March 2011, Grand Teton National Park
Under a grey sky and through intermittent snow flurries, Charlie and I skinned up to and past the top of 25-Short, a 2,200-foot glade of pines on the Buck Mountain Massif. Our plan is to gain a ridge that divides the north and south forks of Avalanche Canyon and take it to the summit of Mount Wister, 11,490 feet, then ski its northeast face. But now we will ski Turkey Chute.
Charlie goes first pausing above a rollover then slices right and down to a corner and signals that he is safe. Spooning his tracks, I head toward the rollover struggling with the varied consistency of the snow. Instead of imitating his cut I make an aggressive hockey-stop at the crest of its steepness. My stomach goes sour. A glance uphill confirms that the surrounding snow is moving. As my legs are swept from under me, I initiate an abbreviated swim stroke. Arms paddling backwards, legs struggling against the anchors my skis have become, the realization of danger causes time to slow down. In this acute moment several random thoughts pop into my head.
My wife is going to be pissed.
Is the snow in the Teton’s better than the snow in the Wasatch?
Will I ever stop making mistakes?
Is skiing in the backcountry worth the risk?
In an attempt to reach my boot I stop treading snow with one arm. It’s a mistake. I feel my body succumb to the flowing snow as I roll with the slide. While my world fills with white I have one more thought about the previous fifteen seconds:
Well Louie, that wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.
Despite all of the days in the backcountry, digging pits, fondling snow, kicking cornices, cutting slopes, negotiating terrain and witnessing slides, I had ignored the warnings. Today’s forecast called for a chance of slabs sixteen inches deep in steep wind loaded terrain. While climbing out of the forest of pines the winds had been apparent, we could see snow loading in the chute and the angle was steep enough to slide. Up to this point my reaction was not panic, but knowing. I was more concerned with adjusting my turns to the heavier snow of the Teton’s than about causing a slide. The snow behaved predictably to my actions and I deserved it.
Is my wife, Jacki, really going to be pissed? Yes, but only if I don’t come home.
Three years ago Charlie, our friend Anna Gunderson and I tried to pull off another escapade in the Teton’s. Our plan was to drag sleds, loaded with gear, across Jackson Lake, set up camp then ski up to and climb the two major ice formations in Waterfalls Canyon. From the get go we were doomed.
We arrived late to our launching point, wasted more time rigging the sleds, crossed the lake and set up camp during a bluebird day. Getting to the first waterfall, the sun that felt soothing earlier was now oppressive. Soon wet avalanches on the south-facing walls began to release. Stopped at a point that would take us beneath a steep slope above the first waterfall, which led to the second, we evaluated our options.
The terrain left of the waterfall was cliffs and to the right and above was a craggy outcropping of rock. The only path for us to cross was a small zone, 100 feet wide, where there was potential for danger. The slides we had seen so far were small, but still large enough to take you for a ride. If one were to happen near the waterfall we could have easily been swept over and the consequences would be tragic.
I didn’t like it. Charlie and Anna were more optimistic and continued without me. Anna went first and then after 50 yards Charlie followed. Not far into the zone snow poured off the crag above. When it crashed onto the slope it triggered a slide. I yelled, Charlie froze and Anna screamed for direction.
The slide wasn’t fast, but there was no time to retreat. It fanned out, gained momentum and scooped her up carrying her down. She fought to stay on her feet, but the heavy wave forced her back and when it stopped, only yards from Charlie, her legs and right arm were cemented in debris. Together we retreated down canyon and watched nature at work. That afternoon we counted over twenty separate slides and I felt confident with my judgment.
Today in Turkey Chute my white moving world calmly stopped as the slide continued on without me. It funneled and ran a few hundred feet more. Facing into the slope, my legs buried to the thighs and my left arm up to the bicep, I hollered to Charlie verifying I was still with him.
You’re one lucky dog. Time to wake up Louie. This isn’t the Wasatch. You’re here to explore new terrain, not to do laps and perfect your turns.
Is the snow in the Teton’s better than the Wasatch? Not a chance, but it’s still good.
