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On Duty With Dynamite Girl
It is shortly before 6:00 a.m., and you are sitting in the Park City Summit Patrol hut, waiting for Jackie, the Dynamite Girl.
All you've been told is, you won't forget her, which is really no help, you think, given the skiers crossing the hut are wearing bulky red and black Patrol outfits, gear festooned all over those outfits, rope, carabiners, first-aid tape, Pieps, shovels, and, on their backs, packs stuffed with yet more gear to near bursting. You settle in on the bench against the wall, angling your recently blown-out ski boots -- which, already, have begun to torment your feet again -- toward the fireplace, warming them.
Here at Summit the hut is the size of a lodge, really, and is a swarm of morning activity. There's been a heavy snowfall, over three feet, a stiff wind from the south, and, being an unseasonably warm January, the temperature over the week has risen above and fallen below freezing umpteen times, creating sheets of snow in varying layers of density and composition. It has even rained briefly.
Perfect conditions for avalanches.
"You my Dynamite Donkey?" a tall, blond woman says, strutting in your direction, her face the kind you see in television ads, those making even lawn chairs or white bread seem sexy.
"Jackie?" you ask, not getting what she's just said, having been...distracted. Dynamite Donkey?
"Are you my shadow?" she says, in a cutting voice, as though you might be a little deaf, or, perhaps of diminished mental capacity (which is presently true), and something clicks in your head: Right, you're here to shadow an expert on an avalanche route after your Blaster's Clinic. You're glad now that even though you only got four hours of sleep, you stayed up to read the Patrol text on avalanche rescues, all that swimming to the frontal lobes of your brain, which you haven't been using for the last good ten seconds, watching --
"Jackovitch," she says, "but call me Jackie," you standing to shake her hand, thinking, Oh, I get it, but she's already moving away from you, and you follow her, admiring, from the back, that leonine strut of hers.
What a...character, you're thinking. And you're not wrong about that, either.
"This is the part I like," Jackie says, in the basement of the hut, a pile of gear at your feet.
"What part is that?"
"Getting out there with the explosives."
You've had to go through about a gazillion safety measures to be on for this gig (including a full FBI security check), and now Jackie is rigging a pack around your back, in it eight, two-pound pentolite charges, each equivalent to a stick of dynamite.
You feel bloated, all that firepower sitting right over your kidneys -- even a little anxious. Could all of that explosive...kind of...just...go off somehow? (And what would you look like if it did?)
"Can't be short," she says, lifting four more charges. She gets three of them in the pack -- twenty-two pounds now of explosive, on top of everything that's already jammed in there -- hefting the last charge in her hand.
"Well?" you say.
"I like throwing these things," she tells you, something suggestive and warning in it, her eyes lighting up. Teasing.
She motions for you to turn again, and while she's getting that last charge in your pack, you don't feel so much like a donkey, but a camel -- the proverbial one broken by that last straw.
Jackie starts hanging and clipping yet more things on you. First, a belt with a plastic gadget the size of a fist on it, your avalanche beacon, state of the art and the new frequency, 457 kHz, the international standard.
"Never use recharged batteries on a beacon," Jackie tells you. Why, you ask.
"They'll test fine and then they'll drop dead on the mountain." Jackie takes a step back from you. "What's wrong with it?"
You crane your head down to check out the belt, which is clipped roughly over your navel. "Wrong with what?"
Jackie sighs, gives you a sharp rap alongside the head, as if this is her idea of some joke.
"Knot the belt, so if you get involved, your beacon won't get torn off." She gives you a level look. Involved? "One guy got dug out," she said, "was under for almost thirty minutes. The snowpack pressed so hard on him, when he peed later, it was like root beer. Pressure forced protein from his bloodstream into his kidneys and bladder."
Jackie now hangs a short-handled shovel to your pack and bungies it in place. The aluminum blade upright, "so the metal won't interfere with the beacon's signal, if you're caught and tumbled under." Then avalanche probes, like tent poles, for finding victims. A snow saw. A forty-foot length of nylon rope. And last, she hands you a "crystal card" on a lanyard, which she tells you to hang from your neck. The "card" is really a thick, clear-plastic device with gadgets in it for measuring snow crystal size and types, and for gauging slope angles.
She winks at you, says, "Enough gear there?"
You flex your knees, give yourself a little shake. Were you just to, say, try this stuff on and stand in a nice, clean, temperaturecontrolled environment like this one, why, it would still feel ungainly, because...
You're also carrying, in addition to the twenty-four pounds of explosive, a two-way radio on a chest harness; carabiners, spring- locking and screw-locking, which hang from your beacon belt; in your fanny pack, you've got first-aid tape, gauze, triangular bandages, six blood stoppers, glucose, a multifunction pliers/cutter, latex gloves, an extra pair of leather gloves for rough work, and plastic airways in three sizes. From your neck are hanging, with the crystal card, your quick reference cards, Park City Helicopter landing sites, a Glasgow Coma Score, vital signs ranges, radio codes, and a quick assessment card.
And add to that what you're wearing, from inside to outside, bottom to top: a pair of wicking Cascade socks; a Duofold union suit (wicking and two-layered, cotton against the skin, wool off, and in one piece so snow will never get down your backside and onto bare skin); Mountain Hardwear ski pants made of doublestrength Gore-Tex; a wicking Cascade turtleneck shirt, a wool U.S. Olympic Team sweater you got from a friend nearly thirty years ago (which is a talisman for good luck), a Mountain Hardwear vest, and a Mountain Hardwear double-lined ski jacket. And strapped over that, over your shoulders, is your sixteen-pocket Olympic three-quarters pack. Cocooning your hands are Cascade double-lined gloves.
On your head is the (required) Park City Patrol hat (wicking wool), and over that a pair of battery-powered, fan-driven Smith goggles (antifogging).
On your feet are Tecnica Diablos -- racing boots that, off skis, are so rigid even with the upper cuffs unbuckled, that they make you walk like Frankenstein's monster. You are tempted to do that now, as Jackie, of the oiled hips, marches out the hut door with her mountaineering skis to the waiting snowcats.
