Black Diamond: One of several ski slope symbols, it indicates a slope of 40 degrees and expert level of difficulty.
Jim Tyler adjusted his skis while his girlfriend Breena McGee pushed her gloves into the pockets of her very snug hot pink ski jacket. Breena undid her ski bindings and without a word picked up her skis and began walking up and away from the lift area.
“Bree,” Jim called after her, “Where are you going?” Jim watched as she made her way up the ridge and stopped. She waved him up toward her.
“C’mon!” she called. Jim sighed and stepped out of his skis but did not pick them up. He longingly watched for a moment as other skiers and snowboarders arrived and went off down the piste, zigzagging their way down. He joined his girlfriend and wrapped his arms around her, nuzzling her warm neck.
“Let’s go this way,” she said. Jim looked out over the backcountry and looked back toward the trail.
“Bree, it’s outside the ropes,” he said shaking his head.
“Look,” Bree pointed, “They’re doing it.” She pointed downhill where three skiers with backpacks swooshed and jumped over fresh powder.
“They have safety equipment with them, Breena,” Jim observed.
“Jim, nothing bad is going to happen. Why can’t you be more spontaneous?” Breena pouted.
“Breena, it’s not safe.” He began to walk back down to his skis.
“You promised, Jim. You said after I could do Black Diamond, we could do sidecountry.”
He turned back around, “I know, Bree, but I never said we’d do it without safety equipment.”
“But we’re right next to the piste. It’s barely off!” Breena argued.
“So we’ll ski down the Diamond, I’ll get our equipment and we’ll come back up.” If he had known she was going to pull this, he would have brought their packs with him.
“But it’s getting so crowded! By the time we get back up here, all the fresh powder will be gone.”
“Bree, it’s dangerous,” he said walking back toward her. When he reached for her she pulled away and put her skis down. She started to put them on.
“Fine,” she said, “I’ll just go by myself.”
“You can’t do that, Bree.” Jim said to her but he knew it was pointless.
“Just watch me,” she answered. He recognized that defiant tilt to her head. For a twenty-two year old woman, she could be as stubborn as a two year old.
“Okay, okay. Let me get my skis,” he caved. He could never say no to her. Not since they had met in high school. And she was right - nothing bad ever happened. He had to hand it to her. He was usually pretty happy with the results, regardless of what she talked him into. Especially sex. Man, she had definitely been right about that one. And except for one pregnancy scare when she had missed her period, he certainly never regretted it.
Breena bounced up and down and tapped her fingers together as Jim ascended toward her. When he reached her, she threw her arms around his neck and gave him a slow passionate kiss that he felt all the way to his toes.
“Thanks, baby,” Breena cooed. “I’m so excited,” she added.
Jim surveyed the countryside. To their right there was a large swath of vertical trees missing and he could see a track almost all the way down to the runout zone. From this angle there was no way to see the debris field but the track itself was a ways off, hundreds of yards from where they stood.
Jim nodded, “I know - but listen, stay as close to the trail as you can. See those trees? Don’t even get close.” By way of answer she nodded and squealed with delight. Jim grabbed her by her elbows, “I’m not kidding, Bree.”
Breena laughed and saluted him, “Yes sir!” She kissed him again and he never would forget the way she looked, standing in the sun. The sunlight illuminating the blonde highlights in her red hair made it look like it was glowing. Her lips tasted like cinnamon and her skin smelled of vanilla. She touched his cheek and took off ahead of him, staying right in the area he had indicated.
The fresh powder was exhilarating. They zipped down along the slope, stopping to rest at an outcropping, sinking knee deep into the powder.
“Wooo!” Breena shouted up to the sky.
Jim grinned. Once again, Breena was right. It was an incredible ride. A perfect day on the mountain. He had to admit it.
“Bree, you were so right! It’s absolutely - ” Jim stopped. Out of the corner of his eye, as he watched Bree’s hair blowing around her face, he saw a puff of white. A low rumble was audible above them. Breena turned her face in the direction of the sound and as the wind blew her hair away from her widening eyes, her mouth formed a perfect circle. She clambered to stand as Jim felt the snow give way beneath them, turning to liquid. They reached toward each other but only the tips of their fingers brushed as they started to slip past one another, a blinding wave of white enveloping them.
Jim felt himself tumbling, tossing him head over heels. It could only have been seconds but it felt like hours as he turned and slid blindly, feeling his breath crushed from his body as the snow, which had just felt so light and powdery seem to turn to wet cement. He tried to keep his arms up and swim as he had been taught. All was white. He wondered to himself that as a child he had been afraid of the dark when he now realized that there was nothing more terrifying than white. Suddenly, he felt himself drop into nothingness and he could see the sky above him as he came to rest, chest deep in snow and facing toward the ski lodge about 15 yards short of the piste. He craned his neck around as far as he could. Breena was nowhere to be seen.
“Breena!” he screamed and pounded the snow in front of him. He tried to move his feet to dislodge himself but they were held fast. “Bree!” he screamed again. He screamed her name over and over. There was no reply.
Kristy watched in horror as the slab let loose on the side of the mountain and slam its way down toward the trail. She watched as it passed the ropes and took out the legs of a half-dozen skiers and snowboarders inside the Black Diamond trail.
“Avalanche!” she screamed as loudly as she could, although everyone at the base had seen it. An eerie, stunned silence followed. Kristy took a deep breath to steady her nerves and slow her breathing and then kicked off her skis, running to grab her emergency pack. Brent met her there.
“Oh god, Kristy! You were right. Oh my god.”
Asher came running from the building, putting on his jacket as he ran. He came up to them. “I’ve called 911. What’s the situation?”
“Six skiers in total, I think,” Kristy replied. “I saw three come off backcountry earlier. But Asher, I think I saw something in the track. One, maybe two, skiers” she looked at Brent and shook her head, “I’m not sure.” She had exhausted herself watching the mountain today.
Asher looked grim, “Okay, I’ll let the sheriff’s department and County Rescue know.”
“But Asher -” Kristy started.
“Kristy, if they were skiing beyond the ropes it’s not our responsibility,” Brent said.
“Brent!” Kristy replied, her eyes darkening like a storm.
“Brent’s right, Kristy - and you know it. Let’s get to the skiers and snowboarders on the trail and we’ll have to let County Search and Rescue handle the rest.”
Kristy nodded and swallowed hard. She set off with Brent to the ski mobiles. It would take them about fifteen minutes to reach the skiers knocked down within the trails. Meanwhile, Asher coordinated from the base to get everyone back to the lodge.
Hours later, just as the sun began to set, County SAR brought down a lone survivor off the backcountry. Other than some mild hypothermia, he seemed fine, physically. They asked Kristy to sit with him in the ambulance. His name was Jim, he told her. He was twenty-one years old. They were still looking for his girlfriend. They had been skiing off-piste with no rescue equipment when the avalanche hit. They barely had time to react, Jim said.
Kristy nodded sympathetically, and sadly. Just then, Mack appeared at the ambulance door and motioned with a tilt of his head for her to join him outside.
The look on Mack’s face said it all.
“We found his girlfriend in the runout zone. There’s nothing we could do. She lost her helmet at some point. Someone just happened to notice a tuft of her red hair sticking out of the snow or I don’t know that we would have found her.”
Kristy touched her hand to her lips as she listened, she felt her eyes well up with tears. Behind them they heard a small choking sound. She and Mack turned to see Jim standing at the doors.
“Why didn’t I say no? I can never say no to her!” Jim crumbled to the floor of the ambulance.
Kristy ran to him and gently wrapped her arms around his quaking body.