Backstory: The Last Time I Saw Him

Two guys from California stood at the front desk of the Lake Louise Alpine Centre and International Hostel in Banff, Alberta at 7 a.m., ready to go. They even had their tele boots on, chomping to get out into the fresh pow that had been falling for days in the Canadian Rockies.

They impatiently scanned the avalanche report, which was full of names of all the places not to go today. Bow Summit was not safe. Redoubt was not safe. Even Hidden Bowl was not safe. It had snowed all night and was still coming down; the fresh snow sat on top of an unstable layer, compounded by wind loading. It wasn’t going to be safe out there for at least a full day.

[Illustration] Jamie Givens

[Illustration] Jamie Givens

“Where should we go? Is this one any good?” one asked without consulting the avy report.

“Yeah, it’s great, but the avalanche hazard is extreme today,” I said from behind the desk.

“What about this one? What’s that like?”

“It’s great, too, but everything is really unstable today. The avy report’s right here.”

“What about Purple Bowl? That’s pretty safe, right?”

“No, it’s not safe today.”

“Just the lower part? That’s OK, right?”

“No, not today,” I said.

Their frustration was clearly growing. Finally, one of them asked, “Well, where would you go today?”

After living in a place with frequent high avalanche danger for five years, taking basic avalanche safety training and comparing the daily avalanche bulletin to my firsthand observations of the snowpack all season, I said, “I wouldn’t go out anywhere today. Well, I’d do some cross-country on the trail along the river, maybe the trail up to the lake, but even that, I would be careful today. It’s really not safe anywhere.”

Considering I was just a front-desk employee at the hostel, I could only give my best advice. I could not prohibit anyone from going anywhere, especially since these guys wanted steep and deep and wanted me to show them the best places to go. “Do something mellower, but even in the low-angle cross-country trails in the trees, I’d be careful,” I told them. “All the open bowls and exposed stuff is totally unsafe right now. Maybe tomorrow.”

They had just arrived the night before from California and were eager to ski the backcountry, so even with my warnings, I couldn’t convince them not to go. I wish I could have persuaded them, but as I remind myself every time I remember that day, they already had their boots on, skis in hand and minds made up. There was little I could have said or done.

The storm continued through the day. I wondered what they ended up doing, but I got caught up in my work. Shortly before my shift was over, my husband called to tell me he was going to be late getting home. Ski patrol was out near Purple Bowl—a sidecountry bowl that could be accessed from Lake Louise Ski Resort—looking for someone who had been caught in an avalanche. An image of the early-bird Californians flooded into my mind; I could see them standing at the desk that morning, shadowed through the windows behind them, stoked and ready.

I thought I didn’t hear properly when my husband told me the name of the person who had been caught in the avalanche; it was a friend who worked at the ski area. But it made no sense that Ryan could get caught. I was sure he was working that day, and I didn’t think he was a backcountry skier. Why would he have gone out on that day of all days?

There wasn’t time to clarify details. Everyone was rushing out to find the buried skier as it got dark. And with headlamps, beacons, probes and shovels, they finally did. He was dead.

Later that night, I learned more. At first, it was a relief to learn that our friend had been safely at work all day, and that a visiting telemark skier happened to share his exact name. But I was one of the last people who had seen this stranger alive, and I knew his friend would be going back to California alone.

This reader essay first appeared in the January 2015 issue. Tell us your story, keep it to 700 words and send it to sean[at]backcountrymagazine.com subject titled “Backstory,” for a chance to be published.

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