Monday, January 11, 2016

Exorcising a ski run

This story is an attempt at an exorcism of sorts. I'm writing it with the hope of getting out of my mind the experience I had skiing with some friends yesterday at Park City/Canyons.
Two days before Darlene, Linda and I had skied Grande, a double black rated run off the Tombstone Chairlift. The snow had been great, not untracked, but nice and soft. The run is challenging because it requires skiing in tight trees to reach an open bowl that is quite steep but easily manageable. Above the bowl is a is rocky face un-skiable by anyone with a working brain. Last Friday, the rock face was roped off and with a yellow sign with an arrow pointing to skier's-left to avoid the rocks. With deep snow, it is a great run.
Yesterday at the end of a great ski day with Darlene and Linda, we decided to ski Grande again as our closing run. We entered the run too far at skier's-right without noticing that the rope above the rocks was missing. As we started traversing to the left looking for more familiar terrain I found myself on the rock face with Linda closely behind. I barely managed to bushwhack my way above and out of that mess, back to safer terrain. There, I noticed that we were well below the familiar yellow arrow-sign above the rock face and that the orange out-of-bounds rope had been pulled and thrown behind a tree by some irresponsible fool. Linda, instead, was still stuck on the frozen rocks with her skis tangled in barbed-wire-like low bushes of scrub oak. In the hope of freeing herself from the bad spot,
she attempted to take her skis off. The first came off, but fell below, stuck in the middle of the rock face. The second ski, she could not release, either too tight or because of her precarious position or exhaustion setting in. She is a very experienced mountaineer, but was stuck on a dangerous spot and her ski boots on frozen rock gave her no traction. I turned around and tracked back, close to Linda's position, to help her get out of her undesirable perch. We managed to pull her, thankfully, 0%-fat-body up from slippery rock and above a big tree that would prevent us both from a long fall. With only one ski there was no way she could safely ski out of there, so we refitted my ski bindings to her boots and she skied back to safer ground. I planned to walk my way out of the ugly place after freeing her lost ski and throwing it below where it could be retrieved. I used her remaining ski as my shovel to plant in the snow and arrest my fall. After freeing the ski I found myself simply unable to turn and exit, feeling my boots losing grip on the frozen rock and the ski an ineffective ice axe. From my perch, I could see that, if I fell, I might manage to slide in a small culoir where snow had accumulated that hopefully would cushion me. I was just conning myself.

We were lucky; an off-duty ski patroller, Jason Fife with his friend Jamie Elliot happened to ski the same run; both gave great help to Darlene (her angels in her FB post), retrieving the errant ski and shouting, from below, encouragement and helpful guidance to move to more practicable terrain. In the event of a fall, stopping my descent on the steep face, with no skis, I was totally dependent on using the ski in my hands as a shovel. I hoped for the best, and carefully I tried to move in the direction indicated by Jason. I could feel my ski boots, barely holding on the frozen rock, sadly aware that they were not designed for that terrain. I felt almost frozen, on that frozen face, as I judged my odds of crossing the rocks to snow where I could have some footing.
Suddenly the frozen, still world around me got into furious motion. As I went over the rocks I lost my shovel. I realized that I had spun head-first on my back when I looked "up" and could see the dark big evergreens at the bottom of the bowl coming at me fast. I was out of control with no tools to dig into the snow. Inhaling the flying snow I felt I was drowning, but the terror of stopping head first into a tree at the bottom was worse. Somehow one hand got just enough grasp into the snow, I spun like a top and feet first I could dig into the soft deep snow. From the speed of the slide, I sunk to mid thigh just a few feet from Jason and ten yards from the trees, coughing uncontrollably spitting snow. It had been an instant but it had felt, in slow motion, like an eternity. The only damage, a bruised elbow and two coats ripped in the elbow spitting feathers as fast as I was spitting snow. Jason came close, felt my hips and back clearly surprised that I had no damage.
Darlene and Linda caught up with me by more traditional descents. Linda got back in her skis, I resized mine and we went home grateful for a close call with no serious damage. Once home I needed a nap just to shed the tension and adrenaline.  During the night, twice I woke up with a feeling of sliding on my back, but the bed was still. This morning after Darlene went to work, I surprisingly continued to re-live the event. I thought a long time of going to ski Grande today to get it out of my head, but I have no ski buddy to go with and it is not terrain one should ski alone. I'll go back next Friday, but by then, I hope, my brain will not be in need of that medicine. Perhaps, putting the story to paper will do the trick that writing has done many times before in sad and scary events of my life. Let's hope for this exorcism to work.

P.S. 20/20 hindsight review.
As I reconsider the events, returning to lend a friend a hand was, no doubt, the thing to do. Taking a risk to retrieve a ski from above was bad judgement in an instant under pressure. The ski could have been retrieved by many lesser-risk paths. As a, long ago trained, volunteer ski patroller I should have known better. At a fork in the road I took the wrong one. Embarrassing. Lesson learned. Exorcism completed.

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