Story by Dan Caruso | Illustrations by Geoff McFetridge
As a heli-guide, the 1998 season was my career denouement. I was thirty-three years old and at the top of my game. There were no ‘advanced-intermediate’ riders in Alaska in ’98. Everyone up there skiing was a seasoned professional. I was booked out for nine weeks in a row: film crews, magazine articles, photo shoots, and private heli weeks.
But being at the helm for so much risk-taking in unforgiving mountains can take a toll on the best of guides. I’d witnessed close calls, serious injuries, and emergency rescues. I’d sat atop many a precipice, nibbling on fingernails and pulling out facial hair watching my pro skiers and riders toe the fine line between agony and ecstasy at break-neck speed. But in pushing it, I learned more about mountains, my craft as a guide and—more importantly—about myself as a person. It was a coming of age, both for me and for the industry, which had elevated Valdez to Valhalla status.
The final day of the season was an emotional one. As our helicopters flew away from base for the last time, I stood with the guides I’d lived and worked with for the past two months. It was a relief. The war was over, and we had won. And although I wasn’t about to admit it, I was done. My nerves were shot, my body was sore. It was time to thaw out.
Wavey handed me a bottle of Jack Daniels. I smiled as I took a long, deep slug of the cheap booze, holding the bottle high on the neck and tilting it vertically until it bubbled. We were standing around a bonfire in a parking lot, burning stacks of pallets. One of the ground crew guys tossed a bucket of waste-fuel on the already-raging blaze. The flash of the igniting fuel singed my eyelids and warmed my face. I let out a loud yell and passed the bottle back. My left arm was around Pepi, my girlfriend from Switzerland. We’d met the season before and had fallen in love. We were both ready to head to the Utah desert and get sunburned.
“We’re not done yet!” came a cry from behind a motorhome, followed by a piercing scream of ecstasy. “We got one more day, and we’re gonna give ’er!” It was my excitable Canadian friend, Eric. He was the senior photographer for a snowboard magazine. Handing me a bottle of Crown Royal he put his arms around Pepi and me. “My story finally got approved! We’ve got one paid day to go heli-boarding, and tomorrow is the day!”
I let his euphoria settle in. It wasn’t over yet. I wasn’t done for the season. There was one more day to get through. In taking one small last sip of bourbon, I was subconsciously preparing myself to again get up early and fly into the Chugach Mountains.
The East-facing slopes were bathing in golden light when I crawled out of my trailer just before 7:00 a.m. Today would mark the first day in four years of heli-guiding in Alaska that I would be snowboarding as a client. Riding as an athlete in the backseat of another guiding company’s helicopter, I wouldn’t be tasked with looking out for the safety of my clients. All I had to do was rip some steep slopes and drop a few cliffs for Eric.
The heli-ski outfit Eric had contracted was also winding down for the season and only had two groups flying. We were off the ground first with their lead guide Ed, a thin, fit guy with shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair. Ed was ten years my senior and his reputation was that of a reputable guide. Joining Eric and I on this photo shoot was a pair of world-class riders: Pepi and her sponsor teammate Mike, who was gracing the cover of now shuttered Transworld Snowboarding magazine.
Out the side window, I looked at the north face of East Peak, but Ed directed his pilot to a smaller slope farther down the ridge. By Alaska standards the slope was of average declivity and length, but it would have been a prized line in the lower 48. Ed chose it as a warm-up run before we headed for bigger game.
It was just before 8:30 a.m. when Ed dropped into the slope and gave it a solid ski-cut, trying to get the slope to slough or slide. He then traversed to the left, about a hundred feet below us, and stood atop a slightly elevated rock outcropping, deeming this spot his ‘island of safety.’
