For some reason, my six-year-old son didn't hang up the helicopter-skiing poster I brought him back from British Columbia until late summer, seven months after my trip. I had forgotten about it by then, and it gave me a jolt when I saw the poster over his bed. Jolt is not quite right. It seemed to hollow out my insides all at once. Whatever the word is for that.
The poster is of a scene I do not recognize. A distant group of skiers plummets down a steep, virgin, treeless face, their tracks a perfect row of S's in the snow, a trail of powder wisping behind them, peaks everywhere, blue sky to die for, no end to the run in sight. That was just how I had imagined helicopter skiing, just how it had been pictured in the brochures—the snow untracked, the scenery dramatic and wild, the sun bright, the air gloriously clear, the avalanche possibilities evident but somehow remote. Helicopter skiing must be like that sometimes.
It wasn't like that at the end of January and beginning of February 1990. The week surrounding the Super Bowl, as a matter of fact. There were 14 in my group, all men, most with some sort of connection to Harvard, all within a couple of years of 40. Only our organizer, Skip Freeman, and one other member of the party had been helicopter skiing before. But the rest of us were experienced skiers and, like experienced skiers everywhere, had dreamed about heli-skiing ever since we had first heard about it 15 or 20 years before. No lift lines. No packed trails. A helicopter at the bottom of every run waiting to shuttle you to the top of some new face. Staying in a comfortable lodge in the middle of the Canadian Rockies. Skiing tens of thousands of vertical feet on some of the fluffiest powder on earth. We had heard the names of the famous heli-skiing ranges—the Bugaboos, the Cariboos, the Monashees—so often that they were old visitors to our daydreams, the way Atlantic salmon rivers are somehow familiar to fishermen who have never walked their shores.
But, unlike the musings of such fishermen, heli-ski daydreams can have an unpleasant edge to them. It is as easy to imagine getting caught in an avalanche or crashing in a helicopter as it is to envision skiing untracked slopes of powder. I found, as our departure time neared, an uncomfortable anxiety gnawing at my belly. Helicopter skiing is inherently more dangerous than skiing at a mountain resort, though how much more dangerous is impossible to gauge fairly. I did not believe then, nor do I now, that heli-skiing is tantamount to thrill-seeking. But you are skiing in the wilderness. You can't ever let down your guard and relax.
In 26 years of operation, Canadian" Mountain Holidays (CMH), the outfit I had signed on with, has suffered 21 skier deaths. Mike Wiegele Helicopter Skiing, the next-largest operation, has had 13 skier deaths in its 20 years. More than half of all those fatalities—20—resulted from avalanches. Nine more were caused by helicopter crashes. But crevasses, trees, cliffs and cornices (overhangs) are all potential dangers.
That was made abundantly clear in the waiver that each of us was required to send in with the trip fee ($2,740), releasing CMH from all liability should one of us be injured or killed. Most members of our group were married and had young children, so this was not a popular trip on the home front. One wife was so concerned that she took out a million-dollar insurance policy on her husband, a doctor. It seemed kind of funny at the time.
Even the promotional films I saw for helicopter skiing were shadowed by oblique references to mortality. I watched them in Skip's apartment two weeks before the trip. He had his VCR set up in his exercise room so he could dangle ski scenes before his nose, carrotlike, while using his stair-climbing machine. It's never snowing or overcast in these films, of course. The weather is strictly bluebird, the turns are perfect, the goggles clear. It all looked pretty nice, so nice that it was actually believable when the narrator of one film told about the skier who, on learning that he was terminally ill, decided to go out in a wave of powder, skiing with CMH for 18 consecutive weeks (approximate cost: $50,000), accumulating more than three million vertical feet. "And then he died," the narrator intoned. Presumably of natural causes, though that was left open to conjecture.
All things considered, we were all a little nervous when we left for British Columbia. We weren't kids anymore, after all, though it was tempting to think so, since most members of our group had known each other in college. Adding to our anxiety, most of us entertained the usual doubts about our skills. Would I hold up the group? Was I in good enough shape? Would my knees hold up? Skip likes to refer to helicopter skiing as an 11-month experience: five months of training, one week of skiing and six months of reliving the trip. That left most of us about four months shy on training.
