The following is an entry taken directly from my journal. It is rough. It is raw. It is a personal recounting of the avalanche on April 1, 2011 in the Tetons that nearly took my life. I share it in part to inform, but also to keep the memory fresh, for selfish reasons. You’ll understand why as you read on…
I watch Jeremy (Jones) carve effortless turns. He cuts left onto the steep wall onto a small safe zone. I make sure he is clear. He looks back. I see Jeremy’s line and drop in just right. I make my first two turns and lay into the third. It feels heavy but so good to carve. The feeling of weightlessness as I come out of the turn is like no other. I am happy.
Then the world shifts, something feels unfamiliar and I hear someone yell. I look up over my shoulder to the right and see the whole mountain moving. At first it looks like slow motion footage, then, snap! My eyes widen and suddenly everything moves into fast forward as I watch the mountain begin to fall apart into huge slabs. The cracks grow and the speed of reality pitches me off balance. I try carry my speed, to get out to the side but there is notside. It’s an ocean of snow and I am being pulled downward. Faster and faster. I am part of something too big to comprehend.
I see trees ahead of me. They bend and snap as I head towards them with the massive waterfall of snow. I see Jeremy. He is yelling. I brace myself hoping it will only go a short distance and I will be ok. But the accelerating speed, the forces tell me differently. I kick and swim to stay on top, then feel weightlessness and acceleration. I know I’m pouring over the first rollover and my heart sinks. I have one last glimpse of where I am going as I get drawn into the darkness.
Hope fades and fear rises. It is a dark time. I feel speed, velocity, power, forces unnatural for a body to experience. Then comes the weight. It pushes down. It compresses. It is more and more and more and more…..It is unbearable. I hear myself roar from a place I knew a long time ago. It is primal. It comes from my stomach and into my chest. I hold on to my body. Bracing, bracing, tightening for impact. The impact never comes, but the weight gives me no release and I feel my chest compressed and crushed. No chance to breathe. No chance to expand my lungs. It is dark and it is dark.
I think about fighting, but there is nothing to fight. I can’t tell which way is up or down. I am completely overpowered and overwhelmed with the weight. I don’t have a breath and I know there is no out. Sometime in this moment I become only my consciousness. I don’t leave my body per se, but I am no longer a part of it. The roar of the avalanche diminishes and I am only a thought “I always wondered how I was going to die and now I know….I always wondered how I was going to die and now I know….I always wondered how I was going to die and now I know.” Then it became “If I’m thinking, then I must be alive, if I am alive, if I am alive, I should fight.” The conversation is strangely unattached or emotional. It feels like it could have gone either way. It seemed merely a second thought that I wasn’t ready to leave yet…but it becomes a decision.
The roar returns. It sounds like a wave crashing. I am held under. I know I must let go and let the wave take me for now. It is too powerful to fight, but I can tell I am moving back up the snowpack. The weight is lessening. I hope the avalanche does not stop, because I know I am still too deep and if it stops now, I will not survive. I still have no air. I relax, submit. There is a glimpse of hope.
I finally feel the weight subside and I punch for the top and gasp for my first breathe of air. The sun is blinding and my lungs fill. I roll onto my back. As I turn to look around me, the fear stops for a moment as I look in awe at what I am a part of, an ocean of snow, a whole mountainside undulating around me, flying down, down, down. The sheer magnitude of size and power is incomprehensible. I am a part of something utterly chaotic yet beautiful, devastating and unstoppable and for the moment, I am riding it like a dragon.
I look down and see the valley below. The trees look tiny and I know I am going all the way. I see the next roll over. I feel the presence of my mother. No joke. She is looking on from above, from around me. She is only present, not wishing anything. She is not judging, she is not worried, she is only watching. I feel sadness. This time I know what’s going to happen and I brace as I pour over the top of another cliffband and disappear back into the darkness. Repeat. The weight, the roar. I laugh at the thought of creating an airspace, at the thought of any semblence of control.
I submit to the forces, but I do not give up. I think of being held under a heavy wave while surfing. I try and save my breath, my strength for the right moment. There is snow pushing into my eyes, down my throat, its crushing my face. I hope there will be another moment. It is black and I feel true fear, panic rising. I push aside the thought of death and focus on what I will do when the moment is right. Let there be another moment. Let there be another moment. I feel the velocity. The elevator drop feels like forever.
Again I am astonished by the forces. I wonder if I will be torn apart, limb from limb. I don’t know if I was making a sound, but another roar. I wait. I feel the weight subside again slowly. I can feel I am moving back up through the snowpack. Now the speed is slowing. Please don’t stop now, not yet. Please, please, please…..I am slowing down, but the weight is still too much to move. I am encased in concrete. They will never find me….Slower, slower, slower.
I am almost at a stop when a feel a surge from underneath me pushing me. Up, up and I am being birthed towards the light. The snow stops and I’ve been pushed to the top standing upright in chest deep debris. I gasp for air. The debris sets instantly and locks me in place. I cannot believe what I am seeing. I am alive. I look at my arms. Then I hear it.
Another sound of rushing snow. I look behind me and see a 10 foot tall secondary wall of snow blocks crashing towards me. I realize it is going to knock me over or cut me in half and bury me. I can’t move and I know I don’t have the power or force to stop it. I will die if it goes even a foot past me. They will never find me. I do the only thing I can and brace my back against it as it bears down on me. I feel it against my back, the weight, the power and I take a deep deep breath…..and it stops against my back. My face is two inches from the snow. It is over. I am alive and somehow, uninjured.
As I dig myself out, I look up to try and figure out where I had come from. I am so far from where I started I can’t see the starting zone. I am guessing I have gone over 2000 feet. I wait to look for Xavier and Jeremy and Matty. It takes them 15 minutes to show up in view far above me. The avalanche had ripped everything to the ground and getting down couldn’t have been easy. I swing my arms to try and catch Xav’s attention. I’ve seen Xav drop into some insane lines and never seen him even wobble, but now I see him point his board through the refrigerator size debris trying to get to me and watch him cartwheel. Again, he gets up, points it and stacks. Somehow, he is down to me in a couple minutes through the concrete debris. It looks to be several hundred feet from the top to the bottom of the debris pile. I see trees everywhere around me, snapped and protruding from the snow. Jeremy and Matty make their way down.
Jeremy arrives breathless and starts repeating himself, “I would go down and look and say to myself, no one is going to survive this, then I would go down and look again and say to myself, fuck, no one could survive this. Then I said, if anyone is going to survive this, it’s Jimmy….Fuck man!” He steps aside and sits down. He is silent for a while looking off towards the mountain.
There is strange clarity for me…..Life’s priorities are stacked perfectly in front of me. I know it is clarity I need to remember, that I can never forget. I know it but I wonder if it will last. I wish it will last. I know life will I pull me apart in different directions. I know I will get distracted and I will try to remember the clarity….to live fully, to act for the right reasons, for the right people, to let go of other people’s expectations, to live with intention, that time is short, our life is a gift, use it wisely….but I know it will not last. Nothing this clear could last. Can I keep it close to my heart? Will it stay? Remember….Remember…..Remember.