February 19, 2013 | Posted in:Snowboarding
Hindsight is always 20/20, but in the moment there are a lot of factors that can send our decision making process awry, inevitably leading us down a path that might be less than ideal. For instance, Friday afternoon I knew I had plans for a big tour the following morning – yet after attending happy hour at 4, then migrating to an art show with a free keg, the logical decision to go home, pack and set my alarm for 5 am was lost to me. No, in the moment, meeting a friend in Ballard for drinks sounded much more logical. As was the shot of tequila at 1 am.
This was the first of several decisions that, at the time sounded logical, yet proved to be tragically flawed. I did manage to drag myself out of bed in the morning, but the drive to the mountain was rough.
Our original plan was to ride Jove peak, but the rain and the hangover made us change our minds. Instead, Ben and I decided to join up with a few other guys who were planning a more mellow day. After what seemed like an eternity of staring at a map, we finally took off – our destination, Lichtenberg Mountain, not too far away.
There was a strong contention among the group on how to navigate in the backcountry. On one end of the spectrum lie Ben and myself. We both rely on our knowledge of the area, having toured the area before and studied maps while at home. We don’t set fixed objectives, but are willing to adapt to the conditions and the environment. After all, half of the fun is getting out and exploring new areas and the best way to do this is to allow you to wander. On the other end of the spectrum lies Ryan. On the approach we were following a forest service road. It’s incredibly easy to follow. After all, it is a road. Not to mention we had agreed about our turnoff point, at the first switchback – A prominent feature that is damn near impossible to miss. Still, Ryan opts to stop every ten minutes to check our location on his GPS to make sure we were still on track.
It made for a long, slow approach (something I didn’t particularly mind as the hangover was still kicking my ass), with frequent stops and lengthy discussions about whether we were going the “right way”. I never really got the sense of exploration that I enjoy while touring. At some point, you need to be able to just look up and make a decision based on what lay in front of you. Is it good to have a plan? Definitely. Should you force yourself to always adhere to the plan? Nope.
Eventually we made it to Lichtenwasser Lake, a high alpine lake sitting not too far below the summit of Lichtenberg Mountain. The hangover had subsided and I was starting to gain energy. Perhaps the shift from a light rain to a steady snow was helping lift my spirits as well.
With Lichtenberg directly ahead of us, we split up. Ben and I opted to follow a direct approach; the others followed Ryan – taking a circuitous route along a ridge. After a nice little lunch break, Ben and I greeted the others when their route eventually met ours just below the summit. Neither was “right” nor was either approach “wrong”. They were just different. We followed our own decisions, informed by different information. We both made it to the same place in the end and that’s what counts.
There are two peaks on Lichtenberg, the true summit and a slightly lower peak just to the west, separated by a short saddle. We were just below the eastern summit and it looked fairly easy to access. It was a distinct point, but there was a snow ramp that ran all the way to the top. Ben and I decided to climb it. Sure, we would get a couple of turns, but we were climbing it purely because it was so close.
With the summit less than 100 feet away, our plan started to deteriorate. The snow was well bonded, but was on top of smooth rock and there was a large air pocket between the snow and rock that made the steep face incredibly unstable and difficult to climb. Both Ben and I made it to a rock outcropping just shy of the summit. I tried to get to the top, but had to give up within 10 miserable feet of the summit. Discouraging for sure, but we had wasted more time than we wanted on our foolish quest for the top. Our true objective, a chute off of the western peak, was still a ways off.
To make matters worse, the storm was picking up and the visibility was rapidly decreasing. We made a handful of underwhelming turns then quickly transitioned for what we hoped would be our final climb of the day. A large cornice blocked the better entrance to the chute, though we were able to find an alternate entrance that would definitely work. The whole face was wind-scoured with a hard crust, exposed, and the chute funneled down to something I would not exactly consider wide. We made a lengthy decision and ultimately concluded to abort our plan and go elsewhere.
This left us with two options: 1) We could circle around Lichtenberg, ride down to Lake Valhalla, hike across, then ride down to the Nason creek drainage and finally skin back out to the car. Or, option 2) Head back the way we came. There would be a few turns along the way, but mostly it would be nothing more than a long ride back to the car. It would likely take longer than option one without much in the way of snowboarding. To make matters worse, it was already after 4 pm and we were still a decent ways from an exit.
We chose option 1. There was one issue with this plan. To get to Lake Valhalla, we had to descent a face that we knew cliffed-out in numerous places. Not exactly the most inviting terrain when visibility was low. With Ryan’s GPS, we felt confident that we could navigate the cliffs and make it to the lake just fine.