Pepi dropped in next with an eye to riding it top-to-bottom and collecting herself far from any avalanche runout. A seasoned backcountry rider, she noticed some movement below her board after her first turn. She stopped above it, and the surface slough she released on the upper chute quickly raged downward and caused a minor avalanche below on the main slope. All of the soft, freeze-dried snow that we’d been drooling over was now billowing downhill. Easy come, easy go…
Pepi shouted some obscenities in Swiss-German to let us know just how firm and difficult the slope had become. She skidded down the face toe-side, dragging her hand on the firm, steep surface, vanishing and eventually reappearing way below as a dot on the lower glacier.
Mike was next. His curly, unwashed split ends still showing traces of green dye from months back. He pulled up his baggy pants that were barely tethered around his skinny waist by a leather belt. Down feathers escaped from the burn holes on the front of his jacket as a light breeze began to blow. With all the new snow sloughed to the bottom, we were all just going through the motions, trying to get everyone off the ridge as efficiently as possible, get back into the helicopter and try it again. Mike edged slowly onto the face and hopped into his first jump-turn to keep his speed as slow as possible. It was all very routine.
Then my head jerked to the sound of a dozen car doors slamming simultaneously backed by the sound of breaking glass. The entire upper slope was shattering around Mike. I tried to yell, but nothing came out. My mouth went dry and I lost my breath.
“Get outta there! Go left NOW! LEFT, LEFT!” Eric screamed. For a moment, time slowed down. I saw Mike’s head and arm above the dishwasher- and refrigerator-sized blocks. He looked like a small man in a maze. Then the blocks began to slowly move downwards. I knew what was coming next. The train was leaving the station.
My mouth agape, I stared as Mike—50 feet below me—rode among blocks of hardened snow, and then somehow transitioned from his toe-side to his heel-side edge and casually exited the tragedy to stage left.
It was miraculous. Mike stood there on his board, breathing hard, his arm stretched up behind him, clinging to a boulder just below the ridge. Eric and I could see his lungs expanding and his knees quivering. I heard him exhale.
Below, past the chute and out on the open face, Pepi was safely removed from the path, but the grinding, boiling sounds of the massive avalanche filled the valley and echoed across the glacier. Giant blocks smashed into smaller blocks. When the upper avalanche left the chute, it released the lower face as well, stepping down again and triggering yet another deep-slab avalanche. A billowing air-blast and powder cloud took flight. I instinctively looked up in the sky to see if fighter jets were flying overhead because the rumbling was so loud.
I stood above it all, perched on the relative safety of the ridge in the morning sun. My arms were raised in victory, so glad we were all far away from that catastrophic slide. I looked down at Mike, making eye contact with him through his tinted goggles.
He glanced around with a furtive look on his face. It was a look that I at first read as shock.
“Ed’s gone…” he deadpanned.
It took me a second to register what he said.
“Ed’s gone,” he repeated. He turned his head and looked over to the spot where Ed had been standing less than a minute ago. There was no sign of the guide. The massive avalanche had contoured away from the fall line and smeared those huge blocks over his ‘island.’
I came around. Dropping in I screamed to Eric and Mike. “We gotta find him asap! Let’s get down there!”
With all the soft snow denuded, the slope had become a 45-degree hockey rink. But controlling my speed wasn’t an option. I slid down the face; out-of-control, but hoping for the best.
“He’s fuckin’ dead…” I muttered to myself as I sped to the debris field below. “He’s so fuckin’ dead!” The debris pile was bigger than a county dump. There was no way that a human could survive an avalanche of that magnitude.
Overwhelmed by the expanse of the debris field, I had to make a decision as to where to begin searching. I couldn’t see the edges of the pile of frozen rubble, and I couldn’t see the lower tongue. I unstrapped my board and scaled what felt like concrete blocks. I switched my avalanche search beacon to ‘receive’ and began searching for what would almost certainly be a pulverized bag of bones—if I could even find that.
As I searched, images of my older brother came to me. It was as if John was helping me in my time of stress and fear. We were kids again stalking a single frog in a big, muddy pond. The memories calmed me as I remained focused on the task at hand.
