New Year’s day offered the best skiing of the year. Obviously. But it was also the best skiing of the season—so far. Deep, creamy, and plentiful. There were ear-to-ear grins all across the Wasatch. In fact, skiing fresh powder has an effervescent quality about it that eludes even the mountain bike. Powgasm. It’s that amazing and unequaled experience that drives people out of bed in the dead of night, sending them hiking up snow-covered mountains in sub-zero temperatures. It’s what makes 4 hours of hiking seem a small price to pay for 5 minutes of skiing. Not everyone understands the attraction. But those who have ventured into wild snow often become enchanted by the freedom and winter exploration.
The mountains are wholly different, more fierce, and more unforgiving in the winter than they ever are during the mild, benign summer months. And with that increased volatility in temperament comes a heightened grandeur, and unmatched awe-inspiring beauty. The combination of physical effort, biting cold, and inherent risk create a mind-bending euphoria that has yet been equaled in any other realm. However that experience can be tempered when the harsh realities of the backcountry become manifest—unsubtle and frightening.
As we finished our tour on New Year’s Day, we skied upon a large avalanche crown.
The banter and light mood of the tour quickly faded.
And When our party triggered a small pocket of hangfire adjacent to the original slide, any thoughts of face-shots or fresh powder were obliterated as we each switched into survival mode. After descending the ridgeline—the safest exit, and our original plan—we regrouped and stared in wonder and horror at the avalanche path. It terminated in a steep, narrow chute and 20+ feet of debris.
Our best guess about the cause of the avalanche was that it slid on a slick layer of crust—either rain, or sun—and was triggered by a skier. The slide propagated widely down the hogsback ridge and filled the gully below with snow and debris. It broke on a rollover, a point of stress, and slid on a slope in the area of 35 degrees. It was, by our account, a classic, textbook, avalanche. Getting oneself caught in such a slide would prove deadly. Even the small pocket that broke above our party and slid harmlessly by packed enough momentum to take a skier for a ride.
In the days afterward each of us second-guessed our choices. It was a natural reaction. But while we were in the moment, we each thought clearly, and rationally, the safety of home and hearth brought out the tenuous, slippery slope* of what if. Indeed, had the skiers who did trigger that slide hadn’t done so, we would have. And then what?
*See what I did there?
But such thoughts prove fruitless, to a point. While certain lessons and observations can certainly be gleaned from that sort of navel-gazing, it ultimately becomes an exercise in futility. It simply does no good to continually fret about that which did not happen. However, what we can learn—and apply—about the future can be tremendously valuable. The potential consequences, which were mercifully avoided, of this particular slide served as a stark reminder that skiing the backcountry is a danger-laced proposition. Rienhold Messner said simply, and profoundly that “mountains are not fair or unfair—they are just dangerous.”
But then, so is driving to work.
Bad things happen in the world. People get hurt. People hurt others. Sometimes inexplicably and murderously, and others, innocently and tragically accidentally. What can be done about it? Nothing. Or very closely next to nothing. Laws, well intentioned as they might be, that aim to protect the populace from danger, or from our own limited (so it’s claimed) ability to self-preserve are largely unenforceable and pointless. Even blatantly basic laws, rooted in the natural right to life, serve to punish rather than prevent. People are unpredictable. Sometimes unfathomably so. Danger and risk and tragedy are part of living in a liberty-based society. A part of interacting and coexisting with other humans. And indeed, without those negatives we’d have no sense of reward or friendship or heroism.
Our rational minds demand explanation. Our first question after we regrouped was not “everyone OK?” but rather “what caused this?” And maybe that was for the simple reason that we did not trigger the large slide. But nonetheless, the avalanche nerd in each of us started to speculate and asses the probable causes and reasons why an entire hillside of snow would collapse on itself and slide violently and abruptly down gravity’s fall line. Only later did we think upon the human factors that lead us into avalanche terrain to begin with—those emotional and recreational and physical experiences mentioned above.
And why indeed?
Risk is generally, and in many cases specifically, controllable. We can mitigate highway dangers by being a safe driver. We wear helmets while we speed down narrow mountain singletrack on our bikes. Don’t eat that. Look both ways. And so forth. “The pleasure of risk” wrote A. Alvarez, “is in the control needed to ride it with assurance so that what appears dangerous to the outsider is, to the participant, simply a matter of intelligence, skill, intuition, coordination—in a word, experience.”
And I know only one way to gain such experience.
Certainly, however, there are those who might claim that the best way to avoid an avalanche is to stay at home. Perhaps in the basement?
But what sort of way is that to live and explore and experience? There is no stinging wind or breathtaking sunrise or soft, creamy snow in the basement. Or, as I wrote last year:
The path of least resistance would lead one to simply stay home, rather than venture into the capricious and uncertain terrain of the mountains. But then, one could follow that path into a life of self preservative sedentarianism that leads to a more painful, more pathetic, and I believe far more tragic demise than any backcountry accident might conjure. No, I prefer the air and freedom and risk of learning and discovery and rational, responsible backcountry exploration. You may find a varied fire burning in your chest, but I ski the backcountry not only for powder shots and white room analysis, but also for the self grounding peace and quiet of the wilderness, something unequaled in other spheres – a quality and tangibility to life that speaks to a persona rooted in the Rocky Mountains. That is, I feel connected to the terrain when I realize that it demands to be understood and respected. It’s ability to take life is as real and as literal as it’s ability to affirm and give life. And in that, I find a great and lasting satisfaction.
I’m continually disheartened at the inevitable cries for banning this, or regulating that—cries that are intensified in the wake of various tragedies and disasters—in an attempt to control, guide, and steer the human spirit. The mountainous US code is already a labyrinth of incoherent finger-wagging. More laws will not stabilize snow, or cure mental illness. Criminalizing risk will not tame the spirit of the adventurer or mitigate danger. Indeed, banning the very representation of crosshairs or targets will do nothing to prevent or alter the derangement of others. No, our problems cannot be solved by the signing of legislation. Our ills are not the product of regulatory deprivation. They are, simply, byproducts of humanity. And as such, the solutions to them lie in humanity itself. That is, you, and me.
Avalanches—literal, and otherwise—are a part of life. Backcountry skiing is metaphor. Underlying everything we do, everywhere we go, there is risk and danger. Indeed, at times that danger lies under our very feet. But we hike, and we ski. We learn and discover and, with the help of others, overcome tragedy and mishap and unfortunate series of events. We unify. And rescue one another from the cold, indifferent snow. We look in the mirror, introspective and thoughtful. We self-correct and take further steps, however small, down that rugged path of improvement and enlightenment. We must. As the historian B.H. Roberts said, “progress or perish.”
And if backcountry skiing is metaphor, then the reward inherent obliterates that inevitable risk. The joy and the sweet taste of triumphant discovery shines light on the darkness of doubt and uncertainty. Light enough to eclipse the shadows that bind men in a limbo of inaction, paranoia and fear. We climb and we ski. And then we climb yet again. Over and over. Or, as George Mallory described the concept when discussing why anyone would climb Everest, “the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward… what we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.”
Find your joy.
And then chase it with tenacity and dogged determination. Failure, risk, and doubt be damned.