The Backcountry Scene

One Step Too Many

The hum of the chainsaw fills the air of the forest, as a team of strong mountain folk, fell, buck, drag, and stack cord wood. It’s day two of a typical springtime backcountry hut woodcut. A necessary evil, for any skiing outfitter, that enables all of us to enjoy the warmth of a hut during the bittermicrosoftcrmsolutions.com cold winter nights. On average this hut burns close to eight cords of wood annually. Rick, the lead guide, has been running the saw all day crashing and bucking countless lodgepole pines. Postholing from one stand to the next, sweat drenches all the layers of his clothes clear through to the Kevlar chaps that protect him from a chain gone astray. He takes a break for water and checks the time on his phone before setting out again to finish his work for the day. The time reads 4:30pm and a message buy Windows 10 Professional product Key indicating he has a voicemail cheap windows 10 key flashes. Distracted he dials up his buy Windows 10 Professional Key mailbox and listens 1Z0-052 intently to the message. It’s from his boss regarding a trip that is scheduled to start in three nights. The message explains how the guide who was on board to lead this trip is injured and will not be able to ski. Rick is asked if he can, by chance, make a quick transition from the woodcut,300-070 vce to this four-day trip with a group of very capable and experienced skiers. He gladly returns the phone call and accepts the offer to lead this trip, as it is rare that he ever denies a chance to ski with or without guests. Afterwards, he returns to the task at hand… face cut, back cut, timber. Repeat. Two more days of woodcutting and the group skis out being well worn and tired from hauling tons of wood through wet, transitional spring time snow. Rick gets back to town with just enough time to clean himself up, wash his socks, and pack his gear for the new trip.

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The next morning Rick meets the group with his normal enthusiasm and energy. He exudes a high paced, never rest, sort of affect that helps carry him all season long, and has proven effective for pushing through the barriers of fatigue that paralyze most “normal” humans. He is the type of guide that goes hard all day, and still has energy left in the tank to split wood, play cards, and tell jokes all night long back at the hut. The group skis to the yurt where they break for a bit to fill water and refuel. Then they re-skin and climb to the top of a small peak just above their mountain refuge for a warm-up lap in a low angle bowl. A blanket of perfect spring powder is glued onto a firm layer of melt-freeze crust that is welded to the mid-pack. Stability is encouraging at first glance and the group makes two more laps in the same bowl before descending to the hut for dinner and drinks. Rick and his tail guide, Lucas, discuss the day; the conditions that exist, how these important variables will play into the trip as a whole, and what the plan will be for the next day. The conversation is brief and straight to the point, as they have had this same style discussion numerous times before. Rick thinks that the group is strong enough to climb the Center Couloir on Calvin Peak high above the hut.300-075 pdf This is a gem of cheap Windows 10 Professional Key a run, steep and narrow with two technical cruxes. One being a rock step that is often not filled in and requires side univisstasofttech.com slipping and stepping to safely pass it in control, and the next a narrow choke that creates a dogleg in the run and climbs above yet another ten-foot cliff. Both features are filled in nicely this season and appear microsoft10.com to be reasonably negotiable with skis on. It’s settled, the group will climb above the hut and split up mid-slope on Calvin Peak. Rick will climb Center with all who want to join, and Lucas will ski shorter laps in the west-facing bowl adjacent to the mouth of the chute. Both guides will stay in touch throughout the morning via radio, meet 70-410 back up for lunch, and then enjoy skiing the remainder of the afternoon together as one large group. They have a plan, and Rick retires for some long overdue rest.

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Day breaks and a low hanging stratus cloud dances gracefully in and out of the alpine basin that resembles a ballroom resting high above the yurt. The air is thick and feels burdened by moisture. The wind kicks up snow and it spins as it drifts over the surface. Oozing over gnarled White Bark statues and an age-old limestone erratic the wind finds it way into every dark corner here. It is spring, but the mountain is still apprehensive to give up winter for the year. Rick senses that the day is different than others and can’t pin down what makes it so. He chalks it up to lack of sleep and fatigue.   This factor is nothing he hasn’t been able to push through before, and surely will be able to again. Breakfast goes quickly and the entire group is moving uphill toward Calvin’s west face before 8 am- a bonus in Rick’s mind, as timing is everything in the mountains, especially during spring when the window for skiing grand lines in good snow can be brief, and missing that window can come with big costly consequences. The group makes good time ascending to the middle of the mountain where they stop for water and a snack.

