Page 62 - JanFeb2014

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sliding or breaking, so, ipso facto, it was safe. But by me, safety was only a mental construct because the evidence suggested otherwise. I stared down the ridgeback to the next, then next again possible drop-ins – each looked the same dismaying gravidness prone to sliding. Amental debate of three possibilities: hike up by side-stepping to the originally planned drop-in, or, traverse back to Second Creek, or, continue down the ridgeback and hope for the best. Decided: down the ridgeback, toward the dwarf trees that delimit the edge of tree line. (Tree line is a funny phenomenon: it occurs at different elevations around the world. Here in north central Colorado tree line happens at about 11,300 feet.) Cruising down, drifts had built up of varying height and steepness along the ridgeback. Skiing over or around the drifts above tree line, and then below tree line among dwarf trees was fun.

I studied a potential drop-in back into a lower section of Zero Creek from several feet away of a cliff’s edge, not close enough to get a good look to see whether the slope was a clear shot into the drainage, a drop in elevation of maybe two hundred feet or so. I took a step toward the edge and then stopped with an abrupt thought. If this is a cantilevered cornice and not a cliff edge, and I step to the cornice edge and it breaks, then I’ll involuntarily end up in the drainage with a ton of snow on top of me. But how can I know if I don’t look? Or don’t look and move on? Survival mode kicked in and intruded on my fun, and despite no luck finding a suitable drop-in that would lead me back into Zero or First Creek, respect for potential breaks of cornices was the right attitude.

I move on, leaving the ridgeback with its attendant cliffs above, and I ski gentle terrain that drains in the near distance toward to a knoll, a crown with a steepness radius that becomes even steeper as it opens into a bowl below. Nice looking. I had skied into favorable terrain. Though this slope-into-bowl surely would take me away from preferred Zero or First Creek, the egress by way of Second Creek or Third Creek would be exciting because: 1) I had never seen it from the top looking down, and 2) it would lead me to the highway only another mile or so up from where Zero Creek or First Creek, my familiar intended egresses, met the highway. Thus, this good-looking bowl would lead to an equivalently good though farther away egress made attractive by celebrated large rock faces along the way. Either way required a hitchhike back to my car once I reached the highway.

Because the crown of the slope increases in steepness, I plot out a mental line to ski to the bottom of the bowl. As I stand near the top of the crown, just a few arc degrees below, and while mentally mapping, I nonchalantly traverse a few feet to change my angle of view for no reason other than completing a view as one might complete a thought. Then, I feel it, a butterfly in the stomach coupled with an un-weighting through my legs, simultaneously as I hear it, a sound that was like gently biting into a snow cone. A snow slab had broken beneath my feet, and slid, moving me with it. Only a few feet later it stopped. An avalanche. I am stand-ing on top of it. I am scared to death. Singular thought – death. I was on my feet, standing upright, was I?

The slab measured approximately, irregularly about twenty-five-by-thirty yards in surface area, and maybe a couple of feet thick. I gingerly without thinking take steps upwardly and perpendicular to the sloping crown, over the tear in the snow and small crevasse created at the border of the broken slab. Several yards beyond the slab I had just stepped off of, I

feel it and simultaneously hear it again. Another slab beneath me had broken loose and slid moving me with it adjacent to the first slab, and stopped after sliding only a foot or so. Scared to death. The singular thought of death now brought with it an ancillary thought – there is no escape. I repeat my delicate walk upwardly and perpendicular to the slope of the crown, over the mini crevasse, onto new snow and then I feel it and simultaneously hear it again – a remembered sound of teeth biting gently into a snow cone, another slab, smaller, had broken beneath me. Death, no escape. Am I ready to die? I guess so. It is my time, don’t fight it, accept it. I “see” death with any next few steps. So I stand still.

Once I accept imminent death, it turns out, I start to think of a strategy. Figure this out. Death thoughts cloud the mind. How to escape, think!? Well, can’t just stand here, so I shuffle toward a rock outcropping, almost an arête, determined to stand on the rock, an island of safety, until I figure this out. A final few steps, another small slide and snow-cone sound, and I feel the rocks gouge into the bottom of the skis signaling safety for now. I think hard. No ideas coming, no avalanche equipment, not beacon nor shovel nor inflatable avi pack. Observe the lay of the land. Escape means stepping onto the slope on either side of the rock outcropping into the bowl; all surrounding snow looks like it will slide.

Lesson 101 of the avalanche is now learned because, standing within it, I see how one works. Recent slides all around me and in front of me, I study each of them. How could I not have seen these before!? Can I figure this out…. Retreat by hiking up and back to my point of entry into the wilderness is not possible because it would take many hours, well into night, with no confidence that the snow above was any more stable than the snow surrounding the rock out-cropping. Failure right, left, above and probably below. What a conundrum: the analytical mind meets survival instinct, both rally, but neither disposition has a potential solution.

No retreat upward, so … walk on rocks, stop and figure. Side slip along rocks. The depth of snow near the rocks appeared shallow. Thus, if progress along the side of the rocks while side-slipping produced a mini-avalanche - no problem because I could leap/fall back onto the rocks and the snow should be insufficiently deep. I moved onto the snow, and the method worked until the island of rocks ceased, and there was more bowl-of-snow beneath me. This snow field all around looked like it could avalanche. But, it had to be crossed, whether sideways or down.

A long pause to make reconnaissance. Trees stood downhill one hundred or so yards away along the far side of the bowl. Beneath my rock island, I side-stepped directly below and knocked down small slabs (small snow-cone sound), no bigger than twice the size of my ski length, and repeated the process downward until about ten such small slabs had settled above me. The knocked-down snow directly above me looked stable and not too deep. I figured it was time to ski the remainder of the slope into the bottom of the bowl in one straight shot. At the bottom there was no potential for avalanching – right? It must be so, I thought, because when one adds up the masses and the vectors, the bottom looks benign. Anyway, time to get there, and then plan the next step to get to the trees to skier’s right-side along and below the bowl.

I take a straight line down. Another field-sized slab breaks beneath me, and though there is no significant slab sliding because I’m close to the shallow-angled bottom of the bowl, in my panic while skiing at a moderate speed consistent with

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Page 62 - JanFeb2014

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