Taking a Step Back

June 5, 2015 | Posted in Mountaineering, Splitboarding | By

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.

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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.

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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.

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A Simple Reminder

April 20, 2014 | Posted in Splitboarding, Trip Report | By

This season has been riddled with missteps, unmet expectations, even self-doubt. Needless to say, it has been a bit rocky (yes, there’s a pun in there) going for a while. I hate to distill such an important part of my life down to some simple statistics, but in an effort to paint a larger picture, I am going to anyways.

Since moving to Colorado I’ve made it up to the resorts a whopping 7 days. Even more disheartening, in an area so bountiful with easy access backcountry, I’ve only made it out touring 4 days. Four! That’s it! In contrast, on my adventurous move out here I managed to spend 2 days at resorts and another 4 touring. And that was in a 10-day window, where I also managed to rack up a healthy number of miles on my car.

As an even bigger contrast, let’s look at last year…I broke my back in December and still managed to throw together a full season, with a couple of notable days including the black hole couloir, riding St Helens with my dad, and attempting to summit Mt Rainier

. I don’t actually have numbers for last year because I wasn’t keeping track, but I can guarantee you there were a lot more days both at the resort and in the backcountry than I’ve managed this year.

It’s easy to blame a lot of different factors…I moved to a new city; I don’t have a steady income; I don’t have a pass anywhere. Excuses, all of them, just empty excuses that, if I am honest with myself, hold no merit.

So what happened?

Earlier this season I wrote my always up-to-date guide for finding good snow in the mountains. It was easy to write back in December after a spell of dry weather and conditions that could still be considered “early season”.  It was a damn good idea and it is a guide that I encourage everyone to try to follow.

I wrote it, then promptly forget everything that it was about. Which is impressive because it is only a 1-step guide.

In case you are too lazy to click the link, I’ll give you a synopsis here: shift your expectations away from the snow entirely. Chasing snow is a lot harder than finding people you enjoy riding with and there is something to be said for simply enjoying the mountains, whatever the conditions.

I was recently reminded of this on a trip to Berthoud Pass. In the days leading up, the temperatures barely dropped below freezing. In the morning, looking at weather overnight and the day’s forecast, we’d had a mild freeze overnight and the forecast called for clouds all day. It was enough to make me think long and hard about whether or not I actually wanted to get out of bed.

Pro Tip: don’t look at the forecast until you are already out of bed, removing the temptation to bail.

The less than ideal forecast was resounded in my head when I pulled into the parking lot at the top of the pass. There was only one other car there, on a Saturday morning. To put it in perspective, the previous Wednesday the parking lot was practically full by 9 am.

Needless to say, Derek and I took our times getting ready and eventually set off for No Name Peak. Something that I still haven’t gotten used to in Colorado are the barren approaches. We spend as much time scrambling over rock as we did skinning on snow.
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There were a couple of old tracks on No Name, but for the most part there was still plenty of smooth spring corn ready for riding. Derek and I scoped out our lines, opting to drop in just below the normal entrance right off of the summit, avoiding the obvious tracks.

Having set out expectations low, we were both pleasantly surprised with how well the snow was riding. So much so, we opted for a quick skin back up the ridge for another lap. It was just as much fun as the first.

I really need to spend some more time looking at a map and learning the different zones at Berthoud. I can point to exactly where we were on a map, I just couldn’t tell you the name of it. Anyways, we hiked up out of the basin off of No Name, gaining the ridge that we’d approached it from, and dropped down a chute that ran out, what I believe is the Current Creek drainage.

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We were back to the car before 2 pm, catching a ride up to the pass from some new friends, who’d also decided to take a lap on No Name.

All in all, it was a fantastic day. To think I almost bailed because of a forecast is silly.

So, this is my reminder to myself – follow your own guide and enjoy the mountains for more than just the snow. It’s always a good time and that should always be enough motivation to make the effort to get out the door!