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The fog still hasn’t lifted and is slowly seeping into Rick’s shirt, a different one than his trustee green silk-weight that he usually wears during the season. Pangs of superstitious guilt flow through his body for a brief moment as he thinks he’s made a mistake not wearing the shirt he always does ski touring. The break is short and conversation limited, as most people want to keep moving to stay warm. The group splits here and three skiers follow Rick’s lead as he slowly angles his skis in the direction of the Center Couloir. He feels the snow with every step and observes conditions that are very similar to the bowl they so casually skied the day before. Things are seemingly on track for the group to ascend the couloir. Rick is hopeful that the clouds will break and the group will be rewarded with stunning views of rimmed peaks and faces of rock glistening with clear water ice. As the group transitions from skinning to booting, Rick shares a story of a climb he completed in the Tetons that had conditions very similar to these. As he ascended the Middle Teton, solo, he climbed above the clouds and was basking in the sun on the peak. He told of the natural phenomenon call the Spectre Brocken that occurs when a shadow of yourself is cast onto the top of a cloud below, and the sun is situated just so that it is eclipsed behind your body. This situation creates a rainbow halo around your head.   Today could be a good day for this to happen, he states to the team.

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The snow on the upper reaches of the mountain has maintained it’s soft wintery feel, but has also acquired a rimed crust from the fog that is freezing as it connects with the surface of the snow. This is by no means going to improve the skiing experience, but the team agrees to persist upward anyway, in hopes of reaching the summit, for a chance to stand above the clouds. Progress is steady and the men make frequent stops to breathe and wipe the sweat that drips down from underneath soaked Buffs and winter hats. As they push onward, the snow becomes a bit more firm and chalky. Rick continuously digs down through the upper pack to the firm melt-freeze crust to assess its cohesiveness, and confidently determines that the two layers of concern are well bonded. Ten steps up and Rick digs his hand through the snow again and mentally catalogues whether or not the structure is consistent with what he saw just below, it is- until they reach 11,000. They stop, on the near fifty-degree slope, fifteen feet from the peak of the mountain. A hood of thick fog overhangs the summit like a medieval cloak, but Rick recognizes where he is for he has been here before. He knows the rocks that are stitched into the snowpack to his left and his right. The snow surface thumps as he plunges his toe into the mountainside. A classic drum-like hollow noise echoes through his mind and immediately halts his progress as he scans the scene to find an exit. A hard slab guards the top of the couloir like a bouncer at a nightclub. Although it seems to be small, Rick wants nothing to do with this plaque of snow so delicately perched to the side of the slope. He begins to traverse to climber’s right. He identifies, and hopes to gain a small rock spine, and then scramble to the summit, avoiding the slabby snow entirely. He verbalizes his plan in a serious tone and instructs the men below to follow his steps exactly, and to move with haste off the slope they have occupied for the last hour and a half. Crossing his left foot under his right Rick makes aggressive traversing moves, and as soon as the climber below him clambers up into his sideways line, the slab above them releases and slides.

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Rick is knocked off his feet and thrashed face first onto the slope below him. He fights and claws at the slope to right his position, but feels the skis strapped onto his back sucking him deeper into the snowpack.   Shades of light and dark flash into his view corridor as snow packs it’s way into his eyes. He gasps out for a full breath but is beaten down by the snow he has just ascended. He desperately claws to release the straps on his pack. Trying with all he has in him to free the sternum buckle and rid himself of the anchor that threatens to bury him deep under the surface. No luck; his arms are bound by the snowpack that torrentially rips downward. He is stuck in a head first position facing, what would be, the sky if the sky were at all visible, for his eyes are still filled with slushy chunks of frozen crust. His legs are violently swept up in a wave of slurry that forces them down over his head in a pose akin to a diver’s pike. He feels his body slip smoothly out of his backpack, free of his anchor, but not safe by any stretch of the imagination. A split second passes and he sails off the upper crux. Flying backwards through the air as he struggles to do something, anything he can to keep it together. However he can’t do anything and gives into the strength of the wild nature-in-motion around him. He curls into a ball but even that is impossible so he just focuses on this position in the dark eye of his mind. Landing on the slope he continuously slides down with the avalanche fighting his way somewhere. He grapples with the moving mountain and becomes sideways toward the fall line as he flies off the second cliff. Flipping over in a Lincoln Loop style barrel roll, gravity sucks him back to the earth landing him on the slick but hard quartzite bedrock snapping his wrist and cracking two ribs. He bounces down in a sideways somersault before the slide begins to slow, and the snow broadcasts out onto the apron below the Center Couloir.

