“There’s been an avalanche.” Joey said as soon as I picked up the phone, stopping me mid-rant about my to-do list. “I wanted you to know. I’m heading to the mountain and might not have cell service.”
“What? Where?” I wedged the phone between my neck and shoulders as my hands were covered in clay.
“Chair five. They’re saying multiple burials.” He said in a small voice.
An image of a billowing, white tsunami crashing down, a vast blank slate covering hidden mothers, sons, friends – flailing arms buried in concrete slabs of snow flashed before me.
“I’ll let you know more as soon as I can.” His voice caught on the last words.
“Are you crying?”
“Yes.” He whispered.
“Okay, baby. I love you. Be safe.”
“I love you, too.”
I got up from the potter’s wheel and washed my hands. My friend Isabel arrived and I told her the news. Her 11-year-old son was competing on the mountain that morning. She called her son. No answer. She called his coach. No answer. She called her husband. No answer. Johnny’s on the other side of the mountain, she consoled herself. After an hour of waiting, we found out he was safe and the mountain had been shut down.
Three people had been buried. One of Joey’s co-worker’s friends was preparing to open chair five when the avalanche broke, furiously tumbled down, smashed into him, hurtled him 50 feet and buried him two feet deep. Thankfully he landed rightside up, otherwise he might have dug in the wrong direction. But he did free himself, as did the other two people. Had the avalanche happened an hour later, the popular run would have been filled with people – flailing arms buried in concrete slabs of snow.
Joey closed the highway, allowing only emergency vehicles and mountain employees trained in avalanche rescue to pass. They marched for hours up the hill in rows of 50 or more across, probing for bodies. Dogs sniffed. Frantic parents whose children were in ski school tried to break the barrier and had to be consoled. Frustrated tourists wanted their cars left at the main lodge, but were turned away. So, they went to the bars and drank instead. Meanwhile, locals called friends and family making sure no one was missing.
“It was a mass exodus,” Joey said with a shiver. “People were skiing through the trees, people’s yards, down the highway. Scurrying masses of people running from a natural disaster.”
They searched until dark and would start again with the rising sun. The evening passed in eerie stillness. Quite shaken, we waited to hear the tremendous news: no one was seriously hurt or missing.
Three days later I returned to the mountain. I skied over small debris spewed out from the avalanche. Riding on a chair lift, I looked at the 300-foot fracture lined in the snow indicating where the avalanche broke and the crowds of people skiing on the run below. I trembled thinking of a massive tragedy nearly avoided just as the woman on the lift said to her husband, “Wouldn’t it have been amazing to watch the avalanche come down?” As if it were a television show.
It’s the first time I played my Mammoth local card as I tried to explain what that day and night had felt like. Multiple burials. Flailing arms buried in concrete slabs of snow.
“The mountain did a great job,” she affirmed.
We were lucky, I thought.
“It’s a wakeup call for sure,” she said with a slightly imperious tone.
I would like to think that she spoke of the fragility of life, the incalculable treasure of humanity, but I got the feeling she was referencing effective resort management. As if mountain workers, CalTrans and first responders are nothing more than robots programmed to keep her life running smoothly. It reminded me of the guy on Facebook who wrote they should have brought in more employees to keep the mountain open so he could keep skiing. They called in more employees… to find bodies, you self-absorbed ass. The retorts were merciless.
I wonder if natural disasters are an act of a sentient universe intended to prod us reconnect to our humanity with stark clarity? Is this the Spirit World’s attempt to awaken our compassion for others’ suffering? And can I extend my patience for those who are still too asleep in their unconsciousness to see their inconvenience is nothing more than an attachment to a plan, agenda or schedule? Could I move the needle by simply holding tight to Joey and telling him how much I love him, to shower my children with far more admiration and adoration than admonishments and always prioritize loved ones over my to-do list? What if we all actually stopped long enough to truly see each other without waiting for tragedy to strike? What if the gloss of our manufactured lives was replaced by the wonder of another sunrise?