Words and photos by Tess Weaver
Three skiers, including myself, triggered what the Colorado Avalanche Information Center reported as a “very, very, very large and destructive class 5 avalanche" on a north-facing aspect on Independence Pass, near Aspen, on Saturday.
The slide ran more than 2,000 feet, crossing and covering Highway 82, which is currently closed for the season and only accessible via snowmobile.
Pat Sewell, a born and raised Aspenite and one of it's most die-hard skiers, had spent the previous four days in the same zone that slid.
"Having spent days in the area without seeing any signs of instability gave me a false sense of confidence," says Sewell.
After a two-hour skin, Sewell, Dayla Robinson and I arrived at our entry point at 11,500 feet. From a wind scoured ridge, Robinson and I watched Sewell traverse out into the gully.
Before he made his first turn, the gully ripped. Then, our worst nightmare came true. The entire face (that was above and slightly east of us) fractured, propagating to the ground and exploding into a thousand jigsaw puzzle pieces. It was as if the entire mountain was disintegrating before our eyes.
Sewell was immediately out of sight and we looked up to see debris coming towards us. Robinson and I scrambled back on the rocks and watched the entire mountainside turn into a catastrophic tsunami, crashing down 2,000 feet, for what seemed like eternity.
I knew Pat was gone. Seeing the scope of the destruction, in my mind, there was no chance he was alive.
He fought hard to swim at first, but "there was so much snow, there was nothing I could do," he says. "It was like Frogger, jumping from block to block and trying everything to go right. But then I was swallowed whole and I was along for the ride. It was the scariest moment of my life."
As Pat was carried fall line, down the gully, the snow coming down off the face to his left pushed him out of the main path and up onto a bench, approximately 300 yards from where he dropped in.
Miraculously, he came to a stop partially buried and was able to dig himself out. He even had one ski on and found the other 100 yards above, wrapped around a tree and broken.
Sewell guesses the slide coming in from the left may be what saved his life.
"But it also could have been the Frogger moves I made at the beginning to get to the safe zone on the right. It also could have been Johnny Nicoletta (a 27-year old Aspen based skier who died in a fall at the Freeskiing World Championships at Alyeska Resort in 2008). It was his birthday and he was there."
Meanwhile Robinson and I were trying desperately to get down safely and quickly, making our way from tree island to tree island, crossing open faces that hadn't yet slid. Approximately seven minutes (we're guessing) after seeing Pat, as we were about to make our last above-treeline traverse, Dayla said she heard her boyfriend's scream. I couldn't believe it.
Within minutes, Pat was hiking up above the flank and emerged from the trees. He watched us traverse under two pocket slides, with six-foot hanging fractures above us. We met at treeline and were overcome with emotions. But we still had more than 1,500 vertical feet of debris to ski down through. We skirted the side of the debris, sticking close to the trees, disbelieving the scope of the destruction.
I don't think we breathed until we got to the road, or what used to be the road. We looked up to see the longest fracture line any of us had ever seen. In some places it looked as deep as 12 feet. The group of mature trees we'd stopped for a break in on the way up was reduced to a handful of stragglers. What was entirely white this morning was a scene of black and brown—it had ripped to the ground. The run-out was three times as wide as you'd ever imagine and the debris continued taking trees as it passed the road and made its way uphill.
"After the fact, you second guess your decision making throughout the day," says Sewell. "But you don't know whether you're making the right or wrong decision until you make the wrong one.
"My odds of making it were one in a million. I'm in mental shock about why I made it out. I just feel really lucky to be here."
On Monday, after 14 inches snow had accumulated overnight, a group of five individuals triggered a fatal slide off the westside of Highlands ski area. Read more about that here.