A Reminder

I knew it was a different morning on Longs when I left the parking lot with a bare head and bare hands. Usually I’m pretty chilly at the trailhead, but on this day the sweat was pouring off my eyebrows and nose on the very first steep cut up through the trees, and instead of dreading the breeze at treeline I welcomed it for its cooling properties.

Whenever one has a mishap in the backcountry, the chain of decisions and events that led up to it always seem so obvious in hindsight. But I suppose that’s just the way it works. I was battling a bit of a head cold and was feeling beat down from a previous 10 days of high-volume outings, so on this morning I resolved to just wake up whenever my body wanted, not interrupting my slumber with the typical 5am alarm that I set when I’m planning on an ascent of Longs Peak. As such, I arrived at the trailhead an hour later than usual, and on top of that it was a gloriously warm day—temps in Boulder later in the day would reach the low-70s.

I made my usual quick time to treeline—slowed a couple of minutes by breaking trail on the short-cuts—and then, instead of bearing straight west to the northern shoulder of Mt. Lady Washington, I stomped and plunged my way through the krummholz and snowdrifts to Chasm Junction and the grand Longs/Meeker cirque. At 8:10am, under the “route” column at the trailhead register I had written “marthas? cables?”, indicating my uncertainty with the morning’s plans. Even as I contoured toward Chasm Lake I was thinking that if Martha Couloir—a popular, narrow, aesthetic, moderate alpine route on MLW’s south face—proved to be more than I was comfortable on-sight soloing, then I could just escape the cirque via the less technical Camel Couloir and easily salvage the morning.

Looking back down, just above one of the crux steps in the Martha Couloir.

I got to the base of Martha at 9:39am, and out in the sun things were definitely already getting soft. There was evidence of a wet slide from the day before at the base, but when I stepped into the couloir I was heartened by the fact that it was mostly still in the shade due to its narrow character. The first rock/ice step went easily with a couple of solid hooks from my Corsa Nanotech; and, surprisingly, my trusty but very dull Kahtoola KTS Steel crampons were giving my feet plenty of purchase. Shortly after the step I came upon a fresh-looking rap anchor that I actually took with me in case I felt the need to retreat higher up (I had a light harness and a 6mmx35m rap cord in my small pack).

The last step to be surmounted.

The next stretch of the couloir was very consistent and quite steep snow—maybe 60 degrees?—with a solid frozen crust that felt very secure. I cleared the second crux rock/ice step with some judicious stemming and several surprisingly good sticks with my Nanotech. Above here the  couloir was alarmingly narrow and steep but still good snow. I made sure to stay in the shade on the right-hand side of the chute to stay in the more solid snow this afforded. The third/final mixed step was slightly more difficult, but I was through quickly and exited the top of the couloir at 10:08am, pleased to have dispatched of the day’s unknown difficulties in a quick, efficient manner and to have climbed a new line. That unique feeling of satisfaction is a big motivation in climbing new routes on the mountain.

A snow-covered Chasm Lake, as seen from within Martha’s.

The traverse over to the MLW/Longs saddle was tedious but offered me a new stunning perspective on the Diamond and soon I was at the now very familiar Cables dihedral, which I climbed quickly and then made the customary slog to the summit via the north face’s upper slopes. There was a surprising amount of blowing snow up there, but it was uncharacteristically warm—normally I’m bundled in a windbreaker and puffy jacket for this portion of the climb but today I was still just in a thermal long-sleeve.

Nice view from the slopes of MLW.

I spent very little time on the summit, quickly plunged back down through the 3rd Class terrain (depending on snow, this 500′ of vert takes 15-20min on the way up and only 6min on the way down) to the top of the Cables downclimb, carefully reversed the 200′ of technical corner, and hopped the last 5′ or so down onto the steep snow slope below the Cables, something I’d done ten times previously this year. At this point I was thinking about:
A) how pleasant it was to be on the mountain in such balmy temps (after climbing it so many times this winter in more serious conditions), and
B) dispatching of the snow slope quickly so that I could take off my crampons, don Microspikes, and run over the boulders and tundra back down to the car.

