PHOTO: Jason Abraham
Pro skier JT Holmes was cat skiing near Truckee, California, in mid January, with a group of professional guides and friends when a routine day in the mountains suddenly turned into his worst nightmare. An avalanche ripped and he was in the middle of it. He skied away from the incident miraculously unharmed but not unchanged. These are his words.
As told to Megan Michelson:
There was some fresh snow but not a ton. We were shooting, but there was no pressure from the cameras to get rad. The vibe for the day was recreational skiing. The varying temperatures and wind loading became a topic of conversation. We spent the 40-minute ride in the snowcat being briefed on avalanche protocol by our guides.
We used my binoculars and observed evidence of avalanches that had occurred naturally. They were up higher in the most heavily wind-loaded areas. The guides dug multiple pits and we discussed the findings. We started on a south-facing aspect and got some fun turns for a couple of runs. On our third run we went to north-facing slopes. We decided against skiing some terrain that looked wind-loaded and started on a run the guides had skied recently.
Our lead guide pointed out where we should ski and the safe zone where we should regroup. Communication was clear. Each skier dropped in, skied a few turns, then traversed to where the safe zone was. Four or five people dropped in before me.
I dropped in and skied just left of everyone else's tracks. It wasn't like I went rogue, but I later learned that I went a tad farther left than our lead guide had intended us to. On the fourth or fifth turn, the slope cracked like a spider web and made this sharp, audible noise. I felt the shift instantaneously, this freeing of energy. There was this extreme tension in the slope, and it just broke.
I thought I could ski out of it. I tried to escape to the left but I realized the slide had propagated. I almost got away, but these two chunks of snow that were the size of a dorm room fridge swept my feet down. I had no choice but to point my skis downhill. My lower body quickly became glued.
I never thought about dying. Not even for a moment. I thought, 'How deep am I? Am I two feet deep? Four feet? I immediately pushed that aside. Focus on what you can control.
I start picking up speed. I realize I'm officially in the avalanche, not going to escape it. I tried to use my arms to stay afloat and keep my head upward, but when the hill rolled over, I started tumbling. I couldn't see much. It was all white. It was like getting clobbered by a big wave.
I've tumbled down a lot of mountains before. I've had the opportunity to practice what works and what doesn't. What works is be relaxed, be a noodle. Do nothing. I wondered if I would take a hit, a traumatic slam.
Things started slowing down. At this point, my arms and legs were stuck in the snow. My head was still up and I thought to myself, 'If there's another wave of this avalanche, I'm going to get buried.' I breathed.
The next wave came right away. It pushed my head down like an ostrich at the beach. It tilted my whole body into this contorted position. But I'm still in don't-fight-it mode. I didn't try to resist. But now I'm buried 100 percent. Everything was cementing around me.
I could see bits of light outlining the snow chunks while I tried to smash my head back and forth to create an air pocket. But that quickly became futile. Then it went dark. The last thing I heard was snow moving above me, like the sound of wind blowing snow around. Then nothing. Silence. Zero visibility. I was alone with my thoughts.
I never thought about dying. Not even for a moment. I thought, 'How deep am I? Am I two feet deep? Four feet? I immediately pushed that aside. Focus on what you can control. Slow down the breathing. You got this, JT. It was full pep talk mode.
I thought about Tim Dutton's animated face and voice. We used to practice with our shovels and beacons in the Squaw Valley parking lot. I remembered him looking at me one time and saying, 'If you're ever under there, don't you worry, buddy, because I am coming." And I kept thinking, 'They're coming for me.'
Then I blacked out. I'll never know for sure, but in looking at GoPro footage, I figure the time I spent fully buried was in the six-minute range. My rescuers could not have been any faster. I owe them my life.
The next thing I remember is the faces of the guides and my friends. I was in a state where I couldn't compute my surroundings. Slowly, I started to be able to answer questions. I was moaning, saying I was freaked out. I was apologizing. I was swearing. I was saying, 'I think I'm OK.' I was dizzy. My eyes felt it was very bright, like when you come out of a dark movie theater into the daylight. I just wanted to get the hell out of there. Eventually, I stood up, realized I had pissed myself, then clicked into my skis and skied to the snow cat.
That night, I didn't want to be around anybody. I sat in the dark by myself and watched the wind blow after the sun had set. It wasn't a horrible thing to do. I was exhausted. I was a bit intimidated of going to sleep, scared of that unconsciousness.
I've had a hard time looking at a snow bank without thinking about what it would be like to be contorted inside of it.
Obviously something didn't go right, but I've had plenty of close calls in my life and looked back and thought, 'What was I thinking?' I don't have that feeling here. In this case, I look back at this whole incident and I don't see a cardinal rule that was broken. No red flag that we ignored.
I've been through a lot of periods in my life where something bad happened, a death or accident. I've dealt with PTSD. For me it is this overwhelming sense of feeling deflated. But I know the key things that help, basics like eating well, sleeping well, exercise. That, plus getting back on my skis and feeling the wind in my face has me on the mend mentally, but I may not be out of the woods yet.
This was different than other close calls. This was being me physiologically close to death rather than physically close to it. I had my last thoughts. They were pleasant, positive, calm.