We had signed up to ski the newest CMH lodge, Galena, which is at the southern end of the Selkirk Mountains. In the winter, Galena is accessible only by helicopter. It is 265 miles west of Calgary, but because of the intervening mountain ranges you can't, as they say, get there from here. From Calgary, we took a twin-engine plane to a town called Kelowna, B.C.; then a bus through a bunch of little towns, across a lake (on a ferry) and through a national forest; and finally a helicopter to the lodge. On each leg of the trip the weather got worse, and it was during the bus ride that I first heard mention of tree wells.
Mike Egan, a doctor from South Dartmouth, Mass., who had been helicopter skiing, was talking about them. A tree well, he explained, is a pit in the snow at the base of a tree. It's created when the falling snow collects on the tree's branches, leaving a well-like space around the trunk. If a skier falls into one of these moats, which can be six or seven feet deep, it is the devil's own work for him to get out. If he falls in headfirst, he could suffocate. Years ago, Mike recalled, a heli-skier tumbled into a tree well and was not found until spring.
And here I had been worrying about riding in the helicopter. I do not know if the story about the skier not being found until spring was true, but I was assured that it could not happen to one of us. We would each be skiing with a Skadi transceiver, a device that transmits a radio signal and, in the event of a catastrophe, can be switched to receive the signal, leading rescuers to the scene of the accident. In the final miles of the bus ride, a CMH representative taught us how to use the Skadi and showed a video on how to organize a search after an avalanche. The weather in the film, of course, was clear and brilliant. Outside the bus, meanwhile, it looked like nuclear winter. By the time we arrived at the helicopter pad, a full-fledged blizzard was upon us, and the cloud ceiling was no more than 100 feet.
That proved to be no problem for the helicopter, a Bell 212 that carried 12 passengers plus the pilot back and forth to the lodge. The pilot navigated by skirting the treetops. Time after time we heard the helicopter approach, unseen, in the blizzard. Suddenly it would materialize above us, propeller blades whop-whop-whopping, creating a whirlwind of snow as it descended. Passengers would huddle beneath the helicopter like islanders braced against a hurricane. It was a jarring, unearthly form of transportation that we would soon take for granted.
Waiting our turn to take the trip to the lodge, we asked one of the departing skiers, a Swiss, how his week had been. "Better than working," he answered in French. "Better than staying at home."
One of the more guarded endorsements you'll ever hear. Apparently, in the previous month the sun had been seen around Galena for only three days. The good news was that there was plenty of snow—11 feet had fallen in the last two weeks. The bad news was that there was too much snow, and it was heavy. More was expected. The avalanche danger was high, so the skiing was all amid the trees.
It was 4:30 p.m. before the new arrivals had all been transported up to the lodge. We spent what was left of the afternoon practicing avalanche searches with our Skadis. The snow was bottomless, and without our skis we made a colorful group—44 guests floundering up to our hips in a sea of white. The guides did not seem thrilled with our performances or with the weather, and you could forget about admiring the scenery. All anyone could see were low-lying clouds. Still, it is difficult not to feel excited when you arrive at a ski lodge and snowflakes are filling the sky.
It was still snowing the next day, Super Bowl Sunday. Some flakes stuck together in fragile, mitten-sized globs. The air was perfectly still. This storm was going nowhere. CMH skis in groups of 11, organized according to ability, each with its own guide, so the 14 of us who had come with Skip agreed that we would try to rotate. Each day, 11 of us would ski together in one group and three of us would ski with the hotshot group, which consisted of four Germans, three Americans and a Canadian, all veteran CMH clients.
That first day, I was in the group of 11. Thank God. The day was long enough as it was. Each time I looked back up the slope we had skied, it looked like a battle scene from the Civil War film Glory. A ski there. A pole there. A body there. Reassembling yourself after a fall was time-consuming and exhausting. Moving even a few feet without skis in all that snow was a trial. Visibility was nil. The temperature was close to 30°, and in our ultrachic one-piece powder suits, we sweated like Oven-Stuffer Roasters. The more we sweated, the more our goggles steamed up. The more our goggles steamed up, the less we could see; the more we fell, the more exhausted and hot we got. And at the end of every run, inexorably, there was the helicopter waiting to take us back up to start the whole vicious cycle over again. "It's the best argument for lift lines I've ever seen," said Alex MacLean, an aerial photographer from Lincoln, Mass.
