Vail's Avalanche Guru Talks Life and Death in the Mountains

Dale Atkins reflects on a life lived on the edge.

By Ted Katauskas February 1, 2013 Published in the Midwinter/Spring 2013 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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When I was a young boy, my father was killed in a plane crash. I was supposed to be with him that day, and I couldn’t wake up. I just couldn’t get out of bed that morning. I still remember it crystal clear: We were living in Minnesota, and he was flying down to Minneapolis for some work stuff. He was a private pilot; the plane was a Cessna 182. He had engine failure, and it crashed outside Duluth in the woods of northern Minnesota. Most people don’t walk away from plane crashes; some people do, just like some people walk away from avalanches. My dad was one of those who didn’t. It had a huge impact on me. I can’t let go of that. It keeps the little kid alive within me.

Three years later I was living in Evergreen. My friends and I would have our cross-country skis and runner sleds, and we’d go thrash around on the St. Mary’s glacier. It was as close as you could come to bobsledding in Colorado, and we’d go flying down the mountain and cross out onto the lake and onto the ice. One day when I was in junior high, it was a nasty day, blowing and snowing, and after sledding on the glacier we went to have lunch. We took a break in some trees, and when we went back up, lo and behold, the slope had avalanched. Of course at that time we thought, “Cool!” We went out and poked around in the debris and didn’t realize how dangerous it was and how lucky we were that we hadn’t been in that slide—until I got home. Then my mom straightened me out about the details. She was concerned because she had known two people who had been killed in avalanches as she was growing up.

Most of us think of snow as being soft and light and fluffy. It’s wonderful to ski in, and it’s annoying to walk through if it’s breaking over your knees, but that light, soft, powdery snow, when it’s moving as an avalanche, is traveling at the velocity and with the force of a speeding freight train. Fast-moving powder snow avalanches can blow apart steel-reinforced concrete. They will break trees that are two or three feet in diameter. Large avalanches travel at speeds of well over 100 miles per hour, so you are not going to outrun an avalanche. You may be able to escape to the side, but you are not going to be able to outrun it.

There’s a fifteen-minute time window when most avalanche victims survive. Even at thirty minutes, only one in two victims survive. But there are some very lucky victims who do survive for many hours under the snow. In the US over the last ten years, there have been a couple of people who have survived burials of up to twenty-three or twenty-four hours.

The scariest thing that ever happened to me? I was on Mount McKinley trying to rescue a climber who had fallen down the Messner Couloir. Myself and two other guys, we were the first ones to get to him, on a slope that’s over 4,000 vertical feet. And just as we were standing there right in the middle of it, starting to talk to him, all of a sudden, the whole slope just goes whoompf. That’s one of nature’s loudest ways of screaming in your ear that you’re in really dangerous avalanche conditions. We felt the snow drop beneath our feet, just a centimeter or so. I think all of our hearts stopped, expecting the whole slope to tear out, but it didn’t, and we evacuated the guy and got him down.

I’d known that sound for years and years before that, but having it happen at that point in time, it’s pure luck that it didn’t go. It was steep enough; the snow was weak enough. We were the triggers. There was just enough friction to hold it in place. Somebody was looking out for us.

There’s a story I tell that hits close to home. In February 1987, there was a bad avalanche in Breckenridge on the east side of Peak 7, which at that time was outside of the ski area. I ended up being the accident site leader on days two through four of the search. The avalanche was 1,200 feet across, almost a quarter mile or four football fields end-to-end. It broke three to seven feet deep, and crashed down the mountainside. The area to search was more than twenty acres in size; imagine a large part of Vail Village covered in snow.

Seven of the victims were buried. Three of those people had a hand or a foot or something sticking out; they were found that first afternoon by the ski patrollers and other skiers who were helping. The other four were completely buried. It took us a couple of days to find them, and we found them with probe lines, literally lining up hundreds of people to cover this huge area.

The cruel irony of nature is that for these people who were killed, they were enjoying maybe one of their greatest moments, one of the best times, and all of a sudden it ends. Danger is a wonderful thing. Danger brings excitement, there’s no doubt about it. Danger makes you feel alive, but it can also kill you.

The ski areas do a phenomenal job of creating a very safe and super-fun environment, but when it comes to avalanches they can’t eliminate the danger. They can reduce it down to almost zero, but they can never eliminate it. The problem with snow is that it’s white. I say this in seriousness: the snow always looks the same. In fact, if you look outside the ski area, it may look even better, but the dangers are all hidden in this whiteness. What a lot of skiers and riders don’t realize is that by ducking under that quarter-inch strand of rope, they go from a very safe, managed environment into the Wild West, where now they are gambling.

I want people to learn so they can recognize the dangers and make informed decisions about what they are doing. It’s not taking a single course or listening to a talk; it’s a very long process. It’s about recognizing the danger. It’s about learning to say, “No, not today—let’s come back another day.” And that’s a really hard thing to do in a sport that’s driven by passion and fueled by adrenaline.

I’ve been doing this professionally for more than thirty years, and I’m still learning, and I’m still surprised, and I’m still alive. I’m an accident trying not to happen. And I hope that doesn’t appear on my tombstone.

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