Right in front of my eyes, no more than 10 feet away, I watched a snowboarder fall head first into about 4 feet of fresh powder.
What looked like a harmless, yard-sale crash with a pillow landing quickly became a mad scramble for life.
It was wild.
I was thinking the 75-minute drive to Kirkwood Mountain Resort on Friday, March 16, might be the craziest adventure of the day. Hardly.
Snow was falling hard and fast. Visibility was almost non-existent. I relied on the snow markers on each side of the road. As long as I was in between them, I knew I was still on the road. Traffic in the other direction on California Route 88 was closed from the Amador County side so I used the entire road while viewing everything through a narrow slit in my ice-covered windshield. I stopped twice to clear the ice and snow from my wipers and glass.
My partner and I got there about 45 minutes before the scheduled opening. We parked and decided to wait until it opened before walking to the chair lift.
I tried to restart my car only to find the battery had died. With feet of fresh powder on the mountain, I decided jumping the car could wait.
We headed to the lift line and came across a Kirkwood employee who told us we should go home.
"The pass is going to close and we may not even open," he said while the Kirkwood mountain operations team performed avalanche mitigation. Explosions were going off every 30 seconds or so.
Once again, with feet of fresh snow, we weren't headed anywhere, although we thought about it.
We told one person what happened and his response was, "Kirkwood told you to go home, and you're gonna listen?"
This wasn't my first rodeo and I knew they would open. His comment only solidified my resolve. And after the effort it took to get there, I wasn't leaving.
Once Chair 6 opened, the only top-of-the-mountain lift that opened, about 90 minutes late, the few hundred people in line let out a cheer.
There were howling winds and whiteout, blizzard conditions at the top. I couldn't see anything as I dropped in. The fresh snow was spectacular. The visibility was not.
The snow got better, and deeper, with every minute that passed.
But then I took a fall after clipping a rock and lost a ski. While trying to hike up a steep slope and retrieve it on one ski while my other foot post-holed in snow, I saw a snowboarder taking a similar line that I just skied. He clipped the same rock and went face first into the snow.
It was funny, at first. But then I noticed he was struggling. His legs were kicking but he couldn't get up. Then I heard screaming. "Help!"
I was no more than 10 feet away at the time and I felt so helpless, probably the same way the snowboarder felt.
I yelled for my partner, but he was about 20 feet below me and couldn't do much. I tried to make my way to him but was having little success.
I reached out my pole and started digging the snow away, trying to at least help make sure he could get oxygen. I yelled for him to grab my pole, though he probably couldn't hear a thing.
He reached out and snagged the end of my pole and I felt him use it to try and get leverage to make his way out. It wasn't working well.
But then, another skier saw what was happening. He stopped and helped haul the snowboarder out from the fresh powder.
We all sat there for a bit, stunned by the near-death experience. I know I felt like we dodged a bullet and the look on the snowboarder's face confirmed that.
It was a scary, sobering moment.
Those two hugged and the skier was quickly off. The snowboarder stayed and helped me search for my ski. After a few minutes, five others joined in the search and after about 10 minutes it was found about 10 feet away from where the main search was happening.
I couldn't thank the people enough who stopped to help me search.
My partner and I gave fist bumps to the boarder and we went our separate ways.
We hit a few more runs, but I couldn't shake the image of the buried snowboarder.
I ended up getting a jump from Kirkwood security. They quickly got me on the road where all was great until Carson Pass where Caltrans was performing avalanche control.
We waited for over two hours until we were driving again. While we were in the car, my mind kept drifting back to the almost tragedy.
I've been skiing a long time, but I've never been that close to a serious situation. And I never want to be again. I was completely shaken, and had no interest in hitting the slopes during one of the best weekends of the ski season.
It was a stark reminder that skiing is, after all, a dangerous sport — one where you take chances and those chances could cost you big time.