Which is not to say it wasn't fun. Powder skiing, even when you are making a mess of it, is exhilarating. And this was powder skiing as few of us had experienced it. The tree-studded slopes were so steep that the overwhelming sensation was of soaring, then compressing. Soaring as you unweighted and dropped into your next turn, compressing as you landed. The snow flew into your goggles, into your nose and mouth, clean and cold. Then, if you were lucky, the moment of blindness passed as you bounded out of the spray and into your next turn in time to miss the tree that stood in your path. If you happened to panic and sit down, well, powder snow is as comfortable a cushion as any.
I wish I could tell you the way Danny Stoffel, our Swiss guide, handled this difficult terrain, but following him was like chasing a deer. Every so often Danny would stop in the middle of the woods, hoot a little to let us know he was there, wait for the troops to reassemble and then, with the invariable advice to proceed "straight f——down," turn ethereal in a cloud of powder.
Gratefully, we got the news that we were stopping for lunch with the other three groups. As I was skiing down to the picnic spot, fantasizing about roast beef on pumpernickel, I had to stop suddenly to avoid a head that was lying in the snow. My goggles had been fogging all morning, but this was a little extreme. I tore them off in alarm. Sure enough, it was a head. A woman's head. A man was approaching with a cup of tea, and he knelt beside the head to give it a sip.
The head was later introduced to me as Angelika Voelkel, a doctor from Denver. She had taken off her skis to walk up to the picnic spot and had taken one step on a snow bridge, which promptly broke, causing her to fall into a fissure up to her shoulders. It took several burly men to pull her out.
"Last year I skied off a little ridge and had to scale a 20-foot cliff to get back to my group," she told me, apparently none the worse for wear. "When you come helicopter skiing, I'll tell you one thing. You'd better be prepared to die."
She said it as a joke, but I didn't know whether to laugh or cry. We were skiing on snow so deep that it seemed capable of opening up and swallowing us without a trace. One guide told us it was more snow than he had seen in 13 years with CMH. It was thrilling, in a way. Once-in-a-lifetime stuff. But it was also making us jumpy.
Our nerves weren't soothed any when, that afternoon, our group set off a small avalanche. We were skiing a clear cut from a logging operation, a run that the guides had named Decadence. Danny was long gone, as usual, somewhere down at the bottom. We were to go straight f——down. I had just skied the steepest part of the face and was resting on a little flat about halfway to the bottom. Mike Egan was just below me. Behind us, on the face we had just skied, we heard Jim Wolff, one of the five doctors on our trip, yell, "Oh, s——!" There was fear in his voice. During a traverse, his skis had cut loose a long slab of snow two feet deep, and it was sliding, gathering force, muffling his cry of "Avalanche!" I looked back and saw two or three members of our group scooting out of the slide's path, then a single ski gyrating 20 feet in the air.
I was perhaps 200 yards below. We had been told to do two things in case of an avalanche: Get behind a large tree, and stay out of gullies to avoid being buried. There was only one large tree near us, but it was in a gully. Mike headed there. I couldn't make up my mind what to do, so I froze and hoped the slide would stop above me on the flat. A blizzard of snow preceding the body of the avalanche turned everything around me white, and I braced myself. But the blow never came. The slide stopped 40 yards uphill.
All became utterly quiet. The slope that moments earlier had been pristine except for two or three tracks now looked like a field of white boulders 100 yards long, 40 wide. "Is anybody under there?" I shouted.
We made a quick head count, and everyone was accounted for—though Peter Swift (no relation of mine), a doctor from Burlington, Vt., had lost a ski scrambling out of the way. We never found it. Rattled, we made our way down to Danny. He wanted to know what had taken us so long. When we told him, he dismissed the incident as "sloughing" and assured us that with this much snow we could routinely expect such encounters.
He was wrong, of course. We all knew what sloughing meant, and an inch or two of sloughing cannot turn an entire slope into a boulder field. This slide could easily have buried one of us. So it was with muted enthusiasm that we took the final two runs of the day; with muted enthusiasm that I squinted through the falling snow, cursing my fogged goggles; and with muted enthusiasm that on the last run I found myself suddenly airborne, weightless, plummeting off a cornice I never saw.
I landed, panting and stiff-legged, without falling down. My skis had stuck arrow-like into the far side of a small gully. I could see that I was in a pickle.
For one thing, the cornice was up there, and it looked like it had half a mind to fall on me. The bank of the gully into which my skis were driven was higher than my head and too steep to climb. The only option I could see was to somehow extricate myself by backing up, then ski out of the gully farther down.
