Ski Tour Gone Wrong
Just one more ridge – that is what I was thinking a few weeks back while out on a tour. One more ridge and we would be in the clear.
The one particular thing that stuck with me after completing an Avalanche Level One Course was when the instructor said that just taking the class did not guarantee safety. He told the class that there would most likely be students that were either caught in an avalanche or lost in avalanche terrain because they assumed that the class would keep them safe and make them cocky.
I wasn’t exactly worried about an avalanche - we were safely traveling and the danger that day was low. No – what I was more worried about was getting lost, running out of day light or both of the above.
I digress – back to the story. I got into ski touring just this winter after many years of convincing myself that touring would cause too much anxiety. In my case I have a fairly stressful job as Catering Manager and Wedding Coordinator at The Canyons Ski Resort and figured that the backcountry would just cause me too much strain, while the resort was mindless and worry-free.
A peculiar thing happened when I tried out my skins for the first time. I completely fell in love with the sport to the point that it was on my mind constantly. I have to admit though – I can’t quite be sure exactly what I liked the best.
In the movies, skinning seems effortless and backcountry skiers make the sport look simple. However, the reality is that the sport of backcountry skiing is much more complicated than resort skiing or snowboarding. The equipment can make you feel like a beginner again – working with skins – a base layer that allows the alpine skier to walk up hill without sliding backwards. Then you have the beacon, shovel, probe, compass and inclinometer to adjust to when you leave the comforts of the resort.
In some of the more open sections of the first ridge, we got up to a good speed. Just when we’d have a clear view of what we assumed was the summit we would happen upon a grove of pesky Shrub Oak Trees where it was necessary to punch, claw and tear your way through the patch without getting tangled in the web.
In other areas we would come to an end of a ridge near a huge house and decided to wing it – slipping down into the driveway and skinning up the road toward the next ridgeline in site. On one such occasion I confidently swung down behind the end of a ridge – finally getting into a groove when I heard Brendan yell “Stop.”
Unfortunately I didn’t realize until after I had done two hop-turns down the slope that a bull moose was lounging directly in the path that I was planning to take. I obviously couldn’t go that direction and the only other way to go was back up where I came from. I believe that was the point where I was beginning to feel exasperated – I couldn’t go down and the only way I saw left as an alternative off of the ridge was to fling my skis off of a man made mini-cliff and crawl down through the dirt to the street below. I have no problem with natural cliffs – whether jumping them or clawing your way down them it’s all-good. However, man-made cliffs that drop out onto gravel are not so much my cup of tee.
The most bizarre pattern I noticed was that once behind I was keeping to a much faster pace. It was almost as if left to the role of a leader – I would relax and lack the motivation to continue at a fast clip. However, as the last in line, my adrenaline kicked in and I would compete to stay at the higher speed.
At one point or another I noted Brendan had diverted off of the Mid-Mountain Trail, and was breaking trail in the direction of the ridge top. I didn’t disagree with this decision, and was content to get to the top of the ridge as easily and safely as possible. Especially because halfway up the slope, Brendan commented that we might stop for lunch atop the ridge. By this time we had been at it for at least three hours and I was fading partly to hunger.
At the summit, I noticed that Brendan had begun to prepare lunch, and was in the process of opening a small bottle of wine. I collapsed in the snow at his feet, and devoured Salami, Cheese and Apple as if we were stranded and hadn’t eaten in days. All of the circles we did trying to climb our way out of million-dollar mansions had taken its toll out of me. Ironically it was about to get much harder. After lunch, I was banging my ski pole on the bottom of my ski boot to rid it of a clump of snow. On the third thump, the aluminum of the pole cracked under pressure and the pole split into two sections.
I had almost put Duct Tape in my pack that morning, but for some reason, I had left out the tape for a Band-Aid package and athletic tape. Unfortunately, I didn’t have a cut or a scrape –the problem was a bit larger than that. Regardless – what are you going to do when you are miles into the backcountry and snap a pole in half?’
My solution was to grab the quarter-inch athletic tape and pretend that I didn’t leave the duct tape behind (seeing that this would not be the last pole to break on me this season – in Brendan’s case he just carries an extra pole now just in case). A couple of sticks later an almost perfect splint was formed. It was a bit like pole surgery, and in the end my pole looked like it had a broken leg.
From the skeptical look Brendan cast my way I could tell he didn’t think much of my remedy for the situation but I was bound and determined to get back to the car with that pole intact. Hesitantly I touched it to the ground – bracing on the opposite one.
About two ridgelines after the surgery, we stared at The Canyons in the distance. From our perch the resort seemed worlds away – particularly since the sun was only an hour or so from setting.
Option one would have been to head up the ridge to our right and hope we got to the top before sunset. Option two would have been to skirt the mountain to the left and hope there wouldn’t be another couple of canyons behind it. Option three was to throw in the towel – realize that we would not make it to The Canyons and head straight down the Canyon to our left – which appeared to dump out at Kimball Junction.
Without a map, option three won out, and after several nice powder turns we were headed into a thick forest of Evergreen Trees. Without Aspens, we really couldn’t see anymore where this path was taking us. Instead we were back to the beginning, now running circles around trees instead of houses. At one point it was clear that we would be crossing a creek – Brendan sped across and I shut my eyes – hoping that I wouldn’t collapse into the swirling ice water I imagined was just below the three-foot snow bridge.
Further down the canyon the trees began to thin, and by complete accident we popped onto some sort of summer service road. I still had absolutely no idea where we were and I suppose it showed because at one point Brendan punched my arm lightly and said, “You’re worrying again, aren’t you?”
I replied that yes I was concerned we would not make it out before dark. In my mind we would still have had a long way to go once we left the canyon because there is a huge field just before State Road 224 from Kimball Junction to Park City. His response was that worrying wouldn’t change anything and I might as well enjoy the scenery around me.
There was no longer any reason to worry about being stuck in the dark. Instead we would have to explain to our pals how a 5-hour tour ended us at the Tanger` Outlets – just a couple miles down from my condo. A quick call to a friend led to a 10-minute ride to dinner & drinks after the story of how it came to be that we were sitting in front of a department store instead of the deck of Brendan’s house.
Ah well – at least there was an adventure involved which lead us safely to good friends and a nice bottle of wine. Maybe the tour didn’t go so wrong after all!
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