These were the days before digital beacons. I was searching with a 457 Pieps with an earpiece. The only indicator was the volume. You started your search with the volume cranked to the max, and slowly decreased it as the beeps got louder and you closed on the victim. I kept the beacon low to the ground, studying the silence in my head, waiting for a beep.
The sun peeked over the eastern ridge and I began to overheat. I ripped off my jacket, hat, and goggles, and grabbed the probe and shovel from my pack. As my jacket hit the icy debris, I noticed a thud, reminding me that I had my guide radio in it, pre-programmed to Ed’s frequency. “Hey Pilot and/or Base and/or Guides in the field! This is DC, and Ed’s buried deep! Get the fuck over here ASAP!” I screamed onto their airwaves and moved on.
Three minutes into the search, I finally heard a faint beep in my left ear. Ed was 50 meters away. I kept moving downward; the beep growing ever louder. I was still fairly certain that this would be a body recovery, but I worked to the best of my training.
I took a second to focus, to clear the noise out of my head, as dialing in the final thirty feet on the old transceivers took concentration. Just then Mike and Eric caught up to me, huffing and puffing, yelling frantically, and screaming questions. I held my hands up and stared at them, saying nothing, trying to keep myself calm, trying to keep them calm. They went silent.
“I’ve got a signal on him and I’m homing in! You guys need to get out your shovels and probes and get ready to dig!”
Twenty feet away, I got the best, and final, signal of our guide’s transceiver. I pinpointed his whereabouts as close as possible. But my beacon reading was still at two meters. It meant that Ed was buried more than six feet deep. Few people survive such burials.
“Start probing! Right here!” I screamed.
The urgency had taken over. Glancing at my watch we were almost five minutes into this search. I dug.
‘Tink, tink.’ Mike’s probe hit something solid. I hoped that was one of his plastic ski boots. Eric probed a few feet in all directions from Mike’s positive strike. On one side, he felt his probe thud into a dull bottom. Convincing ourselves that had to be Ed’s legs and torso, we began digging frantically into the firm snow. We had a lot of solid snow to move to get to his airway. I exhaled and went into overdrive.
After frantically yet methodically digging, we were six feet deep into that consolidated snowpack. I caught a faint glimpse of Ed’s yellow guide-jacket. I felt around for body parts, hoping to get an association as to where his face might be. I found an arm and got confused for a second as it was badly contorted behind his back. Mother Nature had him in a chicken-wing, half nelson. He was wadded up and his clothing and backpack were twisted and packed full of snow. It was hard to tell which end was up.
The boys removed the snow as quickly as I dug it out of the hole. This afforded me much more space, allowing me to dig deeper and faster. It was a technique that we developed out of necessity, on the fly. Today, it has become a commonly taught technique, known as strategic digging.
“Oh, sorry Ed…” I muttered as I jammed my metal shovel blade into his ribs.
Eric and I dug around his head, neck, and face with our bare hands. Mike frantically chipped away around Ed’s torso in case we needed to flip him over to get to his mouth. We gouged the remaining snow from around his head, and my frozen hand swept along his frozen hair. It was a strange, intimate moment that forced me to pull back for a second.
I reached behind the head, supporting the back of the neck. Eric shifted the torso onto its back. The body had become inanimate, it wasn’t Ed, it wasn’t alive. It was cold, motionless, and limp. I proceeded through the motions, readying myself to administer CPR. I intended to do what I was trained to do, what I had practiced extensively to become a heli-guide. Yet, I was not particularly excited about the prospect of going lip-to-lip with a cadaver.
Glancing down at my watch, we were well into our eighth minute. Time was no longer on our side. Turning my head downward, back to the task at hand, I took a long, hard look at Ed.
“Ed’s dead, ya’ll… Ed’s dead,” I muttered inadvertently. Not sure if the others heard me or not, I carried on. Tears welled up in my eyes. But those tears weren’t only for Ed, whose eyes were frozen shut, his lashes sparkling white with ice crystals. His lips were as blue as glacial ice. I’d seen this before. It was what dead avalanche victims looked like.
