Crawling into the unknown
This was by far one of the more eerie moments of the winter. We were touring up Mt-Mackenzie; the main summit above our ski hill. The weather had been poor for days and not many people had visited the summit. We were skinning up, enjoy the day. As always I was avoiding the cornice while skinning up the ridge. My primary concern is always to not go too close to the cornice, doing whatever I can to ensure we are on the safe side, probing, walking on rocks,.. Basically always worried and playing it safe by staying in what I know is safe terrain. This day I was winding up when I stumbled upon these skis.
Very eerie, no fresh tracks, nothing but two skis slightly blown in by wind. Who leaves a pair of skis almost on the top of the summit? I looked around, no fresh activity.Looking two feet past the skis it looked like the cornice had fallen off. Alarm bells ringing I skinned to the summit and used Joey’s radio to call the ski hill. No one missing, but a week previous at 2 am a skier had hiked back into bounds with a broken ankle and no skis. The store was vague but he was OK.
So I grabbed the skis and skied Thumbs Up with them attached to my backpack.
So he had scoped the line out from the other peak and knew the cornice was not too big at this point. His friends had left him and he was all alone. He almost made it to the summit and decided to look into the line. Crawling on his stomach he worked his way out onto the cornice, hitting it with his pole he figured he was OK. Then the whole world tilted and he fell down the cliffs….around 700 ft of them. Hitting snow slopes along the way and cliffs, of course. He finally stopped tumbling and assessed his body. Luckily he had been wearing a helmet and body armour but he was really hurting and had a broken ankle. He started hiking climbers left and working his way back up to the ridge…. then he triggered an avalanche and was carried a thousand back down the mountain. Managing to stay on top he was sort of OK. then he began climbing back up the bed surface and worked his way back to the ridge, and crawled back to the lift shack… 8 hours after having fallen off the summit….
Lots of luck on his part… but the main thing he did was go into the unknown without backup. I am always so scared of cornices because you never know how far back they will pull. I have never fallen off one but I am always super cautious, making sure I am standing on rock.. or slightly snow covered but never more than a metre of snow.
OK I lied…. I have fallen off one or two before but with proper backups. Anchors and people belaying me. Whenever I venture into the unknown I try and get as much information from maps, photos, google earth, other people. If there is absolutely no way to know how to get into your line and it is cornice rimmed, then we put on ropes. Once tied to the other side of the mountain, it is far easier to probe out, and shovel until the cornice falls and you can get a nice safe look into the line. I can distinctly remember the first time I did this properly and needed the backup. We were working into this 2500 hanging iceline on Mt-Bonney and I was tied in and walking towards the edge, then moments later I was falling through space following a bus sized cornice. An instant later I was hanging with the entire line below me, safe and psyched by how great the line looked. Especially since we had just dropped the biggest slope test ever!!
The long of the short is, always know where you are going, get as much information about the line, then if there is still some unknown back yourself up.