An exceedingly foolish excursion |

An exceedingly foolish excursion

Ron Rash

Aspen, CO ColoradoI don’t have any immediate plans to climb all of the fourteeners in Colorado and definitely not in winter. I have climbed our local fourteeners more times then I care to count. This past year I had climbed all of the local fourteeners in the Elk Range except for Castle Peak. So the morning of New Year’s Eve, I thought I would ski up it and be able to say I climbed all of the local peaks in a calendar year. I know, not quite in the league with Chris Davenport or Aron Ralston, but still it would make me happy.I left Ashcroft late, around 9:20 a.m. I was on the verge of being sick and fighting a nagging cough. The weather was clear and cold, perfect for a fast ski in and out.Everything went well until I got to the upper Castle basin, just below the summer parking area at the foot of Montezuma Basin. I was standing on rocks and needed to cross a snow slope for about 100 yards to another band of rocks. The slope was about 32 degrees and dropped down into a tight gulley, a terrain trap. Above me, the slope climbed up to a cliff band and grew steeper.I have an incredible 10-year-old daughter who lives with me and a wonderful mother who lives in Glenwood Springs, both of whom I love very much. They both depend on me. I have many loyal, loving friends in the valley. I knew it wasn’t a smart decision to cross that slope, but I wanted to get up Castle Peak.The snow consisted of a hard wind slab about 25 centimeters thick covering a sheet of faceted snow, also known as sugar snow. A hard layer of snow over a weak layer is the perfect recipe for a slab avalanche.I skied out 10 feet from the rocks and jumped, and nothing happened. I wanted to cross, and at the same time all of the signs were telling me not to cross. I tried to convince myself that the overlying slab was solid and would support me, an exceedingly foolish rationalization.Finally I just went for it and crossed. My midweight Capilene shirt was completely soaked from a cold, fearful sweat by the time I got to the other side. After I made the crossing, I lost all desire for the summit; I went partway up into the basin and then said the hell with it, and turned to go home. The return crossing was not as nerve-racking because I had speed and just zipped across.On the way home I thought of a number of points for those who plan to ski or ride in avalanche terrain on a regular basis. • Phone your mother every night and tell her you love her.• Have a living will and be an organ donor. • Take as many avalanche courses as time and finances allow.• Wear a beacon and practice on a regular basis.• The size of your party should be no less then four.• Learn to dig good snow stability pits fast and do it often. Dig every time the aspect changes or you drop in elevation 500 feet.• Purchase and wear the Avi. Lung; they have saved lives.• Ski or ride one at a time from island of safety to island of safety.• Bring a cell phone and/or a satellite phone with the emergency numbers you will need.• Have first-aid training.• Always be thinking of your rescue plan when someone gets buried.• Use releasable bindings. Never wear pole straps or safety leashes.• Use steel or some form of metal snow shovel.• Your skiing or riding skills should allow you to ski the fall line, not making wide sweeping turns.• Never ski directly above another person.• Everyone in the party should know that everyone keeps searching until you have a recovery and that no one goes for help. Use your phones for help.• Carry a lightweight rope for belaying people digging snow pits on suspect slopes, possible rappelling, cutting cornices, or ski cutting slopes.• Purchase a search and rescue card: it will help to reimburse the rescue team that searches for you.• Lift weights: Digging in avalanche debris is physically taxing.• Purchase the longest, strongest probe poles possible, not the little pencil-thin ones. They will break.You may look at some of the above as being cynical. For the most part, the above points are not. The single most important equation in avalanche education is the human factor. In Bruce Tremper’s book, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain,” he writes, “In 90 percent of avalanche accidents, the avalanche is triggered by the victim or someone in the victim’s party.”Mountain Rescue Aspen is doing its yearly avalanche seminar the evening of January 12 and on-snow training January 13. Registration is from 5-6 p.m. at the St. Regis. Ron Rash can be reached for comment at


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