Avalanche control workers, almost without exception, use skis, Alpine or mountaineering, as they need to climb and maneuver in their gear, something not possible on snowboards, given the rider's feet are fixed to a single surface.
RRRRR. RRRRRR, you growl behind Jackie, lifting your arms like some sleepwalker, or like Boris Karloff, laughing to yourself. (You've been a cutup all your life, this gag track running through your life, unstoppable -- a good portion of the time -- and you just have to live with it.)
Outside, though, you do stop all that.
"Oh, baby," you say, in it a kind of total dread, but with it...excitement.
And it has nothing to do with Jackie. "Come on," she says and, with an eagerness beyond explanation, you follow her out into the blizzard, to stand a block from the hut, taking it in.
A damn near, bona fide whiteout.
The mountains, in all that snow, are phantasmagorical blue-black and white teeth.
Standing just behind Jackie, the snow burning your face, you hear a sound in the distance not unlike what someone would make leaping face down onto a feather bed. A whoooomphf!
(And that's where that dreading part of you wants to be: back in bed, the sun not even up yet.)
"Avalanche, and no skier trigger," Jackie says, grinning. "It's gonna be a big day."
A big day?
And this is just for starters, recognizing the danger inherent in avalanche conditions.
Realize that avalanches in the United States alone kill on the average twenty-eight people a year. In the 2002-2003 season, in the United States, avalanches killed fifty-eight people: five climbers; twenty-five backcountry skiers; four snowboarders; twenty-three snowmobilers; and one hiker. Figures such as these, though, become even more significant when one works in a continental or transitional climate, such as that in Idaho, Colorado, or Utah, where most fatal avalanches occur.
Here they become a real and present danger that must be dealt with.
In Utah, in 2005, for example, eight people were killed in avalanches, among them, in the Salt Lake City area, twenty-three-year-old Zachary Eastman, thirty-seven-year-old Melvin Denis, and the snowboarder your life will become indelibly connected to on this avalanche training day, twenty-seven-year-old Shane Maixner, caught in an avalanche at the Canyons.
It was feared, initially, that as many as fifteen skiers and snowboarders were caught in the Canyons avalanche, the most deadly kind, a "slab avalanche," where a sheet breaks off from the slope underneath and hurls down the slope, in seconds the "slab" reaching speeds of 60 to 80 miles per hour, and sometimes, where not impeded, speeds as high as 120 miles per hour.
If you are standing off to the side of such an avalanche, the very compressed air generated from it can knock you off your feet.
When the snowpack collapses, again with that characteristic whoooomphf!, Jackie warns, "You hear and feel that under you out on some steep slope, you check your shorts and get ready for a fast ride to the bottom."
"So, how do we not do that -- ride to the bottom?" "Read the slope."
"But we're out here, patrolling, in the middle of it."
Strutting to the first waiting cat, its headlights cutting cones of boiling white in the falling snow, Jackie glances back at you over her shoulder.
"In conditions like this," she tells you, "the wise only travel for the rescue of fools."
And with that said, you get into the cat.
Which you sit in the back of, engine roaring, the cat pitching from side to side, the driver dropping off the AC team members at their assignment sites. Finally, it's just you and Jackie, and the cat is climbing from Peak, up the saddle to Pinecone.
You've got minutes here before you're back out in the driving snow, where you might be (a) shitting in your shorts and being carried at sixty miles per hour down a mountainside in a slab slide, or (b) screwing up the lighting of the dynamite -- no, pentolite -- thereby blowing yourself up instead, or yet (c) having an exciting time and remaining safe, at least in part.
You opt for the latter, so you ask...
"What's the first thing I should know? I mean, beyond all that I had to read. What can you tell me?"
Jackie considers this. Every second the cat climbs you are closer to stepping out onto the most avalanche-prone slope at Park City. It is so avalanche prone that it is only open for weeks of the year.
"When it comes to judging slope stability, the rule of thumb is...there are no rules of thumb," Jackie tells you.
When you don't answer, she adds, "A disaster is triggered by someone's assumption that a slope is stable."
"So," you say, "I shouldn't trust the guidelines in Ed's book."
You've read The ABCs of Avalanche Safety, by Utah's longtime expert on avalanches, Ed LaChapelle, among other texts.
"When crossing an avalanche slope, he who hesitates is lost," she says, and laughs, the cat grinding to a halt.
Jackie's out first. Climbing from the cat after her, with that enormous, explosive-festooned pack on your back, you are put in mind of parachuting. Out you go, toward Pinecone Ridge, into that near whiteout. The cat, the second you are out, turns, and in seconds is swallowed up in the heavily falling snow.
Jackie is already moving away from you in the direction opposite the cat, cutting a high line across Pinecone, dragging behind her what appear to be three children's toboggans. But they can't be, can they?
Following her, your skis, mid-fats, barely keep you on the surface,
Jackie stops, and in all that falling snow, you very nearly bump into her. Nearly stumble on those damn toboggans. She holds your eyes in that near dark and snow, so close you can feel her warm breath on your face.
"Carry a probe as you would have others carry a probe for you, got it?"
"Right," you say.
"I know I can do right for you, but can you do right for me if it goes to shit?"
"Show me," you tell her.
"That's the right answer for a first timer," she shoots back, and pats you on the shoulder. "Just don't fuck up, all right?"
What Avalanches Are
Reading conditions for avalanches is a science, but even then, avalanche behavior is unpredictable. Yearly, around a million avalanches occur worldwide. They're just a way for the snow on steep slopes to adjust to gravity. Most of these avalanches are in and of themselves no great danger. Avalanches such as loose snow avalanches, sometimes called "sluffs," which occur at the surface in new snow or wet spring snow, seldom accumulate enough bulk to do more than push a skier over; ice fall avalanches, which occur when a glacier encounters a steep drop and a portion of the glacier breaks off or "calfs," don't usually involve hikers or skiers; roof avalanches can be eliminated by shoveling snow from roofs; and cornice fall avalanches, which occur when cornices break loose from the lee side of a mountain ridge, can be avoided by staying back from the peak of such ridges. All of these can be dealt with in relative safety.
