Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. Stephen is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! Good luck Stephen!!
West Coast sucker hole on the way to the Wedge.
Oh no, I thought, the moment had arrived. As we came to an abrupt halt in the whiteout, I could tell Matt and Cam knew it as well. Sometimes this kind of moment arrives without warning and your only choice is to bow out of your trip gracefully. Other times, you just know it’s coming and you are presented with the opportunity to rise to the challenge and attempt to continue using all of the skills you have acquired over the years, getting in deeper and deeper the further you go. Even though we had all been waiting for this moment since we had left home, we were still somehow surprised at how far we had been able to come before having to face the crucial decision: pull the plug or push on through.
The forecast had been less than desirable on the night before our departure, but work schedules and family obligations had left us little choice but to proceed as planned. The decision to go was also made easier by our knowledge of some easy exits along the first half of the route, should things turn truly nasty.
After an early wake-up, two-hour drive, four ski-lift rides, glacier in boot deep powder morning, we were finally in it. Although Matt had heard of a different way to access our route, we had convinced ourselves that our choice not only looked good but it had the added benefit of avoiding a small climb. We zipped along through fast snow, where, on a steep sidehill with gullies, avi debris and other fun obstacles, we began to wonder whether this had been the best route after all.
We calmly toured through a beautiful open forest, and acknowledged to one another that we were at one of those junctures when we should try to assess what retreat might look like. Climbing up and over the south side of Wedge while getting blasted by the April sun and high heat had quickly become a bad option. But we found a way to keep going by bailing on our initial route and going around the south and east flanks instead of up and over them. In doing so, we would also lose the chance, at least for now, of skiing something, which we had all hoped to do. Next time.
While the idea of effortlessly carving beautiful turns down the backside of the glacier kept us climbing strongly through some pretty sloggy terrain and snow, it simply was not to be. As we began down the other side of the pass, we actually had to push ourselves down the glacier in spite of the usual gravitational laws that apply.
Home sweet home.
When we eventually made camp that evening, we watched as clouds descended and my thermarest deflated. The clouds didn’t bode well and as Matt and Cam dealt with food and drinks, I tried to find the hole in my pad. By the end of the night with bellies full and hole patched, we drifted off to sleep while discussing our options for tomorrow.
Gorillas in the Mist.
Low clouds and a partially obscured route did not deter us as we cautiously convinced ourselves that we were not yet past the point of no return, although in reality, it was fast approaching. As we sat above a glacial descent in a howling wind waiting for better visibility, I grew impatient and cold. There had to be a way to descend and continue safely, without having to suffer the nausea that is usually induced by skiing in a whiteout. I screamed to Matt and Cam through the wind, “How about we tie one end of our rope to my water bottle holder and the other to one of us and throw the water bottle down slope? Then we can ski down beside the rope and maybe it will give us depth perception”. Off to the rodeo it was. Matt’s bright new yellow 30m rope lit our way down and we soon broke through the cloud ceiling and enjoyed some nice turns down to the valley bottom.
Another fast and efficient decision making session (we were on a roll now) saw us continue further down valley in order to avoid poor visibility and slopes that were heating up quickly. But as we contoured along the north side of a ridge just below tree line once again we could not see a thing. All we knew was that we were in steep terrain and travel came to an abrupt halt. Our moment had finally come. At this point, we could still turn around, retrace some of our tracks and take one of our preconceived exits through a different valley. Or, we could push on knowing that in so doing, we were committing ourselves to finishing the traverse. Weather and snow conditions were foremost on our minds as we tried to decide what to do. As we sat down and ate some lunch, Cam pulled out his cell phone to see if we could get some information.
News of a cooling trend and partial clearing gave us the confidence we needed and we very quickly agreed to continue. Not 100 ft further ahead, we crossed some fresh avi debris – maybe this is what caused that rumbling we heard while we were eating and making phone calls. Stopping on a slight ridge crest in a clump of trees proved to have been a wise choice.
As we dropped down and across a flat area, we finally escaped the milk bottle we had been in and actually got some views of our route. I sprinted ahead to the slight rise in front of me to fully absorb where we needed to go and to get my bearings. Not ten minutes later, we were in super thick clouds with nausea threatening once again.
It’s all downhill from here.
Very quickly, things started to feel weird and wrong. Cam questioned my line, and with good reason as we soon ascertained that we were climbing the slope we had been diligently trying to avoid! With the help of Cam’s reorientation and a slight clearing (due to a fierce wind) we continued to a col and our final climb of the trip. After a short and steep descent, we found a semi-sheltered spot for our megamid. Even though tree line was only a short ski away, we chose to stop early to allow the slope to solidify overnight.
Although we were slightly concerned about not knowing exactly how we would exit below the Y-couloir, we remained positive as we left our camp on our last day. A few thousand feet of steep boilerplate skiing (the forecast had been correct) got us into the trees where we finally got a good look at what lay ahead. It was clear to all of us that going up and traversing into the pencil couloir (the usual exit after one skis from the top of the Y) was not an option in this case. So instead we dropped down through steep trees and sloppy snow.
Riding the avalanche gully on Currie.
Next we quickly crossed the main gully and deep avi debris in hopes of getting into the forest. Although traversing became difficult, we kept going because the thought of dropping further down the gully and into bowling ball size chunks of avi debris seemed even worse. The rain on us, and the snow above loading onto steep slopes, did not help to ease our fears. Eventually, we all started to feel that down was best. A few exposed jump turns and soon we were side sliding down the carved out avi gully, avoiding the balls of ice. When skiing turned into a bone jarring and possible leg breaking exercise, we loaded skis onto our packs and made a quick beeline to the one possible exit we saw from above: a short mossy cliff that might allow us to enter the safety of the forest.
At least it was raining!
Cam soloed the FFA and rated it 5.tree R, as the crux involved pulling on a small tree, while swinging pack and body away from the cliff. Although the forest was thick at first, it soon turned pleasant as we meandered our way down and around rock bluffs, eventually hitting the dreaded coastal logging slash. Thankfully, the cool drizzling rain kept us from overheating and we all emerged smiling, wet and woozy onto the muddy logging road.
On the way home.
Sure, we had hot temps, cold temps, sloppy snow, poor visibility, and a distinct lack of worthwhile turns, among other things. But as we walked the road and looked back up to Mt. Currie and its incredible relief, we all agreed that this had been one of our most memorable and, strangely enough, enjoyable traverses ever. When you get into an easy group decision-making mode right from the start and share an adventure with close friends you don’t need nice weather, deep powder or good visibility. Developing an elegant rhythm in a chaotic place with messy weather and doing so safely can be good enough. At least it was for us.