Joy and Pain in Powder Paradise
Having skied the steep and deep glade above, I’m standing atop the Hanging Meadow on Kessler Peak’s Northeast Flank. I stare down at sparkling, windless Utah fluff on an untracked line so appealing, so ethereal, it’s irresistible. I know having shown it to my guests on the skin up, it’ll be hard NOT to ski it once they get here. Yet the consequences are frightening if it were to slide. As one partner skis up to me, I shout “Next!” and we wait. He emerges from the trees, exuberant! Eagerly, we focus on the main event: this 35-degree meadow lying on a rock slab, bounded on skiers right by a 50’ drop-off.
I’ve already decided the snow is stable today, but how does one every really know? How can I justify skiing it, even when avalanche danger is low to moderate, we’ve dug pits and employed all manner of on-the-go tests? What level of risk is acceptable for me? What about my guests? I know they wouldn’t ski this without me. And they wouldn’t hire me to ski low-angle slopes or wooded ridges all day.
I have a reputation for being willing to ski epic runs and climb big peaks with my clients. Yet in both cases, I remember an old saying, “There are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers. But there are very few old, bold mountaineers.” I have everything to live for, like most backcountry skiers. My number one job as a guide is to bring everyone home safe, every day. The summit is optional. So are the bold lines. I face an internal dialog atop every steep b-c run, especially on Kessler and Gobblers Knob, the most deadly terrain of the Wasatch. Should we ski it? I often face similar doubts when climbing the Grand Teton, Ama Dablam or Denali. Usually there I’m concerned about lightning, rockfall and iffy weather.
Turning to my guests, their excitement is palpable. I say, “This is one of my favorite lines. Isn’t it amazing? Wouldn’t be a good place for an avalanche; probably a place you only need to ski once.” I’m guiding it for the first time with these guys, but skiing it myself for maybe the 20th time. “I’ll set the skier’s right line. If you go skier’s right of my tracks, you risk skiing off a cliff! Then I’ll make a hard traverse skier’s left to that pair of Doug Firs you see about 500 feet below, standing stalwart right at the breakover.”
I drop in; ski cut right, and begin the floating dance through the bubble bath of fluff. I glance over each shoulder, bouncing from one euphoric turn to the next. Butterflies are in my stomach, but a smile is on my face as the powder billows around me. It’s a perfect day for it. But cerebrally, I can’t fully relax. I fight down the lurking fear, like I’ve learned to do when leading a runout climb, continuing up into the storm on a high peak, or dropping a line like this.
I see and feel the rollover where it steepens to 40 degrees. I make a hard cut left, compressing to impact the snow; doing my best to cause an avalanche on my terms. I stop above the tree, pull out my camera and shout next. The others ski one at a time as I shoot and they shout, or silently, blissfully reap the reward of a long hike, and often a long flight. “Wow! Unbelievable!” is the only comment. Yep, “Its what we live for isn’t it?”
The trouble is, it can also do us in. I’ve lived through a deadly avalanche; the saddest day of my life. The next week, I flew to the East Coast for my friend’s memorial with a brutal hole in the pit of my stomach. How could powder skiing have come to this? I couldn’t sleep for months. Every day it was hard to shed the feelings of guilt and despair. The support of family, friends, psychologists and consultants saw me through the darkness. I’ve lived with the consequences ever since. I’m not the same, confident person as before.
But time heals wounds, whether it’s bad layers in the snowpack, or the human emotions. Hope springs eternal. Life goes on, and so must we. If backcountry skiing is your passion, you’ll eventually return to the pursuit of powder. And the Rock House Slide Area in Big Cottonwood Canyon still holds magic for backcountry big game hunters, due to the steep, sustained nature of the runs. Yet this in combination with short approaches, terrain traps, and a relatively shallow, weak snowpack, renders it disproportionately dangerous compared to Cardiff, Broads Fork, and even the Lone Peak Wilderness. Kessler and Gobblers, in Salt Lake’s backyard, has been the site of dozens of accidents and hundreds of close calls.