We yo-yo’d the remainder of the chute. From there we put in a tiresome skin track up Avalanche Canyon in shin-deep powder over a sponge-like base. Guessing, from within the roiling clouds and snow around us, which south facing couloir would lead us to the east shoulder of Wister Peak, we began skinning and booting 1500 feet up. Only slightly relieved to be traveling on a different aspect that wouldn’t be prone to slabs as deep as the one from earlier, I noted the wind, snow and occasional break in clouds that let in the heat of the March sun. I told myself to read the signs and make decisions constantly with regard to our immediate situation. The limited visibility to the surrounding grandeur of the Teton’s made my confidence low.
As we made our way I recalled my first brush with a slide in the Wasatch Mountains. Years ago with a stable snow pack, low avalanche forecast and after several laps on mainly north facing lines in Cardiff Fork, Jacki and I made our exit south to Alta. While the weather in the Big Cottonwood Canyon side had been calm and sunny with only a few clouds along the ridges, the Little Cottonwood Canyon side was experiencing localized snow flurries with a steady up canyon wind. Visibility jumped from all the way to the road to no more than ten feet as clouds swirled around us. Noting the wind and moving snow and suspecting loading on the face, I cut the slope to a rocky ridge out left releasing a wind slab ten inches deep. Feeling confident after skiing stable lines all day the angle of my cut was arrogantly low. The cracking snow grabbed the tails of my skis and forced me back. I tried to step out of the moving snow, but my feet went out from under. Luckily, that’s as far as I went. The crown was 70 feet wide and wrapped around the ridge crossing to a different aspect. Through a window in the clouds we could see that the slide swept the top few inches of snow down the face then spread 100 feet and wider stopping on an apron near the highway. This deflated me.
Analyzing the incident at home I realized I had presumed the weather had been the same on the south side as it had been on the north, more sheltered side. I then executed a slow ski cut and underestimated the reaction that it would produce. The slide could’ve taken me for a ride, running me through trees or over rocky bluffs, but didn’t. This was the first time questions about getting into the backcountry during winter were raised.
Today, arriving at the east ridge of Wister, Charlie and I discover an error in our navigation. We are one couloir to the east too many. An exposed rocky ridge between the final few hundred feet to the summit and us halts our progress for the day. While the clouds have thinned allowing stupendous views of Nez Perce and the South Teton to the north, Mt. Wister’s northeast face looks unbelievable and scary. Even if we had climbed the correct couloir I’m unsure I would’ve skied it. Fresh snow, constant wind and a brush with a slide have me leaning toward self-preservation. Regardless, the revealing views of the park are breathtaking. Teton granite emerging from the pristine snow illuminates future winter objectives for me. I want to ski from the summit of Wister, but today is not the day. It will have to wait.
Will I ever stop making mistakes? Not likely, but I’d like to think that with every one of them I’m learning and getting closer to being that guy who is still getting out when he’s 80 years old.
On our way up to the ridge we noted shooting cracks in the snow and were able to avoid them by sticking to the more sheltered, east side of the couloir. They were shallow and short, located both in a flared section 300 feet below as well as in the final feet leading to the ridge. From a safe observation point I watch as Charlie ski cuts the top 40 feet flushing a shallow and narrow slab of snow down. It doesn’t run far and is not very wide. Charlie continues on to a stance and takes refuge behind a small buttress of rock.
I follow his tracks and pass cautiously. This time I’m awake. I gain speed as the flare approaches then slash across stopping clear of the path. I watch the shallow slab release from my tracks. Though not very deep this one is faster and entrains more snow. Not enough to bury a skier, but enough to knock you off your feet and take you for a ride. Charlie passes again. I hear his holler, and then carve my way out of the chute and onto the apron and lower angles below. Skiing the powder confidently we both enter the south fork of Avalanche Canyon without incident.
What appeals to me about traveling in the mountains during the winter months is the dramatic scenery of old and new places filled with snow. Long shadows cast from a sun so far south. Chilling temperatures. Being surrounded by clouds that cast surreal shades of light never seen. Traveling among gnarled old-growth conifers that stand in contrast. Wobbling in ski boots with the musty smell of lichen in the air as you transition from the forgiving snow to the alpine rock. Feeling the weak rays of the sun warm your face after emerging from a shadowy climb. Reaching your intended top only to discover more enticing lines further on. Failing to obtain your objective and coming back for more. And, of course, fresh snow under foot while gliding down long runs in chutes, on faces and through glades help add to the allure.
Is it worth the risk? I don’t know, but it makes me happy.