 

 

 

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Rediscovering Fun

March 23, 2014 | Posted in Splitboarding, Trip Report | By

For a trip that was planned in the comment section on a photo, you would think we’d take a few pictures. Bad light, no room in the pack, laziness (yes, it is still possible to be lazy while touring in the mountains), whatever the reason, some days taking pictures is the last thing on your mind and it is a refreshing change of pace.

While at Berthoud Pass, the sun was out and I was stopping every five minutes with my camera, trying to find interesting shots. The day was incredible; blue skies and fresh snow, but the trip felt more like a photo shoot and less like a day of riding, which just seems a little backwards.

We did not have blue skies yesterday. In fact, we bailed on our original plan of exploring Porcupine Gulch in favor of a more familiar area, Butler Gulch, that we knew we could still navigate with poor light. So, the camera stayed in the car and it snowed on us all day. What started off as light flurries, turned into a respectable snowfall throughout the day.

The snow was decent in the morning. A little bit of wind transport meant there were plenty of stashes of good snow to be found. Butler Gulch was a new zone to me; mostly mellow rolling terrain that just barely pokes up above treeline. It’s an area that you can feel comfortable when the conditions aren’t great, enjoy romping around in the mountains, and make a few turns along the way.

In my typical eager and blindly ambitious form, I spotted a knoll with a good approach and a steep, open landing that was just begging for me to jump off of it. I figured I could stomp out a little kicker in a few minutes and have some fun.  As if hiking for turns wasn’t enough effort already, stomping out a makeshift kicker will definitely get the heart rate up. Well, it turns out I suck at building jumps (at least when I do it on a whim) and we all had a good laugh at the build up for what was ultimately a complete failure.

That’s just the vibe that I get from Butler. It’s a playground where you want to have fun and try silly things.

Right as we were transitioning for our second lap, the storm picked up and the snow really began to accumulate. The day was just getting better. We decided to take a break after our second lap and eat some lunch in the woods while the snow fell.  Normally breaks aren’t very noteworthy, just a regular part of the day where you sit down and enjoy your $2 Safeway sandwich or cliff bar, at least that’s how my breaks usually go. But yesterday was different. Between the four of us we’d brought, leftover pizza, a fancy sandwich (aka not pb&j or safeway), some homemade jerky, venison I think, a few bite-sized Snickers, a cliff bar, and most notably, a Mountain House Beef Stroganoff meal.

Who brings a hot meal splitboarding? That means not just the meal, but the stove/pot to cook it in! For a day trip, the idea of hauling all this gear and taking the time to prepare it just sort of blew my mind. I will say, those few hot bites did taste pretty good. It was a little bit of a luxury for what is normally a not very exciting part of the day.

The long meal break served another purpose. While we hung out in the shelter of the trees, the snow was falling hard. In fact, we timed our break pretty well because just as we started moving again, the snow began to let up.  By the time we got to our intended zone, the weather was back to more or less a flurry and a few inches had accumulated. We rode the shoulder of a ridge, eventually dropping into drainage, making for some low angle surfy powder turns, the best of the day.

All told, it was a great day to be outside and we all had a fun time. Butler’s an area that I’m sure I’ll be back to, I’ll probably replace the camera with a few beers, attempt to make another kicker (and likely fail), and who knows, maybe even pack in a hot meal.

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Beginning to Explore the Front Range

March 18, 2014 | Posted in Splitboarding, Trip Report | By

Last week I made it up to Berthoud Pass for the first time. I’d hear this area as one of the mecca’s for backcountry skiing in the front range. Not necessarily the best, or the steepest. But a sort of fun playground with some safe mellow tours that makes for a popular destination for a quick lap or two.

I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect, and most pictures I’ve seen from the area are your usual skier pow shot, or some other tight framed shot that, while it looks nice, doesn’t give much perspective to the area as a whole. In fact, something a lot like this.