But it is the slab avalanche -- think of a dinner plate perched on a mountainside -- that is the killer. And, even more important is this to consider: of all slab avalanches that kill, over 95 percent are set off by the victim, or a member of the victim's skiing or touring party -- which makes the study of snow imperative for people working in avalanche country.
But snow is simple enough. Cut down through an accumulation of it, and it's just that old white stuff all the way down, right?
Snow is a complex, growing, changing, morphing potential killer.
Yes, in a slab avalanche a mass of snow, or snowpack, is released as a unit. But in a continental or transitional block, as found at most resorts, this dry snow is the most complex substance found in nature. Never the same from the time it falls from the clouds to the time it melts, this snowpack is in a perpetual state of flux. It creeps and glides down slopes, grows stronger or weaker over vast areas, and comes to adhere more firmly to mountainsides or hang tenuously -- requiring only the slightest trigger to set tons of it free.
A trigger such as yourself, a skier.
And, consider, snow is the only environment on earth that life has been unable to find a home in. Nothing lives primarily in snow.
Yet snow is, in this way, a living thing in and of itself.
All of these snowpack characteristics are running through your head now, hiking up Pinecone Ridge, half blinded by the snow, which is freezing/burning the exposed portion of your face. And Jackie, you've been assured, will teach you more.
"Hey!" you call up to Jackie, who is methodically leading the way, her back to you. "Gimme a second here!"
At the top of Pinecone Ridge you are at ten thousand feet.
Given the size of the mountain, the altitude, the cloth ice mask you've donned, and the goggles you've got on over it, the hood over all that, your hands encased in double-thickness gloves, your jacket, vest, undergear, and all the gear on your back, and these GD Diablos you're skiing/traversing the slope in (the boots rigid and your feet so encased in them that you can barely feel your feet), you could be some NASA astronaut on a mission to another planet -- that's how otherworldly this mountain ridge feels now.
And where it was around freezing down in Park City, here it is -- according to your watch, which records not just time, but temperature -- eight degrees Fahrenheit, which only adds to that otherworldliness you feel.
The air is so cold, so rarefied, you feel that if you were to leap from the ridge, you would fall thousands of feet.
Holding Jackie up a moment longer, looking around you in awe, you realize this is a strange kind of extreme pleasure, being here, the kind that writes itself on your mind and on your body.
It occurs to you, just now, that you love this place, but hope it doesn't reward that love by killing you, this ridge you are climbing, Pinecone, its face a carnival of snow arabesques, snow-laden pines, ledges, chutes, and at the very top now, since the snow came in from the north, a heavy cornice of snow, rolling the length of the ridge like a windblown wave in arrested motion.
You take note of the snow in the pine boughs, so, not settled elsewhere, either. Never travel in avalanche country immediately after a big snow -- unless you must. And here, this morning, are all the dangers: Gradient. Formation of squared snow crystals (loose snow under a crust). Radical temperature drop. Earlier heavy snow. A heavier snow over that.
You stop seeing the beauty in the slope in front of you and begin to tally up the signs of avalanche danger.
You see that danger in the accumulated snow on the face's convexities; in the crack in the snow down the face of the slope (is that a stress fracture, or the result of a glide when it was warmer?). Your mind is racing, calculating, trying to get a hold on things.
At midnight, it was thirty-six degrees.
"Ah, whatever," Jackie says, beaming at you.
You're amazed that you can even be aware, out here, that Jackie is attractive. It seems absurd, like some irritating remnant from a life you lived eons ago. So, it's just there, like the painful burning of your neuromas in your Diablos.
"'What do you mean, 'Whatever'?"
She tosses her shovel at you. "Dig," she says, and you are put in mind of The Sopranos.
You are going to get across the entire ridge, then return up it. On a good day, without all the gear on your back, and with some mountaineering skis with skins on them, it would take you an hour or more. And now you are sweating, which will be bad if you stop moving.
"Snow pit," Jackie says. "Seeing is believing."
Okay, you tell her. And you dig. (An AC worker digs a snowpit to reveal aspects of snowpack structure that are not visible from the surface.)
You don't ask her why six feet, it was just that you were hoping that she might just want say three or four, which would be easier. No, you don't go below six feet, because at that depth a skier's and a snowmobile's weight effect is essentially the same: zero effect. The snow, from the surface downward, so distributes the weight that at six feet the impact is negligible. And slabs triggered by humans are rarely thicker than six feet.
You, though, would be the first to set off a ten-footer, and this morning if you're not careful, so you take digging a snow pit seriously, and when you toss the last shovelful to your right, you and Jackie look at what you have.
"Here," Jackie says, and she cuts blocks out from the mountain side of the pit. The top layer of snow, this last night's layer, slides off the lower layer easily, which Jackie shakes her head at.
"Well, that sucks," she says, an odd cheer in her voice.
The whole snow face in front of you, this new three feet of snow, is perched on a snow crust caused by rain, which froze so quickly that the new snow after the rain didn't entirely bond with the icy snow under it.
And the next few layers down are various strengths, too, as evidenced by how easily, or not easily, they can be crushed with the backside of the shovel, or slid free of each other -- even six feet under.
"So," you ask, "what do we do?"
"Dynamite," Jackie says, grinning, "and lots of it."
Where? you ask. I mean, you're standing on a mountain.
She points to the most distant and steep aspect of the ridge. Not far from where you can see signs from the avalanche you heard at the hut. "Right at that curler, see it?" she says, and then adds, pointing lower, "We can cross there. The sign is all good, can you read it?"
"Not in a way I'd trust it."
"Good," she tells you, and after you have bungeed the shovel to her pack again, she angles across the slope in front of you, dragging those toboggans.
"And anyway, she says, "if the slope were unstable here, it would avalanche behind us, not under us."
This, you think, is less than reassuring. Like being told, at a sushi bar, that the blowfish you are eating is extra special today, as first chef come to work drunk, left blowfish out, and new blowfish brought right from Cessna flies from Seattle, so, no waiting! Prepared fast, fast, fast! Extra fresh!
Out on the slope, pins of electricity running the length of your spine, you absorb what Jackie can tell you about avalanche sign, imagining, every moment, that whuuuump! of the very ground breaking out from under you, that horrified moment. Falling, forever, crushed in snow. Trying to breathe and --
"Stay on the high line," Jackie says.
