Although I can’t remember the details myself, I have imagined it so many times it seems I was there. On a crisp afternoon in the La Salle mountain range in south east Utah, avalanche forecaster Mark Yates cut his skis to a quick stop at the brow of a low saddle, spraying a cloud of fresh powder rolling down the bowl below. It was February 12, 1992 and it had been a long day.
As an employee of the national forest service, it was his job, along with a crew of five other men, to cross-country ski throughout the national forest and check the conditions of some of the most sought-after ski bowls in the La Salles. These chutes are alpine skiing at its best, but these runs can become silent death-traps if conditions are right. When an icy, rotten layer of hoar frost is covered in fresh, heavy powder, the weight of the new snow begins to build tension within the base layer. As this tension increases, the base layer can be triggered to snap by the slightest movement, causing an avalanche to come roaring down the mountainside and burying all in its path. Wide open, steep stretches on the north face of mountains – the most engaging ski routes – are especially susceptible to these deadly snow tsunamis.
This was Mark’s office. Although his work didn’t earn much, dozens of people staked their lives on it every week as he carefully evaluated the stability of the snowpacks and posted which routes to avoid on a brown weathered sign in front of the national forest office. It was a dream job for Mark. He was being paid to do what he loved most, and at the same time he was getting others out to experience the thrills of cross-country skiing. It was difficult to remember just how serious his work really was.
Mark and the rest of the forecasting crew had traversed for miles that day and all the runs were in solid condition. The first hint of evening’s chill began to bite his nose and his mind wandered to his wife and two children waiting in their small, cozy home. He smiled as he thought of his two-year-old son and his little girl who would have her first birthday in two months.
“Let’s get home,” one of the crew members panted as he glided up beside Mark and surveyed the bowl below them. “Looks like a great run!”
“I don’t know,” mumbled Mark. Something about the snow didn’t look right.
“You couldn’t find better conditions in the world!” another crew member was exclaiming as the rest of the team caught up.
“No kidding! And all the runs just tested beautifully today!”
“This has got to be the sweetest chute on the whole mountain! Let’s go!”
Mark hesitated on the ridge for a few moments as he watched the team plunge down through the powder. Then he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and let out a huge “YEE-HAAAW!” as he leapt into his turn and cut hard to the right.
Before his echo died away, a thunderous crack reverberated beneath them. None of them wondered what the sound was for more than an instant – this was an avalanche. Mark glanced over his shoulder to see a massive wall of snow rushing impossibly fast towards him. He was at the edge of the chute and was certain he could make it to the trees in time. The icy torrent came pouring over him from all sides, burying him under feet of heavy, suffocating snow. He never came home.
All my life I have tried to imagine what “Daddy Mark” was like. This is what my mom always called him around us and is still the name I remember him by. I have a few scattered memories that I cling to. I can remember his strong hands lifting me to reach the advent calendar hanging on the wall so I could open the door for that day in December and eat a small piece of chocolate; I can remember running to the door when he came home from work and climbing on his back to ride him like a horse around and around the living room; I can remember sitting on his lap in the hot tub on a cool fall night, the stars brilliant in the desert sky above, chatting with his best friend; and I can still remember the smell of his best friend’s pipe.
These memories are like a complex puzzle to me; a faint sketch lacking color and dimension. I sometimes look through old photos and wonder who Daddy Mark really was; this mysterious man with long curly hair, playful eyes and a broad grin. I listen to his voice on the few video tapes we have and imagine all the things he might have told me as I grew up.
Only in the last couple of years have I really begun to discover myself. I feel like I somehow understand Daddy Mark better. On so many levels, I deeply resonate with his interests and his interpretations of life. My mom tells me of how much he longed to experience the spiritual, mystic dimension of life; how he was fascinated by the works of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’s space trilogy and other science fiction and fantasy. He was enamored with nature, as if it was one of the last remainders of this world as it was intended to be. Even in the area of athletics he was always drawn to solo sports like rock climbing, hiking and kayaking verses team sports. I could be described in these exact words.
As I have crystalized who I am more, my quest to piece together all the memories and stories is beginning to make sense. In finding myself, I am discovering a little more of Daddy Mark.
One of the peaks in the background of the first photo is where the avalanche overtook them. The second is the memorial set up on the slope.