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So, I was a little surprised when I got out to Berthoud Pass at just how large the area was, and how diverse the accessible terrain was. While we stuck to some mellow lines for the day, the sun was out and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Mixed with the 4 or so inches of fresh snow, it was what I would consider a perfect day to be out in the mountains. 

And we weren’t the only ones out there. It was a Wednesday, and by the time we made it back to the parking lot, the lot was full and cars were driving around trying to find a spot where they might be able to squeeze in if they got creative. There were a few other groups of people headed to the same zone as us (it’s name escapes me at the moment), but there was enough terrain that we were all able to find out own lines, and I was able to get a few good shots of some of the other skiers. Thanks anonymous tele skier! I don’t know who you are, but you made some nice turns down this chute!
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It had been a few weeks since I’d taken the split out and it was starting to show. After two short laps I was completely worked. It was kind of pathetic, but it was about all I had in me. Thankfully one of the other guys had to get back early for a work, so I didn’t have to make any excuses.

In all, it was an incredible day and felt amazing just to be outside. If anything it reaffirmed my love of the mountains and reminded me that I need to get out there more often.

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Your always up-to-date guide for finding good snow in the mountains

December 27, 2013 | Posted in Splitboarding | By

Mount Rainier behind some icy branches.

Here in the PNW we are having what I would refer to as a below average snow year. Snoqualmie Pass doesn’t have enough snow to open and the other resorts are still a little spicy down in the lower elevations. Back in November everyone was starting to get the itch to ride. Some early low elevation snow helped drastically increase the stoke and people were getting out to make turns. Even the resorts were getting in on the early season goods, with some impressively early starts; though it is understandable if you don’t consider spinning a single chair and throwing a few rails in a patch of lingering snow an actual “opening day”.

The excitement of the early snow gave way to anticipation that is yet to be fulfilled. An occasionally front moves through, bringing just enough snow to maintain the marginal snowpack that exists. Normally the fronts come mixed with sleet and freezing rain to dissuade any potential thrill seekers from getting too excited.

All that being said, I’ve had some awesome day’s so far this season, each one seemingly better than the last and it is in no way thanks to mother nature. So, it’s my goal to provide you with the insights that you need to have fun out there.

Step One: Take whatever your expectations are for the day and lower them.

If the weather report claimed 4-5 inches in the last 24, I don’t want to hear anything about an epic pow day. The 20-30 mph winds inevitably scoured the 4-5 inches, which were sitting on top of a bulletproof crust anyways. So instead, think to yourself, “if I hunt for some protected leeward slopes, I might find some pockets of still fresh snow if I am lucky.”

Or, “sure, it hasn’t snowed in the last week, but it hasn’t rained either. So there’s a chance that I may still find something.” This is a good start, but again…lowering your expectation can never hurt. Try something more along the lines of: “Well, the sun might break through, so at least I get to stretch my legs and hopefully we will get a pretty view.”

The important thing to remember is that your starting expectations, no matter how well intentioned, are still laced with optimism. I applaud the optimistic outlook and yes, we are going to have a fantastic season, no worries that it is already late December; the season is still early and there is still time! But, if you want to guarantee yourself to have a fun day, I promise this will help.

In fact, that’s about the only advice I have right now. Sorry for not having anything more insightful. I will say that in the last three days of touring, I’ve lowered my expectations to the point where just the other day I was thinking, “as long as I find something that isn’t ice, I will be happy.” Sure enough, the snow we found on a north-facing bowl was superb. I mean, in reality it wasn’t anything to write home about, but in comparison to the ice I’d set myself up to expect, this snow was the most incredible conditions I’d seen all season. Maybe we really did get lucky. Maybe the snow really was better than I am giving it credit for.

Maybe, that’s not the point at all. Last fall I tried to take an early season lap on the Muir snowfield. No matter how low you set your expectations for the day, Mother Nature was hell bent on making you lower them even further. To give an idea, it felt like I’d bundled up in my snow gear and jumped in a pool. Upon climbing out of the pool, I was in the middle of a monsoon with sheets of rain somehow managing to make me even wetter. And if that isn’t bad enough, the wind picked up with unrelenting gusts blowing the rain more sideways that up-and-down. Amidst it all, we were all laughing and in good spirits.