Crossing here, Jackie tells you, is not roulette. Oh, there's risk, sure, but right here it's minimal.
Compared to what? you ask yourself.
For one thing, the slope is only thirty-five degrees, Jackie points out. You check it with your crystal card. Sure enough.
Snow, since it is a granular substance, behaves like sand, you know. Sand, if you have ever noticed it in an hourglass, or played with it as a child, pouring it into piles on a beach, will not form in steep-sided masses. This is because the steepest surface angle a granular substance can maintain without collapsing due to the pull of gravity is thirty-eight degrees, this angle is called the angle of repose.
Snow, though, is not really a granular substance, especially in the case of snowpack composed of stellar crystals, which interlock.
So avalanches start in the range of twenty-five to fifty-five degrees, though most occur in the thirty-five to forty-five degree range.
(If you were thinking fifty-five degrees is not a steep slope, consider this: if you were to try skiing down such a slope, your uphill ski in any turn would be so close to the snow face that it would tear at your uphill boot's buckles. A fifty-five-degree slope is a wicked steep slope, a Double Black Diamond for experts -- extreme skiers and nuts -- only.)
So why is this thirty-five-degree slope you are on mostly safe?
First, the cornice begins a good distance ahead, even though you are on the leeward side of the mountain here. What wind pillows (compacted mounds of snow) have formed, have also formed down from the cornice. And you don't have to worry about a wet snow avalanche, which can be triggered on mild slopes -- it is far too cold, and anyway there are signs of relative stability everywhere.
You didn't see them, though. But with Jackie pointing them out, you gain confidence.
For example, the specific areas on the ridge where avalanches have happened in the past, where there are obvious runouts, are below you and to the east. This you can tell by the willows and alders growing through the snow there, which are a sign of regular avalanche activity -- yearly activity. You stand now, though, observing all this, in a broad growth of young aspen, which indicate slides do occur where you're standing, but only once every ten to fifteen years. However, the evergreens above the aspen you're in indicate that slides higher on this west end of the ridge occur only every fifty years or so -- if even that. (When traversing what seem to be stable, low slopes, skiers have to consider that higher-elevation avalanches can be triggered from below, as well from above. So the evergreens above you now are a very good sign.)
And the ridgeline Jackie is using to get near the cornice is moderately concave, not convex, so it will support more snow.
Here, even the smaller pines in your path are not flagged as those are a distance ahead. Flagging is caused by snow slabs tearing off branches on the uphill side of evergreens.
Also, where scrub oak pokes through the pack, snow cones have formed, a sign of the snow settling. Which means more stability.
And, too, the slope is south facing, which promotes rounding of snow crystals and as a result strengthening in any snowpack; here the degree of slope under your feet now and ahead, while steep, never severely so, most southern slopes being "mild." North-facing slopes, on the other hand, are typically extremely steep, having been carved by glaciers, instead of being created by ridge lift and erosion, and these north-facing, more-shaded slopes, will also tend to cover anchors.
Of which there are many on this slope you're on now -- rock outcroppings, the trees, and the pines that you are climbing (with some degree of relief) into.
Especially given the altitude you are at, which ultimately leads to the growth of continental pack with largely faceted crystal growth, or weakening -- which is what you're seeing ahead of you, and what will be your job this morning.
Bringing that fragile, steeper slope snow down.
Jackie has stopped. In the now lightly falling snow, she's pouring herself a coffee from a slender thermos.
"Coffee?" you say, incredulous.
"No, it's whiskey," she says. She downs what is in it, smiling, then refills the cap and holds it out to you. "Ethiopian, with some decaf French roast thrown in for body."
She watches you drink.
"I give this back, you might get hoof and mouth," you tease. Jackie only raises an eyebrow. "You?" she says.
It might be the best coffee you've ever had in your life. Or is it drinking it with Jackie on this ridge that makes it so?
The coffee is complex, dark, and very sweet. It is nearly syrup, but this, the sugar in it, you know is just to help you charge up the much steeper slope back of that massive cornice.
It'll be a bitch, but you've warmed to it. Your heart's running like an old Dodge Power Wagon slant 6. It ain't Lance Armstrong's
heart, but it'll take you right up the side of this bugger, and up Everest, if you were crazy enough to climb it. (Which, out here, in this weather, you wonder if you might like to try. It's only the money that saves you from seriously considering it. Which you do anyway, as there is this peculiar joy percolating in your blood again, out like this, and your resistance to it -- high, remote, and dangerous -- temporarily anyway, evaporated. You love it out here.)
You toss Jackie the cap, she expertly catches it in her gloved hands.
"Why don't you lead now," she says.
Fortified, you head up. Climbing, you have this inane music running in your head, like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, waking every morning to "I Got You Babe," only here it is AC/DC's "Highway to Hell," a song you never liked, you climbing mindlessly, using rock handholds, until Jackie says, behind you, in a very even and threatening voice, "What's a terrain trap?"
Which freezes you where you stand, slightly crouched over, and this buzzing hush in your head.
You glance down at your feet, which, in those Frankenstein- boot-like Diablos are pitched steeply upward. Did you fuck up somehow? You were simply getting into the additional incline, in the way you do when you run, which you've been doing for over twenty-five years. It's so automatic you didn't even think about it, the way you'd changed your balance and drew your arms into your sides for more power, but here you are standing on something that looks not unlike a crazed branch in the snowpack, on a hillock on a steep slope.
You are standing, you realize, on the downside of a bulge, or convexity, part of a larger mass of snow, leading uphill and above you to a very large, menacing lee-side snow pillow.
Jackie, you realize with shame, has directed you right into it.
And, she has stopped you here. Just short.
Before you wandered out onto what you know is, from your required reading, a sweet spot.
"Don't ever, ever trust someone in your group to send you out onto something, to see for you. Keep your eyes open, read all the terrain. Don't be a space case."
Your shame is so intense that for the moment, even as pumped as you are from climbing, you break out in a cold sweat.
"What are you seeing here?" Jackie asks.