One very stable day with fresh snow, we set out to ski four aspects of Kessler. Argenta Slide Path, the site of my only 20,000-foot ski tour, and dozens of epic powder days with great friends, is the skinners highway to this amazing, yet at times deadly, ski peak. Lars, Matthias and I broke the skin trail, and punched out the first 3500-foot climb in 2 hours. We dropped into the picturesque, rock-lined upper enclosure of the East Couloir, situated only 100 feet north of the summit, and guarded by a Volkswagen Bus-sized cornice. Often we stick around after skiing the Catcher’s Mitt bowl below the chute and make laps, but not today. We’re on a mission. We burn our legs for another 1800’ to the bottom; Matt throwing tele turns and Lars on AT. I’m on tele gear, but not dropping the knee.
Joyous, we hit the Cardiff Trail and schuss north to Reynolds Flat, where we planted Lars’ Hummer. Jumping in, we eat a bagel, crank up the heat and tunes, and roll back down to Argenta for lap 2. Next up is the West Couloir. We stop just short of the summit and ski the narrowing upper snowfield as it funnels into a quartzite-lined choke. This is another one of those fully-committing runs: a perfect hourglass, typically sporting a small mandatory air at the narrowest point. In the spring of 2011, it was phat and good-to-go.
But the next year a shallow, depth-hoar snowpack developed in the Wasatch. These sorts of runs couldn’t be trusted, literally until the snow melted. Yet we humans tend to remember the good snowpacks, and great runs. The first big storm of the New Year pasted Utah with 5 feet of right-side up snow equaling five inches of SWE (snow-water-equivalent;) enough to make many slopes slide. On others, it “bridged” the facets. Three days later tourers were pushing up over 35 degrees in the deeper (i.e. stronger,) lower-consequence terrain, such as Argenta Glade. Based on a 170 cm snowpit dug there, a young ripper extrapolated that facets in the West Col would be bridged. The next day, he bet his life on it. The Wasatch Backcountry Rescue patrollers that collected his remains will never be able to “unsee” the carnage.
By contrast, ten months prior to his pinball ride, the boys and I are hooting and hollering as we finished by wiggling through the perfectly-spaced, sunlit aspens on a long-low-angle alluvium. We point it down the Mineral Fork exit trail to Matt’s FJ Cruiser, parked under the Rock House. The Rock House is a tiny square building, made of purple-ish cinder blocks, built into the steep canyon wall above the north side parking pull-out for Mineral Fork. Its also the name of the Utah Department of Transportation (UDOT) avalanche control zone stretching from Mineral Fork to Argenta, under the south side of Gobblers and the NW side of Kessler.
Techno beats, another lunch and a short drive power us back up the Argenta Skin Trail. This third skin to the summit is slower. It puts us at 11,000-feet of up for the day. This time we ski east along the narrow summit ridge to “Greaseball,” another gnarly, hourglass-shaped slide path, facing Northwest. But rather than continuing through the bony narrows, we pull out of the line, each in succession, and traverse hard right to God’s Lawnmower.
My original Snowbird ski touring mentor, Fred Henion, may he rest in peace, aptly named this classic, north-facing slide path in the ‘80s. When viewed from the roadside spring near Butler Fork, the name is clearly descriptive. A steep, rocky headwall at its top faces due north: a veritable “facet factory.” This is where the avalanches originate. They mow down the evergreens in perfectly straight “trim lines” on either side of the path, hence the name. By skiing Greaseball, we avoid the rock headwall and drop into the “goods” below it. Chutes widen to meadows and rolling aspen glades continue to the highway. A glorious finish to an epic Wasatch backcountry powder day when everything went our way.
However, in the spring of 2006, we elected to skin across the top of the Lawnmower to finish a great Kessler tour on Argenta. It did not go as well. My guest and I moved cautiously from one island of safety to the next, one at time across the sweet chutes that we often ski. The last slope we needed to cross, just in the lee of the ridge, was obviously loading with the afternoon winds. I slapped it hard with my skinned ski from my safe tree, but it didn’t slide. Then I tip-toed onto it.