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The mountain has purged all but one member of the climbing team out onto the apron, and as soon as he realizes this, Rick begins to move into rescue mode. He tries desperately to shout to the two other men who are close by on the slope, but quickly learns that the avalanche has packed too much snow into his throat that it has burned his esophagus. He vomits a stomach full of bloody snow out in front of him, and then begins to fish out his beacon from its harness underneath his half ripped jacket. His right wrist is broken now and almost useless, but somehow he manages to show the men his beacon and squeal to them to switch modes from send to search. As soon as this happens he hears a faint sound coming from just underneath the snow surface close by. It is his pack and the radio attached to it, still working and is calling his name. He quickly locates the trigger of his handheld and speaks hoarsely to his partner Lucas. Informing him of his near demise, Rick requests help urgently and Lucas responds with relieving information. Lucas has Dell Precision M3800 AC Adapter scoped out one skier high in the Center Couloir perched to the sidewall and apparently strapping skis to his feet. The skier had miraculously dived off the slide before it gained too much momentum. He had watched his partners slide away from him and left him there, exposed and vulnerable. Not knowing if he had just witnessed his friends and guide perish or if he would meet them again far below. He then slowly made his way down through the cruxes and onto the apron below.

As the group collects their gear, swears and hugs are passed around like a bottle of Jack at a bonfire. The men begin to take inventory of the gear they have lost. One skier has his skis snapped into three pieces, and the other man has lost a pole. Rick lost both poles and his sunglasses, but amazingly found his backpack and skis. When he attempts to shoulder his pack, before the evacuation back to the hut, he realizes that both buckles were still clipped together meaning he somehow slipped out of his pack in a yoga style move, impossible to recreate.

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After this incident occurred all four men involved are thankful to be alive and in disbelief they have survived a 1200’ fall that took them over two cliffs and around a dogleg that didn’t plaster them to the rock margins.   It is fairly obvious what went wrong up there. But what wasn’t so clear was why Rick felt so drawn to that run? Was it that he felt pressured by the level of experience the group had, or was he unable to think straight because of chronic fatigue? If he delivered a world-class product right out of the gate, could he ride that wave for the rest of the trip? Or was it something else? Why was he unable to detach from the goal he had set the night before? Was he greedy or selfish? Was he desensitized to hazards since he had skied so many steep lines before this one? Or was it as simple as him missing his favorite shirt? Rick spent weeks trying to wrap his head around the answers to these questions as he recovered.

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After the incident he shared his story with other skiers and climbers and used it as an example in avalanche courses he taught the following year. He learned to appreciate the soft snow that exists on mellow slopes, and understood that the mountain has an audible pulse that everyone must listen to. It is easy to get lost in the moment up high on the mountain, and become convinced that turning back is not an option, but it always is. Turning back is a skill that all skiers in the backcountry must develop. The warnings don’t always just jump out at you in some contrasting back and white billboard screaming, “don’t go”. Then when we choose to turn back we are only left to wonder if we could have ”pulled it off.” Keeping this in mind is part of the skill that must be honed just like reading a fall line or choosing the aspect with the softest snow. This is what will keep us all coming back for more, and leaving in one piece, still alive. Looking ahead to the season we are about to embark on it is important to realize how important skiing is and how much we all love the rewards it provides us with. So many lessons are learned from traveling in the mountains, and coming away from near misses alive and well. Turning back not only ensures we will stay alive one more day, but it provides us with perspective. We can only develop skill through practice, so listen to your gut this season and stay safe out there.

 

Patrick lives in Hailey, Idaho and works as a professional guide at Sun Valley Trekking.

 

 

 

Editor’s note-This story is based on real events with the participants names being changed at their request.

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Patrick Graham

Patrick Graham

Your plans for this winter?
This winter I’m excited about guiding guests on long trips into the deep Sawtooth wilderness, and exploring more of the recently burnt terrain, near our Coyote Yurt, that has opened up as a result of the Beaver Creek fire that burned in 2013.

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