You tell her, and add, in addition to the convexity and the snow pillows, there's brush down and to the east of you, just three hundred or so feet, willow -- so, this is a common avalanche area. You crossed from a safe area into a dangerous one, without so much as noticing.
"No, down at the hut! What did you think I meant?"
"There's a gully just ahead."
"Even though we're on the lee side, the snow up there looks like it's wind packed."
"It is. And?"
You don't see anything else.
"Kick your boot into the snow."
You do, and the snow breaks up, on the top, a two-inch crust, under it sugar snow. And an elk has come down the ridge, no doubt to chew the bark off the willows ahead and below you.
"Elk sign," you say. Where there are elk, there're willow. And avalanche danger.
"Chocolate chips on vanilla icing, right?"
"Now you're talkin'," Jackie says, though she has doffed her pack and is digging through it.
"Need help there?" you ask.
No, she tells you, she doesn't need your help, nor can you help her. You are not qualified, as her shadow, to make the radio calls. But you can watch, which you do. Jackie, her gear around her, thumbs the talk button.
It is still bitter cold out, and when she speaks into the radio, her breath comes out in a plume.
"Four eighty to Summit. Ten ninety-seven Pinecone Ridge. Early avalanche sign on Constellation, Half Moon, and Sam's Knob. I'm placing charges at Sam's Knob now."
The radio crackles.
"Ten four. We have you at Sam's Knob. Hold."
"That's ten four. HOLD. You have a snowmobile coming up Thayne's Canyon."
"Four eighty clear."
Jackie takes her thermos from her pack again, has a cup, refills it, and passes it to you. Sweet, bitter, hot.
"God, it's beautiful out here, isn't it?" she says.
You agree. Beautiful doesn't do this place justice. In the quiet, it is awesome out here; you are only a visitor, and a brief one at that. The cosmic proportion, in mountains like the Wasatch, is humbling.
Time yawns wide. Jackie passes you another cup of coffee.
"So, Jackie," you ask, enjoying this moment, this reprieve. "What do you do in your other life?"
Jackie glances over at you. "Guess."
And when you shake your head -- you have no idea -- she tells you.
"I got into wrestling after my divorce," Jackie tells you. "I needed some kind of outlet, you know, for what I was feeling, and -- "
"I'm a professional wrestler."
This piques your interest. It's one of those gold-star days, you think, as well as, So that's where that strut comes from! Not only are you sitting on the ridge of one of the most avalanche-prone slopes in the continental United States, you're talking to a lady pro wrestler -- who just happens to like throwing dynamite. Neat.
"No, really," you say, a second later, disappointed. And a bit surprised at yourself; you were slow at getting the joke.
"You mean, where they jump off the ropes and do slam takedowns and all that? Like in the WWF?"
"It isn't the WWF anymore."
Jackie grins. You feel this happiness, the kind you feel when you meet people living out of the box. The way you felt meeting Jean-Claude Killy and his then pal Andre Arnold in Sun Valley. The way you felt meeting Clint Eastwood, Slim Pickens, and David Soul making a movie, Swan Song, on Bald Mountain, a lifetime ago. The way you felt meeting Dag Aabye, up at Silver Star in British Columbia, Dag the first of a generation of extreme skiers, still crazy as ever.
And it occurs to you what is so attractive about this woman, Jackie: she's bursting with this...untamed life. This wry, but engaged, sense of adventure in her.
"You fly around and all that?" you ask.
Jackie fills the coffee cup and you sip at it.
"I want all the gritty details."
"Really?" she says.
You motion with your hands toward Thayne's Canyon, where the snowmobile will appear.
You have time.
It had been Jackie's father who saw the ad, tacked up in a grocery store in Orem, just south of Salt Lake City: GATOR'S PRO WRESTLING SCHOOL "TRAIN IN A REAL WRESTLING RING" CALL TOLL-FREE 1-877-657-7029 FOR MORE INFO.
Jackie called. Gator's Professional Wrestling school, it turned out, was run by a Steve Ketcher, of Florida, who was a full-blood Cherokee Indian. His Cherokee name, Joustwiteet, means "Gator Wolf." Hence his World Wrestling Federation name, Gatorwolf. As Gatorwolf, Ketcher'd had stellar success, wrestling among the likes of Hulk Hogan and Ultimate Warrior, in the tradition of WWF Indian wrestlers.
Ketcher, three hundred pounds, moved quickly for his size and used moves he claimed he'd learned from his grandfather -- particularly the Cherokee Deathlock. And for pupils of his school, he had connections.
His school wasn't cheap: $2,000 would buy you ninety days of instruction, which covered all the basic moves, videotaped workouts, advice on getting your boots and wrestling costume together, and "anything else needed to get you started in the Professional Wrestling Entertainment Business." Five hundred dollars would buy you ten lessons, $250, six basic workouts.
Jackie went for the whole deal. By that time, she was already co-owner, with her brother, of an auto shop.
Her dream was to "make it big" as a wrestler in two years.
Gatorwolf agreed; from the first, he saw Jackie as his gold mine, someone special, even though she was his wrestling school's only "girl." She began training in earnest. To prove how tough she was, intially, she had to launch herself from the high rope of the ring with her hands behind her back -- to smack face and chest flat on the mat, something that was not soft.
She got nosebleeds and was bruised so badly she'd wake mornings wondering if she could get herself out of bed.
Then the call came, only four weeks into her training. The American Wrestling Federation needed a "Baby Face" for an exhibition at March Air Force Base in Riverside, California. A "Baby Face" is a good guy in the "entertainment" of the sport, a "Heel" being the bad guy she would wrestle, this time a professional named Wildfire.
Jackie entered the ring as Sierra! Her promo eighty-by-ten glossy read, "I MAKE BOYS CRY."
Here was dark-haired villain (Wildfire) versus blond good guy (Sierra).
By then Sierra had her signature moves, the Sidewinder and the Hang 'em High. The Sidewinder was a "lucha" move, from Mexican wrestling, where the wrestler "throwing" the move comes off the ropes, jumps, and catches the opponent around the waist -- or neck -- then drops to the floor, taking the opponent with her. In the Hang 'em High, it is the opponent who is thrown into the ropes, the wrestler catching the opponent coming off the ropes by the hand and slinging the opponent over her shoulders, then dropping the opponent on her back.