In my mind I asked myself, “What makes me think this fresh, chalky, shallow windslab is not going to slide?” At that very moment, it did, breaking twenty feet above me! With skins on, I couldn’t ski away. The rug was ripped out from under me, my hip hit the slab, and I was on a nightmarish carpet ride. I saw a tree and tried to grab it, but I had zero control over my trajectory.
I tumbled over a tiny cliff, like a load of laundry in a washer. Now I was hurtling backward in the White Wave. Then I smacked a tree with my hamstrings and stopped suddenly. My lower legs were on one side and my torso on the other. Had I hit with my spine or head, it would have been terrible. Instead, I was fortunately “hung-up.” Holding for dear life, waves of snow washed over me, tearing one ski off a non-releasable tele binding, stripping my sunglasses and generally pummeling me. Finally, no more snow came down. “Are you OK?” I heard Jon call from above. “No,” I said. “Should I ski down the bed surface,” he queried. “Yes!”
Removing snow from every orifice and taking stock of my condition, I could barely stand. Therefore I could ski, but not on one tele. “Can you ski down on one ski?” I asked Jon, upon his arrival. “I can try.” I stepped into his Fritschi Binding with my tele boot. It was 4:00 pm. He probably fell 20 times as we self-rescued down to the road before dark. I skied in pain and fell half as often.
We’d been lucky. A week prior, my friend, Doug Coombs, had not been so lucky in LaGrave. He slipped over the same cliff his ski partner had, attempting to rescue him. Always take your own pulse before you rush to rescue, no matter how dear the victim.I had a purple hematoma from my butt to my ankles, but I would be skiing in Europe myself 2 weeks later.
A small slab with skins on, at the same altitude on the same mountain, took another friend, fellow avalanche instructor, and UDOT forecaster, Craig Patterson, in April, 2013. When you don’t like the looks of a fresh wind deposit in steep terrain, no matter how small, don’t cross it. Or take the time to strip your skins so you have a fighting chance!Most avi-control workers and aggressive ski mountaineers have skied off moving slabs. Its part of the deal.
Craig was by himself, above the Hanging Meadow, at the apex of what we now call Patterson Ridge, the safest skinning route up Kessler. But at 10k, the prow ends. He attempted to cross a small, steep chute to get 50’ higher. We’ve all done the same thing, but this time, it was one step too far. It broke above, and pulled him down. His airbag deployed, but he sustained blunt trauma to the chest, probably by bouncing off a tree. He was on the surface, 1500 feet below, in the runout of the gullies east of Hanging Meadow.
It’s devastating and almost impossible to move on from events like these, but great days in the backcountry help. For every accident or close call, there are thousands of happy runs in avalanche terrain. The mountains give far more life than they take.Ninety-five percent of the time, the snow is stable. Cooling your jets on that other 5% is the key. Those of us who engage in the increasingly popular, high-stakes sport of “big game hunting,” appreciate the cerebral side of it, if not the consequences of the inevitable human errors.
We track the snowpack from early in the season, and know the primary avalanche problems. We use experience, snowpit tests, snow-water-equivalents, wind speeds and directions, reading snow, terrain management and the advice and input of other savvy forecasters to formulate our plans. Then in the field we must continue our due diligence: hand-pits, stomping, stepping above the track. Most of this is focused on determining if a fresh slab is sensitive. Finally we ski cut wind-drifts, steep entrances, flanks and rollovers. We ski one at a time, communicate, and find safe islands to avoid avalanching one another.
At the bottom of each run and the end of each day we’re fulfilled, gleeful and intensely alive. The sweet memories of skiing big lines with good friends last a lifetime. We’ve skied these places so often they’ve become part of us. Kessler is deadly and Gobblers is worse. These are the worst best places we love to ski. We’ve lost friends here, and so they’ve taken part of us. But if we stop coming back to them, a part of us dies.