Photo Cred

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas and the Apocalypse

Once again this year, with Erica being Jewish and me being indifferent, I chose Christmas as a day for adventuring in the mountains.  I mean no crowds, bluebird skies, fresh powder, and a similarly motivated friend--perfect.

I've skied the Apocalypse Couloir on Prospector's Mountain a few times, and it seemed like the right objective for this day--mid-elevation, sheltered from the wind, protected from solar heating, and it sluffs regularly enough to flush out many of the weak layers that we have in our snowpack.  It would take significant assessment and management to get it done safely, but we agreed that it was a good terrain choice for the day's hazard.

I picked up Scotty Palmer in the dark cold of Jackson on Christmas morning, and what followed was a fantastic day of adventuring in fun terrain, with wonderfully stable snow.

Putting in a fresh skintrack through low-elevation facets was slow work.  Good thing Scotty was there to keep me entertained.

39 degrees seemed like a good slope angle for digging.  Scotty found sluggish storm snow instability.  Nice scenery, too.

Prepping the first rappel.  What a lovely day!

Starting the descent into the deep, dark of the Apocalypse Couloir.
Photo: Scott Palmer

Like a fish...  Hoping that this is the final pitch before we get to skiable snow.  (Big, overhanging ice bulge just where the ropes go out of view.)

Let's put these ropes away and ski!
Photo: Scott Palmer

After stomping a ski cut with no results, Scotty commits to the line.

Mmm, good.  We found wonderful, chalky snow--great edging.
Photo: Scott Palmer

Boing, boing.

Things got narrow for a good long ways in the upper couloir.
Photo: Scott Palmer

And then widened up at the dogleg.
Photo: Scott Palmer

The ice bulge in the narrows of the lower couloir definitely wasn't going to go unroped...

...So Scotty got all newschool-freestyle-jib-jabby with his twin-tip skis on rappel.

And then skied the skinny below the rappel.  Burly.  Look at all of that ice!

For a wider ski, these Voilé Charger BC's edge rather well when the snow turns to ice.
Photo: Scott Palmer

And we're out!  Nice, soft turns to finish it up.

Another amazing day in the Tetons.  I'm thankful to be surrounded by this community of skilled and motivated ski partners to get me fired up, and then help me make good decisions.

Looking forward to the next adventure...

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Alive By Luck, Part 2

Getting off of the Deville was way more of a challenge than any of us could have expected, and brought us closer to utter disaster than we had ever been.  The guidebook describes it as being two pitches of rappelling to a snow gully that can be walked down.  The first rappel is pretty easy, and the second is steeper and a bit tricky.  It also says to bear right.  We found the top easily enough, and beginning the rappel below west-facing slopes at noon seemed like an easy decision.  The rappel would take two hours, maybe three tops, and the slopes above wouldn’t receive sun until late in the afternoon.  That was when it all went to hell.

Almost off of the rappel, feeling relieved.

After six hours and multiple pitches of rappelling, waiting, trying to find anchors, and communicating across 60 meters of windy space, touching down at the bottom of the rappel brought intense feelings of relief and release from the stress of working through a situation that felt mildly out of control.  I hit snow with 3 meters of rope left and ecstatically yelled, “It goes!” as I ran down to a shark’s-fin ridge sticking out of the 40-degree slope.  Watching the rest of the crew rappel down and gather on the fin, I completely forgot about the slopes above the rappel, reveling in the release.  The sun had traveled into the northwest sky, igniting the blue of the icefall next to us and turning the snow the same rosy gold color in which we had started the day.

With all of us off the rappel, we relaxed in the euphoria of having done it without injury, of being safe.  We forgot, or ignored, the hazard that still hung above us.  As I finished packing the rope into my pack, Jud traversed across the slope to look up the gully next door and see if that was where the rappel was supposed to end.  The rumbling was far off when he arced his turn back, like thunder in the distance on a clear day, but when he screamed we knew instantly what was wrong.  I looked up at a Niagara Falls of snow thundering over the lip of the cliff we had just rappelled down.  It eclipsed the light of the sky, and we just fled.  I ran, stumbled, and then crouched, curled up in a ball, and waited for it to hit.


It took a remarkably long time for the avalanche to touch down.  I was pretty sure that it would stay on the far side of the fin, that most of us would be out of it’s path.  The slope shook under the roar of the cascade thundering down, and then it was over.  When I stood up and looked around, pockets packed with snow from the air blast, I was amazed to see four of us on the surface.  We raced downslope with transceivers out, searching for Jud in the debris flow a few hundred feet below.  After a couple of minutes that felt like much longer we heard him screaming from down slope, out of view, demanding if we were all okay--was everybody there? 

And that made five—we were all alive.  Looking back up, the rest of the slope was empty; our gear had been carried or blown away, strewn far and wide.   We were ultimately able to retrieve almost everything—most stuff was on the surface.  I happened to step on Jud’s ski, buried 10cm down.  No longer thrilled with the release of coming off the rappel, we silently gathered ourselves together and skied down to safety and the end of the scariest day we’d ever had.

