Ice

This was written October 31, 2011.

Susan went for a ride yesterday, one that scared us.

Susan wanted to get out of town for the weekend, I wanted to ski, we had a 5pm Saturday party to get to, and Saturday clearly held the better weather. With precip coming down Friday, and high pressure slated for Sunday, I hoped to find powder up high. The Flett environs were close to town and were high, shady, and in the lee of the brunt of the storm. Susan found that David also wanted to ski, so we were three.

Saturday turned out to be even better than expected; mostly sunny skies greeted us at dawn as we rolled toward Tahoma. The powder was not to be. Although an inch of water had fallen from the sky, a recipe for a foot or more of snow, the storm winds lasted longer than the snow. The mountain was scoured back to soft granular ice coated with a hard sheen on all aspects. Even windsheltered hollows were stripped bare, or perhaps the snow never fell. The crampons we’d brought made travel straightforward, once we put them on, and we crunched up the moraine to the crossover to the Russell Glacier.

Given the conditions, I was unsure about my ability to ski any of it. The lower Flett “Glacier” isn’t steeper than 30 degrees, but the steepest pitch is at the top, and the runout, to rocks, is a quarter mile long and 900′ below. I’m a pansy about a lot of things, one of them is being rather certain that I can end ski turns exactly where I want. With the sheen on the surface, I wasn’t even sure about my ability to sideslip. With a schedule to keep, there wasn’t really time to try skiing a flat test slope to see how edging would work. So, I opted to crampon down until the slope seemed flat enough to ski.

Susan and David are more comfortable on crampons, and they wanted to check out a knoll on Ptarmigan Ridge and ski from there. The upper part of their intended line was softening in the sunlight, and probably held a few millimeters of new snow bonded to the snow below. We were cool with turning three into two and one, so we were off, with plans to rejoin at the lake below.

I tentatively cramponed my way down the hill, trying to find a route with minimum runout and minimum slope. At each roll on the way down, my ski confidence failed to measure up to the slope. Looking up, David and Susan were making great time traversing the Flett and moving up the rib. I kept cramponing, and the soloist in me was happy; I knew I would’ve walked down if I’d been by myself. I did want to ski though, so I kept checking spot after spot for an optimistic sign in the snow without success. “Fuck it, I’m walking,” I said to myself, and set a goal of skiing at a spot, nearly at the lake, where a slip was certain to, at worst, result in sliding up a snowbank.  As I walked, I thought about Sky’s ski to crampon transition on blue ice on the Mowich Face, two miles away, and the way Claire’s face looked the day her friend was killed in a 1000′+ fall on twenty-five degree ice on Denali. I wondered what Silas would’ve done – would he have talked the group into walking down?  I’ve never seen him do something that brashly conservative.

I usually dwell on such stuff, though, and I’m routinely impressed by other skiers doing what I cannot. Indeed, the last time it had happened was two weeks earlier on the Flett, where other skiers were laying out huge arcs on boilerplate I later shakily sideslipped. So, I set about the business of clicking into my skis on my ten-degree snowpatch.  Crampons on pack, skis on, boots locked, time to skitter. Skiing worked. Edges held, mostly, but turns were much better on tiny skiffs of new snow that had bonded to the sheet. Maybe six shaky turns later, I pulled up beside the lake and noted that Susan and David had started to ski and that clouds were creeping upvalley.  Certain that I had time on my hands, I clicked out of my skis to watch.

Scrrrrrrrrraaaaappe, scrrrrrrrrraaape,  scrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaape echoed down the mountain. Their skis sounded like distant jets engaged in hesitant rhythmic acrobatics. Far enough away that the speed of sound completely unlocked the phase of the sound from visible motion, they made good time back down the rib, skiing one at a time. I was impressed that they were skiing so well on challenging snow. Another roll went by easily, the second skier swapping leads with the first, down to a thin snowy talus band. With each turn, beautiful tendrils of spindrift would twirl gently downslope.

One skier left the talus band, traversing into the gentle bowl below, into the shade, and, from my perspective, toward an opaque thin cloud. Scrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaappppe, of the traverse, then scrrrapethump, scrapethump, then “Susan! ….. Susan!!!”, a woman’s chilling scream, and nothing. Nightmares have new tools.

“Are you… ooo kaaay!” gets no reply. Running. Bringtheskis?taketheskis?bringtheskis?Fuckityoudon’tneedemshe’sgotem.Justgo,yourcramponsareonyourpack. Across the frozen lakebed and up the talus on the far side. WhatamIgoingtofind-sheaskedmeifsheshouldleavethehelmetinthecarandIsaidyes;fuck. Kicking steps into the snowfield above brought a pause. Ohshit, cramponsornocrampons?crampons,or,nocrampons?Itmatters,figureitout.Well,kicked steps areworking,boots are locked, thisworkedearlierinthedayandI’vedoneitbefore,cramponstaketoomuchtime.I have a whippet and I’m kicking fast and hard, if she’s bleeding out, there’s no time, and I can make this stick. Okaygo. I head straight for the base of the bowl above; I can’t see into it, but that’s where she’d be. As hyperventiation starts and legs burn out, a beautiful arc of spindrift lifts up into the sky. Ohfuck,is that her sluff, is that the last thing I’ll have seen her do? It’s pretty. Doesntmatter.Kick.It.

Yelling uphill gets results, first from David, then, wonderfully, from Susan, and they’re sentences. I can’t understand what they’re saying in the wind, and then I realize that it doesn’t matter – Going Up.

Cresting the roll, Susan’s in tears, but with a big grin on her face. Presumably badly broken people and grinning don’t correlate well. A poor patient assessment later, she’s mostly ok.  A shot to the leg/boot, bruises, but ambulatory. I’m not sure she’s ever seen me cry before, but both of us had soaked shoulders in seconds. A few moments later, David arrived, having done the tricky ski-to-crampon transition needed to get himself down to us.

We walked out with crampons from there. A bear could’ve eaten my car at the trailhead, and I wouldn’t have cared. I got Susan back for another hour, another day.

Apparently, Susan’s slide ended when her backpack hit talus blocks. Both skis released mid-slide, and both leash zip-ties released. Injuries seem to be some kind of low-to-mid grade ankle sprain and a similar thumb injury. Equipment damage observed so far is limited to a cracked/bashed ski edge and, curiously, a broken aluminum crampon that was in her pack. The transitions from beautiful day to abysmal day and back were so quick.

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