I gingerly poked at the snow beside my skis. My pole met no resistance. Then, alarmingly, the snow suddenly fell away, revealing a deep dark hole over which I seemed to be perched. I must have been straddling a creek bed. I really didn't care to look down. The hole seemed to go on forever. One thing I was sure of, with a mind toward the incident involving Angelika: I wasn't going to take off my skis.
But I was helpless. Fortunately, just as I was coming to that realization but before I had time to panic, David Arnold, a writer with the Boston Globe, skied to the edge of the same gully, farther up. I called to him. He didn't hear me at first, so I moved it up an octave. That got his attention—and nearly set off the cornice. By the grace of God, the spot where we were meeting the helicopter was only 100 yards away, and David was able to summon Danny with a yell. The two of them marched down to me and created a ladder with their skis by embedding them horizontally in the snow. That enabled me to pull myself out. That was quite enough adventure for me for one day.
Apparently I wasn't the only one who was having trouble seeing. That night there was a run on the $94 turbofan (non-fogging) goggles in the CMH ski shop. When I noted that one of the problems with photographing tree skiing was that all the runs looked the same, Alex said: "You noticed that too, eh? They all look like the inside of my goggles."
The next day, Alex, Wolffie (Jim Wolff) and I were the three to ski with the best group, the one with the four Germans. They proved to be a formidable presence, as anyone who has ever skied in Austria might already have guessed. One of the Germans insisted on always sitting in the same seat in the helicopter, the seat that happened to be next to the goggle-clearing warm-air duct. The Germans were always first to ski behind the guide, a position that is supposed to be alternated. And none of our Teutonic friends ever offered to carry the guests' emergency pack, a responsibility that entailed skiing last.
Oh, well. Wolffie, Alex and I alternated carrying the pack and watched out for each other. Everyone was supposed to be skiing the buddy system, in which you pick out a partner and the two of you ski together through the trees, keeping each other in sight. But no one in the group seemed to be paying the buddy system much attention. And even if you were conscientious, as the three of us tried to be, the buddy system wasn't foolproof. If the trailing skier got into trouble, the lead skier couldn't be expected to see it, stop and climb back up in time to help him. Not with all that snow. And if you were stuck skiing last, who was going to help you if you got into trouble? Not the Germans. They never even slowed down to admire the scenery, which proved spectacular that afternoon when the sun finally broke through for a few minutes.
We thought we were being pretty good sports until the Germans apparently became miffed at having to wait for us. With that, Wolffie and Alex, who were tired, took the next helicopter in. But I have a stubborn nature, and I decided to stay.
Skiing, no matter how good the conditions, is made better by fellowship, by being able to laugh at each other's headers and cartwheels and to admire each other's turns; by being able to slow down and look at the views and talk about the runs. That was missing this day.
Eric King, an unmarried businessman from Santa Monica, Calif., became my buddy. A stocky, baby-faced Dartmouth graduate in his mid-40s, Eric had accumulated more than three million vertical feet skiing with CMH. In fact, he was wearing the yellow-and-powder-blue ski suit that CMH awards its customers every million feet. Eric was a strong skier who liked to cut his own trail, routinely veering a hundred yards or more to one side or the other of the guide. His solution to skiing with the Germans seemed to be to avoid them. I had to work hard to keep up with him—Eric always went first when we skied together—but he stopped a couple of times to wait for me, for which I was grateful. Every time we got to the bottom, no matter how far we had to traverse to regain contact with the group, Eric assured me we had had a better run than the others.
On the last run down, Jonathan Ain, a doctor from Denver, joined Eric and me. We got separated early in the run. I went left around a tree, they went right; and just like that there was a ridge between me and the others. I heard them calling for me, but I didn't have the energy to climb back over the ridge, so I yelled at Eric and Jon to go on without me. I would follow the tracks of the guide, Rob Orvig, and the Germans.
Now I was truly alone. It was discomforting. Those tree wells were very real things, and it was not as if you could give them a wide berth: The woods were thick. It is an awful feeling to know that any slight miscue—the crossing of ski tips, the misgauging of distance—could pitch you into disaster. It was like skiing in a marked mine field. I went as fast as I prudently could, and though I could hear German voices below me shouting to each other, I wasn't gaining much ground. Every so often I let loose a sort of strangled yodel to assure an uncaring world that I was safe, on the off-chance that someone was listening. No one was. Once, near the bottom, I fell face first and thoroughly exhausted myself attempting to push up with my poles. They kept sinking uselessly up to their grips. Finally, I was able to wriggle my skis downhill from me and wrench myself to my feet, and by the time I came out of the woods and rejoined the rest of the group, I was panting and rubber-legged.
