The Low Angle Cure for Sadness

The Odds Are Good: When 25-degree meadow skipping fights back the sad and the scary

It's hard to ignore the pull of the perfectly steep. But sometimes, slow and easy and low angle is what you need. PHOTO: Greg Von Doersten

It’s hard to ignore the pull of the perfectly steep. But sometimes, slow and easy and low angle is what you need. PHOTO: Greg Von Doersten

The way the East Vail chutes roll over, dropping out from under your skis at exactly the same rate that gravity pushes your forward, is a close-to perfect pitch. That feeling and that steepness are a big part of why we froth on powder days, and why we push the edges of terrain we know for sure is safe.

I didn’t know Tony Seibert, who died in an avalanche in East Vail earlier this month, but because I used to live in the community that his family founded, and because skiing is a tightly wound Aspen grove of a family tree, I know a lot of people who did know Seibert and who were devastated. Because we are so interconnected news travels fast. When something like that happens you can almost feel the sadness before you know the details. There’s a shitty point where the Facebook comments and the rest-in-peaces start to populate faster and faster and you think: Fuck. And then you think: Who.

There has been a lot of talk lately about blame and shame, and how to process the consequences after an avalanche. You can be theoretical and analytical about snowpack and slope angle and group dynamic, but it’s harder to quantify sadness. When someone dies in the mountains there is often a lot of “he died doing what he loved.” To make one generalization about something that can happen in a million different ways, yes. That is usually indisputably true. But that is not a check or a balance or a justification. It is only an observation, even when it’s accurate.

Those reflections happen every time. When my friend Andre died in an avalanche on Wolf Creek Pass in 2012, on the back end of a season full of fatal slides and near deadly falls, I thought really hard about whether and how I loved skiing. The answer was that I wasn’t sure. He had, unquestionably, died doing what he loved; he’d been chasing winter season-to-season for years. He’d just bought a new snowmobile, which had brought him into the sugar-crusted San Juans, where the snowpack released. After that I wasn’t sure if I could love skiing the same way I had before, after people I cared about, and who I knew made smart decisions, had died doing it. I got shirky and nervous when the snow moved under my feet. My sadness made me anti gravity.

But I had to get over it, because abandoning skiing would be even sadder. Rebecca Selig, who was with Tony when he died in East Vail, told the Vail Daily that she’s trying her hardest not to sink into self-pity, and that part of doing that was getting back on her skis. “I’ve been skiing my little heart out since I’ve been back. It’s what gives me life,” she told them.

There is compromise there. It’s hard to ignore the pull of the perfectly steep, especially on deep days, but the only way I know to fight the sadness is to go slow and easy. Avalanches have taught me to love the low angle. Not because I’m supposed to or because the forecast says to stay off certain slopes, but because 25-degree meadow skipping fights back the sad and the scary. There’s a good chance that I’m a wimp, but that’s how I’ve learned to let my body re-teach my brain.

  Last time on The Odd’s Are Good: 100 days, plus 1,000 beers, minus 15 hangovers, plus 20 pow days, equals Skiing.

Add a comment

  • Jay

    great article

  • MelOnWheels

    Heal on. Nothing wrong with low angle meadows :) nicely written. Sorry you lost your friend

  • Jen

    These same thoughts always come to my mind after one of these tragedies. Excellent writing.

  • Doug

    Nothing wrong with low angle back country slopes. 46, father of two, one in middle school, one in high school, there’s no other way for me.

    • Shredthegnarpow

      38 with two young’ins, feel the same way.

  • Rico

    Good article, good thoughts. Death really is a weird concept, especially since we will all face it sooner or later, whether it be in the back country, on piste, in a car, or on a bike.
    For me, i guess i live by: If you’re going to live on the edge, you’d better know what’s on the other side.
    <

  • Jho

    Well done Heather. Feel to heal.

    • Rob Miller

      The 30 degree rule is very important. Living in the Tahoe area we get some persistent weak layers during lower snow years. You guys know you’re ‘playing roulette’ if you venture otherwise.

  • Shredthegnarpow

    Your best article! Keep up the skiing and writing from the heart. I too was on the quick end of the phone when this slide happened. It shocks you to your core to know a ‘townie” lost a life in a place we all were told was a dangerous area. I didn’t know him, but we all share the same passion. Long live low angle.

  • BR2CB

    Skiing the back country is supposed to fun and relaxing. Skiing scared of avalanches is neither, so in mid-winter my buds and I stick to 30 degrees or less, no exceptions. Come May, that rule gets bent, then broken by June. My wife and I have never been in an avalanche, and we intend to keep it that way.

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