I walk upright and could tease a termite out of a mound with just one stick. I’m an educated man – I’ve read stuff – and what not. And after skiing in the Lake Tahoe area for almost 10 years, crisscrossing and crossing the entire Sierra Nevada chain, and making repeated trips to Utah and Park City for 6 years running, one would think I possess a certain amount of reason when it comes to venturing out in the backcountry. But apparently that is not the case. However, before you judge me hear me out.
I live in Florida now, and I’m also a new father. The amount of ski days I got this year can be counted on one hand. So, to say I was chomping at the bit when I got to Park City last week would be an understatement. 17-inches of new snow did little to abate my excitement.
Powder Between Friends
What could be better than having nothing to do but rip endless fields of powder with good friends? Nothing. Except for here’s the problem: Occasionally, I like to earn my turns, and none of my friends on this trip wanted to hike. Furthermore, not a single one of them owns any backcountry gear. Okay, I guess I’ll simply stay in bounds and enjoy what the ski resort has to offer. But…but…look at all that untracked POW!!! Taunting me like Christmas candy and piles of cash shoved in to a well in the midst of a dry, scorching dessert. I resisted the first day…and the second.
Up until then I’d politely followed the group, accommodated late starts, pursued whims, and endured long lunches. And it didn’t really matter because Park City Mountain Resort continually served up runs of untracked powder on fun, steep terrain. One can happily ski the Jupiter and McConkey’s bowls all day long until it occurs to them that there is so much more hiding in Thaynes, King Con, or even Bonanza.
But when it came to the third day I was ready for something off-piste. Our group had made the short trip over to The Canyons Resort, and I could see many of the classic backcountry runs the ski resort is known for slowly but surely being marred by unencumbered skiers and snowboarders. I could not idly ski by any longer. So when Ninety-Nine 90 dropped us off for the third time that day, I politely waved to my party and said that I would see them at Peak 5.
The Draw of the Dutch
I quickly made my way up and out along the skier’s right ridge, stopping only for a moment at Dutch’s notch to kick out of my skis again. I began hiking up to the far peak where the snow was the most preserved, and I was at the top in no time. I took note of the fact that I was not alone, which made me feel a little safer. It was a false sense of security, however, because the beacon I was carrying offered little assurance that anyone else on the peak had one, let alone a shovel, probe, or concern for my well-being. But my run was just what we all dream of with shots of powder intermittently blinding me before arcing in to the next turn. I got down to Peak 5 and immediately decided that I would take another backcountry run – alone.
Peak 5 Slide
With great intention, I pulled the gate open at the back of Peak 5 and began hiking up the ridge. The snow was deeper than I expected and the going was slow. I felt low on energy and decided I would cut out early, catch my friends at lunch, and come back refreshed and hopefully with a companion. I was unfamiliar with my exact surroundings, but having skied along this ridge many times in past years, I nonchalantly began ripping down through the trees. I could see a substantial rise approaching, so I threw in a hard edge and abruptly stopped to get a closer look. This action immediately set off a small slide to my left and below, and while seemingly insignificant by the looks of the photos, it would have carried me over a series of rock shelves and down in to a grove of trees – alone.
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I shook this whole occurrence off quickly, traversed around the rocks, and went off to meet my friends only after enjoying a few more precious powder turns. Now here’s where it just gets plain dumb.
Not only do I know how Utah’s light snow can be, and often is, lethal, but I had just seen proof it was unstable on the very same day. But what do I proceed to go and do? Convince my friends, who are novices when it comes to the backcountry and avalanche conditions, to go and do a hike with me off the back of Peak 5. Nice!
Three of us did the hike, this time dropping the large open bowl to skier’s right. Fortunately, nothing bad happened. The run was in fact fantastic, and it was made even sweeter when we just barely caught the last lift out of there right at 4pm on the nose. But a conversation later transpired between me and one of my best childhood friends that has stuck with me ever since. He asked,
“How would you get out of an avalanche?”
Really, there are no easier answers to this question; in fact, more experts die in avalanches than any other group. The best course of action is avoidance through the proper study of snow conditions. This means taking in to account no less than the amount of recent snowfall, layers, temperature, aspect, and degree of slope. After evaluating these factors, you of course want to make sure everyone in your party is equipped with a beacon, probe, shovel, and knowledge of how to use each one of them. Even then there are inherent risks, as well as weaknesses. For example, plastic shovels are pathetic in comparison to metal blades, for the snow can be extremely difficult to dig through. Regarding beacons, I can remember besting a Squaw Valley Ski Patroller during an avalanche training course only because I had a more modern beacon. His transceiver beeped directions to the hidden victim, but my digital version literally pointed the way.
If you get caught in an avalanche you must try to stay on the surface by using a backwards swimming motion. I have a friend who pulled this one off when he slid from top to bottom in the Chutes at Mount Rose Ski Resort. He was lucky enough to have part of his face and arm sticking out when he finally came to rest, but he still had to be dug out of the binding snow. In most cases, however, the slide victim is not so lucky. Some are smashed in to trees and rocks and immediately die from the resulting trauma. Others are literally ground in to a bloody mass from lacerations and the mashing of heavy pieces of ice. None of it is pretty. As I explained all of this to my friend he said, “I’m to old for this shit – I’ve got kids!” As if waking from a pervasive fog I thought to myself, so do I.
Choosing Your Line
It is here at this point that you are possibly expecting me to say, I’ll never go out in the backcountry again. But that is not likely. What I will say is that I will always strive to ski with a buddy, choose the safest slopes possible, pack extra backcountry gear, or rent it, and always be clear with myself and any accomplices on the inherent dangers involved. Keep in mind what a rather poignant Summit County Sheriff once said, ”If you’re an adult and you want to go and risk your life, it’s your business…We just have to clean up the mess.”
Trust me, I want to avoid the mess as much as the next sane person. I used to debate with a good friend about the dangers of outdoor sports, and he would argue that a person was more likely to be killed in a car accident. I would disagree. I was still disagreeing when an earthquake dislodged a boulder on to a highway that almost killed me. My car was totaled and I was lucky to walk away from it. It pains me to think I could have died riding a proverbial groomer.
Our lines in life are rarely clean, but they are certainly made better by applying the knowledge, skills, and patience we do have. These are the attributes we need to take our pursuits out of bounds and push the limits, and still make it back to the parking lot to take our boots off when the day is done.