The plan went bad at the fork in the trail.
It had been one hour since Conor and I had seen Tristan or Rich through the blur of white that had whipped up as we started hiking down Mt. Washington. We split into groups so each pair could go at its own pace. Conor and I were ahead and planned to wait for them at the junction. We were all experienced climbers, but either we were moving faster than we’d guessed or they were moving slower. Maybe both. In a few minutes, the sweat on our skin started to ice. If we stayed still, it wouldn’t be long before frostbite set in.
We waited as long as we could, maybe 15 minutes, but no figures appeared through the snow. So we turned to the trail, and, being more sure of our shivering than of our direction, went right at the fork, and hurried along to warm up.
Then I felt the ground flatten beneath me.
It was one of those seismic shifts that drives your stomach into your throat and triggers something primal in your brain. And I knew, very suddenly and very clearly, that I had walked onto the lip of a dangerously loaded snowfield and now we were in an avalanche. I tried to spike an ice pick into the ravine to anchor myself, but found no purchase—it was much too late for that.
Then I was in the air. All I could see was empty, cool whiteness no matter how long I turned in the air or which way the snow and the ice ground me up.
Then the white went dark, along with the rest of the world.
The four of us grew up together in Oak Bluffs, on Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts, but now we’d been scattered by college and work. Back home for the holidays, we planned the trip to the White Mountains. Tristan and I were new to this peak, but Conor and Rich had both summited it a few times in winter. In their experience, they’d said, the path up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Hermit Lake was simple.
It was. Even for a first-timer, the hike was straightforward. I snapped a picture of the Forest Service’s warning sign about avalanches. One more shot to remember the trip by, but not relevant to us: Our ascent was by a different route, and the posted avalanche danger was low for the day.
Conor and I traveled quickly over the well-trodden snow. Our packs were light with just layers, water, and some food. But Tristan and Rich were loaded down with overnight gear (they planned to stay and hike a few days), so their progress was slower. Early in the hike, we decided to split up so that Conor and I could tag the summit and make it back before dark.
By 2:30 p.m., Conor and I reached the summit, and stayed a while to snap pictures. Before we even started back down, the snowfall had set in and we knew it would be better if we were out before the sun set. On the way back down, we crossed paths with Rich and Tristan again. They turned around and we made plans to meet at the fork in the trail, staying in our separate groups.
I woke up on top of the snow. I thought maybe things weren’t so bad. Initially, I’d thought I was going to die or be buried, but I only had a broken arm. The rest of my body hurt, but I still couldn’t tell how badly—the adrenaline was pumping hard. I tried to sit up and blood started oozing down across my face. I decided it was better to lie back down.
It was like lying in a room with white walls and a white ceiling, and there was no sign of Conor. I could see my boot sticking out of the snow, knocked clean off by the force of the impact.
I lay there for maybe 15 minutes, weighing my options and trying to stay calm. Then, the crunch of snow under boots brought me back. There was Conor, well enough to walk, climbing down to me. When the ground collapsed under us, his leg had caught on a rock and he must’ve landed on a higher ledge.
As he came closer I could see his face, a cluster of purple bruises. He considered me for a moment, blood dripping from his forehead down to his jacket.
“Who are you?” he asked.
I told him that we were good friends who’d been climbing this mountain all day, and that we’d been in an avalanche. I spent six summers working as a lifeguard and I knew a concussion when I saw one. I also knew that as long as we didn’t fall asleep out here in the snow any time soon, he was likely to be fine, if a little frustrating to deal with.
As for my own condition, between the arm that I was sure was broken and the stab I felt in my back, I knew I was hurt badly, but not beyond repair. There was a voice, very soft, in the back of my brain, telling me that I couldn’t really tell how bad I’d been hurt, that maybe no one would find us, that if I was so right about the “low avy danger” I wouldn’t be down here to begin with. Conor and I did what we could: We consolidated our water and food and waited.
It wasn’t long before I could hear Tristan’s voice cutting through the wind. It was the best sound I’d heard in my life. “We’re getting help!” he promised from somewhere up in the white. “Hang in there!” Not that we had a choice.
You learn a few things about yourself in these situations. For one, you find out whether you’re a pessimist. Conor, whether from head wound or natural disposition, gave up. He talked about how he couldn’t believe this was the end and the things he’d done in his life and what he thought might come next. He thought death might be an improvement, spiritually speaking.
“I’m at peace with dying,” he told me.
I love Conor, and I knew that this was the knock on his head talking, but this wasn’t any good. “I’m saying this for you as much as me,” I answered. “Please shut up.”
It’s odd to say, but once I knew help was on the way, it was very boring being down there in the snow and ice. I thought about the next hike I’d take, how long it would be before this broken arm healed, how I was going to tell this story the first time a girl asked about the cast. But I knew I wasn’t going to end like this, spooning with Conor.
Five hours after our fall, I saw the lights of the approaching snowcat. I can’t remember now if I was laughing as they slid me onto the backboard, but if I wasn’t it seems like I should have been.
When they got us to the hospital, the doctors confirmed I had broken not just my arm, but my back. Conor sustained a massive concussion. They estimated we’d fallen more than 800 feet, skidding off patches of rocks and snow and ice.
It was pure luck that Tristan and Rich found us. When they reached the split in the trail and found it empty, they had no way to know we’d taken a wrong turn. Tristan just had a hunch, and lucky for us, he listened to it.
Survive an Avalanche: Skills
SAFETY STARTS WITH PREVENTION. Avoid terrain sloped between 30 and 45 degrees (1), as well as gullies and ravines. Better bet? Get prepared by taking an Avalanche Level I class near you. But, if you are caught in a slide, you should know how to minimize the danger of being buried. Memorize these tips from Richard Riquelme, a certified guide and avalanche instructor with the American Alpine Institute in Washington. –Josette Deschambeault
2. IF YOU'RE CAUGHT, "SWIM" TO SAFETY.
Assume the whitewater position: feet downhill and in a sitting position to absorb shocks of obstacles. Ditch poles, ice axes, or skis, and use your hands and arms in a swimming motion to move toward the surface and stay there.
3. PREP AN AIR POCKET.
When the avalanche slows down, get your palms up by your forehead, elbows out, and start creating a cocoon around your face. Take a deep breath and hold it—the more your lungs can expand, the better. When the avalanche stops, you’ll have more space to breathe in the pocket you created. Space is time, and time increases the odds of rescuers finding you before it’s too late.
4. STUDY UP
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