Everything was going smoothly. We were about half way down the ridge and thought we had managed to avoid the cliffs successfully. We hit a row of trees with chutes that all looked like they ran out into a clearing. Granted, we couldn’t see very far. We’d been taking turns leading and I drew the lucky straw for this particular section. With the snow accumulating throughout the day, the chute was surprisingly well filled in. I dropped in, picked up speed and slashed a heelside turn on the wall of the chute. I kicked up more snow than I was expecting and found myself lost in the powder cloud.
Not a big deal I thought, I’ll just hang on till I am through, already setting up for my next turn. But I didn’t get the opportunity. Before I was able to see again, the ground disappeared from under my feet. Cliff. But how big? I had no idea it was there and I still couldn’t see. Okay, let’s just hang on, keep our balance and get ready to land. Then there was that terrible feeling, that feeling in your stomach where you are still falling, well after you had anticipated landing.
In that instant, lots of thoughts started to flood through my mind…I hope this isn’t too big, I really hope my back is ready for this, did anyone follow me, will anyone be able to follow me? And just like that, I found the ground. I bombed the landing, but hey, I was just happy to be in one piece. About all I managed to get out was, “Cliff!” I didn’t want anyone else to make the same mistake I just had.
As I started to collect myself and figure out what exactly what was going on, I began to notice something strange. The snow around me was moving. I was moving with it. I still couldn’t tell how bad it was, but I was definitely moving. I yelled back at the others for a second time, another one-word-callout, “Avalanche!” And just like that, the snow stopped. My legs were a little buried, but I’d managed to ride on top of the snow for the most part. I looked behind me to find a solid 25’ cliff band and at the base of it, a crown line that extended nearly 30’, though thankfully only a couple inches deep.
Now, there were five guys still above me, all they had heard from me were two words, “cliff” and “avalanche”, my route didn’t really seem like a viable option for them to reach me. To make matters worse, just below me there was a larger cliff band. A cliff that I would most certainly not enjoy haphazardly falling over. There appeared to be a couple of lines that ran through the upper cliff band, so getting to me was only a minor inconvenience. Only, the chutes ran onto a section that hadn’t slid yet and I didn’t want anyone triggering a slide that would drag them over the lower cliffs. Plus, I wasn’t even sure there was a way out yet. For all I knew I was stranded.
All of this was quite difficult to convey with the heavy snow. I couldn’t see anyone and we could barely hear each other by yelling. Soon, two guys managed to make it down to me, though tension was high with everyone. Thankfully, there was a chute off to our right that looked like a promising exit. I said I would go check it out. When I first got to it, I couldn’t see the bottom and thought it cliffed-out as well. Then, we finally got a break. The snow slowed up and visibility came back dramatically. The chute ran out clean. Partially because I wanted to be done with the situation and partially because I wanted to show everyone that there was a way out, I rode out to a vantage point, well out of harms way and now visible by everyone. I collapsed in the snow, still shaking from the adrenaline.
Eventually, everyone made it down to me and we were all okay. The mood had shifted dramatically. Nobody seemed to be in high spirits anymore. While the visibility had returned, the daylight was quickly fading.
We pushed on, made it to Lake Valhalla, hiked across it and were eventually rewarded with what amounts to the longest and what I would consider the only real ski descent of the day. We silently made the last transition and those of us who had them (it’s a long story but I had somehow misplaced mine) turned on our headlamps.
The skin out was easy going and we were back at the car right around 7. It was a long day. Longer than it should have been.
Looking back, staying up late drinking – probably not the best idea. Wasting nearly an hour trying to summit a peak, just because, also not smart considering we knew how many hours of daylight we had left. Lastly, trusting the GPS and dropping into a chute completely blind – definitely a bad idea. I spent the whole day complaining about how it is important to use your eyes, pay attention to your surroundings and NOT rely on a device to tell you where to go. When the visibility dropped and the terrain was unfamiliar, I relied on the GPS and ended up in a really sketchy situation.
Could we have made better decisions? Sure. I knew I didn’t have a headlamp, so getting out in daylight should have been more of a priority. I could have gone home for dinner instead of going to Ballard for a birthday party. I could have taken the chute much slower and relied on what I could see to dictate where I went. Then again, in the moment the decisions all seemed sound. Climbing Lichtenberg was really fun (even if not for the riding). I had a fantastic time at the bars. While we gave Ryan shit all day for incessantly relying on the GPS, it hadn’t led him astray, so I had no reason to believe it would for me.
It is easy to look back at where I went wrong, but making decisions in the mountains can be difficult. You need to respect the mountain, take the time to evaluate your situation and make informed decisions. The consequences if you are wrong can be very high. I consider myself very lucky.