In the world of avalanche terrain, complacency is often synonymous with accidents. It’s a concept that we [should] learn early when starting to venture into the backcountry. When I took my Avy I course a few years ago, the instructor showed us a chart that stuck with me. I promised myself that I would try my best to not follow the predictive pattern that it describes.
Over time we gain knowledge and experience. Taking courses and getting out with knowledgeable partners are a big part of this process. Unfortunately, we don’t always make great decisions, can miss important factors, and often times get away with it out of sheer luck. In the case that nothing does go wrong, we end up taking misinformation and applying it to our growing knowledge base. “Last weekend I skied a NE slope that has a persistent slab buried about 40cm and everything was fine.” Maybe we missed the shooting cracks that were present while skinning, or maybe we just never hit a weak point in the slab, which if we had, may have triggered a release. Or maybe, just maybe, that persistent slab was starting to settle and get safer to ski.
As we learn more and gain experience, our tolerance for risk tends to increase. When you first start skiing in the backcountry, everything is terrifying. Practically any terrain you want to ski is potentially avalanche terrain and we know just enough to be terrified. Through courses and time on the snow we learn how to start to identify safe terrain. That level of risk starts to creep upwards as we start to use our perceived knowledge to venture into bigger, riskier terrain. Every time we go out and test our assumptions and they hold up, we are adding to our perceived knowledge.
Unfortunately, all-too-often, it takes making a bad decision and not getting lucky to force us to step back and challenge our perceived knowledge and level of acceptable risk. Maybe we set off a slide on a slope we thought to be safe, or worse, we (or a friend) gets carried/buried in a slide in supposedly “safe” terrain. Worse still, the consequences of our poor decisions can be dire.
When I first saw a chart like the one above, I promised myself that I would fight the natural susceptibility to tolerate greater risks. I would fight the tendency to allow an increased level of risk by using open communication; over communicating is better than not. I would challenge decisions, even if they seemed trivial, to make sure all of the information was on the table.
Well, it turns out fighting this behavior is a lot easier said than done. Even with an open dialogue, if the entire group has a heightened risk tolerance, complacency ensues.
So why do I bring this all up? Last weekend I believe I hit one of those spikes in the chart. Nobody was hurt and we all managed to walk away having skied a classic line in Rocky Mountain National Park. But we shouldn’t have.
Dragons Tail Couloir descends the southeast face of Flattop Mountain, dropping down the Tyndall glacier gorge, ending at Emerald Lake; providing a prime viewing location for the dozens of tourists out for a pleasant (and quite popular) hike through the park. You can either ascend the couloir directly, or as we opted, by hiking the Flattop Mountain trail and entering the couloir from above.
We knew going into the trip that the snow wasn’t in great shape. May had been a productive month for snow in the front range – several feet up high. The snow was immediately followed by a warm period where not even the highest peaks were seeing freezing temps overnight. The snowpack during the day had the consistency of a giant Slushie. Rotten. We were under the impression that the couple of days preceding our trip had seen freezing temps overnight and we’d planned accordingly, intending to get an early enough start that the upper mountain would still be cold.
On approach, we found promising crusts in the trees, but once we hit treeline and direct morning sun, the snow was terrible. Our quick hiking turned to post-holing and a transition to skins. Not a good sign. We discussed the snow, rationalizing that the couloir was more south facing and it’s steep walls would keep it cooler for a bit longer. We knew we were on a time crunch, but willing to keep going.
We made it up to the top by 10:30. Typically a completely reasonable hour to consider a descent. Still wary of the snow, I descended 20-30 feet to test the snow. It was promising. I wasn’t post-holing through like on the approach. The snow was certainly soft. I was sinking to nearly halfway up my boot. Not great, but we agreed that it was within what we considered a reasonable tolerance.
Having discussed our options, including a safer alternate taking us down a low-angle snowfield on the north side of Flattop, we opted to ski the couloir. I went first, kicking off considerable sluff with each turn. Traversing into the first safe zone, I kicked off a point release wet slab, nearly 3 feet wide, breaking down through the 6-9 inches of wet surface snow. I was out of sight of my partners, but quickly my head started spinning. This was a HUGE red flag. Not even a quarter of the way through the couloir, with the steep narrow choke still below us and I was having doubts. I could yell up, get my partners to hold off, and climb back out. It wasn’t too late, not yet. I opted to wait for them to reach me.
Once they were both down with me, I learned another group had shown up behind us. The rationale of waiting had backfired. Now ascending the couloir was even less likely. Blindly trying to yell up to another group to hold off while we climbed out seemed less safe than continuing down. We reiterated the importance of managing the wet snow and took off one at a time through the crux of the route.