It was the hue of his skin that really got under mine; the weird, grayish tone only associated with death itself. I’d seen that color before. I’d seen it when John and I saw the avalanche in the Vallée Blanche. And I’d seen it on the saddest day of my life. An hour after John died in his bed in front of me and my siblings, I walked back up the stairs and had a final look at my big brother. The skin on his sunken face had that same grayish hue, the color of death.
Continuing to go through the motions to revive Ed, I reached under his balaclava and jabbed two cold fingers onto his carotid artery to see if his ticker was still pumping. If it was, it sure wasn’t cranking. One thing was for sure, he wasn’t breathing, and that was the main issue. I instructed the boys to finely dig around his head and shoulders to get him in the ideal position so I could open his airway and start CPR.
The tears kept streaming down my face. I found myself wishing that I’d had this same chance to save my brother. I knew there was still a remote chance to save Ed. I firmly grabbed him by the nape of his neck and proceeded to wipe the remaining snow from his face with my icy, numb hand. I forced his frozen lips apart to begin the mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.
As his mouth opened, his frozen lips ripped apart and tiny droplets of blood formed on his lower lip. I noticed a faint noise and some minor movements. Then his cheek began spastically quivering and making a weird slurping sound. Before I could breathe into his lungs, Ed inhaled the fresh, cold Alaskan air for the first time since he’d been buried. It was as if he’d been sucking for air, but his frozen-shut lips wouldn’t let it in.
I put my stacked hands on Ed’s chest and gave him a few mild chest compressions to ensure he kept breathing. I could feel how empty his lungs were. I felt like if I applied proper pressure that I would break some bones, and I realized that I might just have to do so to get his lungs working again. I compressed down with both hands three more times, this time with a little more force. I heard a strange sound from his solar-plexus. It sounded like someone popped their knuckles.
Ed immediately began to gag. I carefully rolled him over to his side and patted him on his back. He puked out a few golf ball-sized ice chunks and coughed violently. I rubbed his back and whispered for him to relax. I rolled him back over. He began breathing almost regularly. He was alive for the moment, but he was still unconscious. His lower body remained contorted and trapped under the icy snow. I wondered for a second if it would have been better to let him die with his dignity than to keep him alive but brain dead. I pushed the thought out of my head. That wasn’t my decision to make.
“Trippy…” Mike said as we watched Ed come back to life. “Fuckin’ trippy!”
The helicopter landed right next to us. We scrambled to hold onto our shovels and hats. As the sharp grains of snow blasted us in the face, we all sought cover in our arms. Not Ed, though. He was still catatonic. He stared like a zombie into the distance, breathing heavily with an open mouth.
Ed’s crew quickly finished digging out his legs, finally freeing him from the grasp of the frozen slide debris. They strapped him to a backboard, put an oxygen mask on his face and loaded him into the ship. As the heli flew him down glacier to the hospital in Valdez, we had no idea if he was going to live. I laid back against the snow as the sun rose higher in the morning sky. I was exhausted. I wanted to go home.
The following morning, we walked into the hospital and were shown into Ed’s room. He was sitting up in his bed. There was an oxygen mask covering his mouth and nose and an intravenous tube pushing fluids into his arm. A smile formed behind the mask as he saw us enter. He gingerly raised his other arm, offering us all high fives. Tears rolled down all of our cheeks as we laughed and smiled. Ed’s wife sat at his side, sobbing uncontrollably as she stared into my eyes. Hers was as thankful a look as I’ve ever received.
That was also the last time that I saw Ed. I often wonder what has become of him. Saving his life that morning changed the way I look at life and death, and has altered the way I approach risk. It opened my eyes to the paramountcy of life, and to the capriciousness of our mortality.
Today, I often see images of Ed’s morbid, frozen face buried six feet under solid avalanche debris. These thoughts often coincide with memories of my dying brother. The color of their skin still chills me.
Dan Caruso is a guide with Valdez Heli Ski Guides. valdezheliskiguides.com