We were standing at the bottom of the American Flyer lift, chattering excitedly about our end-of-season party, when the call went out. A few of the women from my Women’s Wednesday ski group jumped at the piercing sound of my pager.
“All available Summit County Rescue Group members, report to Copper Mountain’s Corn lot for an avalanche, tracks in and no tracks out,” the dispatcher said. I spun around; the Corn lot was right behind us. Up above, on one of the peaks of the Ten Mile Range, I could see the slide. It was in the “Y” chute of what we commonly referred to as the sky chutes, because the shape of three narrow avalanche chutes resembled the letters S, K and Y.
Several of the women looked disappointed, knowing that meant I wouldn’t be at the party after all. I made my apologies and promised to be there later if the tracks proved to be a false alarm.
Ten minutes later, I was one of the first members to arrive at the Corn lot. Somehow, there were already a couple of news trucks there, as well as Copper’s ski patrol and some fire trucks.
Dan Burnett and Joe Ben were both giving orders, not all of them consistent.
“I’m giving a briefing in a couple minutes; go stand over by Rescue 3,” Joe Ben said.
“Get your gear on and get ready to go,” Dan said a minute later. “You can wait over by the trailhead.” Having witnessed the “too many chiefs and not enough Indians” scenario plenty of times before, I just waited to see what would happen.
As other members arrived, I listened to radio transmissions between Copper ski patrol, our mission coordinators, and the Flight for Life pilot, who was on his way in. There were actually three slides; one in the Y chute, one in the K chute, and one on the other side of the range, in Breckenridge. Breck ski patrol was on the way up on their side. After the slide in the Y chute, into which we could see three tracks and none coming out, an anonymous phone call had been made to the Copper ski patrol. The caller stated that “we” were the tracks going in, and everyone was out and OK. Then the caller hung up before anyone could ask his identity or get details. Problem was, with three separate slides, we couldn’t be sure there was no one else in there.
The scene was quickly becoming one of those media frenzies. The Flight for Life chopper landed in the parking lot, which now had three news trucks, our three trucks, and a couple fire engines. The News 4 chopper circled above. I stood by Rescue 2, where Billy and Shawn leaned on the hood and peered up at the Y chute through a pair of binoculars.
“There’s no way I’m going in there,” Billy said. “Look at the hangfire at the top of the chute.” Shawn nodded in agreement.
“I wouldn’t go in either, not unless we can do something to knock that down,” he said.
Dan Burnett came by and told us to get geared up again.
“You and Tom are going in first,” he said. Tom and I already had our snowshoes on. We looked at each other and shrugged. I knew they wouldn’t let us go in if it wasn’t safe.
Finally, Joe Ben gathered everyone for an official briefing.
“Here’s the situation. The Breck ski patrol is going back down to get some charges to throw on the top of the chute. That may or may not make it safe for us to go up from this side. In the meantime, we’ve had a second anonymous call from a party who says that he set off the avalanche but is now on the road driving away. We know that can’t be true or we would have seen him come out. There’s a good chance the caller made the tracks we see going in, but we can’t rule out that there are others. While we’re waiting for Breck, the Flights pilot is going up to see if he can find any tracks out. So, everyone is just hanging out for a while.”
We milled around the parking lot, watching the reporters interviewing Dan and Mike Schmitt. Pat, the Flights pilot, took off alone so he could be light enough to hover low over the trees. Denise and Tom and I watched, listening to the radio transmissions. The chopper seemed impossibly low at times; from where we stood, he almost seemed to touch the treetops. He started at the top of the chute where the tracks were and moved slowly down the chute.
“I think I see some tracks out,” he radioed, finally. “Yes, definitely, three tracks out. I’m following them…I see some backpacks…something moving…I see them! They’re running! They’re trying to hide from us!” he crowed. He was laughing. I heard a collective murmur from the crowd gathered around the mission coordinators. I don’t think we’d ever had anyone run from us before, at least not in a long time.
Joe Ben ordered Brian Taylor and Shawn to grab a couple snowmobiles and head into the bottom of the chute to pick up our eluders. They took off fast, headed in by the Wheeler Trail. We watched as the Flights chopper remained hovering above to guide Taylor and Shawn.
Some people began to pack up and leave, now that we were sure the tracks in belonged to people who were alive and unburied. But I stayed, standing in a circle of equally curious rescuers, wanting to catch a glimpse of the three skiers. What would cause someone to hide from us? Were they afraid of being charged for our services, and for the helicopter? Or had they done something else?
After about 20 minutes, three men walked sullenly out into the parking lot with Taylor and Shawn following behind. I squinted at them from a distance as TV cameras swarmed. Something looked familiar about the short guy in front, whom I heard snapping at one of the reporters.
“Yeah, of course we’re embarrassed! We tried to do the right thing by calling,” he said to the reporter, who continued to follow him.
“Oh my god…” I said slowly, as I recognized Jed Haupt, and behind him, Mike McFarland. Fellow ski instructors from Copper. I didn’t recognize the third man.
“You know them?” Glen asked incredulously. Everyone turned to stare at me.
“Yeah, I know them. Hell, I’m supposed to go on a hut trip with them next week!”
As Taylor led the fugitives to Rescue 3 to be interviewed by a Sheriff’s Office deputy, I ducked out of the crowd and ran up to Jed, who looked thoroughly miserable. I could only assume that he thought he was about to be charged thousands of dollars for his “rescue.”
“Don’t worry,” I said to him just before he was ushered into the back of Rescue 3. “You aren’t really in trouble.”
I was to regret those words later, especially since there was a cameraman right behind me and they were aired on the evening news. While Jed, Mike, and a guy who turned out to be Mike’s brother were dealt with by various angry officials, I learned the reason they had run from us and thus, the reason why my assurances were dead wrong. They had cut a rope at Breckenridge in order to ski the sky chutes without having to hike up. That was illegal for anyone; but for a ski instructor, it could mean losing their jobs.
I tried to sort out conflicting feelings of anger, embarrassment, loyalty to my SAR teammates, and sympathy for Jed and Mike as I waited for them to come out of Rescue 3. Teammates kept asking me questions—how do you know them? Why did they do this? How could you hang out with people like that?—and at one point Glen got angry and began yelling at me. I knew he was just angry at the situation and the waste of our time, and he couldn’t get to the three men to vent his feelings at them. It was hard to take, all the same.
“Glen, I really don’t think I deserve to be talked to like this,” I told him finally. Shawn patted me on the back and told me to stand up for myself. I could feel it though; everyone was looking at me doubtfully, wondering about the company I kept. Glen just happened to be the only person who wasn’t keeping quiet about it. It might take a long time to overcome the ill feelings left by this incident.
A couple days later, after the media frenzy subsided, I decided that my delinquent friends had done the best they could under the circumstances. Once caught, they immediately admitted guilt, expressed remorse, and apologized to everyone involved. They wrote letters to the Sheriff’s Office and the rescue group and requested a meeting with ski school management. The incident had become a much-talked-about fiasco all over the county as well as at Copper Mountain, so I decided to be as supportive as I could be. I called Copper’s general manager to put in a good word, telling him that Jed and Mike had been upstanding with my teammates once they were cornered. In the end, no one was fired, and I was eventually forgiven for having “bad friends.”
But for the hut trip the following week, I put out an email to the entire 20 people in the group: “Bring avy gear, be smart, and be safe. Anyone who makes me nervous will be tied up and locked in the cabin.” My boyfriend even brought a rope, just in case.