided it was safe after all. However I did ski in the trees to the side of Gun Barrel rather then down the face as I had originally intended.
Not so many years ago I got myself in a totally different kind of predicament at Mount Baldy in Southern California. Getting ‘hung up’ is an expression skiers sometimes use when they find themselves in a place where going up or down or sideways seems impossible.
This is what happened to me. I was skiing one of the couloirs at Baldy and as usual the snow had an icy surface. The Col had very steep sides. I started down the fall line, quickly came to that icy surface, gained too much speed and to keep from falling ran a long way up one of the steep sides of the couloir.
Now stopped I was perched in a seemingly impossible place. In front of me were bare rocks, below me mixed obstacles of trees and rocks. My skis were on ice, holding thanks to very sharp metal edges. Above me an even steeper pitch if that was possible.
Once again I had been skiing alone and off the main runs. There was no one in sight and if they were could be of little help. The only way out was the way I had skied in. However this meant making a kick turn on that steep ice, something I did not think I could manage without sliding into the obstacles below.
After moments of panic I then carefully looked over the terrain and saw between me and the rock outcropping to my front some thorn bushes barely sticking up through the scanty snow and ice cover. Gingerly I moved forward on to these bushes and here the icy surface had a breakable crust so that I could mash the snow and expose more of the thorn bush.
Here with a firmer surface I was able to manage an about face kick turn and the way was now open to return as I had come. This I did and then found a place to finally rest some very weary legs.
To this day I do not know how I would have managed my escape from this predicament if those few hardy branches of thorn bush were not sticking out of the snow. Perhaps I would be there yet.
Call it good fortune or just plain dumb luck but even though I got many a bang and bruise during all these years of skiing somehow I never had be taken down on a toboggan. I always seemed to bang a rib or two on my worse falls. Very painful and long lasting and certainly stubborn to medical treatment.
Terror occurred once again in a different form at Mt. Rose Ski Area outside Reno. Most of my difficulties always seemed to occur after a snow storm when I was out in search of untracked snow. As usual I was one of the first on the lift after a storm had dropped about 18 inches of typical Sierra snow.
This time it was still snowing lightly and visibility was measured in yards. I followed one of the main trails, with not a track on it, and about half way down dug a tip and went sprawling over my skis head down into the snow. In a flurry of fresh snow I lost one ski and had goggles full of the stuff. It took some time to get my gear together and while I was doing this a snow cat appeared out of the gloom just above me. He was packing the hill and headed right for me.
I still had on only one ski and floundered with all my might to move and get out of the Snow Cat’s way. I had no way of knowing whether he saw me or not. Fortunately he did see me and stopped, patiently waiting while I finally got my other ski on and could move. However that Snow Cat coming at me in such poor light and visibility while being helpless in that soft snow was the stuff that nightmares are made of.
A friend I knew who was a commercial pilot once described flying as hours and hours of boredom mixed with moments of panic. I would describe skiing as hours and hours of sheer pleasure mixed with a few moments of terror.
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