Dragon tail has two possible upper routes: the left (standard) fork we descended, and a right more technical line. They join right where we’d stopped to regroup for a second time. This was where things really went downhill. We heard it coming. A slide roared down the right fork, a band of rocks shielding us from the stream of wet snow. We watched as it ran down the gut of the couloir below us. Was that the other group? Were they trying to ski the right fork? If so, we should wait for them to reach us, rather than risk them sending more snow on top of us.
Just a minute or two later we heard a loud crack and the rumbling of snow coming from the west wall. A large stream of snow comes cascading off the cliffs descending like a waterfall into the couloir maybe 200 feet below us.
It dawned on us that this was all natural activity – the mountains were warming up, shedding rock and snow in the process. We were in the worst place imaginable. The only thing to do was to get out. Riding through our own sluff, dropped in one at a time, skiing the lower half of the couloir in one shot.
Thankfully no more snow came down while we were in the couloir, though as my partners were descending, I watched as another slide ran down Dragons Tail – an adjacent line to the one we were skiing.
Once we were all out, we stopped to reflect on what we’d done. Sure, it was fun and was definitely exciting, but we all agreed that we had made a bad decision. We were lucky that none of the slides had come down on top of us, otherwise it would have been a much different situation.
So, I felt like it was time to take a step back and reflect. We are all arguably safe skiers. We have a good foundation of knowledge in avalanche terrain and were communicating effectively. But it had also been a full year of building risk and trust. We were so confident in our decision making that we were ignoring objective hazards, putting ourselves into an unnecessarily risky situation that could’ve been easily avoided. I am taking things down a step and reminding myself that I don’t know as much as I think I do.
We have to respect the mountains and learn to be humble. After all, that classic line will still be there tomorrow, next week, next season, and for years to come.
When I moved to Seattle, well to be frank Mt Rainier was nothing more than a mountain. Surely impressive, but mountains were yet to captivate my imagination. It was merely an impressive and iconic backdrop to the city I lived in. Over the years, climbing Mt Rainier became a fantasy. It was a place for mountain climbers that I romanticized with a childlike fascination. To stand on top of that mountain, so close to Seattle, seemed so impossibly far away. Three years ago, had you invited me to climb Rainier, my imagination would have inevitably wandered to the fantasy of standing on the top, but reality would have set in and my response would have been something along the lines of, “Are you crazy?”
It is funny how perception can change over time. It started with snowboarding. I stopped sleeping in the car and starting staring out the windows. “Look at the line on that mountain! I bet that would be fun!” Dreams. At the time, I was confined to chairlifts. But as my eyes widened, I began to appreciate the mountains. When I started backpacking, I stopped simply looking at the mountains with wide eyes and started exploring their vast riches. Alpine lakes, waterfalls, and beaten trails marked the true beginning of my shift in perception.
My fascination with mountains grew the more time I began to spend in them. I came back from Montana completely absorbed in the snow-capped rugged peaks of the Cascades. Armed with new tools, knowledge, and a driving passion, I began looking at the mountains renewed. The lines I have stared at dozens, possibly hundreds of times, are no longer unobtainable fantasies, but plausible excursions. No longer do I simply look at a line and think “Man, wouldn’t that be awesome.” Instead, I think to myself, “That would be awesome, how accessible is it? Could I get there in a day? Who could I get to go with me?”
When I first started snowboarding in the backcountry, Rainier was still a fantasy. While my world was beginning to open up, it took nearly a year (and some incredible adventures) before I realized that Rainier was no longer a dream, but a goal. Once I made that shift, staring at Rainier from the city became insufferable. That mountain was sitting there, taunting me in all of its iconic majesty.
I started hearing of other people climbing it. I was even invited once or twice and had tentatively agreed to go with someone. But for one reason or another, I never made it. I kept saying that I would go for it during the next nice weather window.
Weeks began to slip by, and that wouldn’t be so concerning if I weren’t leaving for the summer. I began to realize that I was quickly running out of time if I were going to try to climb Rainier.
When my buddy Stu texted me, to see if I was interested, I was in the middle of hiking Mt Si with my dad. This was Monday. He wanted to go on Wednesday. I had work and was already exhausted. By all means, I had plenty of excuses for why I shouldn’t climb Rainier.
I thought about it for the rest of the afternoon. I was laying in my back yard, napping after the weekend excursions with my dad and I realized that I needed to go with Stu. I needed to work and I needed to rest as well. But I had an overwhelming desire to fulfill that goal – to climb Mt Rainier and snowboard off of the summit. I knew that if I didn’t try, I would sit at work staring about the mountain, daydreaming about being up there with my friends. Work and rest would have to wait.
