In the winter of ’67–’68, I was 19 and recruited for the [redacted] ski patrol. Young and very sure of myself, I had the attitude that I could ski anywhere and could handle a toboggan.
One day I was called to an accident in an advanced area. I was paired with “Dave,” an avalanche-science guru who was also one of the strongest skiers on patrol, and we took a two-man toboggan rig to the scene. We arrived to find a patient with a dislocated hip, screaming in pain. Dave was a paramedic, meaning he was allowed to carry intravenous drugs. He took a needle from his pack and gave the shot to the patient. Thirty seconds later, our patient went from screaming to smiling.
We packaged him into the sled and discussed the safest way down. I told Dave I’d skied this area a lot and I knew a chute through the cliffs. I told him to pick up his end of the toboggan and follow me.
Dave had never skied this terrain before. The line was too steep for Dave’s veteran edges, especially now that he was holding a loaded toboggan while dropping off the end of the world. We began skiing, me leading and Dave in the back. Suddenly, we began to spin. Dave passed me—still holding on to the handles. Then the sled and I flew past Dave, who popped out of his skis and began self-arresting. I hung on for dear life, thinking we could recover and make it. But the sled broke my grip. I came to a stop and watched the sled, still right-way-up, sailing down the run. I started to ski fast, in hot pursuit.
At first I thought the whole rig might shoot down into the rocky amphitheater below. Instead, it veered into a few small trees. The sled bent the trunks in half but the trees halted its progress. I arrived about a minute after it stopped. I hurried to uncover the patient from the layers of tarp and blanket and feared the worst. When I got through, the guy looked up at me. With the same druggy smile he asked, “Are we at the bottom yet?”
From that day forward, patrollers mandated the lowering of toboggans in this area with a rope.
Twenty years later I was no longer a patroller but skiing in the same area with a friend, who broke his ankle. When patrol arrived, they bundled my friend in a toboggan and radioed the plan to HQ.
“We’re headed down Donny’s Chute into the amphitheater with the patient and his friend. What’s your name, sir?”
Not knowing until that moment that the incident had gone down in local history, I answered him: “I’m Donny.”—As told to Jeff Burke