Big Chief

After months of none of the above the magic combination of sun, snow and stability finally settled over Southcentral Alaska. A mid January storm deposited enough snow to finally ski from the road. The storm was followed by high pressure and cold which was finally followed by a warming trend that made long days feasible for my frost-nip prone fingers and toes.

The East Ridge and North Face of Big Chief.

With good reports filtering in from all over Dave B., Eric P., Joe T., Sarah H. and I were dressed and skinning uphill by 10:30am. Our objective in mind was Big Chief. Of course we wanted to ski the north face – which is everyone’s objective when heading back there – but knowing coverage was pretty thin we all kept open minds and knew we had options should the route not go.

Morning commute.

Route scoping.

Eric & Sarah.

We toured up the regular Seattle ridge skin track to Seattle Ridge and toured south to avoid the alder hell that is Seattle Creek this year. After for 1 1/2 miles things looked good so we ripped skins and dropped 2000′ of powder, debris and breakable. Conditions were not ideal and we were beginning to rethink our objective. And then on the valley floor we looked up to see two skiers heading up valley aiming for the same objective we had in mind.

A beautiful peak above Seattle Creek Headwall.

The skiers started up the valley but soon traversed right and started up the East Ridge. We started up valley while watching them and noticed that upon reaching the ridge they put their skis on their backs and started booting. As we skinned we watched them out of the corner of our eyes.

I don’t remember who shouted first. “AVALANCHE!” Looking up to see that the lead skier had triggered a wind slab that had knocked him off his feet. He was sliding down with the debris. His partner tried to run out of the way but was also caught and carried.

The slide carried them out of sight and our group quickly shouted back and forth; two stayed behind in case of further failures and three started up towards the avalanche area. However, within a minute both skiers were up and walking around. We shouted back and forth: No injuries, no lost gear, just a brief scare. There was talk of continuing over to just double check on them and a brief discussion followed: we were traversing unconsolidated punchy snow and above us yawned a series of glide cracks. From above we had spied evidence of recent glide crack failures as well as small natural releases on the same ridge that the skiers were ascending. In the end we all agreed that none of us felt comfortable approaching the ridge and that given the slide was small and the skiers unhurt, we should continue up valley.

Zoom of the route the skiers chose (photo taken earlier from Seattle Ridge). The loupe is focused on the the shallow area right where the skier triggered the wind slab. Also note the recent slides and debris further right.

The slide was ~100′ wide and traveled ~200′. The debris pile was minimal. However – half the debris ended up in the terrain trap climbers right of where the skiers were going up. Luckily both skiers managed to stay on top and ended up in the debris climbers left and not in the terrain trap.

We kept climbing and were glad to find that a few hundred feet higher the snow transitioned from variable / breakable to nice supportable powder. Up even higher the snow was deeper and had less wind affect so after a brief discussion we decided we all felt good about conditions and continued up Big Chief via the broad Southeast facing slopes. As we started up we looked back to see the other skiers heading up our skin track. They appeared to be deliberately slowing so we took it as a sign to not stick around and started up. Skinning was easy and on our way up we looked down to see the other skiers continue past our up track and tour up to the sunny col.

Eric up the SE Face.

Checking out the corniced south face.

Top was variable and we had to transition from skis to boots to skis.

We climbed up the southeast face and then took the upper East Ridge to the summit. Standing on top we contemplated the north face but given the avalanche we witnessed, the thin snowpack and the history of the route we opted to ski down our ascent route.

3:15pm. 7 miles, 2000′ down and 5800′ up to summit; 7 miles and 5800′ down and 2000′ up to car. 3 hours till dark.

And then skiing. Down the summit ridge on rime ice to a spotting stance; down the 1500′ southeast face in nice supportable boot deep powder to the hanging valley; down valley where we encountered 500′ of breakable crap.

Token knuckle dragger shot.

Dave on the East Ridge; Sarah and Joe below. Photo by Eric Parsons.

The rule is that until you can make jump turns like Dave you can’t make fun of his skirt.

Skins on and Sarah was charging uphill to Seattle Ridge while I inhaled energy chews and tried in vain to keep up. Finally topping out on Seattle Ridge just after sunset to see an almost full moon rising over 20-Mile. Temps were in the mid-20s with no wind and we stood in silence staring at the moon, deep violet sky and an ocean of mountains in all directions. A perfect day.

Photo by Eric Parsons.

I won’t talk about the descent. Sun crust to ice to alder to grass and I stumbled out of the brush minutes before dark with legs of jello.

A perfect day.

The ride home: 5 sweaty skiers packed into car pumped after a long day to a summit no one had ever skied before. Talk of the skiers caught in the avalanche contrasted with our successful day veered into the murky area where judgment trumps understanding. “Those guys should have just called it a day.”

Back home looking at photos and sharing them on social media. Emailing choice photos to the days partners. “That wasn’t a good route choice.” Analyzing photos and Google earth and sending photos and details to the forecasters. My ego builds.

Then arrives an email:

wish i’d recognized you guys on seattle ck headwall. we didn’t want to pirate your skin track up the steep face. i was pretty bummed to pop that little slab on a 30 degree slope. we had so many variable pockets all day, one or two steps of supportable, then the back to ankle deep. that time the third step was supportable too and i had just enough time to not like that, then we both got knocked off our feet and were able to just sit on the debris until it slowed down. but still not a pleasant feeling. we were aiming for the sunny wind-stripped ridge, the scenic tour and low angle descent.

It is from a friend who has vast more experience than me. Someone whom I respect and someone who everyone in our party that day is good friends with. My ego deflates and judgment is replaced with guilt. Guilt that we didn’t push over to double check on them, that we didn’t wait for them on the skin track, that I felt smug about our route choice.

Sitting there reading the email I have a realization that over the years I have learned nothing. Despite 25 years and a couple severe fuckups I still repeat myself. Push yourself mentally and physically and get by without mishaps for an extended period of time and the ego rises and judgment becomes easy. Watch others make mistakes and shrug it off like it could never happen to you even though it did and it can.

The collapse of the cycle happens quickly: Drop into a slope with full confidence in the snowpack only to find it give away beneath you; slip off an easy pitch with minimal gear and hurtle towards the ground. Or … watch as someone with far more experience and knowledge takes a ride. Any of this happens, and it happens again and again, and you’re back to where you started and wondering if you ever really learned anything.

Sure it was a minor slide and they were unhurt and made it clear to us that they were unhurt. And sure there was risk involved with continuing over to the scene. But regardless – we should have taken time to connect. I should have insisted that we talk with them. Two minutes closer and we would have recognized our friends and my outlook at the end of the day would have been completely different.

This realization mars the perfect day. For it is no longer about the big summit and the long ski – but about the fact that a friend was caught in an avalanche within spitting distance and we all made excuses to not get closer.