A few millimeters of metal and polyethylene cut into the snow and rock below my feet, creating just enough purchase to prevent me from falling down the 50-degree slope on which I found myself perched. Chunks of snow dislodged by my skis tumbled down the steepening gradient below me before taking flight, leaping into the unknown. With my uphill hand I had plunged the shaft of my ice axe through a foot of sugar snow and wedged the spike in between some rocks, providing me with enough security for my hyper-focus to be broken by the intruding thought, “What the fuck?”
It’s a fair question. Objectively the idea of exposing myself to this type of hazard for the sole purpose of recreation seems absurd. Subjectively I consider playing in the mountains, most of the time with skis on my feet, to be a passion far beyond mere recreation. One that has helped me form my closest friendships, influenced my moral values, and changed the way that I view my connection with this world (I think for the better). This type of personal growth can only come from challenge, and authentic challenge must involve a certain level of risk.
That’s not to say that this should be an excuse for recklessness. In thinking about managing risk I do everything I can to find the balance between experiencing the mountains in a way that fuels my passion, and making ski turns on my 100th birthday. There is greater risk in playing in the mountains than in, say, binge watching Netflix. I recognize that one day the mountains may, as a result of a mistake of my own or just a stroke of luck, refuse to grant me safe passage. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t do everything in my power to keep luck on my side. And for me the most important aspect of that is to fully assess and understand the risks of a given situation before diving in.
Unfortunately, we can’t always make perfect assessments and decisions. We don’t have perfect information. We miss clues. Heuristic traps cloud our perception of reality. The North Couloir on Red Slate in the Eastern Sierra starts with a steep traverse to gain the couloir proper. From below coverage had looked a little thin, but it was hard to tell for sure. From the top we could see about 80 percent of the traverse, and it looked doable. This was our last day in the Sierra after a week and a half of largely successful outings and perfect corn snow. And there were two sets of tracks already! I decided to go for it.
The turns off the summit were steep and exposed, but the snow was smooth and chalky. Everything felt secure and in control. About 100’ down the descent route took a hard left and traversed across a hanging snowfield. The aspect changed slightly and the snow became more sun-affected, alternating between slush and crust. I took my ice axe off my pack for added security and continued. So far so good. Towards the end of the traverse, just out of our sight on the summit, the ramp wrapped around an arete and talus began to protrude out of the shallow, faceted snowpack. Oops!
I took around ten minutes to slowly sidestep down about 15 feet of steep, mixed snow and talus. By moving methodically I was able to find stances that felt adequately secure. I took a deep breath and noticed my heart pounding in my ears when I finally reached solid snow and traversed to the top of the couloir. My partner, having seen how long it took me to traverse, assumed that it was more involved than he wanted and skied to the couloir’s alternate entrance.
This traverse ended up being above my personal level of acceptable risk but not above my ability level to navigate, and I think that is an important component of my risk tolerance. Pursuing adventures at the limit of one’s competence leaves no room for error, and a small flaw in judgement can have serious consequences. I prefer to seek out objectives that will challenge me, requiring focus and execution, but are also a couple steps below the threshold of my true ability level. That way, if I’m wrong in my initial risk assessment, I still have some wiggle room to get home safely. In this process I try to balance my goals of having inspiring experiences in the mountains and one day earning the status of a crusty old ski bum.
Reunited at the top of the North Couloir, my friend and I leap-frogged down the 40 degree fall line before enjoying a few hundred feet of perfect corn on the apron. Looking back up from the base we felt a deep gratitude for not just the successful day, or the successful trip, but for the opportunity to seek out these experiences that fill our souls. May we all continue to have these experiences, in whatever form they take, for many years to come.