True Tales: Bee Stung

A close call in the Spanish Peaks. 

We’ve always been backcountry addicts—skiing a perfect line is so much better when you’ve worked your butt off to get there. With this in mind, my boyfriend Chris and I, his two buddies, and our snowboarder friend Christina headed up Beehive Basin on a perfect January day. Panting in the back of the car was Yogi, Chris’s two-year-old black Lab. The dog accompanies Chris on every adventure, in all seasons. It wasn’t even a question to bring him.

Avalanche conditions had been moderate, but we had a combined 25 seasons of backcountry skiing experience between the three guys and myself, so I felt good about the excursion. It was a nice day for Christina’s first time in the backcountry: 28 degrees and sunny.

We skinned the three miles to Beehive Lake, planning to hike up to the southwest couloir just below the peak, then ski out. We passed remnants of some small slide debris on the way in, and I started to doubt the wisdom of pushing on with our plan.

We got to the base of Beehive Peak and stopped to dig a few avy pits as we made our way up to the couloirs. The column tests proved stable, but I still had a funny feeling. We talked it over, and the route we decided on was away from any overhead cornice. I looked up at the ridge and tried to convince myself it was a good plan.

We started hiking up, but I stopped halfway. “I think I’m going to head down,” I said to Christina. She was slogging up in snowshoes, with her board strapped to her back. “I’ll head down too,” she said.

I called to Chris, waiting near the top of the slope, letting him know our change of plans, then skied to a flat spot below the chute to wait for Christina. I glanced up at the guys’ progress, and was surprised to see Yogi—not one to be left out—climbing out across the ridge.

Yogi took a step forward, then dropped. I squinted, thinking he slipped, then saw a crack shoot across the snow and a cornice the size of a minivan break off. Yogi dropped with the snow, frantically paddling on the slide. The giant chunks of hard snow hit the slope in what seemed like slow motion, triggering a slab below the ridge, which also broke loose and gained momentum and size as it slid.

Scanning the chute, I spotted the three guys 25 feet to the right of the tumbling blocks. Then I saw Christina, still clipping into her board and frantically struggling with her boots—right in line with the slide. I bolted to the right, yelling for her to move. She barely managed to shout before the snow hit her from behind.

It felt like ages before I forced myself to look up. I saw Christina, still in a sitting position, 100 feet down the hill and covered in snow up to her waist.

I skied down and helped Christina out of the packed snow, and the guys down-climbed to us, dragging a shaking, terrified Yogi.

Somehow, Christina had ridden the toe of the slide and come out unscathed. Even Yogi had escaped without a scratch, thanks to his newfound cornice-surfing skills. It was a tough lesson, and none of us were happy with our decision to go up the slope.

Even though our avalanche pits yielded solid results, they couldn’t indicate the hazard of the cornice above. Our decision to continue our climb without considering the cornice could have proved fatal. Above all, we shouldn’t have lost track of Yogi and allowed him to run up the slope. Years in the backcountry are not a substitute for constant vigilance, and while some good lessons are learned the hard way, we were just lucky everyone made it out alive.