I still arrived before Eric and Jon. They didn't emerge for another five minutes, and when they did they were a couple of hundred yards to the right and a little below us. It looked like they would have to do some climbing. Eric was surveying the untracked face below him, which, after 50 yards or so, became unskiable—a cliff with a 50-foot drop. He couldn't see the cliff from his vantage point and was thinking that by skiing down and over to the helicopter site, he could save himself the walk. "What's it look like?" he shouted.
"Ees nice, Eric, ees nice," one of the German comedians answered, breaking into a grin for the first time all day. The other Germans laughed and nodded. Rob, unamused, told Eric in no uncertain terms to traverse and climb up. Five minutes later, when he had reached us, Eric looked back and claimed he could have made it down the cliff route.
We had skied more than 21,000 feet that day. I know, because one of CMH's traditions is to post the vertical feet—"verts" in heli-ski parlance—skied by each group. The more verts you rack up, the reasoning goes, the better and harder you skied. At dinner each evening, Danny, as head guide, duly noted any outstanding vertical-foot total. It added a competitive edge to the heli-ski experience, which I did not find particularly appealing but which had obviously been a successful marketing tool. Guests were guaranteed a minimum of 100,000 feet for the week. But if you exceeded that total—and the average for 6½ days of skiing was about 120,000 feet—CMH charged for the additional footage. It was definitely macho to rack up a big bill at the end of the week, the pie in the sky being one of those million-vert CMH snowsuits like Eric's. It all reminded me of a fishing trip I once took to Alaska in which the outfitter asked me to add up all the fish I had caught and released every day, so he could inflate the numbers and put them in the next year's brochure.
There was something else about heli-skiing that reminded me of that fishing trip. It had to do with being a guest in a hostile environment. I was fishing in grizzly bear country. One day the fishing guide insisted that I carry a .357 handgun before he dropped me off at a river in which I would encounter five adult bears and two cubs. It was the bears' turf, not mine. It was disquieting, but it was also stimulating. My senses were wide open in a way they seldom are in everyday life. It was the same at Galena. At the end of each day, back at the lodge, I could feel the tension slowly draining from me. I was grateful to be safe, grateful to be among friends, exhilaratingly relaxed.
Or maybe it was the Motrin. One advantage of having five doctors along on a ski trip of this nature was that they were armed with hundreds of pills to relieve angry, inflamed muscles. "Helicopter skiing," said Jon, offering me a dose of Motrin that would have put a thoroughbred back on the track, "is a sport for 20-year-old bodies with 40-year-old incomes."
The third day, we skied in an area called Ferguson Creek. The snow was lighter there, the trees more widely spaced. We had mastered the art of keeping our goggles clear, and everyone was skiing well. This was what we had come for. I was back in Skip's group of 11, although we still saw a lot of our German friends from the day before. Their group passed us once on a run called Hanging Gardens, leaping off a 20-foot cliff like a bunch of banshees while we watched with mouths agape.
A little later we caught up to them when there was an inexplicable backup of skiers on a narrow path. Then I saw the reason. Eric had fallen through a snow bridge. It had simply collapsed under his weight. I could barely see the top of his head as he stood at the bottom of a creek bed, seven feet down, unharmed but alarmed. This, too, was the cause of great mirth among the Germans, and when Eric was finally pulled out, his only remark was that he was sorry for holding everyone up. He knew he had cost us some verts.
I don't remember much about lunch or the early hours of the afternoon. It must have been more of the same, because by the time Franz Fux, our guide, told us that we had to stop, we had collectively decided it had been the best day of skiing of our lives. The conditions, the camaraderie, the terrain—just perfect.
Except that something was wrong. It slowly dawned on us as we waited for the helicopter, and the other groups began to stack up behind us. The guides were huddled together with their walkie-talkies. Someone, we learned, was missing, lost somewhere in the woods. It was Eric.
No one was too concerned at first. Eric was such a strong skier. David, the Globe writer, had been skiing in Eric's group that day, and he told us that Eric had been missing since three o'clock—it was now 4:15—having failed to show up at the bottom after another run down Hanging Gardens. Eric's skiing buddy that day, Bruce Dorman, an orthopedic surgeon from Wilmington, N.C., had last seen Eric below those 20-foot cliffs. Eric had been behind Bruce and skied off to the right, by himself. Danny, the group's guide, at first figured Eric must have come out of the woods downstream, and he walked about a quarter-mile in that direction. No luck. When, after 45 minutes, Eric still hadn't shown up, the group went back to the top of the run. Their instructions were to reski their tracks. Danny even joked that Eric would be buying the wine that night.
