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The aftershocks of a fatal avalanche at Yankee Doodle Lake rippled through my hometown of Nederland, Colo., long after the snow had come to rest. There were sobs of grief at Eldora Mountain Resort, consoling hugs at the Happy Trails coffee shop and a tearful memorial service at the Black Forest restaurant. I never knew Joe Despres, but I think of him every time I wander into the woods these days.
A few years ago, I moved from the East to the Rocky Mountains. Unlike the trappers who journeyed into the wilderness generations ago in search of fortune, I came for a different reason: lifestyle. I venture above treeline at every opportunity. But like all naive newcomers, my exuberance outmatches my skills.
While backcountry boarding a few years ago, I accidentally struck my dog and sliced his leg to the bone. I frantically ripped a T-shirt into bandages and wrapped the wound. He was unable to walk, so I hoisted his 75 pounds onto my shoulders and staggered for three hours through sometimes waist-deep snow until I reached my car. Exhausted to the point of collapse, I was grateful for our safe return. In the wilderness, the margin for error is river-ice thin. The avalanche at Yankee Doodle Lake has caused me to replay that lesson again and again in my head.
Joe Despres was far more skilled than I am. Six feet of muscle and lungs, he knew the mountains around Nederland like Daniel Boone knew Kentucky. Despres was familiar with the dangers. He wore an avalanche beacon, dug test pits to check the safety of the snowpack and studied avalanche precautions.
But the wilderness is full of surprises, so what happened on Nov. 28 can never be fully known. That morning, Despres, 29, and Peter Vaughn, 47, set out from Eldora for a third day of backcountry skiing in a bowl that empties into Yankee Doodle Lake, a hearty five-mile trek from the ski area.
A little before 1 p.m., Vaughn headed down the slope first, coming to rest on a slight rise. Vaughn looked up to see if his friend had begun his descent, but instead noticed the slope moving. A 400-foot-wide section of hardslab, two feet thick at the edges and five feet thick in the middle, had broken free and was charging at him. Vaughn scrambled for some rocks, but the avalanche carried him down amid slabs of snow that roared over and around him like cars racing down a freeway. The wall of snow crashed through the ice on Yankee Doodle with an impact so great it created a mini tidal wave that threw ice 20 feet up the bank on the far shore.
Suddenly, everything was deathly quiet. Vaughn opened his eyes, saw sunlight and realized he was in the lake. Summoning all his strength, Vaughn “erupted” toward the light and emerged in a freezing soup of snow, slush and ice, 190 feet from shore.
Where was Despres? While treading water, Vaughn grabbed his avalanche beacon but picked up no signal from his friend. His wet cell phone was dead. Vaughn knew he had to get out of the water or die, so he looked for the nearest shore and, for 30 minutes, swam through the frozen mire to reach land.
Vaughn had lost his gloves; he was soaked to the bone and was five miles from help. He had one option: Get to safety or freeze. So he wrapped his hands in his parka and began to run. It was 1:30 p.m.; Vaughn was in a race for his life.
At about 4 p.m., an Eldora employee saw Vaughn stumbling toward the lodge. Just after midnight, Despres’ body was pulled from beneath the ice of the lake, which had refrozen.
After the avalanche, some whispered that Despres and Vaughn should have never been “pushing the envelope” on uncertain November snows. Others said their only mistake was choosing to test their limits. “They were well prepared. They had all the right equipment and training,” says Scott Whitehead of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. “If you want to be 100 percent safe, then you don’t go into the mountains.”
Uncertainty is always your companion when you wander off the beaten path and into the wild. Moountains do not follow the rules of man. But that is why they beckon.
Paul Tolme moved to the Rockies for a fellowship at the University of Colorado and frequently explores the backcountry with his dog, Rudy.