We awoke at 4600 m and it took awhile to get water boiled, breakfast served, and gear packed but by 9 am we were skiing down around the seracs. A great two hour ski tour led us up onto a plateau at around 5000m, circling this plateau was a ridge full of 5500m summits.
One of them being particularly easy to ski from had us heading her way. The glacial up was fairly mellow and allowed us a view around. The line off gashot, our primary target, looked super intimidating and wild. But we couldn’t focus on it yet since the acclimatizing had to be perfect. Rushing anything in these mountains leads to disaster, so we were happy to be attempting something a little less extreme and yet still a worthy ski line.
On the way up I did not notice any recent avalanches off any similar lines, the mountains seemed dormant. In the last ten days it had snowed around 40-50cm in the alpine and most steep lines had sloughed off while the others looked settled and asleep. Our skin track easily climbed up through the glacial roll and we bootpacked up the steeper section near the top. Booting up I noticed how widespread the crust was from the high pressure in late April, but it seemed like the snow above had not formed into a slab of any sort, Just light un settled-powder. This was going to be a great ski. (alarms should be going off with the presence of this crust!)
The rest hiked well, skinning to the ridge and then a fun rocky scramble to the summit. The elevation was being felt by all of us yet we still had strength. So it was an ideal acclimatizing day. Most likely a first descent in the middle of nowhere Pakistan. First ascent possibly too.
We were making a movie on Ptor and his life which meant he was the star of the show, so he skied off first, carving nice powder turns in the upper face. At 5500m the powder turns looked great, slow moving slough that went nowhere. The sun moved away and we waited a little longer for a window, it came and soon enough I was enjoying my first turns in Pakistan. They were great flowy, cold powder snow turns. I was psyched.
I worked my way over to the line, while on the way there it was a little too gray to give the slope a ski cut, but I was not overly concerned. Not sure it was the elevation or just that I had not seen much avalanche activity. I am not sure why my sensors were not going off, tthey should have been. The line I was thinking about skiing was tantalizing in what little light we had. The issue was there were not a lot of escape options once I had committed to the line. Skiing left might work, which would bring me to the edge where hopefully I could stop myself. The other option was to go hard skiers right and get on the other side of the gully away from all the overhead hazard. Neither was ideal. Realistically the only way to do maximize what little safety I could would be to ski cut it a few times and then ski cut and stop and ski cut and stop till I was lower down the line.
While we waited for a sunny period I hung out above the slope, psyched on my first real run in Pakistan, it looked like so much fun. I pulled off my helmet, started my go-pro, and filmed myself. “ here I am in Pakistan awaiting my first run. It looks amazing, I can’t wait to rip it up!!! Yahhhhhhhhh”
Putting my helmet back on I waited for the next sun patch. Soon it was there and Bjarne was telling me to drop in.
Since I was being filmed I decided to not ski cut, but still skied where the pressures would release a slab if there was one. My first left hand turn was simply to gain speed and get near the ridge. I slashed a nice right hand turn, spraying up the snow for the photographer. The light was right and the snow felt fast and fun, I quickly carved into a nice left hander, working my way out on to the face. Wow shredding in Pakistan, this is incredible, unbelievable …Another right hand turn and I was flying down the ramp. Then looking to the right I noticed that the snow was breaking up into tiny slabs, and they were all gaining speed.
Time stopped briefly while my mind processed what was happening.
then complete understanding
and Holy shit an avalanche was following me down. It felt like it was too late to go left and try to gain the ridge. There was a lot of snow above me and following me fast. No time for long involved decisions. I chose right. Looking down ahead of me I aimed for where the snow was still and unmoving. Straightlining ahead of the avalanche I raced it to this calm intersection. Everything was breaking up around me, struggling to stay balanced while I skied as fast as possible towards the other side. The slab I was on was sliding downhill, I jumped from it to the next moving slab. The shifting and moving snow made it hard but I continued to aim for the calm ahead of the storm. It was going to be close, if only I could make it across the gully I would possibly be safe. If I could get there the flow of snow would continue downhill without me. I would be safe.
