Laying on the wooden bench I watched as dust drifted down between the cracks of the decaying ceiling tiles. Finally some rest. On the table above my head there was leftover pizza, a beer, and the waning minutes of the Rangers game emanated from my phone. Gibbs and Frizz would be here soon.
I had been watching the storm all week (much to the detriment of actual work). Initially, the aggregate reports from mountainweather.com, weather underground, and NOAA, resulted in the potential for 25+ inches of snow in the White Mountains at elevations above 3,000ft. Snow would arrive on E/NE winds @ 35-40mph, with gusts up to 60. Ideal conditions for filling in large parts of left gully. However, as is typically the case in the mountains and with early season storms, the forecast changed dramatically. By Friday morning weather reports showed significant accumulations only above 5,000ft and the lump sum was predicted to be lower than initially forecasted. Additionally, temps would rise and rain would resume around 10am Saturday morning. All of which added up to a very small window of opportunity to ski.
Gibbs showed up soon after the Rangers game ended. We eagerly/anxiously discussed the weather and snow conditions while simultaneously setting up our respective car camping chalets. In my tour plan skinning from the parking lot was never a reasonable expectation. Yet, there we were at the base of the mountain with more than enough snow to ski uphill. Rule number one; always be prepared to have assumptions challenged (for better or worse).
Frizz’s truck barreled into the parking lot around ten. We stood there for a while catching up, spinning yarn, and eagerly taking in reports from Forrest’s recent adventures in Yosemite. Unfortunately, 2:30am was rapidly approaching and at least a few hours of sleep were needed. We quickly moved our cars a little ways down the road in an effort to be mindful of camping rules and regulations. Sleep came quickly – then, just as suddenly it was over.
In the deepest and darkest part of the night my mind and body went into auto pilot. Here are my pants, there are my boot liners, and my beacon is just where it usually is in the corner of my bag. It went like this all the way down my mental checklist. These seemingly benign tasks felt good to execute. They foreshadowed the fun and adventure soon to come. Past the edges of my headlamp’s narrow cone of illumination I could see Gibbs and Frizz going through the same process, likely experiencing the same feelings.
Beacon check, gear check….let’s go. The first two pitches of skinning always strike fast. Your heart rate gets going and your body feels more “alive” than you might wish for at that time of day. After the third pitch though the slope eases up and a rhythm is found. We moved silently, efficiently, and occasionally stopped to look at the stars. Given that the weather was supposed to change rapidly I didn’t expect the night sky to be as clear as it was, and yet there we were, silently gliding across newly fallen snow as distant balls of exploding helium and hydrogen twinkled above us.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!! I don’t think we skinned from HoJo’s to the base of the ravine once last year!” There we stood, just past the first aid cache, in the darkness of the ravine, skis and skins still on. It was October, 29th.
Mt. Washington is unique in many ways. Winds and associated wind chills are well documented, and the steepness of many ski lines have been widely reported. However, what isn’t as frequently discussed is the challenge you face when trying to make ongoing snow and weather assessments (especially when low clouds or darkness persists). The large degree of spacial variability means that skiers essentially go from 0-100mph with few opportunities to check speed in-between HoJos and the floor of the ravine.
So there we were, in the proverbial bowling alley, covered in darkness, filled with the uncertainty associated with limited vision. In the backcountry there are two types of uncertainty, epistemic and aleatory. The former you can reduce by acquiring knowledge (e.g. reading your daily avalanche forecast), while the latter is an inherent part of the environment. Thus, we will always make decisions with unknown variables at play, particularly in complex and dynamic environments such as the alpine. The goal is to do as much homework and be as creative and flexible in our thinking as possible in order to reduce uncertainty to the point where we can move forward confidently. This is what we accomplished with pre-trip planning, and by taking 15 minutes (yes, we actually took this amount of time) to hydrate, eat, and discuss the pros and cons of our next steps.
We devised a plan, discussed potential errors and missteps, and then collectively decided to begin climbing left gully in the hopes that we would be able to ski from the top. What happened next was too beautiful for words (at least the ones I possesses) and thus I will use the following images to tell the story of our ascent and descent. Suffice to say though, mother nature put on an “all time” show.
Photo Credit: Ryan Gibbs
The lack of sleep, long week at work, and hard training were catching up with me just as the snow became heavy and thin on the remaining few pitches of the Sherb. Moreover, now far removed from the dangers of windslab and long falls I became complacent. Thoughts of coffee and breakfast sandwiches occupied the cognitive energy that should have been dedicated to focusing on my next turn. With the help of hindsight bias I now see a myriad of red flags that should have caught my attention….but thats the point of hindsight, its only obvious after the fact.
I made a right turn and immediately felt my ski stop while inertia kept the rest of me going. My left ski went up and above my left shoulder and came down wildly as I tried to salvage some balance and perhaps ski out of my fall. No such luck. The left ski tip caught and the momentum of my fall spun me around 180 deg. I knew something was wrong. I knew the second I tried to pick up my foot this wasn’t a normal tweak (although I lied to myself for hours, convincing myself that I might be able to surf the following day). I gingerly made my way down to Frizz and Gibbs who did a quick assessment and then helped me get down the last pitch of skiing. Side slipping is made a whole lot easier when people pack down a path for you.
At the car Gibbs helped get my boot off and truth be told it didn’t seem too bad. In fact I was embarrassed I had made a big deal of it. Frizz put skis and sharps in the rocket box and helped wrap my ankle in ice. I was soon on my way to Portland. Back in the city I was able to put some pressure on my ankle, enough to unload my car. This only reinforced false hope. My wife, a nurse practitioner, came home and did some quick assessments. Final verdict, I needed x-rays.
Hours later the doctor came back into the room with a bucket of plaster and materials for a temporary splint. He looked at me and said “you know, guys like you don’t come in here unless something is wrong.” I would make one addendum to that statement; “people” like me don’t go there unless something is wrong.
As my mind grapples with the sudden decrease in dopamine, norepinephrine, and other enjoyable neurotransmitters I am left with the most difficult part of an injury, depression. Many factors contribute to this increase in malaise, sadness, and frustration. But the most insidious is my ego quietly telling me that if I were “better” it wouldn’t have happened.
The truth is I haven’t had a serious injury in almost a decade of backcountry skiing, mountain biking, climbing, and all the other outdoor pursuits folks such as myself typically engage in. Thus, it wasn’t a matter of if I would get hurt but simply when. Luck (known and unknown) has been on my side for a while, but eventually luck yields to statistics which show that given my personality, age, gender, and race I am more likely to be involved in an accident than other members of the population. Hoping to be an outlier is at best unwise and at worst arrogant.
Moving forward all I can do is focus on healing, stay positive for myself and my wonderful wife who has to deal with a roommate who moves a lot slower than they used to, and hope that this reflection helps someone else learn from my mistakes. Accidents are inevitable, but what makes them valuable is if they are shared. Ultimately we all make our own choice to go or not go and the second we decide on the former option we assume risk. I look forward to taking the lessons (good and bad) from this day and applying them throughout the upcoming winter.
Photo Credit: Forrest Frizzell