Looking back, the slide seemed enormous--maybe size D3.5. With the 500’ freefall it took over the cliff, being buried seemed like a mild consequence; had we been standing under it, we would have simply been crushed.  As it was, Jud was carried maybe 400 vertical feet, losing both skis and poles, doing his best to stay on top of the debris after ditching his pack.  When it stopped, he was buried face down, but just under the surface.   With a mere push-up, he popped himself out of the snow and grabbed his shovel and probe, ready to search for the rest of us.  It wasn’t until we had all regrouped that he realized he had bruised a rib, and would be moving gingerly for the rest of the trip.  We had come closer to losing our lives than any of us ever had before, or want to again, and for the most part we were just fine.

View from the Illeciliwat Nevé the following day.  The avalanche came from the slope above and to the left of the rappels, debris is visible below.

We were lucky—that was immediately apparent, but also a superficial assessment of what had happened.  It took weeks for me to realize the enormity of our luck.  I pride myself on my competence and ability to use good judgment in the mountains.  Our survival, however, had nothing to do with either competence or good judgment, beyond my choice to regroup on the fin.  (The debris was funneled away from us by this minute feature on the slope.)  We knew that slope above us would avalanche sometime between 6 and 6:30pm--west aspects had been going every evening.  We knew.

But we lost the bigger perspective.  Our survival was incidental.  We had given up our control; this is what scares me most.  To have my safety and that of my comrades dependent on fate, karma, luck, whatever, is to me unacceptable.  That I allowed myself to become so exposed to a hazard that I could no longer manage is terrifying to me.  That we all survived the avalanche with merely a bruised rib was LUCK, pure and simple, and I'm not proud of that.


I had to head back home pretty shortly after we got out of the mountains.  We discussed the avalanche on and off during our last day’s travel, but didn’t say much about it once the trip ended.  I haven’t spoken with any of the guys since I left, other than a couple of emails about sharing pictures.  Thoughts of the avalanche consumed me in the weeks after it happened, but I didn’t have the energy or courage to discuss it with anybody besides my wife.

As months go by and it moves further into my past, the emotion is becoming separated from the event and I am able to focus on what I can learn from the experience.  Stay focused and be attentive to what is happening to the snow around you.  Maintain situational awareness.  Be aware of human fallibility in managing avalanche hazard.  More than concrete lessons, however, what I am taking away is an ability to recognize similar situations and respond appropriately.  I know that I won’t avoid avalanche terrain in the future, but I also hope that I will never again allow myself to become so removed from control over my own safety.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Alive By Luck, Part 1

It's been a while since I posted anything here, and I happened across this account that I wrote up after a 2-week ski trip in Canada back in 2004.  It was an amazing journey--beautiful country, great skiing, and some heavy learning.  I haven't edited it much, wanting to preserve the emotion and perspective from right after the trip ended.  


When the snow settled and the wind died, I stood up slowly and looked around with trepidation.  Was that it?  Where was everybody?  What the fuck just happened?  Looking across the slope, I saw Christian getting up and Jeff already moving down towards Jay, who was gathering himself at the edge of some debris.  What about Jud?  The last I had seen him, he was screaming something as he tried to turn out of the path of the avalanche that poured off the cliffs above us.  Then I ran, and he disappeared.

It was completely unexpected, though it should not have been.  We were all so elated to get off the rappel that we forgot about everything else.   We forgot about the solar warming occurring on the snow-filled west faces above us.  We forgot about the avalanche cycle from the past few days that followed the sun’s path.   We forgot that we needed to keep moving, quickly, to get out of steep terrain.   Until that moment we had been so tuned-in to the snowpack, so cognizant of the hazard that surrounded us.  But in our relief at being off of a frustrating and mildly scary rappel we became complacent about the known hazard that had occupied our attention.  And now Jud was missing.


The Bugaboos-to-Roger’s Pass ski traverse begins at the Conrad Kane hut below the hulking granite of Bugaboo Spire and heads north across the Purcells to the Selkirks, finishing with a traverse of two huge pancake-flat glaciers, the Deville and Illecillewat Nevés, and a long descent to Roger’s.  Covering over 100 km with more than 10,000 meters of climbing it is a total “skier’s traverse” flush with multiple long, north-facing, steep powder descents and challenging skinning.  The entire traverse occurs in or under avalanche terrain, and requires constant assessment and management. I f conditions turn unstable midway through the trip the only option is to bail down a 40 km overgrown logging road in one of the river valleys that pour down from the abundant snow in the high country.

Skinning through the Bugaboos.

And making our exit.