But they didn't find him that pass-through, either. The helicopter had already searched up and down the creek bed, and the mood became considerably more sober. One of the Germans said to David, "Catastrophe."
The five guides decided they would make a Skadi search. All of the guests would be shuttled back to the lodge. There was probably an hour, maybe an hour and a half, of daylight left, so time was a factor. But Franz remained calm. He seemed convinced that everything would turn out all right, that Eric had either strayed off course and lost his bearings or had busted a binding and was trying to hike out through all that snow. "We'll find him," he assured us.
I happened to be seated next to Danny as the helicopter carried him and Franz back up to start the Skadi search. The pilot would then take the rest of us back to the lodge and refuel. We were flying low, weaving back and forth, hoping to catch a glimpse of Eric's distinctive blue-and-yellow suit through the trees. Danny's eyes were scared. He was also angry, and every once in a while he would curse Eric animatedly and pound his fist in his palm. Danny's safety record, to date, had been perfect. A guest had never so much as sprained an ankle with him.
Back at the lodge, we put our skis away, fidgeted nervously and speculated about what might have happened. Before long we heard the helicopter approaching again. Another load of guests got out, but there was still no news. Time passed. The sky got darker. Twenty minutes later the helicopter returned with its third load of skiers. We were out there to greet it, not knowing what else to do. Everyone came out quiet, shocked. During the ride, this message had come across the radio: "Contact CMH headquarters. We have a fatality."
I felt the back of my neck grow hot. We had not expected our worst fears to be confirmed so quickly. We have a fatality. That was all that we knew for a while.
No one will ever know exactly how it happened. Eric's body was found, by Skadi, two-thirds of the way down the Hanging Gardens run. The body was already cold, and the guides spent a frantic half-hour trying to breathe life back into it. They sent the helicopter for Jon Ain, and it was he who pronounced Eric dead.
Eric had been skiing 80 or 90 yards to the right of the line the rest of his group had taken. He was found upside down, with his skis still on. His face was covered by four or five inches of snow, and the top of his head was up against a tree.
Danny was still weeping when he got back to the lodge. Eric's body was brought back in some sort of bag. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) were called. And everyone who had skied with Danny that day made a tape-recorded statement, the gist of which was that Danny had done everything by the book, that Eric, by routinely straying from the rest of the group, had put himself in peril.
That night at dinner Franz announced there would be no skiing the next morning, because the RCMP was coming up to make an inquiry. If anyone wanted to leave, he should make arrangements through the office. Then Franz speculated on the cause of death. He said it looked as if Eric had jumped off a cliff in very dangerous terrain and struck a tree, and had probably died instantly of a broken neck.
I will never understand why he said that. CMH never allowed us to return to the site of the tragedy, and Eric, as it would turn out, had not broken his neck. He was probably traversing when he fell. But everyone seemed to want to believe this description of a daredevil's death. There was a form of group denial going on, one that, I am told, occurs among fighter pilots when one of their number crashes or is shot down. The pilots all get together and talk about what a great guy Joe was but how he was never careful about this, and he always tempted fate by doing that. The implication is: He asked for it. It could never happen to me, because I don't make those mistakes.
You see, the rest of us still had to ski in all that godforsaken snow for three more days. If we believed that Eric hadn't made a mistake, hadn't been asking for it, hadn't jumped off a cliff and broken his fool neck, well, how could we justify going on?
The next night Mark Kingsbury, the general manager of CMH, who had been flown in from Banff that day, gave us a more plausible version of the tragedy. Eric had been traversing through what amounted to unskiable terrain and had somehow fallen downhill. Perhaps a cornice broke off beneath him. He slid, or tumbled, into a shallow tree well. An autopsy was being performed, and the cause of death was as yet undetermined.
It was only a week later, after we had gone home, that we learned that Eric had suffocated.
And us? We resumed skiing. Only one guest left Galena early, and all of our group of 14 stayed till the end of the week. Our tickets were prepaid, and to change them would have cost an additional $1,000. And when you are at a lodge in the middle of nowhere and there is nothing to do but ski, well, you ski, even if you have no heart for it. Most of us didn't even call home about Eric's death. Since Eric was from California, we doubted that the newspapers back East would carry the story, and it didn't seem sensible to create worry at home.
