“Snow Fall” is an essay by John Branch that appeared on the NY Times online yesterday. It is, simply, gripping. I read it holding my small screen, shaking, and could not put it down.
Here is how Branch describes the internal life of Elyse Saugstad as she experienced beings swallowed up by an avalanche.
She had no control of her body as she tumbled downhill. She did not know up from down. It was not unlike being cartwheeled in a relentlessly crashing wave. But snow does not recede. It swallows its victims. It does not spit them out.
Snow filled her mouth. She caromed off things she never saw, tumbling through a cluttered canyon like a steel marble falling through pins in a pachinko machine.
At first she thought she would be embarrassed that she had deployed her air bag, that the other expert skiers she was with, more than a dozen of them, would have a good laugh at her panicked overreaction. Seconds later, tumbling uncontrollably inside a ribbon of speeding snow, she was sure this was how she was going to die.
I know the pressures and allure of back-country skiing. Fresh powder and immeasurable quiet beckon. So too do adventure and risk. The first time I hooked up with some off-duty ski-patrollers and went looking for powder outside of a ski-area was one of the great thrills of my life. Standing atop a huge mountain of snow and looking down into the gully below, we prepared our dynamite. They asked me to throw a charge. Reason kicked in a bit and I asked, “This is safe, right? You’re an expert.” The answer I received was direct: “All the experts are dead.”
Adrenaline and camaraderie bring one to the top of a risky and bountiful snowfield. Once fear and reason kick in, it is often too late. Or so it seems.
One of the skiers, Megan Michelson, recalls her misgivings, and how she suppressed them:
"If it was up to me, I would never have gone backcountry skiing with 12 people,” Michelson, the ESPN journalist, said. “That’s just way too many. But there were sort of the social dynamics of that — where I didn’t want to be the one to say, you know, ‘Hey, this is too big a group and we shouldn’t be doing this.’ I was invited by someone else, so I didn’t want to stand up and cause a fuss. And not to play the gender card, but there were 2 girls and 10 guys, and I didn’t want to be the whiny female figure, you know? So I just followed along.” Others suppressed reservations, too.
There is great writing in Branch’s essay. And many life lessons. How did 16 of the best, most knowledgeable back-country skiers in the country make such a colossal misjudgment? Why did they do so, even as some of them knew what they were doing was a mistake? How is technology making us feel safer and take ever-greater risks? What is the place and importance of risk in human life? Branch’s re-creation of the 24 hours bookending the fateful avalanche and the insightful reporting on the persons involved, makes this one of those rare essays appearing in the New York Times recently that should be a must read for all.
As the Arendt Center readies for its annual Winter relocation to the Colorado Rockies, I plan to be skiing on piste this year. I wish you all a happy and healthy Holiday Season.
For now, wherever you are, cuddle up and enjoy Snow Fall. It is your holiday read.