So maybe, the point is actually to shift your expectations away from the snow entirely.

When you go out with the expectation of having fun with friends and strangers, to get a little exercise and to have an adventure, then there is no way you are going to have a bad time. No matter what snow you do find, if you find it while smiling, I think it is safe to assume that you’ll meet your expectations and come home feeling pretty good about what you found.

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First turns of the season

November 13, 2013 | Posted in Snowboarding, Splitboarding, Trip Report | By

For a while there it seemed like the season never ended. Then I disappeared to California and last year’s below-average snowpack (and a generally different climate than the PNW) made summer touring basically impossible. I picked up a mountain bike and started climbing more frequently. Between the two, I didn’t seem to mind the lack of snowboarding. In fact, while the snow has been falling since the beginning of October, just this last weekend did I finally manage to get out.

The first day out, you are going to be a little rusty. Whereas last year I could pack in my sleep, I found myself scouring my closet for gear, laying it all out all over the place. Packing, then repacking, then repacking again. How did I used to pack this thing? Skins, right! The process went on for longer than it should. But eventually I had everything and was ready to go.

I forgot how to layer. Sorry, I didn’t forget how to layer, but I was rusty at paying attention to when to wear what. I started off with my heavy jacket on, regretting the decision immediately, but too stubborn to stop and take it off. Eventually I did, but being able to predict what to wear while hiking is just one more thing that I seemed to have forgotten.

But I wasn’t the only one that was rusty. We all were. The rust shows itself in different places for everyone, but the one that stood out was communication.

We headed up to Heliotrope Ridge, along with what seemed like the entire backcountry ski community. Seriously, it was a zoo out there. Not to be deterred by the crowds or the flat light, we managed to find our own stashes of fresh snow. Not to mention, the whole experience was a whole heck of a lot better to the crazy wind gusts we found last year, preventing us from ever reaching the ridge. The marginal snow on the hike in was a little disconcerting. Once we got above treeline, the snow got immensely better. By the time we were nearing the ridge, we were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the snow we were finding. It was deeper and lighter than I was expecting.

Airing into my first turns of the season. Okay, so I wasn’t entirely rusty. PHOTO: Wiktor Wadoloski

I’ll admit, the snow was starting to get a little sun and wind affected. It was still awesome to ride, but there was definitely a crust starting to form. As this next weather system moves in, I’m a little concerned that we are going to bury a weak layer pretty deep in the snowpack. Hopefully it consolidates well, but it’ll definitely be something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks.

So, after kicking off the season with some sweet pow turns on the upper ridge, we made a decision to continue down the fall line instead of hooking right, following the general route that we’d skinned up. The lure of more fresh tracks and fewer crowds was appealing. Totally worth it. We found easily another 1500′ of fresh snow and we were the only ones out there. Soon, we kind of understood why. We hit the treeline and realized we were about three gullies away from the trail we wanted to get to. We had two options, stay low and cut through the trees and through at least one exposed stream crossing, with potential for more. Or, we could hike up around the cliff band we were now sitting under and pick our way back to the trail from above the cliffs.

Our group was split on what to do and we weren’t communicating our rationales for either option well. In a tense moment, we ended up splitting up. Ultimately both routes probably would have been fine. We weren’t in any immediate danger, but splitting up was the wrong thing to do. Eventually, we reconvened and all committed to going up over the cliff band together. Sure, it was a bit more hiking than we’d anticipated, but we did it together. The upshot, we managed to squeeze out a few more quality turns.

Making decisions is a big part of traveling in the backcountry. That’s part of the fun of it. You have options and freedom to choose where you want to go. We were a little rusty, but we all came back, reminded of the importance that good communication can have.

