It’s crazy how sometimes it’s the smaller lines and peaks that have you scared to death and wondering if this will be the day that takes you down. This was the case yesterday, when Reed Finlay and I were skiing on Two Elk Peak.
Two Elk Peak sits at the head of Open Canyon and sometimes it is confused with Murphy Peak in the guidebooks. It is relatively unknown to most skiers, since its name isn’t on most maps and the long approach into Open Canyon keeps most away. Its east face holds some steep lines that can sometimes be in good shape for those willing to make the trek, but are not to be taken lightly. Case in point:
A hard freeze yesterday morning and sunny skies greeted Reed and me, and we hammered the approach, reaching the snowline in Open Canyon in just over an hour’s time. Once we had the skis off our backs, we skinned towards Two Elk Peak and made the summit in about 4 hours. On the approach, I had been eying a super tight line on the northern edge of the face, but upon looking at it from the top, it looked to be too narrow and both Reed and I decided to hit a shot a bit more to the skier’s right.
The line we were about to ski looked decent, a little rocky in the middle section, but we figured we would be okay with it and got ready to drop in. By this time, clouds had rolled in and the snow was still quite firm. We both slid in under some cornices and traversed to the skier right, then perched ourselves directly above the chute. The snow was rock solid, but we figured we could manage things and I began the descent by making a few tentative turns.
It wasn’t long before the snow got even firmer and was mixed with patches of ice, and trying to negotiate more turns would have been suicide. Needless to say, I began side-stepping. My whippet became my best friend at this point, stabbing it into the snow and ice, and then taking a step or two. The snow (or ice) conditions continually got even sketchier, with a skiff of powder hiding ice bulges over a few rocky steps. The pitch seemed to get steeper too as I got lower in the chute and was easily, if not over, 50 degrees.
Now in the meat of the chute, I really started to get gripped and yelled up to Reed that he didn’t want to ski this thing and should think about starting to search for an escape route. As I slowly continued side-steeping downward, conditions got even gnarlier and the white ice transformed into full-on water ice over some rocks. I didn’t think my ski edges would be able to bite into the ice any longer and I decided that I would have to straight-line my way out of the chute. How did I get myself into this mess?!
I was gripped to say the least and I could see the ice and rocks poking up through the inch or two of powder snow that had sloughed down from above. I tried to keep my cool and side-stepped down as far as I could, until my skis scraped on the rock solid ice and got my heart pumping even faster. I was still about 30-40 feet from the bottom of the chute and the more open slopes of the apron below, but I couldn’t sidestep any further and there was no way I was going to try to remove my skis and put my crampons on to down-climb.
It was now or never, and I counted down in my head. 3…2…1…, I turned my skis parallel to the slope and was instantly going mach speed over the ice and rocks. I rocketed out of the chute and turned to the skier’s left. I tried to stay in the front seat to remain in control, but the firm conditions, steepness of the slope and high speed made it difficult. I tumbled backward as my skis began to carve uphill, and instantly thought of the rocky cliffs below, focusing my attention on trying to self-arrest with the whippet. Luckily, I rolled from my back right onto my skis again and was able to regain control, and avoided a potentially injury producing tumble down to the bottom of the bowl. Reed cut across the top of the line and skied down a more open slope to the skier’s right.
Needless to say, I feel pretty stupid for making such a poor decision and thinking the chute was in good enough shape to ski in it’s current condition. Times like this are good to keep in the back of your head, so you can make better judgments in the future and…Live to Ski!!!