Jackie also used sunset flips, body slams, and arm drags.
The crowd loved her. So much so that a promoter picked her up, booking fights for her in West Virginia, Ohio, North Carolina, and Kentucky, among others. By the time she was on avalanche control, she'd wrestled over a hundred matches, had suffered six concussions (which, she said, were not treated in wrestling the way the Mountain Patrol treated them: you simply got up and went back at it).
As she did.
"Wrestling is a very evil business," she said, "if you lower your standards."
There were, for example, the "Ring Rats," girls who gave favors for promotions and fights and who did porn.
Jackie wouldn't have it. She perfected more moves instead, like the flying scissors; learned how to chain wrestle; found out what a "Potato" was (pressing your opponent's hand when you were really knocked senseless and needed a minute to get back up to speed).
She met The Rock, Dwayne Johnson.
Got a personalized license plate for her car: jabroni. Which means, in professional wrestling, your partner.
Her career was taking off, like a rocket.
But at home, Jackie was suffering the impending death of her much-loved grandfather, who was terminally ill and needed help. Watching EMT workers revive him one evening, she was impressed, and decided to get an EMT certification herself, which she did, then moved her grandfather into her three-bedroom home in Spanish Fork, just south of Salt Lake City.
She was working long hours at her auto shop, and even longer hours at home, caring for her grandfather.
Sometimes Jackie's grandfather went into a coma, and Jackie worked on him herself, reviving him, more than a little of the pioneer spirit in her.
Then, at a job fair -- the wrestling matches came at such intervals that she flew out to them a few days a month -- she met the director of Mountain Patrol at Park City Mountain Resort. Jackie and he talked. About her wrestling and EMT work, her auto shop, her love of skiing.
Here, the director of PCMR Patrol decided, was someone who could handle dynamite. Smart, focused, sometimes fierce, but, in a person like this, also an unusual warmth -- the director of Mountain Patrol seeing in Jackie what Gatorwolf had: here was an altogether singular woman. (And she was more than nice to look at, not something you can say for most of the bearded roughneck characters who do AC work.)
Would she like to be on avalanche control?
Jackie agreed, and began training -- while still flying out to wrestling matches. Three years of it on crews, blasting, setting up "woodies" (a device for installing fuses on the explosives), learning the ABCs of avalanche work, before she was given her own routes.
Which she took on with an especial verve.
"And here I am!" she says, beaming at you, self-mocking, but friendly. "And it's the WWE, now," she tells you. "World Wrestling Entertainment."
You are surprised she's such a cream puff (in a way), that she has this so-sunny something about her.
You hear that characteristic whine of a snowmobile engine in the distance, and now see a headlight, the light jerking and swooping, the snowmobile going by in the canyon below you -- a thousand feet or so. The snowmobile roars up the length of the canyon to the east, then takes a cat track, climbing the canyon wall opposite you, up Single Jack to Summit.
The snowmobile's roar thins to a whine again and is gone.
Jackie thumbs her radio. "Four eighty to Summit. Ready to proceed at Sam's Knob."
"Ten twenty-three," the radio responds.
Jackie cocks her head, her hand on her hip. You wait what seems minutes, this vague sense of procedure happening elsewhere, like distant gears meshing.
"Summit to Four eighty," the radio crackles.
"You have an all clear. Proceed. Do you copy?"
"Four eighty to Summit. That's a go." "Ten four."
"Four eighty clear."
Jackie strides over to her bag, that strut in her again.
"Now we get to the good part," she says. And while she's digging through her gear, she tells you about the Principle of the Three Red Flags.
Which in effect states that most avalanche accidents are not the result of unavoidable, hit-by-a-meteor-coincidence, but are the predictable outcome of a series of related events. The best policy concerning avalanches being not to get into them in the first place.
Any three markers for danger, such as "shooting cracks," soft slab formation, or radical changes in temperature, since snowpack can't adjust to rapid change, constitute either a no-go for skiing or travel, or a green light for AC teams to trigger instabilities to make slopes safe. Especially for the extreme skiers who would be on such slopes. And there were the avalanche-country commandments: Always travel in avalanche paths one at a time on windward sides. Never enter the slope above your pard. Always have an escape route.
"And if you are caught on a slab," Jackie tells you, "one breaking away from the mountainside, try to ski off it at a forty-five-degree angle. If it breaks up, you have to swim to stay near the surface. Grab for trees, or anything that's stationary. If that doesn't work, before the snow hardens around you, create a breathing space."
"Right," you reply, even out in that vast space feeling suddenly suffocated. "Then what?"
Now Jackie really smiles -- it's a forty-thousand kilowatt smile. "Your pards dig you out -- or you die."
"Price of a ticket out here -- sometimes."
You glance up the ridge ahead of you, then out at the mountains you can just see through the falling snow.
"Watch out for hangfire snow."
Which is snow that didn't release on a first slide, an issue when you're a member of a rescue party -- you don't want to trigger a second slide, taking down a whole team. So you might have to put off a rescue, Jackie tells you.
"Put it off ?"
"If it's a possibility of five going down or one?" Jackie shrugs. "But don't worry, only the director of AC makes those kinds of calls."
"That puts me at ease."
"Yeah," Jackie says, pulling one of the kids' toboggans toward her. "And if you're on a team rescue, out on the site, don't so much as think to take a pee -- even if you've gotta go like a race horse."
"They'll be bringing in the rescue dogs, if they're not there already, and that'll throw off the scent. And no spitting tobacco, or pouring out coffee, or any of that. Nothing that'd throw off the dogs."
"What about the probes?" (You've got two in your pack, presently folded triple -- ten feet long when locked open. You've read all about coarse probing, working up the mountainside, and fine probing. Being careful and exact in their use is critical, looking for clues, like a glove, and working in "high-probability-catchment" areas, probing in a pattern, even using a specific stepping motion to create a grid, probing in front of both toes as well as in between.)
"If the vic isn't wearing a beacon, get ready for a long, miserable recovery."
"You mean rescue?"
"No, recovery -- it's usually popsicles then."
