Fatherly

What Happened When I Lost My Son on the Mountain

We were on spring break in Santa Fe and the local ski hill decided to stay open for an extra week because late storms brought an abundance of snow. The locals must have missed the memo, however, since there were only a handful of other skiers and riders up there with us. That was just the way we liked it.

Skiing powder with your family is an experience that takes years and long days of commitment (and whining) to make happen. My kids — Isa, 13, and Kieran, 10 — don’t remember when they first strapped on skis. That was intentional: My wife Radha and I have spent countless days with our kids up at Colorado’s Eldora, our local resort. We also traveled across North America, from Kicking Horse, British Columbia, to Taos, New Mexico, touring the slopes. It takes a lot of work to prepare kids for the mountain. So when you finally reach the point where they just hop on the lift with you and jet off down the slope seeking out stashes on the sides of the piste or little rabbit-warren-like runs through the woods, you can finally enjoy it as a parent. This day was one of those big payoffs. Until, that is, my son disappeared.

Kieran is at the stage now where he gets to the top of a run, points his skis, and goes all the way. His sister is more analytical, stopping more, looking for tree-runs or places to play on the side. Both love to play in the trees, hopping through like Ewoks and finding open spaces at high speed in the soft snow. But Kieran loves bombing the groomers, too. We tend to let him go at his own pace which, yes, can be damn scary. There’s a bit of a runway vibe to the way he darts down the mountain and this always makes me nervous because the biggest threat on a ski/snowboard hill is always other people: You never know just how in control they really are, or where they will turn, or if they will slam right into you. But Kieran’s learned well. He just stops at the bottom and waits, occasionally tossing his poles on the snow and lying down in a state of slopeside ennui while he waits.

I could see Isa and Radha to the left below me, so I followed them and caught up. We all stopped. But my son wasn’t there. 

That day in New Mexico, I had to stop and fix my gloves at the top of a run. Since I can ski faster than anyone in my family, I let them go ahead and figured I’d get to knock out a fast run of my own and catch up. Not too far down, this run split. I could see Isa and Radha to the left below me, so I followed them and caught up. We all stopped. But my son wasn’t there.

“Where’s Kieran?”

Was he below us? Nowhere to be seen. In the trees? Nothing nearby. We poked in the trees a bit, called his name. Silence. No reason to panic yet. He could have just kept going. But no one saw him in front. Okay, still no reason to panic. There was a CAT road below us that bisected both runs. I skied down to it and skated slightly up the road to reach the other run. I looked up and down. Nothing. I didn’t have any real panic yet. He could just be at the bottom of the lift. But then the thought hit me of just how large a ski area, even as small a one as this in Santa Fe, is. How many places there are where you could lose a kid. How cellphones didn’t work. How we didn’t have the (very smart option) of short-wave radios.

Then I began to panic. Do I fishbone up the slope, looking for him in case he crashed? Do I just go to the bottom of the lift? If he’s not there, do I take the time to ride all the way back up and sweep down trying to find him? Could he be hurt? Finally: Shit. My kid is missing.

Skiing and snowboarding are inherently dangerous. You’re reminded of that every time you sign a release when you buy a lift ticket or get your bindings adjusted. Snow is an unstable medium. You fly down a mountain, gloriously tuned to your own balance. You are attached to so little, relying on only boots and boards. There’s no other way humans can move so fast on the ground using such basic technology. That fine line between falling and flying is what makes the sport so wonderful and what makes me want to share it with my kids.

It’s also what makes it so precipitous. I have had several friends perish in avalanches. I have reported on a snowboarder who, riding on his own, flipped and got stuck in a tree well and suffocated to death as well as skiers, one of them a teen, who died in avalanches inside ski area boundaries. I also have a friend who took a horrific tumble in a steep couloir in Jackson Hole. The incident left her with a traumatic head injury from which she has been recovering for years. Skiing can be an unforgiving endeavor.

That fine line between falling and flying is what makes skiing so wonderful and what makes me want to share it with my kids.

And yet, the sport is worth it. There are ways to mitigate the dangers: respecting closures, wearing helmets, skiing in control, and using solid mountain judgment. This latter term means understanding risks, reacting to the situation on the hill, and, most of all, not panicking when something goes wrong. Part of teaching my kids how to ski included passing down these all-important skills. I know you can’t protect kids forever. The best thing you can teach them is self-confidence and self-reliance. Skiing does that. But, man, is it hard to let go as a parent.

I waited. I called out Kieran’s name a few more times. I thought more about what exactly would be the next best move. But then I did as any father should when faced with the reality that your child is in a situation without you: I trusted I’d prepared him as best I could for whatever he was experiencing. I hoped I’d done enough.

Then, after one more round of calling his name, I heard him respond. He came whizzing down a series of moguls right about me. He was navigating them fast and as skillfully as I have ever seen him ski. He was breathing hard.

As it turns out, he did go right at the trail split where the rest of us went left. And he decided to play in the thick trees on the side of the run. There, he took a spill and ended up stuck in deep snow, his ski tips buried far below and arms splayed in front of him. He struggled but could not get out. But he did not panic. This kid who will whine like mad if we’re walking the dog a little further than usual in our neighborhood or if I make him clean the yard or take out the trash, he saw a sapling nearby, grabbed it, and used it to extract himself. And then he headed down to find us. Solid mountain judgment.

Kieran and I met up with his mom and sister and skied down the mountain as a family. Later, we talked about what happened and about fear; about making a mistake and having to deal with it; and we talked about how all this has taught him a lesson I could never teach. This is the way we learn through experience, I say.

My son knows now not to ski in the trees when he’s by himself and not to take off on his family. And yes, I know we all are slow learners and will undoubtedly make some mistakes again. But at least I’m sure that Kieran will think a bit more about these types of situations and know that he has the confidence to handle himself when things go south, on and off the mountain.