(Last Updated On: March 27, 2017)
If you’ve spent time in the backcountry and among the mountains, then you know that every time you go out the mountains teach you a lesson. Sometimes they teach you to dig deep into your inner strength and to find something there that you didn’t know you had. Sometimes the mountains teach you lessons of inspiration and awe. But other times the mountains can come back to bite you, and teach you lessons of humility. They teach you about your pride and remind you to remain humble.
These lessons, mainly the ones of humility, are the source of the inspiration for this series of posts that we are starting. We have lost too many friends to backcountry skiing. While the events that surround fatalities are the ones we hear about the most, perhaps the ones that we should spend the most time talking about are the actual close calls. The close calls are when the mountains are trying to teach you it’s most valuable lessons. To have those go unnoticed and untalked about is a tragedy. Instead, we should be opening up our conversations about these things and analyzing them appropriately. Only then will we grow and learn from our experiences. And by talking about them, other people can learn too.
So that’s our goal behind Mountain lessons. We want other people to learn about our experiences in the mountains, how they’ve taught us lessons of humility, and how they’ve taught us to be humble. Looking back on your choices can be a great learning experience.
The air was crisp for July as we stepped out of Dave’s truck at the Fourth of July Trailhead. Though the sky brightened above, the valley was still in the midst of the shadows from the mountains that surrounded us. Dave and I were planning on a fun day of skiing in the Indian Peaks just north of Boulder, CO.
“Do you think we’ll need crampons?”, I asked.
“Nah, I was up here recently and I didn’t need them then,” Dave replied.
It was 2006 and I was on the newer side of backcountry skiing, so I took what Dave said and never questioned it. Besides, my crampons at the time were heavy as hell. So, I was game for any excuse to NOT carry them.
After putting our hiking boots on and loading our backpacks up with our skis and ski boots, we headed out toward Jasper Peak. Our plan was to ski this:
Followed by this:
We stopped for a quick bite, and of course Millie thought the food was for her too.
We had great views of nearby South Arapahoe.
And we even caught a glimpse of Long’s Peak from afar. Can you name the “gnar” in front of it?
Most of the climb, we hiked along a ridge. But, near the summit, things got a bit more interesting.
But, the views from the top were amazing, as they always are on Colorado’s high peaks.
Our first descent was pretty good for July! Dave.
We then went up to our second objective, looker’s left of our first descent down Snow Lion. We began boot-packing right up the slope. And although the slope was not particularly steep, the summer snow was particularly slippery, with an inch of slush on top of solid ice beneath.
I found myself wishing I had my crampons and was happy I had at least brought my ice axe.
I looked down at Diamond Lake below. Then I looked ahead. Boy this snow is slippery, I thought to myself. I looked down at the snow that led almost all the way to the lake below. At least if I fall, I have a clean run-out.
One, two, three, maybe four steps later…. Woosh! One foot slipped, then the other. I tried to use my ice axe to self arrest but by the time I even had a chance to think about it I was flying down the snow on my back, with my backpack weighing me down. I could not flip over to use my ice axe to self-arrest.
I skidded and skidded, faster and faster. My axe ripped from my hand and was dangling from my wrist by its leash, bouncing up and down, and I was worried it would stab me – especially my face. I gave in to the slide and instead put my other hand across my face to try to protect it. I heard one ski go flying off my backpack, and then the other. My hat had already vanished.
And then the slope became more gradual and I began to slow, eventually coming to a stop. I took a deep breath, but every inch of my body was shaking.
I looked up at Dave who had just neared the top of the line to check if he had seen. He shouted from above, “You alright?”
Well, mostly. I looked at blood that had spilled on the snow. Where did that come from? I put my hands on my face – nothing. But then I noticed blood spilling out of my glove. Did my ice ax somehow stab my hand through my glove? I quickly removed my glove, but there was not a sign of injury on my hand. Then I looked at the back of my arm. There it was. Scraped and raw, like road rash. Except, I guess it was snow rash.
Meanwhile, Dave had transitioned for the ski and was going to pick up my lost gear as he descended.
He brought both poles and both skis, but my hat remained missing. Then it was time to assess the damage. One ski was broken and the other had a broken heel piece on the binding. The straps on my borrowed backpack (mine was being repaired) had been ripped to shreds when the skis went flying in the air. But, that was it. The worst injury was probably my pride.
As we hiked back down to the trailhead, it all began to set in – just how lucky I was. There could have been rocks. There could have been a cliff. But, there wasn’t. There was only snow, and a lake. If there were ever a place to fall and take a 600-700 foot slide for life, that was a good place. Still, I never wanted to do it again. I’d already learned that Mountain Lesson.
Dave and I debriefed. He asked why I hadn’t self-arrested. And even after having guides teach me how to self-arrest in Alaska and on Mount Rainier, I realized I still needed more practice. The instinct to self-arrest needed to be immediate – a reflex. By the time I had thought about it, it was too late. I also realized I needed to practice self-arresting with heavy ski gear on my back. I was amazed at how fast that weight had made me slide on my back and I needed to know how to counteract it.
But, even with all the ice axe talk, I realized that the slide probably never would have happened in the first place if I had worn crampons. Perhaps that was the most valuable part of the lesson. Now I don’t question bringing crampons. I bring them if there’s any chance that I’ll need them. I now own a light pair of them so their weight is not a factor when lugging them around in my pack. I also tend to wear crampons more than I once did, and I wear them more often than most backcountry skiers. I don’t gauge whether I put them on or not based on what others are doing. I do it when I feel like I might need them. And who can blame me for not wanting to repeat a slide for life?
This was one of my first Mountain Lessons. And, honestly, not the only one in summer snow. Summer snow can seem benign as there is virtually no risk of avalanches. But, other hazards can lurk in summer snow that do not exist in a spring or winter snowpack. Years later, we even lost our friend Lacy after he took a slide for life in July snow while skiing as well. He didn’t make it, yet I remained virtually unscathed except a few bumps and bruises and some broken equipment. Why? An answer we immortals will never know…
Once again, the mountains had taught me many things. But I was thankful too. Thankful that the mountains had taught me in a safer place and that the injuries and damages were not worse.