Well, within about five steps, that snow slope went a whole lot more quickly than I would’ve liked. I was kicking steps down it backwards when I heard a swiiiish, like a particularly big torrent of spindrift coming down the mountain, which caused me to lift my head up and see the whole slope fracture maybe 10′ above me. I had just enough time to think “oh shit” before I was slaloming downhill on my backside and instantly accelerated to what felt like freefall. Immediately below the Cables are a couple slab steps that I usually carefully downclimb, but now I was plummeting down these and just trying not to hit one of the giant boulders that I also knew to be in the fall zone.

Looking back up at the avalanche debris.

Soon enough the avalanche came to a stop approximately 200′ down the north face, and I was only waist-deep in snow. For whatever reason—not that I have tons of prior experience or anything—my mind seems to become very rational and calculating in these kinds of situations, so I almost immediately did a body check…what hurts? Left hip, right knee, left foot, left forearm.  No bones sticking out. But man that right knee hurts, same one I hyperextended/broke two years ago, I can move it though, seems like it’ll be ok. My left gaiter and the running tights underneath were both shredded—I assume by catching a crampon point—but surprisingly there was nary a scratch on my calf. HOLY SHIT! WHAT THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?!?!

Crown of the avalanche can be seen just below the Cables.

It was still the same sunny, warm day, but now I was covered/soaked in snow, so I threw on an extra layer and tried to get my shit together. Really? An avalanche on Longs’ North Face? Really? I knew things could’ve been way worse, and that’s probably what rattled me the most. After a few more minutes of basically just shaking my head and rubbing my knee, I took a couple pics—mostly because I still couldn’t really believe I’d just been in an avalanche—removed my now bent and battered crampons, put on my Microspikes, and started back down to the trailhead.

It probably took 20min for my knee/peroneals to stop feeling weak and unstable, but by time I’d made it out of the boulders and onto the more predictable terrain of the tundra and eventually the trail I was running relatively comfortably and it felt just like any other day descending the mountain, only warmer. Every time I saw a casual snowshoer on the trail I wanted to exclaim, I was just in an avalanche! But, of course, didn’t.  Instead, I ran down to the parking lot, signed out at the kiosk register (noting the avalanche in the comments column), let my socks and shoes dry for a few minutes in the sun, and drove back to Boulder.

What is to be learned here? Humility and respect—the mountains don’t give a shit. They’re not malevolent, but not benevolent either. There is both safety and danger in familiarity. Martha’s couloir received most of my mental focus for the morning because it was new, but once I’d exited it and was on a route that I’ve climbed a dozen times before in similar conditions, I didn’t pause to assess the entire situation—the later hour, the abnormally warmer temps, the fact that the slope below the Cables was likely loaded with slough from the steep slabs above it.

Any time you head into the mountains, it’s a fascinating but not entirely predictable, controlled environment. It’s a capricious arena, as is life in general. Of course, that wildness is part of why we go, but it’s best to remember that you must absolutely always be on your ‘A’ game—ready to make informed, educated decisions—whether it feels like you need it or not.

17 thoughts on “A Reminder

  1. Glad to hear you’re ok. I’ve learned as well from my share of close calls that the mountains deserve our utmost respect and caution. But I suppose that is part of their allure.

  2. Nice work on Martha’s, and the with the on-sight solo! That route looks awesome!! I’m glad to know you are alright after that ride. Looks like you went through some peppery stuff, too. Snow is frighteningly unpredictable and it sounds like you have broken down the cause within the snowpack, just happens that you were the hammer-pin that punched the bullet. Snow science is wildly intricate. Your last paragraph sums it up perfectly, well written and thanks for sharing.

