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How to Survive an Avalanche (and Ruin a Date)

How to Survive an Avalanche (and Ruin a Date)


This essay is a guest submission by Elizabeth Pimentel. She has written for the Washington Post, Salon, and NY Daily News.

Valentine’s Day can conjure visions of romance, but for some it brings back memories of relationships that didn’t take off. Falling into the latter category is my hot blind date when I found myself on a deserted mountainside two hours from civilization with a man I feared might kill me.

At 28, I’d just completed a grueling graduate program that left no time for dating. So I was overjoyed when a mutual friend set us up. We were both young professionals living in Denver – Rob was a brilliant researcher for a high-tech company in Boulder, and I was a recently graduated physical therapist. Cross-country skiers, we shared a love of the Rocky Mountains and chose a back-country ski expedition as our first rendezvous. Rob was tall and fit, and his clean-cut appearance exuded an All-American handsomeness. I was attracted to more than his interest in the frozen peaks and fantasized that our trip would include some serious heat.

Rob easily broke trail through the softening pristine flakes. I followed close behind in the tread made by his skis, hoping that we’d share more than drinks later. Yet, as we talked, our political differences became apparent. When I praised Bob Dylan’s latest album he replied, “I’m really into Ted Nugent.” Still, I saw him as the conservative yin to my bohemian yang. When Rob’s hand touched mine while sharing his trail mix, it was electric.

“This could be risky,” he said. I was heartened, assuming he was referring to our sizzling chemistry. But as he peered at the deserted open bowl of virgin snow which lay ahead dropping hundreds of feet below us, he added, “It’s been warm, and that means the new layer could break away from the older one, and there aren’t any trees to anchor it. This might cause an avalanche. We’ve got to be careful.”

“Should we turn back?” I asked, disappointed.

“No need for that. Can you get something out of my backpack?”

I unzipped the compartment and reached in, expecting to find a compass, camera or map. But my hand grasped the cold, hard metal, and as I pulled it out I shuddered to see what I held. Speechless, I looked up at Rob as he took his .38 special snub nosed revolver from my hand, as nonchalantly as if I were offering him a joint.

I’d never laid hands on a real gun before. My father, a high school principal, was the cerebral, intellectual type, and didn’t hunt, much less own a firearm. I was raised in a staid Massachusetts town, then schooled at New York University, part of the make love, not war generation. Weaponry was never a part of my culture. When I moved to Colorado, I learned that arms were a component of many people’s everyday existence. Yet I never got used to the sight of a rifle hung above the back window of a pickup truck. The artists, craftspeople and academics I hung out with considered the NRA to be suspect.

Finally, I found my words.

“What are you going to do with that thing?” I asked.

“I’m going to create an avalanche so we can pass safely by, once it’s over,” he said, fingering its trigger.

I quickly did a cost/benefit analysis in my mind. He wanted to disturb the tranquility of this wilderness by shooting his pistol into the air in order to create a snowslide under his regulation. I wondered if that was even possible. There could be skiers, snowshoe-ers, or animals below that we couldn’t see. If he did create a “controlled” avalanche, I questioned if it would be stable enough for us to pass. It could backfire and bury us. And I doubted the actual risk of one occurring if he didn’t do anything.

Avalanche seemed minor compared to the landslide that was going on in my brain: What if he knew nothing about them and just wanted to use his weapon for fun? What kind of person took a handgun on a blind date anyway? The thought that he might use it to threaten or kill me entered my mind, and as much as I tried to dismiss it, stuck there like wet snow to skis. I didn’t understand how I could be so stupid as to be out in the middle of nowhere with someone I didn’t even know – a possible loose cannon – who was wielding a pistol. Suddenly our little ski trip became a psychological thriller – Girl on the Mountain Meets Psycho – with me as the victim. I couldn’t let him see the fear building up inside.

“I really think we should head back the way we came,” I said, as calmly as I could.

He held the handgun above his head and pointed it into the air. “Just one shot, and if there’s any unstable snow, we’ll know.”

I knew I had to get out of there. I felt completely out of control. “Seriously, Rob, no need to shoot. I’m ready to go home.”

He looked straight at me, trying to decide. “OK,” he finally said, “you can put this back,” and handed me the firearm.

I tried to act blasé while I gingerly placed it securely into his bag. I let him lead the way to the base of the mountain, not because I needed him to tamp down the snow, but because I wanted to keep an eye on him.

I must have hidden my anxiety well, because he asked me out again, an offer I turned down. For the next week flowers from Rob were delivered to my doorstep nearly every day.

“For my mountain woman,” read his first note. “I miss you,” said his last.

He eventually got the message that I had lost my fascination with him, although I don’t think he ever realized why. I learned a valuable lesson: Don’t leave civilization with a total stranger – someone you don’t yet trust. I started vetting all future blind dates by quizzing them on where they stood on the Second Amendment, just to be safe. Since then I’ve learned to appreciate that there are conscientious owners of firearms, although I believe they should divulge if they are carrying a Saturday-night special while in my company. So-called “responsible” gun owners don’t always make responsible decisions.

Within a few years I moved to The Bronx and married my pro-gun-control, anti-war husband. We raised three sons without any war toys.

I can’t help but imagine that Rob and I might have had a loving, romantic relationship. Too bad that when he showed me he was packin’ heat, it wasn’t the kind I wanted.

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