The funny thing—funny strange—was that the skiing proved to be therapeutic. It lifted our collective depression. Odd as it seems, it is possible to enjoy yourself while skiing in fear. And the fear never went away, because I was convinced that what had happened to Eric could have happened to any one of us.
Which isn't to say Eric's death couldn't have been prevented. The last three days, the guides preached to us about the buddy system the way they should have from the start. We were taught to leapfrog one another—one guy leads for 100 yards, then stops to let his partner pass him. Constant voice and eye contact between buddies. Frequent stops by the guides to make head counts. More attention to safety. Fewer verts.
David and I got a taste of how the buddy system might have saved Eric's life. We were skiing together two days after the tragedy. Heavy snowfall had resumed. We were leapfrogging down a heavily wooded slope. David was leading when he seemed to cross his tips, and he fell. I was perhaps 50 yards behind him, and his fall really didn't look like much. But when I got to him I saw that his feet were tangled in some branches, his skis still attached, and his head downhill. He was partially buried, but so close to the surface that his hat was sticking out of the snow. This is how he described it in an article published in the Feb. 11, 1990, Boston Globe—a riveting piece of writing:
I fall facing up, my feet caught in a web of branches, my head under a veil of snow so translucent the air seems just inches beyond. The first split second passes smoothly—I think: Drop the ski poles, clear the snow, stay calm. But the snow doesn't clear. The more I wipe, the more snowfalls in. My lungs are aching now—I had been panting hard going into this fall. Now I flail. So this is panic. Just a precious few inches to air, but I can't rise up. My arms are useless, nothing to push on. No control, lungs exploding.
I slid down beside him and, as I tugged on his snowsuit, he popped out of the snow so easily that it seemed he had been hiding there, waiting to surprise me. I doubt he could have been under for 10 seconds. But he was gasping and spooked, and it spooked me to see him like that. It had looked so innocuous. But when you get your skis uphill from you in that deep stuff, and you can't get your bindings to release, it's like your legs are tied. It didn't take a hell of an imagination to conjure up the worst from that scenario.
Our last night at Galena we talked at length to Danny. He had been completely exonerated by the RCMP and CMH, and the guests had rallied around him, but he was still deeply affected by the tragedy. "From now on I'm going to be really tough with the skiers," he told us. It sounded like he was giving himself a pep talk, because he was not really the get-tough type. "You do what I say, or I'll fly you home. This could have happened to anybody in the last 10 years, you know? And I don't want this to ever happen to me again."
He had some pretty good ideas on how to prevent another tragedy like Eric's, too. "In the promotional movies we have, we show no trees," he said. "But that's not the way it is. We ski in the trees a lot. I'd like to see a section of our films on tree skiing. I'd like to see the buddy system explained. I ski; I look back; I ski; I look back. So if something happens, I'm close. If I buddy up with someone who's not as strong as I am, it doesn't work. If we had ingrained the buddy system in these guys years ago, Eric wouldn't have been out there alone."
After I got back home I talked with someone from CMH, and he told me that some of Danny's ideas were being implemented. The company has added a segment on the buddy system to 3 the film that it has shown for years on the use of Skadis.
A week after we left Galena, David's article on our trip appeared in the paper and, around Boston, caused quite a stir. Skip wasn't too happy about it. He had a waiting list of people who had wanted to go heli-skiing with him in 1991, and they had all immediately canceled.
About a week after that, I started getting letters and phone calls about CMH from people, some of whom I knew, some of whom I didn't. The letters went more or less like this one from a woman in New York whom I had never met:
Dear Mr. Swift,
I know that you were skiing with CMH the week Eric King died and I understand from friends who were there that you are doing a piece for Sports Illustrated. I am concerned that you might write something along the lines of David Arnold's article for the Boston Globe. I understand that he (and you) had a shocking (to say the least) experience, but please take into account that it was a unique experience. Skiing with CMH is not a death-defying, frightening time. In fact, for me (and for thousands of others) it is at once the most relaxing and exhilarating vacation I've ever had.
So there. Things are not always the way they were on our trip. No doubt the sun even comes out sometimes at Galena, revealing scenes like the one in the poster over my son's bed. I wish that woman continued safe passage on her heli-ski trips. But I doubt that I shall ever join her.