Hopefully this weekend it wont take me three tries to get my pack loaded the way I like it.

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Attempting a Dream

May 21, 2013 | Posted in Mountaineering, Splitboarding | By

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?

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A Weekend With My Dad

May 20, 2013 | Posted in Snowboarding | By

It has been ages since I had a weekend with my dad – just the two of us, no fixed agenda and no rigid plans. Our time together is usually dictated by some compelling outside force that brought us to the same place at the same time. A wedding, a graduation, a family vacation, etc.; there was always something going on. Whatever that something was, it meant that our time and attention was already focused elsewhere. There was a plan – put in place by someone else, and we were lucky if we could sneak away from that plan even for an hour.
Last summer I did manage to steal away, from a week with relatives celebrating my cousins wedding, for the better part of a day with my mom and dad. It was a huge ordeal and clearly a disruption from the predetermined plan. The result was a hasty trip to the Shenandoah Mountains, where we felt rushed and in a hurry to get back. It was hard to stop and enjoy the moment.  (Not to mention the, while beautiful, Appalachian’s lack of rugged Cascade peaks to which I am growing accustomed.)
So, when my dad said he was coming in town for a weekend, just the two of us, I was quite excited.  I began to formulate ideas in the back of my head for things we could do together. The time was ours and we could spend it however we liked.
My family has always been incredibly active – A trait that I hadn’t adopted until recently. I wanted to share my passion for the outdoors with my dad, who I knew would appreciate the somewhat unique ways that I choose to experience. More importantly, my parents were to ones to first get my excited about skiing (and I guess snowboarding). They have been skiing since before I was born, but always at a resort.
I wanted to take my dad out backcountry skiing and he was all for it. We couldn’t have asked for a better weekend either. A spring bluebird day on a volcano seemed like the perfect place to start.  The question then, where do I take my dad for a first tour? I immediately thought we should go to Camp Muir. A day touring on the tallest mountain in the state, with incredible views, would surely be impressive and memorable. But there was an element missing. The views on the way up to Muir are incredible, but arriving at camp is somewhat underwhelming. Rainier still looms above you and I always get a sense of incompleteness when I turn back at Muir. Incredible? Yes. Breathtaking? Sure. I can do better.
Last year, I climbed St Helens on my birthday. It was an awesome day, and something I had been itching to get back to. I remembered it as a much bigger day than Muir, but nothing toocrazy. I decided to leave the final decision up to my dad. I gave him the options Muir or St Helens (I know…I am a nice son). Both consist of (for the most part) fairly mellow touring, both have incredible views, both make for a great day. Muir ends up higher at just over 10,000’, but St Helens is a longer day with more elevation climbed, by a considerable margin. With St Helens, you get to stand on top of a mountain.
I tried to be objective but I think my desire to get back to St Helens was apparent. So when I asked my dad, which he would prefer, he said he was “up for a longer day.” So, St Helens it was.  I did have my reservations. My dad is 62, has never used AT skis, and has been living in the desert for the past several years. But, he is my dad and he is a badass. So when he said he was up for it, his enthusiastic attitude was all of the convincing that I needed.
I’ve come to realize climbing a mountain is a lot like many other pursuits in life. In the moment, you can push yourself sometimes harder and further than you could have imagined possible. After the fact, you completely forget about the challenges you faced, remembering only glimpses of your struggles, your memories dominated by the overwhelming satisfaction of succeeding at whatever it was you set out to do.
St Helens’ was easy last year. I woke up early, on my birthday and climbed a mountain. The view from the top was incredible and the ride down was awesome. On top of that, we were home at a decent hour, too.
So, I may have forgotten just how early we woke up. I may have also forgotten just how long it took to reach the rim and how late we got back to Seattle. Yes, it is a very doable day trip, but it is a longday.
My dad showed up Friday afternoon, after driving over from the Tri-Cities. I got him set up with rental skis and boots, touring in rental boots sounds absolutely no fun. The afternoon sipped by and by the time we were both hungry, our plan was thus: we are waking up early, to climb St. Helens and that was about it. I’d yet to look up how far the drive was, where we had to pick up the permits, pack food, or really pack anything for that matter.
