A survivor’s story
Tuesday, January 3, 2012 6:08 AM CST
Todd Richards was 23 years old, a recent college grad and newly minted Telluride ski instructor who had landed in town for his first winter out West. It was 1989, pre-Gold Hill Lift, Prospect Lift and Black Iron Bowl, back when the mountain’s boundaries encircled a much tighter area.
Richards was a capable skier who had grown up skiing back East — he could thread down bumps with grace and manage all kinds of conditions on the mountain.
But when he was invited to ski his first backcountry line, Temptation Chute in Bear Creek, he had not a shred of avalanche awareness, let alone education. He didn’t own a probe, beacon or shovel, he didn’t look for wind-loading or terrain traps or unstable layers. The thought of danger didn’t even cross his mind. He and a friend skied down Tempter, a notoriously slide-prone chute, without incident, and Richards was hooked.
“I just fell in love with it,” Richards said. “I couldn’t believe that skiing of that caliber could be accessed from a lift. I don’t even really think it even dawned on me that it was dangerous or unsafe in any way.”
But not long after that first glorious run, Richards would experience, in the most harrowing and violent and horribly unforgettable way, just how deadly backcountry skiing in the San Juans can be.
It was Valentine’s Day, 1989. Richards had the day off, it was beautiful out and there were about seven fresh inches of snow on the ground.
He was pulling on gear in the locker room when he ran into a friend, a Kiwi named Vaughan Shelly, and suggested they ski Temptation. They ran into another friend, a dishwasher named Paul Wolfort, and the three of them headed up the mountain. They hiked up from the top of Lift 6 and dropped into Tempter, which was (and still is) out of bounds.
The trio traversed left to a big open face, skied under another rope and Richards took off down the first pitch. Shelly caught up with him and they skied the second pitch. Wolfort, who wasn’t a great skier, was somewhere above them.
Richards and Shelly stopped near a big rock to wait for him. Richards stuck his poles in the snow, took his gloves off and was pulling his camera out of his bag when Shelly looked up and saw an avalanche heading toward him.
“He said, ‘Paul is in it.’ I looked uphill for a split second to see it coming. I’ve never seen anything so big and so scary and so powerful and fast,” Richards said.
He dropped his camera but didn’t even get his hands back on his poles before a wall of air — like an explosion — slammed into him, blowing him instantly out of his skis. The next thing he knew, he was in it — a churning, raging, thundering mass of snow.
“Before you know it, you’re in this thing and it’s a ride like I wouldn’t want anyone to go through,” he said. “It was so violent and so powerful, I virtually had no control.”
He was thrashed around, pulled and jerked and cycled through the snow — at one point he felt his ski boot hit the back of his head. He could tell when the avalanche compressed as it pushed through the choke and then poured out, dropping over a cliff before coming to a stop. It probably lasted for only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. Richards estimates he was carried 2,000 feet.
As the snow finally slowed to a stop, he instinctively thrust his left hand straight up — and his fingers broke the surface.
That small movement probably saved his life.
Initially, Richards was optimistic; he thought he would simply dig himself out and go find his friends.
But that’s not how things unfolded.
Snow was everywhere. It was stuffed into his nostrils, packed into his ears, compressed into his eyelids and throat. First, he cleared his passageways, swallowing and squeezing his eyes until enough of the snow melted for him to feel some comfort. Then, using his free left hand, he started to loosen the snow around the surface and slowly dig down toward his face. Before long he freed his mouth, gasping for air.
He continued to dig, but wasn’t wearing gloves or a hat and the avalanche debris was settling fast into what felt like concrete. Soon his body was trembling violently and his hand got so cold and raw that he balled it into a fist, but after an hour, he still wasn’t making much progress.
He finally managed to free his other hand.
“And then the worst thing happened. I lost consciousness,” he said.
Richards began nodding off, hypothermia sending him toward blackness. He kept jolting awake and tried to stay alert but was in and out of consciousness. He could no longer pry his hands open. He passed out again.
Then he heard voices through the fog. Some other skiers, who had just skied Delta Bowl, were traversing the avalanche debris. He tried to call out, but his body was shutting down.
“It felt like my insides were banging against my outsides trying to get my outsides to wake up,” he said. “I just kept trying and trying and trying and finally woke myself up and let out a bloodcurdling, incredibly loud scream.”
The skiers came running, and found him blue and bloody with shredded clothes and raw hands. They dug him out and tried to fashion a sled out of skis, but he was miraculously unharmed. With the help of one of the skiers, he walked out.
Later, after he had been rushed to the hospital and treated for hypothermia, he was told that both of his companions perished in the slide. Wolfort was found under 12 feet of snow, and Shelly was found lying on his back under about 6 inches of snow. Both died of massive trauma.
“It was horrible,” he said.
He endured harsh stares in town, pleaded guilty in court to trespassing on federal land and attended the funerals of both Shelly and Wolfort. His pass was revoked. In an effort to prevent anything like that from happening again, he went to the public schools and recounted his tale to students. Then he moved back to Maine.
The experience of getting caught in the slide and almost dying digging out was utterly terrifying, he said. But it pales in comparison to the guilt he lives with each day.
“I had no business being there, much less inviting others to join me,” he said.
Nearly 23 years later, he still battles Post Traumatic Stress Disorder — sleepless nights, a heavy burden of shame and remorse and blame. He has gone to therapy to help him through it, but it’s something he’ll probably never shake.
And today, he wants to remind people, especially new residents, of the dangers of backcountry skiing without property training, knowledge and equipment. He hopes his story will urge others to think twice before they head out there.
“Although I survived, it was just stupid dumb luck. I was just a dumb guy from the East who didn’t know anything about avalanches,” he said.
It was fatal slides like this one that prompted Telluride residents to launch an avalanche education program, said Tara Butson, executive director of the Telluride Avalanche School
Today, the non-profit Telluride Avalanche School hosts a free Monday Night Avalanche Forum series as well as Level 1 and 2 Avalanche Education Courses.
The school’s first Level 1 course, a three-day intensive program that takes place in the classroom and out in the field, starts on Friday. It’s full, but the school will offer two more, on Feb. 3-5 and March 2-4. The class is geared toward the average backcountry recreationist.
The school’s free forums begin next Monday at 7 p.m., with screening of the documentary “A Dozen More Turns” followed by a discussion.
Thanks to temperature swings, the snow’s water content, steep terrain, weak bonding and weather patterns, the San Juan Mountains are home to some of the most dangerous snowpack in the country. Butson said it’s imperative to be educated and prepared before going into the backcountry.
“I can’t stress it enough,” she said. “It’s so important to know where you are skiing, know the terrain, know the condition, know how to use equipment.
“Even if you’ve skied something a million times, it can still rip.”
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