You pat your jacket to feel your beacon, though you know it is there, its hard little fist-shape reassuring you.
Beacon rescues, you know, do work -- as you saw during your training at mountain survival camp. There, your trainers buried a -- nonclaustrophobic -- guy with the unfortunate last name of Paine under three feet of snow. Your team had to, in under fifteen minutes, locate and dig him out, on a slope two football fields wide and three long, on this slope a slide marked for your team by the trainers.
Basically, in a beacon search, you find the victim's signal, then narrow the search area and decide where to dig.
Easier said than done, of course.
In Phase One of a beacon search you identify the slide zone, out of those thousands of square feet of terrain. Then, traversing the slope, each member of your team spreads out, the distance between them less than two-thirds of the standard beacon range. Beacon searchers stop every ten meters and orient their beacons, trying to pick up the signal. You move as quickly as possible, in a corduroy pattern toward the bottom. In Phase Two, you start at the spot where the victim's signal is first detected. Here you orient your beacon for the loudest received signal. You turn your volume as low as possible (your receiver has audio, a whining sound) while still clearly hearing the signal. You traverse the hill perpendicular to the fall line, keeping the beacon orientation constant until you find a fade point. Now you traverse 180 degrees back across the hill and find the fade point in the opposite direction. The straight line across the slope between these two points is your first bracket. You go to the middle of this line you've created, and turn 90 degrees to it, and repeat this process, again searching for a fade point, thus creating a second bracket.
You'd like, by the time you find your second bracket, just to have it over. You are in a cold sweat and have used up ten minutes.
You, in a near frenzy, work within this square you have created.
Realize the trainers have left you no sign whatsoever. No glove. No disturbed snow. You have to, basically, find a pin in this quarter acre of snow.
Your victim under the snow is dying. (Not really, as Paine has done this before, but he is by no means comfortable, either -- and you don't want to appear incompetent.)
You and your three pards bracket like crazy, until -- you bloody well hope -- you've got your brackets down to a length of six feet.
You've hit your time limit, for location -- you, in Phase Three, now scrabbling on your hands and knees, holding your beacon inches from the snow and trying to pinpoint your victim's beacon, all sorts of rescue gear having slid to your side.
Now, though, something's interfering with your signal.
One of your pards runs to you, helps you get off your pack and aluminum shovel, which is the culprit.
Thirteen minutes and counting.
You bracket again, down to three feet, and your pards rush in with their probes.
Bracket length is two times the burial depth now. One of your pards tosses you a probe.
"Sixty seconds!" a trainer calls, and you have it, your victim's location, and in a total but careful frenzy you dig, yanking a very relieved Mr. Paine from his would-be snowy grave.
"Time!" shouts the trainer, your rescue a success.
But even given that, you know your training exercise and its happy result are far from guaranteed in the real world. Where you are now on this ridge, if you were to be caught in a slide, there would only be Jackie here for you, or you for her, until others could rush to the scene.
Minutes, in this kind of environment, you realize, become very dear. Every second counts.
It makes you a little breathless.
"So, any of you AC guys ever get caught in a slide?" you ask, Jackie wrestling with one of those kids' sleds.
You are expecting to hear, Nope, we're too careful. But what she says, over the hush of the falling snow is, "Yup. That guy Cal? Bearded guy?"
"He wrapped himself around a tree, got through it that way. Only broke a few of his ribs. Pretty good, considering."
"I suppose so," you tell her, then add, "What are you doing over there?"
"An air blast is more effective than having the pentolite go right into the snow, see, since the snow cushions it. So we put the charges on the toboggans and lower them down. Beats howitzers every time."
At many resorts, firing shells into avalanche areas is the preferred method. Jackie glances up from what she's doing, anticipating your line of thinking: So why not here?
"Having crews place the explosives is more accurate," she tells you. "And you don't have charges going over mountain ranges into people's backyards."
This was something you heard about, a howitzer crew in Provo Canyon doing AC work, firing an overcharged shell (it came loaded with seven, two of which should have been removed) over their target area, the shell clearing an entire ridge and landing in the backyard of a Pleasant Grove home, blowing out the windows of that home and others nearby, as well as damaging a car. The blast occurred just minutes before a school bus dropped students off in the neighborhood. The Utah DOT, responsible for the crew making the error, suspended howitzer use in Provo Canyon.
Jackie swings her arm around, your radiant pard.
"Come on over -- we're gettin' to the part where we get to blow things up."
Jackie has formed a makeshift workspace out of her pack and a sheet of red Gore-Tex.
Using the woodie, she forces two fuses into the backside of a pentolite charge (about the size of a can of Coke), then tosses you a roll of electrical tape.
"Get that going, will you?" she asks.
You ask what you're using the tape for. She stands, holding the pentolite charge against her hip, points up the ridge, where that large lee-side cornice now seems to loom over you. It is beautiful, a thing of nature, but it is the most unstable feature on the entire snow-covered ridge.
"Lucky us," Jackie says.
You ask why so.
"Big one like that needs a triple charge."
When you follow, she directs you to the charges, tells you how to tape the two-pounders together. Your hands shake. To your relief, she doesn't sneak up behind you and shout, "BOOM!" Yet your hands feel oddly distant, you having, as a boy, experimented with explosives with near-disastrous results.
"What do we get on these fuses?" you ask.
Jackie hands you a ziplock plastic bag, in it what appear to be eight or ten cardboard capped pens. That's right, cardboard capped pens. Which of course they are not, but then, what are they?
"Blasting cap pull wires," Jackie tells you. "Don't put them on those fuses now."
You give her a flat, bovine stare.
"All right, you didn't deserve that."
"What's the biggest charge you've seen?" you ask.
"That kinda shake the earth for you?"
"Wouldn't you like to know!" Jackie says, setting her hands on her hips.
Here, you remind yourself, is a woman you don't want to piss off.
"Next?" you say.
You attach the skins Jackie hands you to the bases of your skis, don all of your gear, and, like that, feeling yet again like Frankenstein's monster, head out toward the cornice, your heart ticking over like it's got molasses pumping through it.
Jackie stops on a high, natural formation of stone, just back of and under the cornice, trees here -- pines, you're happy to see.
