“How was skiing?” The wife asks me this every time I return from a day in the mountains. I lean my skis, still dripping with spring snow, against the wall by the front door, put down my boots and poles, and take off my jacket. “Fine,” I say with a shrug. “We got a few runs in.” With that, I hit the shower without another word. A wise man once said that “ignorance is bliss.” I like to spread bliss around like Nutella on a bagel, because Nutella is amazing, and because if I ever told the wife what really happens in the mountains, she’d never let me go outside to play again.
You might say I lie to my wife. I prefer to think of it as telling her things on a need-to-know basis. Another wise man once said, “Shit happens.” This is especially true in the vast saga of mountain storytelling. What the women folk don’t know about our close calls and brushes with death, can’t come back to hurt us. As a result, when all us guys are loading up the car before driving back down the canyon, we look each other in the eye and swear not to tell anyone about the “incident,” “accident,” “near dismemberment experience,” whatever you want to label it. Because if ignorance is bliss, then knowledge, it stands to reason, is sorrow.
Let me preface the following story with this: it happened years ago, when my friends and I were just learning to backcountry ski. We were idiots. Our belts had zero notches, and our noggins were an empty vacuum, waiting to be filled with avalanche safety info and decades of backcountry experience. It happened at Alta. I was with my buddy Vince, and we skinned below the Pole Line up to Cardiff Pass. It was a blue bird, very warm, late season day. The avalanche forecast gave ominous warnings about wet slides late in the afternoon, but we figured if we got an early enough start, we could enjoy a few turns and be back to the trailhead before noon. Noon came and went. You can’t blame us. The day was so perfect, and the mountains so enrapturing, that we dallied atop Cardiff Peak eating lunch and drinking… juice boxes. Yes, I remember perfectly that it was juice boxes.
So there we were, sunbathing under the same sun that was cooking the snowpack to a fine, al dente sludge. The return run to Alta was on a south facing slope, where the avalanche advisory said not to go… you can see where this is going. We finally stood up, heads swimming with apple juice, and I clicked into my bindings. Vince strapped into his snowboard, and with a dorky, tail-grabby flourish that snowboarders attempt so expertly when leaping off cornices, dropped onto a steep slope. On his first turn, he triggered a wet avalanche.
The funny thing about wet slides, is that they start off really slow. I stood above it, watching in fascination as the snow crept down, hissing ominously like a trillion pissed-off felines. It didn’t take long to gain speed. I yelled at Vince and he swung off to the side, traversing to a stop on a small shoulder. The slide fanned out, collecting more saturated snow as it cascaded over rollers and rocks. The sound was even bigger than the sight. The hiss was now a roar. Slabs broke loose below the avalanche and collided with chunks of snow the size of cars dislodged beneath unfathomable tons of pressure. The slide tumbled past Vince, who was only a few feet away from the edge of the snowy river, mouth agape.
Alarmed, I looked down and saw a touring party in the skin track, right below the avalanche’s trajectory. I yelled, but they were too far away to hear. I could only hope that they would somehow become aware of the avalanche and get to safety before they were crushed like a swarm of crickets on a highway of speeding dump trucks.
The farther the slide went, the bigger it got. This thing was a monster. When the torrent hit low-angle terrain, it slowed and furrowed, collecting into rows of giant walls, dozens of feet tall. Then, the slope angle got steep again, and the slide poured into a gully, gaining horrifying speed and depth. To my relief, the touring party below were on a ridge adjacent to the gully, out of harm’s way. Boy did they get a front row seat to a brown-underwear show.
Slowly, the avalanche stopped into a morass of ice, snow, dirt, and branches. Humongous slab blocks floated atop it all like soup crackers in a thick chowder. Nobody was hurt or dead. And you know what? The skiing was awesome! The slide scoured the mountainside, leaving behind a bed surface of perfect corn. We whooped with every turn and traced the path of nature’s destruction, buoyed by adrenaline and panic that I just barely held under a thin surface of emotion. We were lucky and we knew it. Events could have unfolded much worse. We could have killed ourselves, and the skiers below us. Back at the car, we vowed that the women folk must never know.
And then there was the time I climbed an exposed, upper pitch of Frogland Buttress at Red Rocks outside Vegas, only to reach the belay station and realize that I was never actually on belay. My friend, who will remain nameless, had set up guide-mode the wrong way. Upon seeing that, chills crawled through my skin. I essentially free-soloed a 5.8 route a thousand feet above the deck, where one slip would assuredly have meant death…
But enough of that. I promised to keep the Red Rocks “incident” a secret as well. In place of truth-telling to the wife, I scripted a tale that was simply missing a few chapters – minute details about the proper use of climbing gear and technique, and the amazing process of how those two elements work together to miraculously keep climbers safe from fatal plunges off desert cliffs. You know, boring stuff. Because what the women folk don’t know, can’t hurt me.
My friends on the other hand…