If you are going to be raptured, you might as well go big…
On 5/21/2011, the day of the predicted rapture, Milos and I set out to ski something big. My motivation was to try the ultra light skis I just bought to bag a summit. Milos’ was to ski a big line after the 1-2 feet of snow we just received. I suggested Dead Dog Couloir on Torreys Peak: 14,275 feet, almost 4500 of climbing, and an average of 45 degrees on the descent. Normally, after a day or two of snow, it would be foolish to attempt such a descent on such a steep line. However, if you are going to be raptured, you might as well go big! Realistically, I knew the odds were stacked against us, and I had no expectations or specific goals. If nothing else, we would get some exercise and have breakfast/brunch/coffee/beer after.
Milos picked me up at 5am and we were ready to start skinning by 6:45. Three snowboarders pulled up next to us as we departed. Milos, wired from a double espresso GU, set a brisk pace (he would pay for it on his bike the next day). I, on the other hand, felt sluggish on a setup that weighed half as much as my old one, possibly from a lack of rest and sleep. Within a mile, the tracks split, and we were following a single skin track leading up to the trail-head for Torreys Peak. Maybe we weren’t the only foolish people going up there after all. In other years, we would have avoided 2 miles of skinning and almost 1500 feet of elevation gain by driving up the road.
Even though the weather seemed calm most of the way, we encountered a white-out at just under 12,000 feet. I was forced to put my helmet and goggles on so my head and face didn’t freeze. Forward progress was greatly diminished by a strong headwind, and no visibility to speak of. Our chance of success was looking rather slim.
This is where Milos’ motivation and mine intersected: I wanted to summit, but could care less about the descent. He wanted to summit if, and only if, there was a chance of descending a good line. Neither of us wanted to ski essentially blind-folded, even if the snow was safe, so we decided to turn around even though I would have kept going for the sake of the challenge.
What we didn’t know was that the team of snowboarders far behind us pushed on for another 3 miles, up 2500 feet in elevation, to the summit. When they dropped into the couloir, it triggered an avalanche that eventually killed one of them.
Given enough persuasion, I would have pushed on for the pleasure of bagging the summit, and assuming the snow seemed safe, Milos would not have turned down the opportunity to ski a big line. If the stars had aligned differently, it would have been us who triggered the slide. We were definitely stronger physically, but we simply weren’t goal-oriented enough and didn’t have the punishment = glory mentality.
As climbers, we are constantly presented with excuses to bail: bad weather, wet rock, bad rock, slow team above, lack of sleep, insufficient gear, unprotected crux, insufficient physical fitness, lack of will, mental breakdown, …etc. For whatever reason, we often push on, be it the sense of accomplishment of bagging a summit, relentless optimism, enthusiasm, or even suicidal tendencies. We’ve all been there and somehow survived. Does consistent success in the face of adversity give us a false sense of confidence, and cloud our judgement in the future, as we compound one bad judgement on top of another? How many of us have driven a car down a 4×4 road, bottoming out, thinking it is going to get better? It likely applies to dysfunctional relationships, as well. We are so conditioned to going from crux to crux and problem solving while climbing that we are always hoping for things to get better. What is the negative feedback we should be aware of that tells us to back off, so shit doesn’t hit the fan after a series of bad decisions?
In this situation, we bailed well before the other team and lived, but I can’t help but wonder what if… Were we overly cautious, or were they overly irresponsible? Did we survive because our instincts, rational decision making, or pure laziness? Did they make a series of bad judgement calls, or were we simply luckier? Whatever it was, we should always try to return alive, as friends, and maybe with a summit: in that order. It would have been better if our decision to turn around was not vindicated by someone else’s death.