Deadly avalanches and the lure of the mountains

Mountains are our barometer and our playground, and, on occasion, our tomb.

 

This is not a story about the avalanche. I wasn’t there.

This is a story about me and the mountains. Two days before the deadly avalanche in the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, I hiked up Hurricane Creek, my snowshoes sinking over a foot deep into unconsolidated powder. “Promise me you won’t go into the mountains,” my husband had said before leaving town, but I went anyway. The winter we had been waiting for had finally arrived after months of inexplicable rain and ice. Over 14 inches of new snow blanketed the mountains over a hard crust. I knew I shouldn’t go, but I could not resist.

This is not a story about the recent avalanche.  It is not my story to tell.

This is a story about the balance between wilderness and fear. As I walked, tiny snowballs cascaded down the slopes that shouldered into the trail. There was a silent hush to the air, something thick and waiting. Something that said to me: Turn around now. For one of only a few times in my life -- once with a brown bear charge and another time when a mountain lion visited my campsite -- being in the mountains felt wrong. I turned around.

This is not a story about the avalanche, because avalanches happen all the time. It is a story about a northeast Oregon town nestled hard against the Wallowa Mountains on one side and the canyons of the Imnaha River on the other. It is a story about how the mountains are our barometer and our playground, and, on occasion, our tomb.

“We don’t live here to stay inside,” my friend says, hearing the news. She is right: If there are people in this valley who don’t go outside, I don’t know their names. We choose different methods of play –– snowmobiles, skis, horses –– but we are united in the appreciation of wild lands. We celebrate the golden splash of larches across the lower face of Chief Joseph Mountain and exchange text messages about trail runs and mountain bike rides. The mountains are the first place we look at sunrise and the last thing we see before darkness closes us in. The mountains are part of us, not separate.

So when an avalanche sweeps down in the remote backcountry and two people never go home again, it feels almost like a betrayal. Of course, I know that the mountains are not safe, not ever. There are bears and high creek crossings and the sudden slip on a slick hillside. There are so many ways not to come back, but I am used to expecting that all of us will. The biggest blow is indifference. I love the mountains, but I am reminded again and again that they do not love me back.

This is not a story about the avalanche, even though this has been a bad year for avalanches -- 16 people buried in Western states by mid-February in a year I can only categorize as unusual. Low snow in the Sierras, brutal pummeling in the East, snow in Atlanta, and in our little corner, rain in February. There is a sense of unease that will take a long time to shake.

I came to the mountains as a brittle young girl, afraid of just about everything, and the mountains taught me to be brave. They taught me when to back off and when to go for it. They taught me that the best friends to have were the ones who would accompany me on a long drawn-out slog through the woods with no real destination, and that men who could carve turns like poetry were the very best kind. I still have plenty to learn from the mountains.

Once I flew in a small plane looking for a DeHavilland Beaver floatplane that had vanished somewhere in the Alaska wilderness. We flew for hours, a ragged curtain of fog lifting barely enough for us to see the peaks cloaked in green spruce. We never found anything, that day or the day after that, or any of the days that we went out looking.  In the end we sat around a small campfire, our hearts bruised, knowing that we would still visit the mountains again. We would go out again; despite all the lost souls we had known who were still out there, somewhere. We would go out again bearing with us the hope that we would make it back again to a home we knew.

So this is not a story about that, or about the avalanche. It is a story about how each death in the wilderness brings back all the other ones, all the other people you have known or maybe not even really known, but heard of, because our town is like a lot of little Western dots on a map, more like a family than a place. Out here, at the end of the road, we have to be that way, and each time someone is taken from us, it is a rip in the fabric that makes up our personal landscape.  We shoulder into our grief, learning how from the old families, those who have been here forever.

We still stare up at the mountains. We still love them. Somewhere inside, there is still delight.

Mary Emerick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News. She lives in Oregon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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