On the way to dinner, it became apparent that my dad was exhausted. During the drive, he would ask a question, then fall asleep before I had a chance to answer. A few minutes later, he would wake up and, without a missing a beat, ask another question. At some point, I stopped answering. I was starting to get worried. I had just done the math, and realized our alarm needed to go off at roughly 4:30 am if we were indeed going to climb St Helens.
That was much earlier than I had anticipated or remembered. But, my dad took it in stride and was wide-awake and ready to go in the morning.  We made excellent time on the drive, stopping only once and well, twice if you count the speeding ticket.
Upon picking up our permits, we were delighted to discover that we were near the tail-end of nearly 375 like-minded individuals who wanted to spend the beautiful day climbing a mountain. I’d expected a crowd, but was yet again shocked by one of the small details that I had forgotten since climbing the previous year.
So we took off. There was still snow all the way to the car, allowing us to start skinning right away.  My dad threw on the skis and so began his first backcountry ski experience. There was a bit of a learning curve. It’s hard to relate skinning to any one other activity and it takes some practice and getting-used-to before you learn to balance and trust that you can indeed stand up straight without sliding back down the hill.
We weren’t in any sort of rush, so we took our time. After all, we didn’t need to reach the summit to have a great day. As we meandered through the woods, my dad started to get the hang of it. I was having a great time and I think he was too. The slog to the summit really is just a long push. There were a couple of short tricky sections where we carried our skis, but for the most part, it was just skinning, all the way to the summit.
In the morning, I set a turn-around time of 4pm, in case we hadn’t made the top by then.  During our last lunch-break, I looked at the time. It was 2:30 and my best guess pegged us at about 1000’ from the summit. Doable for sure, but my dad was clearly getting tired. I pulled out (one of several) energy reserves I had stashed in my pack and hoped that we would make it.
I’d been staying with my dad the whole way until this point, I didn’t want his first experience to find him climbing all alone and it was by no means a race. I knew my dad could make it to the top, but we were going to have to hurry. Apart from the lure of chocolate and beer, one of my best motivators is to not want to fall behind. So, I took off and told my dad I would see him at the top.
Sure enough, my dad made it to the top of Mt St Helens, just shy of our 4pm turn-around time. At that moment, I was so excited and proud. I think that anyone familiar with the sport would agree, for a first time in the backcountry, climbing to the top of Mt St Helens is no small feat.
While well over 100 people had already left tracks, down the south face of the volcano, we still enjoyed some fantastic spring corn and even found a few sections still pristine. The reward for a hard day’s effort. We were able to ride all the way back to the car, with just a few hazards to navigate. With the warm weather, it was likely one of the last days that you could ride all the way to the car without getting extra creative.
If the weekend had ended there, it would have still been fantastic, memorable weekend. But it didn’t. I think it was our ambitious plan that fueled a friendly father-son competition of sorts. It came to be that neither of us wanted to admit that we were in fact tired or sore. So, when one of us mentioned a Sunday bike ride, our response was, “sure that sounds fun!” It was like a game of chicken and the loser was our legs.
In all seriousness, we had a delightful bike ride, broken up with breakfast at Portage Bay Café (with mimosas!), a nap at golden gardens, and a beer at the Fremont Brewery.  It was actually really nice and, if anything, helped keep us limber.
The fun didn’t stop there either. When picking up the skis on Friday, my dad mentioned that a hike up Mt Si sounded fun. So, naturally we had to do it. We dropped off the rentals Monday morning and set off for a hike. The view from the top was spectacular. You could see south past Rainier and north up to Baker. The Olympics were in clear view, creating a dramatic backdrop for the Seattle skyline. Truly impressive, especially once we made it to the top of the haystack.
For whatever silly reason, we decided to trail run down. I’ve made the mistake before, but did it again. Running downhill destroyed whatever strength was left it our legs.
When we made it back to the car, I was thankful that we were parting ways, not because I didn’t want to spend more time with my dad, but because I was afraid of what bogus idea (we actually did mention trying to waterski, but just didn’t have time.) one of us would throw out next and I was seriously concerned that I was going to be the one to have to say no more.
So there you have it. A weekend with my dad, one of the most incredible men I know; spent backcountry skiing on volcanoes, biking through Seattle, and hiking up mountains. I look forward to the next weekend we can spend together and the wild adventures that we will accomplish next.

