John's Most Excellent Ski Adventure


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We started at the Whitney Portal, just outside Lone Pine, and followed the hiker's trail. It snowed off and on for most of the first two days. On the second day, we moved our camp to about 12,000 feet.

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On the third day, we got up at 5 am to try for the summit. There was about 10" of new snow at our camp, and the weather looked promising.

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As we left camp, we had a great view of the Sierra crest; Whitney is to the right, just out of the picture. We zigzagged up the wide slope in the upper left, reaching the crest at 13,600'. On the way up, I kept eyeing a steep, narrow couloir (in the box), wondering whether it was skiable. It's always hard to judge the true pitch and width of a couloir from a distance. As we went near the bottom, I saw what appeared to be a few rocks in the narrowest point of the couloir.

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On the way up, it snowed intermittently. We reached the crest at 10 am, leaving us plenty of time (we thought) to reach the summit. We planned to follow the hiker's trail along the crest for several miles at about 13,600' and then dash up an easy 800' slope to the top of Whitney. Unfortunately, 3- and 4-foot snow drifts made for really tough going. The hiker's trail was narrow and precarious, and we had to take extra care to find the trail and avoid slipping. After a couple of hours, we had gone only a mile, less than half the total distance along the crest to Whitney. There wasn't enough daylight to reach the summit and get back to camp, so we turned back. I was more than a little bummed out.

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Retracing our steps along the crest, I noticed the entrance to the couloir I'd been eyeing on the way up. Looking down from above, it was a bit more intimidating.

The entrance was guarded by a large cornice, an 8-foot sheer drop. The first 30 yards were very steep, about 50 degrees. After that, the slope mellowed to about 45 degrees in the middle and then 35 degrees at the end. Unfortunately, it also narrowed to about 1.5 ski lengths wide, and it zigzagged to the left and then the right. There was fresh snow in the couloir, but the cornice prevented us from finding out how deep it was and what might be underneath (rocks, ice, or soft snow). A dark spot in the narrowest point suggested rocks.

I had jumped 8 foot cornices at ski resorts, but the situation here was quite a bit different. There was an unknown quantity of new snow in the couloir; as little as a foot could avalanche and take me with it. And there wasn't a clean run-out -- if I fell, or if the snow avalanched, I could slide right into the rocks below and do serious damage.

I finally decided that the cornice was just too big to jump safely, given the questionable conditions. But Peter said, "No problem, I've got a rope. I can rig a harness and lower you in."

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Right. At first I thought he was kidding. Normally, I'm scared of anything remotely similar to rock climbing. I tried climbing years ago and hated it, and I have a mild fear of heights. But for some reason, I took Peter up on his offer.

He quickly rigged a harness around my thighs and waist. He set up a belay on the rocks behind him. He also reminded me that this was a "no fall" slope and it was my responsibility to judge my own skiing ability.

Hania thought I was completely crazy and going to kill myself. "What will I tell your mother?" But I was pretty confident that once over the cornice, I could handle the slope. I'd take it one turn at a time, "cutting" the snow to increase the chances that if it slid, it would slide safely below and away from me. If the rocks in the narrow throat of the couloir made it impassable, I could take my skis off and walk over them. Worst comes to worst, I'd put my skis on my pack, get out my ice axe, and walk back up the couloir.

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Once everything was set up, it took just a few seconds to drop me over the cornice. Uncharacteristically, I wasn't at all scared. On steep slopes, I feel much more in control and relaxed if I have my skis on.

I was glad I hadn't tried to jump the cornice -- on the slope below, there was only about 2" of new, light snow on a slick, icy base. Chances are I would have hit that slick surface with a huge amount of momentum, my skis would have slid out from underneath me, and I would have tumbled all the way down into the rocks. (In hindsight we should have realized there probably wouldn't be much accumulation in the couloir; slopes that steep usually slide before much snow builds up.)

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For safety, I kept the rope on for the first several turns. I stopped between each turn to control my speed and catch my breath for the next turn.

The turns weren't pretty -- they were survival turns. You can see that my upper body wasn't countered enough; that is, instead of twisting my upper body to face down the slope, I was facing across the slope. I've done better. I let the situation psyche me out.

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After a few turns, the rope ran out. I untied it and after a few more cautious turns, I entered the narrow throat of the couloir.

There were indeed some mostly buried rocks and ice ridges to one side of the throat. There was just barely enough room for me to side slip about 10 yards through the narrowest part. The very tips and tails of my skis dragged over rock. You couldn't really call this "skiing".

Once past the throat, the slope quickly opened out, the snow got deeper, and I started linking turns. But on the fourth turn I emerged from the shadow of the cliffs into bright sunlight, and the light dry snow instantly turned into wet heavy crud. I flipped head over heels and slid about 30 yards, causing a mini-avalanche that buried my legs and skis. Luckily, I could stand up with just a little effort. Not so luckily, the couloir had zigged back to the right, where Hania and Peter couldn't see me. If I had gotten seriously buried, they wouldn't have known it. (And by the time they would have skied down the easier way, it would have been too late to dig me out.)

Meanwhile, Hania and Peter skied down the way we came up, a 1200' descent with 18" of perfect powder. They certainly had the better skiing. (The next day, Peter and I climbed back up that same slope to ski it again, and the powder was just as perfect.)

Aftermath

All in all, it was quite an adrenaline rush. It was a fair bit riskier than anything I'd done before in the backcountry. In the past, I've skied really steep couloirs, but only with safe spring snow and clean run-outs. This time, the snow was unknown and the run-out was gnarly. But at each stage we minimized the risk by taking careful precautions. My only mistake was failing to recognize the transition from the shadows, where the snow was light and dry, into the sunlight, where it was wet and heavy.

Next year I'm going to work on "pedal turns", which are intended for very steep, narrow slopes. In a pedal turn, you lift up your downhill ski, point it down the slope, push off your uphill ski, and pivot in the air 180 degrees in the space of a few feet. Once I've mastered pedal turns, I should be able to do a more respectable job of skiing 50-degree-plus couloirs like this.

Would I do this again? I'm not sure. I'm not sure why I did it in the first place.

John R. Ellis
August 11, 1995