I was a late addition to a trip put together by my buddy Jeff and some friends of his from Nelson, BC.  They had spent the last couple of months pouring over maps and arranging our mid-route food cache so that by the time I arrived in Nelson all that was left was to become acquainted with eachother before starting out.  Jud and Jay lived together outside of Nelson in a house that Jay had just bought, with parking in the front lawn and a grease pit in the backyard.  Together with Christian, a recent immigrant from Denmark, they spent the winter living on “E.I.” (employment insurance), towing each other into the backcountry around Nelson with sometimes-functional sleds, poaching the cat-skiing operations’ powder, and staying in as many of the area’s prolific backcountry huts as possible.  As a whole, they turned out to be strong, fast skiers who knew the area intimately, and had spent the winter with their heads in the snow assessing stability while skiing the ample steeps offered by the Kootenays.


Our trip began at the CMH Bugaboos Lodge, where the lovely waitresses took pity on us as we gawked at the spread enjoyed by paying clients.  After eating our fill of gourmet sandwiches and cookies, we boarded a helicopter for a brief ride to the Kane Hut.  With the departure of the helicopter came utter stillness, and deliciously quiet cold as we gazed up at the spires towering overhead.  Skiing into the Bugaboos is absolutely spectacular.  We skinned through creamy powder, surrounded by world-class alpine climbing, but for us the rock was merely the backdrop behind our reason for being there.  We wanted soft snow, cold weather, and to ski past the next horizon.  We dreamed of sweet turns and, given the remoteness of the route, we hoped to see nobody else during our two weeks out.

Fast powder, somewhere in the Purcells.

As the trip progressed, we fell into a rhythm that worked pretty well for us: up at 6am, moving later than we wanted but not too late, travel until 6 or 7 in the evening, eat dinner, go to sleep.  Repeat.  We found fantastic powder on the north aspects, and excellent firm-snow skinning on the south.  It felt good, comfortable to be out together.  Through all extremes of weather, from blistering sun to high winds and heavy snowfall, we worked efficiently together, helping each other out when it was needed, rotating through the lead and traveling at a steady pace, making avalanche hazard and route-finding decisions as a team.  We also discussed our past decisions; were they good decisions?  Did we miss anything?  Would we make the same choices again, given the information present at the time?  Most often, we were happy with the choices we had made, and comfortable with how we managed hazards.  When we weren’t, we tried to glean learning from the experience, and apply it to future situations.


Weathering the trip's first storm.

Springtime conditions along the Duncan River.

After weathering a storm at the International Hut, we crossed over to the Duncan River watershed and dropped 4500’ from cold alpine powder to wet, isothermal spring snow in the valley.  Crossing the Duncan would mark our passage from the Purcells to the Selkirks, and the finish of our traverse.  In order to get up to the route across the Selkirks, however, we put in a day of skinning that began with wet bushwhacking and ended with a bootpack to Beaver Pass through thigh-deep powder.  After a cold, windy night on the pass, we skied down to the Duncan Nevé using windows of visibility in a whiteout.  “Is the bergschrund filled-in there?”  “Can you see if it goes?”  Jay volunteered to be the guinea pig, and we breathed a huge sigh of relief as he ripped turns past the bergschrund and skied far out into the basin beyond.  Once we all cleared the slope, we built a quinzhee that became our home for 3 days as 70 mph gusts screamed past outside and 50cm of was blown past.  At one point, the wind threw Jud to the ground while he was trying to reinforce the walls sheltering our kitchen.

Recovering from the storm.  (Avalanches on Sugarloaf Mountain in the background.)

Looking back at our camp on the glacier.  (Below the peak, and just to the left.)

All of the new loading from the storm brought dramatically different avalanche conditions, as we witnessed when a size D4 slab ripped off the west face of Sugarloaf Mountain and traveled a half-kilometer across the glacier.  We tried to make a route work past the northeast shoulder of Sugarloaf but it felt bad, so we made the tough call to drop 5500’ back down to the valley and ski around to the Grand Glacier, and a different access to the Deville Nevé.  This was the only part of the route that we had to circumvent, and it added 10km and 5000’ of climbing to the route total.  Not crushing, but certainly a bummer.  During this descent and the trip around to the Grand, we watched as the sun worked the new snow and started a predictable daily avalanche cycle, with avalanches ripping a couple of hours after a given aspect received sun.  Back to traveling on frozen snow, either early or well after it had refrozen late in the day.

Waking up to a lovely morning before the climb to the Devile Nevé.

The five of us on the Deville--me, Jeff, Jud, Christian, and Jay.

The night before our climb to the Deville was probably the most spectacular of the trip.  Alpenglow lit up the Grand Glacier basin around us until late in the evening, and we all slept out under a starry sky.  We woke early, with the stars still shining above, and climbed the south-facing slopes to the Deville as the sun rose and turned the snow around us to a rosy gold color.  It was by far the best bootpacking of the trip—firm, frozen snow averaging about 40 degrees. Great climbing.  At the crest of the Deville Neve, a pancake of a glacier 5km in length, we took a group picture under bluebird skies with the peaks around Roger’s Pass in the background.  The end of the trip was in sight, and we were giddy with its closeness.