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KID, YOU’LL MOVE MOUNTAINS!

March 22, 2013 | Posted in Snowboarding | By

You’ll come down from the Lurch
with an unpleasant bump.
And the chances are, then,
that you’ll be in a Slump.


And when you’re in a Slump,
you’re not in for much fun.
Un-slumping yourself
is not easily done.

I often try to live my life through the wise teachings of Dr. Seuss. Oh! The Places You’ll Go! Happens to be one of my personal favorites. A story that I can relate to whether I am 5 or 25, and I imagine I will relate to it even at 55. When was the last time you read the poem? It was a part of my childhood and the essence of it—the brightly-colored, striped spires enveloping a world that only Dr. Seuss could dream up, was all that remained. I thank my friend Elizabeth for reminding me of it, and making me read over the poem from start to finish. Reading it now, I revel in the wisdom that Dr. Seuss so elegantly imparts to his unsuspecting readers.

But, I digress. The reason I bring up Dr. Seuss is that I seemed to have found myself in a slump. I was on my way up and seeing great sights. Then, hang-ups did happen to me.

Maybe it has been the tiresome process of waking up in the morning. Dragging myself out of bed has become such a chore, the only thing luring me out is the temptation of a hot shower to ease the sore muscles in my back. But on I will go.

Or maybe it was the girl. The girl who was supposed to call. I found myself stuck in a most useless place. The Waiting Place… That is no place for me!

Or maybe, it was the project. The interesting, fun, and rewarding project that has consumed my work. The challenging and frustrating project. Half of the time, I have no idea what I am doing. The other half, is me fixing things I did incorrectly before. It is a frustratingly slow process, constantly taking two steps forward and one step back. Just when I think I’ve got it, I find something else wrong. It’s a place, where the streets are not marked. Some windows are lighted, but mostly they’re darked.

If I had to guess, it was the combination of all three, knocking me down off of my lurch.

And slumps do happen! Fret not, there is a way out.  If you are like me, it is quite easy to do!

So, today was my day. Alone, (as you often are) I headed to the mountains. Lured by the foot of fresh snow that had fallen the night before. I plugged in my iPod and cranked the volume as loud as I could. For two hours, I followed the windy roads, belching out the words that I knew (and mumbling the rest) to every song that came on. When I got there, I strapped on my snowboard and could feel my spirits rise. The slump wasn’t quite so bad anymore.

The first couple of laps, something was clearly off. I wasn’t focused. I wasn’t quite out of the slump just yet. Somehow though, I escaped. After all, there was fun to be had! Soon, (with banner flip-flapping) I was riding high, ready once more for anything under the sky.

I guess I am that kind of guy.

Heading home, music still blaring, I was no longer stuck in a slump. Every once in a while, it is helpful to hear, that life’s a great balancing act.

So now, work doesn’t seem quite so bad. There will be other girls, who will call me back. And my back may be sore when I wake up in the morning, but I still find ways to spend the day snowboarding.

So…

be your name Buxbaum or Bixby or Bray
or Mordecai Ali Van Allen O’Shea,
you’re off to Great Places!
Today is your day!
Your mountain is waiting.
So…get on your way!

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The Decision Making Process

February 19, 2013 | Posted in Snowboarding | By

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. 

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