  3. Wow man, glad you came out OK from that wild ride. Holy crap.

    The pic in Martha’s is scary — major terrain trap if the snow gives.

  4. Great report, glad you stayed calm. You should get a St. Bernard. I managed to fall off Sanitas the other day. The front side of EM Greenman has been tricky enough for me. Stay healthy Champ.

  5. Glad to hear everything turned out okay. Reminds me a bit of some of the stories in the book deep survival. Good read. It essentially says the same thing, respect the mountains (Or rivers, or whatever other medium you are traveling through) and don’t panic.

  6. This is a very good reminder, and hopefully a humbling reminder to us all.

    I don’t mean this be a rhetorical question by any means, and perhaps it sounds direct (or that I’m trying to make a certain point, again, I’m not), but do you think you were on your ‘A’ game here?

    I ask because accidents happen, and like you said, mountains (like life) are just unpredictable and we hardly have control over every last aspect of our lives/experience. Do you think this was something that was avoidable?

    • Basit – Hard to say, but in retrospect—hingsight being 20/20, of course—I guess I should’ve been off the upper mountain an hour or two earlier. No one thing was the cause, but the compounding of the fact that I started an hour later than normal, climbed a slower route than normal (Martha couloir), and that it was an exceptionally warm day all made the slopes obviously (in retrospect) more unstable than usual. Having said that, I’ve had training/education/experience in evaluating snowpack stability (though am by no means an expert) and definitely wasn’t concerned about this particular slope. I’m always a little nervous on the snow slopes above the Cables as they generally seem to hold more snow and the lip of the Diamond lurks not very far below. Falling down the Cables would be pretty horrific as well, but there’s a fairly reasonable chance you would survive it.

      • Thanks for the insight on the situation/decision, Tony! Like you said, the Monday Morning Quarterbacking about the confluence of gravity, friction, and layers in the pack (either yourself or someone else) is easy + exceedingly accurate, but, hearing you talk about this experience is insightful.

        I think it’s easy to put the guard down when in “run”/”skimo”/”fast + light mode” (at least I find it easier when not in a traditional mountaineering/alpine ascent mindset/situation), and it’s a good conversation to hear/have.

        I appreciate you putting yourself out there on posting about this kind of a situation publicly + openly – if all that is talked about are the “wins” and the “glory” of the ascent, I think it’s a slanted message. Cheers + kudos for showing this side openly, too!

  7. Glad you’re OK and good, honest analysis of the conditions (weather, aspects, sun/shadow, mental) that went into everything.
    Did you submit to the CAIC? Those are some good pics and info that they use for field observations.

  8. I think the authors point with the FIRST sentence is to tell you it was avoidable…. one shouldn’t be judged just for having an incident particularly if they are truly honest about it, but what never ceases to amaze me is not that accidents happen but how often everyone is incredulous during and afterwards…

  9. Thanks for sharing this experience! Just curious…was the rap anchor two red slings tied together with a couple of rap rings off to climbers right? I was up there in the middle of February and left those behind. If so, I’m glad you were able to collect them! :-)

  10. Tony

    This might not be the best place to leave this message but it is the latest post and so seems the closest to the right place. Im am currently lying sick in bed in Cape Town. Staring out my window at Table Mountain and wishing I was out there. But busy reading through your various posts on here, your blog and Runner’s World’s site is keeping me thoroughly entertained, inspired and sane through the down time.

    My suggestion to you, which may already have occurred both to you and in actuality, is to compile all of these into a book on your outlook on life, your career and trail experiences. It would be valuable to any of us mountain-ish folk and I think most would agree with me here.

    In the meanwhile thanks for the musings and experiences and looking forward to the reading the next.

    Jono

  11. Glad to hear you are ok Tony. I was thinking of this while on Longs this weekend in similar warm conditions. Your words at the end of the post reminded me of Messner’s quote – “Mountains are not fair or unfair – they are just dangerous.”

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