Photograph by Tal Roberts.

On the Razor’s Edge

Words by Kitt Doucette.

A group of friends stands on top of an untracked slope. Beautiful powder glistens below them, sparkling as the first rays of sunshine break through the clouds after last night’s storm. The hike to the top of the peak was invigorating and the endorphins are flowing. Hoots and high fives signal an unspoken understanding that this is why they are all here. Why they have chosen to live in the mountains, often sacrificing the financial security of society-approved high-paying jobs, 401(k)s, and benefits. Why they work nights and lust after low-paying jobs with flexible hours. Why they loaded their lives into the backs of their cars and trucks a few months, years, or decades before and went looking for a life spent on higher ground. Because, like most people who live in mountain towns, the mountains call to them, inspire them, humble them, and teach them. They love the mountains. In many ways, the mountains define them, and right now standing on top of this peak with their friends, anticipating the deep snow and face shots to come, they feel unquestionably alive.

There are also a few maybes on top of that peak. Maybe it’s been a slow winter and this is the first big storm, and the powder jones is at an all-time high. Maybe they’re with some long-time locals who have skied this particular slope before and promise it’s safe. Maybe there’s somebody in the group who has a chip on his shoulder and feels like he has something to prove. Maybe they’ve been skiing in-bounds at the local resort all morning and are high on powder stoke and hoping to score a few more untracked turns before the day is over. Maybe the temperature is rising and that beautiful powder below them is quickly compacting into a dangerous slab, precariously balanced on top of a weak layer of hoarfrost crystals.

They all know about the dangers of avalanches. There’s a good chance at least one person in the group knows somebody—a friend or friend of a friend—who’s been caught in an avalanche. The snow world is a small one and not a single winter passes without some skier or snowboarder getting caught and killed by an avalanche somewhere in or near a mountain town just like the one they all live in. Hopefully they’ve taken the avalanche education courses offered by local organizations and have all the requisite avalanche safety gear like beacons, shovels, and probes…