Marolt: Our backyard is too dangerous to be called a playground
I have had several close calls in the mountains and never have I thought it was any of the mountains’ faults.
There was the time in Utah we climbed to ski the Pipeline and took a shortcut that led us across a 40-degree slope that we cut a 4-foot-deep trench through because it had been baking in the sun all morning. I don’t know why that snow didn’t avalanche on us.
Another time, we climbed Mount Rainier and got to the summit at the same time a raging whiteout did. We opted to descend by an unfamiliar route because we thought it would be easier and ended up a foot away from marching straight off a cliff.
And how could I forget descending the headwall of Denali in a heavy snowfall, swimming intermittently through rivers of snow coursing over our heads while thankfully being attached to a fixed line that kept us from being swept away. It is a small miracle that the rope anchoring us didn’t snap under the weight of those snow slides.
But, the scariest near miss occurred right here in our backyard. My best friend John and I were skiing on the glacier below Castle Peak on a beautiful late summer day when one poor decision brought me closer to death than at any other point in my life.
There is not a glacier up there anymore, but there was in the mid-1980s. It was a deep sheet of ice that stretched almost to the saddle between Castle and Conundrum peaks and filled the entire cirque below the two fourteeners. There was an identifiable bergschrund. It provided opportunity for great skiing adventures.
We had already skied one run and hiked back up to take another. It was strenuous work, but the payoff was commensurate with the effort.
The sky was unusually clear that late afternoon. We decided to celebrate the occasion with a quick hike to the summit before strapping on the boards to ski down. We were wearing ski boots, but it was an easy traverse following the snowline to the saddle to an easy hike back across the ridge above and then a short scramble to the top.
We made it up without incident, enjoyed the original, all natural Rocky Mountain high on top of Castle Peak, and descended the summit pyramid only a bit more slowly than if we had been wearing proper hiking boots.
Safely down on the ridge with an easy walk to the saddle and then back across the top of the snowfield to our skis, we made a really bad decision. We glanced down a short but steep chute and caught a glimpse of our boards we had stashed below.
As the crow flies, our skis were just about 100 feet directly below us. Down-climbing directly to them would save only about 15 minutes, but the onset of fatigue and maybe a little hunger made the seemingly small risks seem worthwhile. We soon realized that we were not crows.
The chute was steeper than we thought and got steeper as we descended. About halfway down we found ourselves on a 6-inch ledge above a 30-foot cliff. The sudden drop-off wasn’t visible from above.
We tried to climb back out, but the hand and footholds were rotten and there was no margin for error with small slips.
So we perched on that small shelf and tried to figure it out. We laughed at first because the situation was so ridiculous. This lasted until our legs started cramping. We were not getting any stronger.
We thought about jumping down to the snowline. It was only 30 feet when looking at it from below. But, looking down at a sheet of solid ice pitched at about 35 degrees for several hundred yards below the free-fall, it was more like, “only 30 feet?!” Landing the jump would have probably shattered our spines and the ensuing tumble down the glacier would have likely broken nearly every other bone in our bodies before we came to a bloody rest.
We sat there in silence for probably another hour before pending darkness forced us to do something. We carefully slid off our ski boots, strapped them around our necks with our socks and, one at a time, carefully free-climbed back up out of that chute in our bare feet.
We got back to the ridge, our numb feet looked like fresh roadkill. I could not stop trembling. I felt like crying. In light of the recent tragedies in our mountains, I am not so bold as to proclaim that this type of “thing” could happen to anyone. I am humble enough to admit it happened to me.
Roger Marolt knows it is possible that one day you might not get a second chance, so make sure you don’t need one. Email at email@example.com.