First Epic of 2011: A Case Study

A discussion of a ski trip with Bill Martin on Saturday, interspersed with photos from other activities this weekend, with speculative conclusions on the most salient factors that build a safe and fulfilling outdoor adventure.

A reliable approach to a good weekend with M is as follows: have a big adventure straight away so I’ll be tired and mellow and not a tiresome nuisance to be around. On Saturday I may have overdone it.


The trip was my idea: start in the lower Rattlesnake, ski up to Blue Point, tag the summit of Sheep Mountain, down Wishard Ridge, and out a way I know already.

M drinking hot chocolate in our cabin east of Lincoln on Sunday afternoon.

We got a very leisurely start, putting on skis in Marshall Canyon at 11am sharp.  Bill wasn’t keen on a dawn start, and I was enjoying chatting with Aaron and his family (thanks for the bed!) too much on Saturday morning to motivate.  We made good time, but the powder made trail breaking slow, and the burly wind drifts on the upper ridge before Blue Point made the going even slower.

On top of Blue, in the howling wind, it occurred to me that we could turn around, enjoy the ski out, and have a good day without a fuss.  We’d be back in town with plenty of time to arrange dinner plans, and M would be spared driving out the Blackfoot to fetch us.  A good day, but not likely to be an exceptional day.  So being who we are, we continued without discussion.  None needed.

Oil lamp lighting our dark cabin on Sunday night.

We had some tricky navigation on top of the ridge as we sought the Sheep Mountain trail.  Fortunately few if any people know it better than Bill, and between his recollections (he’s found his way down by cell phone light in the summer) and my compass work we found the trail.  We could even see a few trail markers and blazes, usually when a particularly deep tree well made them visible.

There was at least eight feet of snow up there, and plenty of deadfall to be cut out come cycling season.

This morning in our cabin: hot coffee and a hot wood stove.

Shit started to get gnarly as we approached Wishard Ridge.  Technically Wishard is the expanse south from Sheep, its numerous bowls prime ski terrain.  Looking at a map, the trend of arching ridge with bowls spreading out to the north and east begins at Blue Point, as the ridge reaches its full height of 7000+’.  Sheep is but the highest point of the many spurs.

The full ridgetop had been scoured by strong east winds for days.  Poor visibility combined with numerous, massive wind drifts perpendicular to our line of travel and made life very hard indeed.  Hard in this cases meaning frustrating, but more relevantly, slow.  And day was leaving us quickly.

Our cabin this morning.

Soon we experienced that hazard which all wilderness travelers, especially those governed by ambition as well as prudence, must face: complications piling on each other, and in the process removing most of the margin for error.  Soon we were beyond Sheep, the summit forgotten before we came close, in a snow storm, 40 mph gusts, after 6pm, darkness gathering.  I knew the furthest spur ridge offered a way down free of avalanche hazard.  A closer ridge might do the same, perhaps.  To see anything we had to be right on top of it, which meant we had to skirt the edge closely, while avoiding cornices and dealing with the worst of the nasty wind drifts and the heinous trail breaking and hazardous skiing they entailed.

There’s a reason I didn’t take video of this part, and it is not because the light was bad.

Blackfoot travelers take note: the Conoco at the junction of highways 200 and 83 has excellent hot dogs.  I recommend the Beer Baron with mustard and jalapenos.

As expected with such winds, avalanche conditions were quite bad.  Shooting cracks followed across the hateful wind slabs on the ridge top.  Soon it was dark, we were still on top, headlamps came out, and squinting into the wind seemed a better option than tinted goggles that made the scene dimmer still.

After an extended period of very slow going, we found a ridge leading off that looked promising.  Low angle, big trees.  The skiing, once we got out of the wind’s brunt, was fantastic.  After a few hundred feet of descent the ridge pinched off, and we had to drop down the south side.  Steeper terrain than I would have liked, into the lower margins of avalanche terrain, but moderately anchored and a seemingly stable snowpack.  No windloading at all, that bit of elevation loss gave us out freedom, and soon we were arching fabulous turns down immaculate slopes in the dark.

That was the crux point, and while the next few hours entailed some intuitive searching for the right snowmobile track and an annoyingly long sidehill down a very steep and tight gully, we were going home that evening.  Had that drop off the side of the ridge lacked any of the good signs it had, we would have been climbing back up, and had that not panned out, sleeping in a snowcave.  In summary, it was a fantastic outing, a day wherein you can experience a week or two, compressed in metaphor.  It was also quite close to the edge of disaster, should one of a number of things gone differently.

We stopped for a stroll on the way home today.  Given the above, you’d think different management tactics might be considered.  Maybe commercial stock guiding isn’t appropriate in wilderness.

The events of Saturday got me thinking, what Bill and I did correctly and well that made our traverse a success, and what could we have done better?

The good:
-we knew the route, brought a map, compass, and GPS
-we had plenty of experience with difficult adventures, neither mental nor physical strength was lacking
-we knew how to fuel and hydrate for such an endeavor, and did so (except for hoses freezing shut upon occasion)
-we brought the right gear (warm, windproof clothes, mittens, goggles)
-we had complementary and appropriate knowledge

The bad:
-our late start left no margin for error
-the forecast was dodgy
-we didn’t have a detailed map of the crux area

The main lesson?  If anything, likely that the proper mental attributes and the choices necessary to make them possible can make up for a lot of otherwise less than ideal factors.  We stayed warm and fed, and were thus able to keep making wise choices when it was hardest to do so.  Not relaxing safety standards in the face of fatigue, doubt, and stress is perhaps the paradigmatic crux in survival situations.  Our adventure provides a good example of how a short list of simple things can, when rigidly adhered to, turn a dangerous position into yet another excellent adventure.

Thanks Bill, there was no one better to have up there Saturday night, partying with winter.


1 thought on “First Epic of 2011: A Case Study

  1. Like I said up there on the ridge, “this is awesome”. Well … One of my happy moments. There were plenty grumpy moments. Grreat adventure and a good curtain call for the GMAR. I am stoked.

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