Marolt: ICE down before heading up into the mountains
It’s the heart of hut trip season — the time when snow is as deep as the urge to get out and live in it, as long as you can have a nice glass of wine by a cozy fire after skinning into the heart of the mountains, enjoy cooking and eating a hot meal in rustic splendor, and sleeping in a comfortable bed in a log cabin in the middle of nowhere that somebody else is responsible for the maintenance of. But, whatever you do, don’t forget ICE. It could save your life.
Yeah, no, I’m not talking about the second most important ingredient in margaritas or the stuff you wrap around sore muscles to get them ready for the next day’s adventure. It’s everywhere and feet-deep this time of year around the local rental cabins that mostly hover at around 11,000 feet above sea level on the sides of our most majestic mountains. I’m talking about the acronym representing the three most dangerous factors that need to be considered before heading into the backcountry — investment, complacency and ego.
You’ve heard this old mountaineering guideline, right? Actually, that’s doubtful, because I only made it up last evening, sitting in my living room watching the snow pile up outside, based on reflection over past adventures of my own where I screwed up royally and nearly turned myself into a body recovery exercise for local mountain rescue units.
Experience is the greatest teacher, if you can survive her lessons. My father used to tell us that there are no living avalanche experts, and Mr. Callahan reminded us boys every time we headed out to play in the mountains that not a single avalanche victim every planned to get killed the morning they headed out into the wild.
So, “I” stands for “Investment.” I think it’s the most significant threat to your mountain safety. It is everything you have invested in a trip and it clouds the judgment of even the most experienced mountain climbers.
By way of example, we were in Alaska crossing a glacier at an elevation of about 5,000 feet. Above us was a gargantuan peak that topped out at around 17,000 feet. As we contemplated setting up camp for the night, we heard a tremendous “pop!” and looked up to see an avalanche cascading down from the top of the mountain. It hit the glacier floor a half mile in front of us and rolled another mile or two across it before finally coming to rest. I have never seen anything like it, and it scared the hell out of me but not common sense into me.
If that had happened in the Ashcroft Valley here, we would have high-tailed it home immediately and not come back until late spring, if ever. However, we had a huge investment in the Alaska trip: months of training, thousands of dollars and setting aside a month to accomplish the task. So guess what we did the day after the avalanche? We marched right across its path. And, guess what happened? Another avalanche broke loose with us in its sights. I thought that was how we were going to die. Luckily, it turned out to be a much smaller slide and stopped a few hundred feet before us. It was a great lesson in underpants management.
Complacency also can kill you in the backcountry. It is the reason why the most experienced carpenters lose fingers in table saws while apprentices rarely do. It is where repetition leads to poor judgment simply because you have never had an accident before. It doesn’t change the odds; it makes you forget to consider them. It can kill you traveling through avalanche country, too, which is worse than losing your thumb, in most cases.
Finally, we have to talk about ego and actually admit that we all have one. We have to understand that just because we think we are smarter than everyone else and say that conditions are safe for wilderness adventure, this does not make it necessarily true. We need to understand that if we truly believe that only idiots get buried in avalanches, we are probably the idiots.
No matter how knowledgeable we are, it is still wise to dig snow-test pits, heed published forecasts and warnings, follow perfect backcountry protocol, carry the right gear and listen to others we are traveling with.
The captain of the Titanic, and many others, could have benefited greatly from considering all this. After all, wasn’t it ICE that sunk that great ship?
Roger Marolt has seen too many avalanches and lost too many friends to them to know it could never happen to him. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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