Ski areas opened Thanksgiving weekend, but waiting in long lift lines wasn't in Luke Edgar's plans. Mount Rainier's untouched snowfields beckoned.
"I decided to make the hike to Camp Muir (10,000 feet). I knew the route well, I knew there would be other skiers, and I thought there was very little, if any, avalanche danger—in other words, safe," Edgar said. A sales manager for K2 Snowboards, Edgar, 39, has over 15 years of experience snowboarding in the backcountry. "I sound confident and cocky—I was."
Along with good friend Gorio Bustamante, another expert snowboarder, the two had done this route over 40 times. Things went according to plan until they hit 8,000 feet, where the wind was like a jet stream. Foregoing Muir, they turned around and began carving turns in the deep powder.
"Reading" avalanche terrain is crucial to avoiding slides. But the two disregarded debris from previous avalanches and the high winds, both of which are signs; nor did they test the snow for stability. Adding to the list, Bustamante forgot his avalanche transceiver (a device that aids in finding snow-buried victims).
As Edgar puts it, "usually people who make this many mistakes don't get the chance to tell the story."
Thousands of feet worth of turns later, the two were nearing the end of the ride and tiring. With the parking lot in sight, Edgar dropped into a bowl and cut a line high across its middle. In the same instant Edgar heard his friend yell "Slide!," the big island of snow broke free and started to move. The avalanche forced Edgar into a sitting position; moments later a secondary wave of snow hit him hard from behind, engulfing him as it swept downhill.
Just before coming to a stop, stretched out and upside down, Edgar managed to get a hand in front of his face to open a breathing pocket in the cementlike avalanche snow. He pushed hard to free himself, but each time the effort would take up all the oxygen and he would hyperventilate. Yelling had the same effect. He was buried.
The first 10 seconds buried under snow: "Oh my god, oh my god. Keep calm, everything you've learned says to conserve oxygen and keep calm. Oh shit!"
The next 20 seconds: "Gorio doesn't have a transceiver. I know he has his shovel, but how deep am I buried? Fifteen minutes is all I have—all the time Gorio has to save me."
The last 3-4 minutes: "Is this it? Am I going to die right here? All I can think about is my wife, Sara, and kids—Reilly is 2 and Ivy is 4—the best kids in the world. How could I miss all the signs and die so early? All my backcountry experiences, training, first descents, and shit talking—and now I'm cemented just a half-mile from my car. I'm such a fucking idiot! FUCK! They won't find me until next year. . . . "
But luck was with them: Bustamante spotted a dime-sized piece of Edgar's pack sticking out of the snow before it was too late.
"In retrospect, I was all too confident in the snow and my ability to react to anything the mountain could dish out," Edgar said. "I wonder now if the mountain could sense my confidence."
For more information, visit the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center at www.nwac. noaa.gov