Slippery Slope

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Avalanche Airbag

Avalanche Airbag - Considered standard safety equipment for backcountry skiing and snowboarding, an airbag can increase the chance of survival during an avalanche. When deployed, it can help the wearer rise to the surface of the slide and avoid being buried.

Kristy burst straight up in bed. Breathing hard, she furiously kicked the covers away. A trickle of cold sweat ran down her back. She pushed back a damp tendril of hair from her forehead. As her breathing slowed, she looked around her dark room. Since the avalanche she had had the same dream every night.

At first, things were just the same as it they happened that day….

She and Brent turned their snowmobiles into the wind and headed up the mountain. A huge slab of snow had fallen about 150 vertical feet and had encroached on the Black Diamond trail by at least thirty feet. The track was much longer. Enough to bury, kill. Overhead, two drones buzzed ahead of them and Kristy was grateful for the technology. The cameras they carried could very well help save lives today.

It was hard to believe that anything tragic could happen on such a beautiful day and yet the weather itself was the recipe for disaster. After a snowy, bitter cold night, that had dumped over 18 inches of snow, the temperature at 10:30 in the morning was already over 45 degrees. A high of near 55 degrees was expected and the bright sun beat down from a cloudless sky and there was a stiff breeze. Under such conditions, that a heavy shelf of snow had given way was hardly surprising. That it had made its way onto the trail, however, was unusual and concerning.

Nearing the site, they came along a group of eight skiers. They had all been on the trail but were far enough down the run that they had escaped unscathed. They reported having seen four skiers on the backcountry prior to the avalanche but no one knew where they were when it hit.

Kristy steadied her nerves, thinking of what they might find, running procedure through her mind. As they ascended the run, they could see more clearly the path the snow had taken down the mountain. The slide had smashed through a line of trees 100 feet wide. The debris field tracked down beyond their line of site on the east slope of the mountain. She shuddered to think of anyone caught in that. The slide had pushed onto the trail by more than 30 feet at points. At the edge of that was where they encountered the first sign of skiers. A boot and ski. A pole. Another pole. A glove. Goggles. She and Brent shut off the skimobiles to listen and immediately heard a cry for help. They fastened the bindings on their skis headed toward the sound together. There, they found a woman behind a large mogul, buried up to her shoulders. She was screaming the name Jake over and over. In her hand was a receiver. Kristy took it from her.

“Jake! Jake,” the woman continued to call out.

“What’s your name?” Brent asked her.

“Jake!”

Brent grabbed the woman’s chin in his hand and looked into her eyes.

“What’s your name?”

The woman took a deep breath and sobbed, “Jane.”

“Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, “No. I’m okay. Jake!” she screamed again.

“Jane, where did you last see Jake? Did you have him in sight?” Kristy asked her.

Jane nodded and pointed along the ridgeline and then straight down.

“Did he have an air bag?”

The woman nodded again.

Kristy stood up as Brent began to dig around the victim.

Without looking up, Brent said, “Kristy: shovel, probe, airbag pack, beacon.”

“Check, check, check, check.”

“Kristy,” he looked up, “Be careful”

Kristy dug in her pole and began a quick serpentine, holding the receiver in front of her chest to search for the signal. It lit center and then right. She changed her direction slightly. The beeping became louder. She stopped and began her coarse search. She advanced and then stopped again. The beeping had grown louder still. Kristy skimmed the receiver along the snow, taking care to keep it in as straight a line as possible. She scanned the area in front of her and backed up, slid perpendicular and back again watching carefully as the numbers decreased to single digits. Then, she saw something: a small black patch in the snow. She dove at it, releasing her ski bindings so she could dig. It was pole strap. She dug a little further and reached her hand in. Yes! It was the pole.

“Jake!” she screamed, “Jake can you hear me?” There was no reply.

Kristy threw off her pack and assembled her probe and shovel. She probed parallel to the pole she’d found, hit something three feet down – and heard a moan.

“I’m coming, Jake! Hang in there!” God please, she thought to herself, the man had been buried at least twenty minutes. As she dug, the snow slid back in on itself, making her progress slow. Finally, she reached his arm. Carefully, she continued to dig. The man began to scream.

“Jake? Is your name Jake?” she screamed back.

He answered, “Yes!”

She cleared the snow and could see his face. He was moving now, struggling to pull his other arm out, spitting out snow. She could see that his airbags were only partially inflated, one completely burst from the force of the snow. He had saved his life by putting his hands in front of his face, forming an air pocket. But he was not out of danger. His lips were purple. He was alive, but they were not out of the woods.

“Thank you,” Jake gasped, crying.

“Are you hurt?” Kristy asked.

He shook his head, “I don’t think so.” He fixed his eyes on her face and said, “Jane.”

“Jane’s safe,” Kristy said, “You’ll see her soon.”

Relief flooded the man’s face and he closed his eyes.

“Hey! Stay with me, Jake.”

Jake opened his eyes and smiled weakly as Kristy continued to dig around him. She uncovered his chest and unzipped his jacket. She reached in and shut off his beacon. As she got deeper the snow was more compact, so it didn’t slide back in, but was heavier. As she dug out his legs, he slumped against her.

“Jake!” she yelled and shook him. She pulled her glove off with her teeth and put her fingers to his neck. There was no pulse. He had stopped breathing.

Kristy jumped out of the hole and got behind him. She put her arms under his armpits and pulled as hard as she could, lifting him out. She stretched him out on the snow, unzipped his jacket and began chest compressions. As she closed in on one hundred compressions, a shadow covered them. It was Brent. As Kristy finished compressions, he kneeled down by Jake’s head, tilted it back and breathed into the man’s mouth. He checked the man’s pulse and nodded. Kristy sat back and watched as Jake’s chest slowly rose and fell.

“You okay?” Brent asked.

“Yes,” she answered, “Just tired.”

“You did great, Kristy. “

Too exhausted to talk, she sat back and watched as Brent covered Jake with a thermal emergency blanket and checked his pulse again. Now that Jake was out of the snow, with the sun high in the sky, beating down on him, he would be warmer. He would make it.

“Alexis and Lexa are almost here with the gurney,” Brent announced.

Kristy turned as the sound of snowmobiles grew.

This was where her dream changed, stretched, and morphed, as dreams do when they become nightmares. When she turned back to speak to Brent, she was alone, standing at the peak of a long backcountry run. She looked straight down into a 25-degree slope. Snow was blowing in sideways, forming drifts as she watched. The sky overhead was a solid steel color. Her heart was beating hard in her chest. She looked down at her skis and pushed off. She slid cautiously at first, setting off small slides and slipping along with them as she did. Suddenly in front of her the snow seemed to shatter. She felt herself fall and turn, her feet swept out from underneath her. She went to activate her air bag and nothing was there. Everything turned to black as snow filled her eyes, her mouth. She started to swim to stay on top but then felt herself drop, falling, falling, then sliding, her legs flying over her head, tossed around, sucked down as if in quicksand. Putting her hands in front of her face she finally came to a rest. Now, covered completely, she could hear Brent yelling for her, that he was coming to get her. He was yelling her name over and over, but she could not answer. She was suffocating, the breath squeezed from her body.

Kristy put her hand to her heart and took slow, deeps breaths, shuddering as she did so. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and padded her way to the bathroom. She splashed warm water on her face and dried it. She looked at her face in the mirror. There were dark circles under her eyes. The nightmare was taking its toll, but even worse was the feeling that she had started to carry with her since she came off the mountain that day - the feeling that she had lost her nerve.

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