It’s difficult to nail down my exact worst day of skiing. Short of a full burial by avalanche, every other episode probably pales in comparison. I say probably because that’s what I’ve heard from survivors.
Anyway, it had to happen sooner or later.. Perhaps it’s fitting that shortly after my best pow day of the season, I treated myself to one of the worst ski days of my life. After all, the idea fits the theme of this season perfectly: best year ever last season, worst year ever this season. Why wouldn’t my life resemble Mother Nature and her manic ways?
I’ve had days like this before, but as far as I can remember, this one provided just that little extra tickle to the funny bone, assuring that it wouldn’t be classified as just an ordinary off-kilter day. In my view, days like this are largely about sheer willpower – exercising the will to come home in one piece and not letting anything get in the way of that ideal. Unfortunately, this game is played against Mother Nature, and she’s not necessarily willing to let others win.
To the good, I’ve regained my temporarily lost sense of humor since exiting in one piece. I was curious if I could compile a (relatively complete) list of factors involved in such a bad day. Here’s a stab at it:
1 Multiple days of serious sleep deprivation in a row, preceding the outing. The last time I remember being in a bed for a full 8 hours was two weeks ago.
2 Unexpected frozen rain at the lower elevation approach, soaking me and everything I was carrying.
3 My ‘Little Hotties’ hand warmers worked for about 20 minutes, instead of the usual 8+ hours. I’ve occasioned to use expired handwarmers before and found that this scenario is exactly what one can expect. However, I checked the expiration date on this package. ‘Good’ until 2015. Hmm, not really. Bummer. I hate it when products leave me out in the cold, so to speak. Maybe I’ll start calling these things ‘Little Naughties.’
4 Once I hit about 9,500 feet, visibility rolled out. Often, given time, vis returns to the patient person who waits out the opacity. Today, over a 5 hour period, I couldn’t see a useful thing unless I was right on top of it. Complete vertigo, and more than a few instances of ‘Am I moving or still? Can’t tell…” Suddenly I wonder if astronauts are subject to vertigo?
5 Around the time that vis dropped off, I was committed to ground that was largely comprised of cliffs, ridges, peaks, cornices, overhanging cornices, and other goodies. Such as a smooth, frozen layer beneath the falling snow. More on that in a bit.
6 Why wait? Trying to blindly walk the line between overhanging cornices and their steep backsides above cliffs, the new snow was cracking out and rinsing around me. Daunting. At one point I felt trapped on a ridge, with a steep rocky aspect on one side, a steep aspect above a cliff on the other side, a section in front of me that I couldn’t reach because of cracking snow, and finally, the way I’d arrived. The way I’d arrived wasn’t promising either, trust me. I stood in place for probably 10 minutes trying to figure this one out, and my exit was as convoluted as anything I’ve done in the mountains.
7 Convoluted? The wind and snow had erased some of my arrival tracks. The vis event meant I couldn’t see them when I was standing anywhere but right on top of them. This is as bad as birds eating the breadcrumbs. Further, trying to see whether an area is safe when you can’t see it is, well, stupid.
8 Conditions weren’t bad when I arrived at the higher elevations, but they deteriorated quickly as solar heat made its way through the thick mist fog cloud whatever-you-want-to-call-it. Wind had loaded some places, other areas found wet snow unwilling to stick to the frozen, icy layer beneath.
9 Despite being familiar with the terrain, of two peaks situated nearby one another (and heading for one in particular), I actually ascended the wrong one. This is not the same as being lost, but it is a very good example of not knowing precisely where you are. Further, there’s nothing quite like thinking you’re topping out a mellow summit and finding yourself staring down a nearly sheer cliff to jolt the senses. Just take my word for this.
10 Press your thumb and forefinger tightly together. That’s how close I was to digging a snow cave and waiting out the visibility infarction. But I was pretty wet – remember that rain, coupled with sweat from working hard – and not real interested in the issues this scenario would cause.
11 Having crawled up through a tiny choke between the rocks forming a decent sized drop-off, I was attempting to gain a ridge via an open (hanging) snowfield, crawling up on all fours, when the snow around me settled deeply. This is not a cool feeling. Worse, it was a total surprise since everything has been ‘so stable’ of late.
12 Arriving at my final egress from the ridge, again although familiar ground, I simply couldn’t figure out where to descend, because I couldn’t see it. What I could see were more rocks and cliffs, certainly unfamiliar and seemingly out of place. As it turned out, I was in the wrong place. Humbling. Although it seemed otherwise, the mountains had not moved. For the umpteenth time on the day, I was left asking myself all sorts of ugly questions. ‘Is that the way down?’ ‘Are you certain?’ ‘WTF?’ ‘How did I get myself here?’ ‘How did this go from bad to worse?’ ‘Are you prepared to wait the next five hours, or the night, rather than take an unnecessary risk?’ All of these were food for thought. They still are.
Any good news out of this day? (I hate to leave it on a bad note)
I got out in one piece.
The gloves I was using got soaked, then dried through, on at least three separate occasions. I can’t think of another glove that’s ever dried completely in the field, especially not that number of times.
One more lesson re-drilled in: if there’s weather happening, coupled with zero vis, consider pulling the plug immediately, or at least waiting in a safe spot if you’re going to wait it out. Pushing further into invisible, unmarked terrain (wands would have helped tremendously today) could be folly.
I got to practice my downclimbing (in snow) skills a lot. Normally, I prefer to ski my slopes, but, being picky, I do like to be able to see ‘em when there are unfamiliar terrain features below.
All told, it was a ‘learn, learn, learn’ sort of day. Mostly because the mountains have so much to teach.