Running Out of Luck

By: Doug Chabot, guest writer

Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.
—Vernon Sanders Law

Tyler Stetson died in an avalanche on January 20th [2008] while skiing with his close friend, Logan King, in Beehive Basin, a popular spot to tour, make turns and enjoy the Montana backcountry. They weren’t alone that day; many people were tasting the powder, but things went terribly wrong.

Four other avalanches completely buried people in the month leading up to Tyler’s fateful day. Fortunately, these had happy endings when folks were dug out alive. They went home, had a beer and toasted their partners, families and life in general. Why did they live and not Tyler?

Luck.

Of course it’s not that simple, but close enough. All of the burials had similar conditions that Tyler and Logan were faced with: steep terrain, unstable snow. They all triggered slides, but Tyler triggered the one that killed him rather than teaching him a lesson. Tyler was missing luck. For whatever reason, Mother Nature was especially unforgiving that day.

He and Logan dug snowpits, carried rescue gear, were concerned with the avalanche danger and talked about it with each other and with skiers they bumped into that day in Beehive. They had taken a Level 1 avalanche class. They knew it was dicey and attempted to keep everything in check, but it didn’t work because a small error had enormous consequences. They ended up on a steep slope and triggered the slide as they were trying to get to safer terrain mere feet away. In the midst of an accident unfolding—there’s neither “pause” nor “rewind” button. It can turn out any number of ways; some good, some bad, and all we can do is hope for the best.

If you travel in avalanche terrain long enough you’re going to have a close call. The same goes for any sport that carries risk: climbing, kayaking, dirt-biking, flying. Close calls are reality slapping us across the face reminding us that, yes, we could die here. Close calls take our breath away, soil our pants, give us the shakes and cause nightmares. Because we almost died, close calls also give us valuable lessons that we should never, ever, in a million years forget.

I am 43 years old and have many friends who died in the mountains. The list is in the double digits. I’ve had my share of close calls—the kind that make me dry heave and question why I’m still alive. I’ve triggered avalanches I didn’t expect. I fell and broke my back 2,500 feet up El Cap in Yosemite. I once leaned out over a cliff face only to realize at the last possible second that I wasn’t clipped in. I’ve had rockfall chop my ropes, fallen unprotected into crevasses and ripped out rappel anchors only to be caught by my backup.

Any one of these could have killed me, but I got lucky and walked away with a lesson. Too many of my friends didn’t and neither did Tyler.

Tyler was only 20 years old, but definitely backcountry savvy. He may have had a few close calls under his belt, and on January 20th he should have had one more. The slope should have cracked, or whumphed, or maybe even avalanched. Tyler and Logan’s jaws would have dropped, hearts in their mouths, and they’d likely high-five each other for being lucky and getting a great, unforgettable story and an awesome lesson out of the day. Maybe Tyler would have been caught and then dug up by his friend in the nick of time, like the four previous burials this year.

But this is wishful thinking. Tyler was swept off his feet, hit trees and died instantly. Logan gets the lesson burned deep in his soul. And the lesson is this: Backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain is risky business. If you let your guard down, think you’re smarter than you are, get too comfortable, or just make a simple mistake—maybe even a mistake you’ve made many times before, your luck might run out.

It did for Tyler.

*************

Special thanks to avalanche savant Doug Chabot for sharing this story. Doug’s article originally appeared back in 2008 in an issue of the Carve, a winter recreation guide that published by the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  Doug is the director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, received his B.A. in Outdoor Education from Prescott College in 1986. From 1990 to 1999 he worked as a professional ski patroller at Bridger Bowl Ski Area in Bozeman, Montana. Starting part-time in 1995, and moving to full-time in 1998, Doug has worked for the GNFAC as an avalanche specialist. He’s worked as a professional mountain guide in Alaska and the western US from 1989 to the present. Doug also worked in Pakistan and Afghanistan building schools for a non-governmental organization. Doug has been on 16 Alaskan climbing expeditions as well as climbs in Nepal, India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

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One Response to Running Out of Luck

  1. Greetings! Very useful advice in this particular article!
    It’s the little changes that produce the most significant changes. Thanks a lot for sharing!

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