In an instant I knew I wasn’t going to make it. The cascading snow got ahead of me and there was no way across. I tried to jump the waterfall of snow but I didn’t make it. Like dipping your paddle in a very fast current I was instantly grabbed and thrown down river. Immediately my skis were like anchors dragging me down and into the snow, I felt my left leg begin twisting and then a sharp flash of light and a moment of pain down by my ankle. By this time I was tumbling head over head trying to protect myself as I bounced off the sides of the gully.
Caught in a whitewash of snow I tumbled, never really knowing which way was up. Like a doll in a dryer. Trying to protect my head with my hands. At some point both my skis came off and I was free of the anchor. Time to protect what I could. Luckily I was wearing a helmet because my head banged hard off a few things. Completely caught in the whitewash I was pummeled against the sides of the gully, my back smashed against something, my head. Over and over I crashed. Always trying to remember which way is up and to be ready to keep myself up, if I could.
It started to slow …I was able to get my right hand up and near my shoulders but at this point I really was trying to keep myself balanced. A sort of backstroke movement that allowed me to keep my head up near the top. It felt like I was succeeding. Treading snow as hard as possible I kept my head up near the top of the flow. It slowed more and more but as it slowed it also turned from a water-like consistency to more concrete like. It got heavier and heavier and I was no longer able to stay vertical, I felt myself tipping over, and getting covered by the snow. Noooooo, I am so close to being upright and with my head out of the snow. Please, fighting as hard as I could I managed to straighten myself up a little. Finally the snow stopped.
With a few desperate handswipes my face was clear. I was going to be ok. But I couldn’t breathe properly. There was an obstruction in my throat. Staying calm I breathed in an out slowly. Finally the heat of my body melted the snow obstruction enough that I could cough it out. Watching the snow chunk fly out of my mouth I was calmed even more as air entered my lungs. No obstructions just nice clean air.
Fairly calm I sat there and awaited my rescue. I probably could have continued to dig with my right hand but it felt fairly ineffective. So instead I sat and got mad at myself. The boys were not far behind. For 16 years I have been ski mountaineering, in all those years I have never really been tumbled by an avalanche. Considering the amount of time spent in avalanche terrain this has been really good. I always knew that eventually it would catch me but I felt I had developed some great rules to minimize this chance. So what happened?
There are so many different factors involved but one of my main issues is my enthusiasm. I am so pumped on being out there and doing what we do that sometimes I get caught up in my optimistic view of everything. Sometimes anything seems possible. Not that I am invincible,just that things go well very often. I aced my full ski guide exam, I sent a huge month things were happening.
Lying there, stuck in the snow, pondering my mistakes I understood that some of it had been Kodak courage. I wanted to make sure we got some good footage for Ptors movie, that we made a great segment of our trip. So instead of ski cutting the slope and managing it properly I skied right in for a better photo. God damn it Hill I know better. While waiting at the top I should have jumped around, skied down 5m, cut the slope, climbed back up and repeated. This is what I typically do, but I was tired from the altitude and I did nothing.
Although the mountains appeared dormant, this was not a snowpack I was familiar with, not a snow type that I knew and understood. Yet I approached it like my home range, I was too comfortable in my usual approach to mountains. Like understanding english really well and trying to speak Pakistani with the same confidence. Instead of easing in and learning the environment I made assumptions….
Previous to this trip I had some foreboding thoughts, I was uneasy about something. Because of the volatile society there I felt like that was where my worries were coming from. After having successfully passed my ACMG full ski guide course, as well as climbed/skied a 100km in March I was feeling great about the mountains. I knew my skills were honed and my fitness as good as ever, what could stop me? My enthusiasm was higher then ever.
And that is the biggest issue, is that I know what to do, so why did I go and do something that I should’t have. How come I didn’t protect myself from my false confidence?
Sitting here a month later writing this, I am still upset but I have forgiven myself. No need to hang onto the negative but focus on some positive healing. Rehab well and come back fighting.Hopefully having learned something and with some sort of personal check list that raises a red flag the more pumped I am.