By Clark Fair
Jerry Dixon had nearly died many years before, and he was about to have another close call, but the irony of this newest narrow escape would not strike him fully until hours after the event.
Dixon was skiing beneath clear May skies with his friend, Mike Tetreau, in the mountains west of the Seward Highway near Lower Summit Lake. As morning became a warm afternoon, they climbed from the valley floor to a series of ridges and summits at nearly 4,500 feet elevation. Eventually it was time to head down, and they chose a new ridge for the final portion of their descent.
The final ridge featured several exposed rock outcroppings, and the two men kept a cautious separation between them as they maneuvered just below the rocks. While Tetreau waited, Dixon skied down and then turned left toward the ridgeline. As he turned, he kicked off a small point-release avalanche — a sloughing-off of snow, in this case a foot or two wide — dropping away from him for more than 30 feet.
But Dixon, who had spent a lifetime skiing in the mountains, didn’t stand still. He broke instantly for the safety of the nearest rocky outcrop. As he moved laterally, he heard a loud “whomp” and saw a crack shoot out in both directions from the bottom of the slide he had triggered. The crack was suddenly more than 300 feet long, and then the mountain face below it began to collapse.
As he reached the security of the rocks, the smooth slope disintegrated into a tumble of snow and ice, and spilled downward for nearly 2,000 vertical feet before rumbling to a stop in a wide deposition zone piled high with dense chunks of snow. Had he gone down with that churning mass, Dixon knew, he would not have emerged alive.
“If you were caught up in that, there’s no way you could’ve survived,” he said. “Once again, I was lucky.”
Dixon, a longtime teacher who grew up skiing on the slopes of Alta Ski Area in Utah, pondered his good fortune as he drove home to Seward.
When he arrived that evening, Dixon said, he hugged his two sons, Kipp and Pyper, and then kissed and hugged his wife, Deborah.
“My wife looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You’ve been in an avalanche, haven’t you?’ I said, ‘I set one off. If I was in it, I wouldn’t be here.’”
Sometime in the next few hours, Dixon was struck by the irony of his experience in the mountains. The avalanche had occurred on May 13, 2006, one day shy of being exactly 30 years since the most harrowing experience of his life, the first time he almost died.
It was May 14, 1976, and a 27-year-old Dixon was inside the belly of a twin-engine Volpar as it circled low over Birch Hill, just north of the Alaska smoke jumper base at Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks. Dixon and the other smoke jumpers inside the plane were preparing for their second practice jump of the day, preparing for another season of fighting fires.
Each jumper’s parachute was affixed to a static line that would pull his chute from his pack as he leapt from the airplane’s open door. As the line broke free of the top of the chute, the lower edges of the circular canopy would catch the incoming air and snap it open, buoying the smoke jumper for his descent to the ground.
The nylon parachute canopy was attached to suspension lines that, upon deployment, would angle down toward the smoke jumper’s harness into precise clusters of lines called risers, which the jumper could use for minimal steering.
The jumpers would exit the plane only about 1,000 feet above Birch Hill and would remain in the air for only one to two minutes. The idea was to practice real firefighting conditions, so the shortest jump, with the least margin for error, was preferred. In the case of a real fire, smoke jumpers need optimum accuracy. Extra time in the air can mean extra drift, and extra drift can mean landing in trees or in the fire zone itself.
Up in the plane, Dixon, a fifth-year jumper who had trained in and worked out of McCall, Idaho, stood momentarily in the open doorway, then launched himself into flight.
“Something didn’t feel right,” he wrote for the National Smokejumper Association in 2000. “The risers were tight against my face, and there was no opening shock. I pulled the risers apart and looked up to see a streamer.”
A “streamer” gets its name from its shape. It occurs when a parachute fully exits its pack but fails to open. It appears as a vertical column of fabric and does almost nothing to slow the jumper’s descent. Such a malfunction requires the jumper to take emergency action, and Dixon knew what to do.
He had trained for this eventuality, and he knew that, without a chute, he had less than 10 seconds before he would strike the ground.
Looking down, he located the handle attached to the ripcord of his reserve-chute pack, which was hanging like a small stuffed sleeping bag from his belly. He grabbed the handle and pulled, then punched the pack to release the chute. As the reserve chute shot upward, he turned his head aside and arched backward to avoid being struck in the face.
“The reserve blew past me, hesitated at the edge of the main (chute) and then flowed up alongside it,” Dixon said. “I was stunned to see it clinging to the side of the main.” Dropping at about 100 miles per hour, he pulled apart the risers to glimpse the rapidly approaching ground.
And once again, training paid off: He knew what to do.
“In my life, nothing’s been so clear. All fleeting thoughts were gone. There was almost a calm.
“My training told me to pull in the reserve and throw it out again. I grabbed the reserve lines and started pulling in the chute. Either the act of pulling or the fact that my body was arched so that I could pull harder caused the reserve to deploy. It seemed to explode, and I could actually see what appeared to be dust pulse from the canopy. (Then) the main started to billow and I was on the ground.”
Dixon landed on his back, his helmeted head smacking the ground forcefully. “My back hurt and I was in shock,” he said. “I left my chutes on the ground and walked away.”
Up in the Volpar, some of his fellow jumpers had assumed he was dead. From their perspective, he had disappeared, trailing two malfunctioning parachutes. One of the jumpers approached Dixon afterward and said, “We watched you go below the tree line. Everyone in the plane thought you went in.”
His only injury was a single herniated vertebra in his back, and he said that it was about a year before he was out of pain. But it was five more years before he was ready to jump again.
Dixon had been intrigued by smoke jumping since he had watched Richard Widmark in the 1952 film, “Red Skies Over Montana,” which is about 13 smoke jumpers who died fighting the Mann Gulch fire in 1949.
In his brief career as a smoke jumper, he said he had come to love the camaraderie of the jumper fraternity and the notion that the very nature of their jobs meant they had to rely on each other.
“You never look left; you never look right. They’re your buddies. They’re there for you,” he said. “You never wonder, ‘Will they be there?’”
Such a sense of closeness, of “brotherhood,” made it difficult for Dixon to stay away, despite his narrow escape in 1976. So in 1982 he went back to jump again.
In August 1982, he made what would turn out to be his final jump.
From a DC-3 over the rugged Salmon River wilderness in Idaho, Dixon leaped out and caught a draft that kept him aloft much longer than usual. Instead of fighting it by pulling in his chute for a more rapid descent, however, he allowed himself to drift, taking in the beauty of his surroundings for nearly seven minutes before he touched the ground.
“I was just like a bird,” he said. And that’s when he knew this jump would be his perfect ending.
Back at base days later, Dixon said he went to his squad leader and turned in his gear. The squad leader said, “I’ve never had a jumper in the middle of the day, the middle of the week, middle of a pay period, say he quit and turn in his stuff. Why?”
Dixon replied, “It took me six years to come back from a double parachute malfunction, and that last jump was just so magic. I was floating. I was flying. And that’s how I’ll always remember it.”
Thirty years after the experience over Birch Hill, all these memories would come flooding back once again, and Dixon would also recall his other numerous outdoor adventures — traversing mountain ranges, making first descents of distant mountains and dangerous streams, skiing the route of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race. He would admit that he had been lucky throughout his life, but that life was too precious not to be fully lived.
As he is fond of saying, “Every day is a gift, and every sunrise is a new beginning.”