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Thinking to Survive

Deep thoughts
posted: 05/12/2004

The slope rolled away like an upside down mixing bowl, if mixing bowls were the size of the peaks found in the Pantheon Range of British Columbia, in the coastal mountains eight hours north of Whistler, 100 miles from the nearest town. While gentle at the top, the pitch curved to more than 50 degrees, stayed steep for several hundred feet, then sheered off into 40-story cliffs. I took a breath, pointed my skis into the fall line, and promptly did what you do not do in no-fall situations: I caught an edge and fell.

Time did not slow down. My life did not flash before my eyes. Instead, I saw swiftly spinning white as I tumbled, and my ears were filled with the sickening hiss of Gore-Tex as I landed hip-first on the snow and then accelerated. Rather than becoming paralyzed by fear, my self-preservation kicked in and I fought with all my might to self-arrest. Dragging poles and hands, my body spread out in a desperate stab at friction, I rolled my skis below me and tried to brake with the edges. They skittered and bounced, but I slowed just enough, and then the metal caught and carved and I railed sideways across the hill, a high-speed saviour traverse that dumped my lumpy butt in a petrified, gloriously relieved heap against a pile of rocks.

There is no doubt that if I had fallen another 50 feet down the hill, where the angle was steeper and self-arrest unlikely, I would be dead. Instead, I am alive, and the incident, rather than being the end, was the beginning of a new, wiser me. For the first time, I understood with unprecedented clarity that there is a line I probably should not cross, a line that makes all the difference between a fun day on the hill and a potential deadly final run. Invisible yet very real, it is the line between terrain that is exposed to significant danger below and terrain that is not.

At its simplest, exposed terrain has hazards at the bottom (jagged rocks, sheer cliffs, unforgiving trees) and a steep enough angle to make stopping difficult if not impossible should you fall. Of course, this describes numerous expert runs at any number of ski hills, which means that if you want to avoid exposure of any kind, you may never step into your bindings. But the exposure Im talking about here is big, with big consequences and big hazards rarely found inside the boundaries of a ski area. Like monstrous cliffs. Like death.

The rub about skiing this kind of terrain is that you cant screw up. You cant make mistakes. But I make mistakes. No matter how good I get, I will never rip a turn with the authority and ability of a top ski mountaineer or big mountain freeskier. Anyone whos seen me ski will say, Duh, but this knowledge was gleaned with difficulty. For many years, I skied with relative abandon and utter ignorance, chasing the heroes of the day, assuming I would keep acquiring the skills that would carry me safely into increasingly burly terrain. Even if I couldnt ski as fast, pretty, or strong, I always thought I could hang on the same slopes. In the Pantheons, attempting to match skiing partners whose ability was far superior to mine, I realized I could not.

See, exposure is different from other hazards on the hill, from avalanches or dumping it at speed. Avalanches loom as the single biggest fear for most adventure skiers, but avoiding them is usually well within our control: In the face of instability you can pick a safer route, turn back, or simply not go. Rocks, ice, trees, lift towers, and high-speed falls are smoothly defanged by staying in control and easing up on the accelerator. With big exposure, though, you can stumble into a situation where you cant turn back. Maybe youve committed to a route and its impossible to retrace your steps. Maybe the snow sloughed away and youre now on 50-degree ice. Whatever the cause, sometimes all you can do is ski. And if you fall, all you can do is pray.

In the Pantheons, I faced a dilemma. The sun was going down, camp was a couple miiles distant, and there was no other obvious route off the rocky ridge. The fear that had stayed at bay during the fall flooded into every cell and I was shaking with adrenaline, emotion, anxiety. No matter how hard I tried, I couldnt make myself get back on the horsenot that horse anywayso I traversed along the ridge and eventually found a less-exposed descent. It took an extra hour, but so what? Back in camp, in front of a wonderful fire, I wrestled with the meaning of courage, with the devil of ego and the saint of humility, and it took me a long while before I didnt feel, well, stupid about what had happened. But then I understood Id learned one of my limitsmy limit, not anyone elses. The consequences of skiing in gnarly terrain hold a risk Im not willing to bear. It may be the most valuable lesson Ive learned in 20-some years of skiing, and I thank God I didnt learn it the hardest way of all.

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