We were ill prepared for the trip. None of us had much (if any) glacier travel experience and we had hastily thrown together an amalgamation of gear that we deemed sufficient to summit. Stu had summited once a few years ago with a guide, but apart from some vague recollections, he didn’t have much memories of the trip. At least not that would be beneficial for us while climbing. We were predicted to have sunny and warm weather for the next few days and coupled with our excitement, our concerns dissipated.
We laid out all of our gear in the paradise parking lot, taking up most of a parking space. We weren’t exactly traveling light. The crew was Stu, Eric, Laura, and myself; apart from me, it was a crew of Mt Baker instructors, all killing time between the end of the season and the start of their respective summer plans. Though only Stu, Eric, and I planned on summiting, we were carrying three days of gear and supplies for the four of us. The heavy pack and the warm weather made for an interesting day getting to Camp Muir.
Though we’d gotten an early start, it was dusk by the time we started setting up camp and we all decided that we should take a day to chill before attempting to summit.
The following morning, we took our time getting out of our tents, waiting for the morning sun to warm everything up before we decided to crawl out of our tents. After a drawn out breakfast of oatmeal with trailmix (a bit too heavy on the peanut MnM’s) we opted to take a lap down to the top of the Chute that drops in to the Nisqually.
The corn snow was fantastic and only a little slushy near the bottom.
On the hike up we ran into a couple of Eric’s friends from Seattle. The 6 of us chilled in the snow for a while, eating lunch and throwing snowballs at a ski pole. Ah, the joys of being easily entertained!
Our down day went by fast and made for an enjoyable way to spend a day relaxing in the sun and preparing to make the push for the summit.
After talking with the rangers and other climbers coming off of the mountain, we were growing increasingly weary of the conditions on the two routes we could take. The Ingraham direct route was well marked and, before the sun hit it, the snow bridges were holding well. However, as soon as the sun hit, the bridges were getting soft and icefall from the seracs was a huge problem. Basically, not somewhere you want to be after about 7:30 am. The other route, up Disappointment Cleaver, had it’s own issues. The unusually warm weather created an isothermal snowpack not conducive to climbing or riding. Not to mention, there was a sharp cliff at the bottom of the route, so it was unstable snow with high exposure. Oh, then there was the rock fall hazard during the day.
We stayed optimistic. Ultimately opting for an early, 2 am start, with the hopes of climbing Ingraham Direct and riding down the DC before it warmed up too much.
At 2 am, you are moving slow. I thought we were making good time, but with firm snow and an earlier-than-anticipated transition to crampons, by the time we made it to the toe of the Ingraham and roped up, the sun was starting to peak over the horizon.
We met up with another group of skiers on their way down, who were in a similar situation to us. They had started around midnight, giving us some good beta on the routes. Ultimately they bailed for reasons that would soon become apparent.
We got to the entrance to the Ingraham Direct route. It peeled off from the skin track and headed ominously straight up into the seracs. While we had heard the route was in good shape, I think we all agreed that our inexperience with glacier travel made skipping that option a no brainer. We continued on to the DC. At the base of the route, the snow was crummy. While we could have continued on, we were all now thinking about the ride down. It just didn’t seem worth subjecting ourselves to so much risk. This would be as far as we would make it.
While we were all a little bit defeated, we were not upset. As much as I wanted to reach the summit of Mt rainier, once a mere fantasy, we tried and we came close. I hadn’t fulfilled my goal of reaching the summit, but I put a large dent in achieving that goal. There will be other attempts and the knowledge I gained just from trying, will help me in the future.
When we turned back, it was still early. We made our way to a safe zone and stopped to rest. We’d been awake since 1 am and all that was left to do at this point was enjoy the sunrise and wait for the snow to soften a bit.
Eventually, we got impatient and made our way back to Camp Muir on firm snow. The ride back wasn’t exactly pleasant. Hard snow and disappointment are not exactly ideal conditions. After breaking camp, we threw our still-heavy packs on our backs and enjoyed some fabulous corn turns back to the car.
At the parking lot, we stripped our packs (an most of our clothes, did I mention it was hot?) and enjoyed the few cold beers that remained from our hidden stashes. (We presume one was found, I hope someone enjoyed those cold beers!) Driving off of the mountain I had mixed feelings. Sure I was disappointed that we didn’t reach the summit. But we gave it our best shot and it was factors outside of our control that ultimately led to us not making it. Could we have pushed it and made it to the top? Probably, but there was something satisfying about being able to make the tough decision to turn around. That was rewarding in itself.
Also, I now have some rad calf-burns. Pro-tip, if you roll up your pants, if only for a few minutes, apply sunscreen liberally. Snow-burns are quite pronounced and happen quicker than you think. Then again, who doesn’t enjoy funky tan lines?