Marolt: Take care of your investment
I was only close to dying in an avalanche once. I was in Canada crossing a glacier, tethered to my brother, Mike. We heard a tremendous “pop” from around 10,000 vertical feet directly above us from near the top of King Peak. A hanging glacier had calved, just as it had the day before when we watched from a distance as a parade of Mack-truck-sized chunks of ice bounced in and out of a 200-mph plume of snow, making time all the way across the valley floor and leaving behind what looked like a frozen sea of roiling storm-whipped waves. We had figured that an avalanche like that was a rare event and that the odds were impossible that it could happen again the next day when we had to cross its path to reach the shoulder of our climbing objective, Mount Logan.
So much for experience in the mountains, the ability to assess objective danger and educated guesses. In that moment, I knew we were going to die in an avalanche, but we didn’t. What we couldn’t see was a gigantic fissure in the ice that was running parallel to us and hidden by a slight crown in the glacier floor. The wall of snow roared toward us. It disappeared behind the undulation, and we waited for the end when it would reappear again, a split second before pulverizing us. It never came. The huge crevasse had swallowed it whole. In that, perhaps the quietest moment in my life, I knew I never would die in an avalanche.
There was a story in The Denver Post about avalanche deaths in Colorado and how the number of people getting caught in them is on a steady rise. Looking at the graphs, you getthe feeling that it is becoming increasingly dangerous to travel by foot through our backcountry in the winter. Of course, that’s nonsense. It always has been dangerous to slap the skins on and head for powder.
The thing that drives me crazy about experts talking about avalanches is that they invariably forget the foolproof safety precaution for avoiding death by live burial in snow — just say “no.”
One thing I learned in my experience is that your chance of dying in an avalanche is directly related to the amount you have invested in getting yourself into a situation where one could occur. I’m talking about time and money.
That night, safely tucked into our tents, we talked about the impossibility of our situation that day ever happening within 20 miles of home in our own familiar mountains. Looking at it objectively after the fact, the avalanche potential we exposed ourselves to was stupidly high. But we didn’t see it. We had traveled far and trained long for the trip. That trumped experience and wisdom. Had we been only a couple of hours from home with only a couple of beers’ worth of planning behind us, there is no way we would have considered continuing on our path through what we knew was aptly named “The Valley of Death” by many climbing parties before us.
This may sound like an extreme example of an expedition-size investment clouding our judgment, but I think the same thinking takes place all the time for even smaller commitments, even though the ultimate price that might be paid is the same on the local playing fields.
An investment of a few thousand dollars in really cool Dynafit equipment and some Patagonia clothing could be enough to influence your judgment. Ditto waking up at 4 in the morning and driving a couple of hours to your objective. Even hiking for several hours might be enough to help you ignore conditions different from what you were expecting.
The easiest thing to say in the backcountry is “Yeah, but it’ll be OK.” The most foolish thing to say is, “I’ve done it a million times before.” The kiss of death is to say, “Everybody have shovels and beacons?”
Before heading out into the mountains as kids, two dads gave us their own reminders that have stayed with me. John Callahan, an original member of Mountain Rescue, told us, “Of all the bodies I’ve helped haul out of the wilderness, none had planned on dying that day.” My father passed on an old European saw: “The only true avalanche experts are all dead.” I will add my own to these — the biggest investment you take into the mountains is you. Take good care of it.
Roger Marolt knows that a death by avalanche is far easier to avoid than the common cold. Contact him at email@example.com.
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Mountain Rescue Aspen is expanding its education efforts to try to keep people safe in the backcountry during winters and summers. It will host a workshop on Dec. 8 titled, “How to Plan a Backcountry Tour.”