"Pull wires," she tells you, and you hand her two.
She squats over the small toboggan, attaching the pull wires to the pentolite charges you've taped together and bound to the toboggan.
She stands, then reaches into her jacket, thumbing the talk button on her radio.
"Four eighty to AC."
"AC," her radio crackles.
"We're ten seventeen on Pinecone."
Jackie grasps the nylon rope she's tied to the toboggan, two coils at her feet, and glancing over her shoulder at you, says, "I'll let you do the honors."
She thumbs her radio again.
"FIRE IN THE HOLE!"
There's some kind of radio affirmation, which you barely make out through the static and high-pitched hum in your head. Jackie gives you that look. This time, probably, you do deserve it. The fuses are side by side, and, holding the fuses tightly in your left hand -- as if they might electrocute you -- you pull the caps back with your right and...
They're burning. Jackie lowers the toboggan with the pentolite charges on it with the rope, the rope whirring roughly through her hands, the toboggan coming to rest right beneath the cornice.
What seems an eternity, but is only seconds, passes. Then, under your feet, the ground gives a shake, this shock wave coming through the ground first, a sound following it so loud it literally thumps you in the chest, hits you like a fist, the whole wall of snow ahead of you falling, and with it comes this roaring that you don't just hear, it is in everything, the very air, blurring your vision.
There is something awesome about the fall of millions of tons of snow, you standing just a hundred yards back of it. The fall goes on for what seems forever, the ground thrumming under your feet, this a big fall, but when it is over, less than a minute has passed.
Astounding. But more so is this:
"Okay," you say, in a voice seemingly tiny in the vacuum left by the avalanche, your ears ringing. "Now what?"
"We get to ski the slope. Since it's safe."
"Ski the slope?"
She points to the area the slide has cleared.
"There?" you ask.
"Yes, there," Jackie replies.
You strip the skins from your skis. You are so revved up you can't feel the pack or gear on you.
"Ladies first," you tell her.
"I'll let you do the honors."
You wonder, for just a second, if you are doing something so stupid that you will curse yourself for it shortly, in what might become the last few minutes of your life. But you won't be shown thin.
"Fuck it," you say. And leap from the rock face onto what you couldn't have imagined -- sugar snow.
Snow like heavy water.
Like...nothing you've ever skied, anywhere, or will ever again. Heavenly, just you and Jackie here, in the whole world, cutting zippers down the entire uninterrupted, terrifying, and blissful length of it.
An hour later, further up Pinecone Ridge where AC snowmobiles have dropped you off, you repeat the process. But now, already, you are becoming a seasoned hand.
You know the ritual.
You love the CRUMP! of the explosions. Handling the gear. With a certain triumph, you set up this second site, now all that faster since Jackie doesn't need to explain it to you.
"You wanna toss it this time?" Jackie asks.
You don't hesitate. With the fuse hissing, you rear back with this two-pounder, give it a pitch Sandy Koufax would have been proud of. When the second charge goes off, like a kick to your chest, you are thrilled, all over again. And you don your skis, anticipating one last run in this impossibly fluid snow.
"Last run?" you say, grinning at Jackie. It is after ten, and the snow is still coming down hard.
"Sweetheart," she says, in this Mae West sort of voice, amused at you, "We have just gotten started."
Three o'clock, and you trudge, skis slung over your shoulder, from C.B.'s, a north side run, toward the locker room. Jackie is whistling something rap rock or hip-hop, swinging with her skis, happy with the day.
You are, too, but you are bone tired, your legs twitching. When you approach the Base Patrol hut, where assessments on injured skiers are done, and, too, where most critically injured skiers are put on AirMed or Life Flight helicopters, you see a flurry of activity, patrollers running in all directions in the parking area, getting the ambulances started. One patroller you recognize, Walt, bolts out the door.
"Big slide over at the Canyons," he says.
"They say what kind?" Jackie asks.
"Slab. Might be as many as fifteen people buried." Something heavy as a stone sits in your stomach. You sense it coming.
"We just talked to the county sheriff 's office," Walt adds. "They could use a couple fine probers. If they wanted us to send you two over, could you go?"
Jackie tosses that thick, blond hair of hers.
"Yeah," she says, just like that.
Which leaves you.
"I'm in," you tell him, and even as Walt marches back into Base Patrol, you turn your face to the falling snow. What is usually flat-out beautiful, something you love, has taken on yet another dimension in your life of skiing.
"Coffee?" Walt calls over his shoulder, at the door, and Jackie shrugs.
You're to wait in the lot, it'll be fifteen minutes until they know if they need you. Walt's back out with the coffees, full of sugar, and you take yours.
There's that KAAAAARUMP! of another pentolite charge going off in the distance. In front of you, on Payday Ridge, and on Silver Skis, Silver Queen, and on the Men's Slalom and Women's Slalom courses, people are skiing.
Now there's an ironic something to the laughter of the children loading at the First Time lift, having fun.
"Well," you say to Jackie, sipping your coffee. "I suppose this is a kind of vacation from the wrestling life, right?"
Jackie's got her sunglasses on, big-lensed, glamorous things, like no one else on patrol wears, but they look just right on her.
"This is my twenty-first day," she tells you.
"On AC or patrol."
This you cannot have heard right.
"You mean this winter," you say. It is only the end of January, after all.
"In a row," Jackie tells you, sipping calmly at her coffee.
And when the county sheriff 's Blazer pulls into the lot, you watch her calmly stride from you toward the rear doors that have been flung open, with that selfsame strut, though more liquid now, that calm, no-nonsense something there. Hers is the job no one sees, not the recreational skier, or the snowboarder, or the instructor; not the wife with a cup of cocoa on the plaza, or the children throwing snowballs at the base of First Time, or even the oh-so-focused racers on Silver Skis, or the extreme skiers out on Pinecone, but is critical for the safety of all.
She gets partially into the Blazer, then turns, to look for you.
You standing there in the falling snow.
"Hey," she says, cocking her head in her direction. "What are you waiting for?" And you cross the lot to her. Jackie, dynamite girl.
Copyright © 2007 Wayne Johnson