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Mountain Safety

Story and Photos by Clark Corey

It’s 7:00am and we are still 2000ft shy of the 20,564ft summit of Chimborazo in Ecuador. We’ve traveled around the world for the chance to ride this 5,000ft line and the typically scoured face is now plastered in 3 feet of perfect snow - dream conditions, or so it would seem. Our toes are numb and we’re shivering in the shade so it’s hard to imagine that the sun or heat will be an issue, but it doesn’t matter. The previous night we had set a hard turn around time of 7am as that is the time the sun first hits the face. Standing by our plan we turn around and start descending. Hours later, likely when we would have been descending the steepest part of the route had we kept going, we watch from below as massive 4,000ft wet slides dismantle the face. Even with the direct feedback, this decision still stands out as one of the toughest I’ve ever had to make in the backcountry.

Looking back at the face of Chimborazo after turning around.

Our turnaround point on Chimborazo at 18,500ft.

It can take a lot of experience to even recognize, let alone control, our potentially foolish desires. Every rider is susceptible to making emotion based decisions while staring down an all-time line, especially on that bluebird pow day. One of the best strategies for squashing the emotional pull to drop in is to front load your day by doing some tour planning.

Making decisions in the mountains won’t ever go away. Sometimes you got to get out there to know what is truly happening. But by putting some effort into planning your day, and making some decisions beforehand, we can start off on the right track and get in the proper mindset. It’s much easier to rationally think something through in your living room then at the top of that epic run that you want to rip so bad.

Here are several planning tips to think through before you drive to the trailhead:

Gather Your Information
Think about your recent tours and if you’ve observed anything that could be relevant to the day’s tour. Red flags, general weather patterns and snowpack tests all count here. Is there a pattern, or more information you’d like to seek out? Does this align with the forecast?

Look At The Avalanche Forecast
Don’t just pay attention to the avalanche rating, you must also understand what underlying avalanche problems may be lurking below the primary concern. For example, windloading at upper elevations doesn’t mean you can’t safely ride steep protected terrain. However, a widespread persistent slab can easily shut down steep terrain on all aspects and elevations. Hopefully you’ve been following the forecast for the entire season, so this isn’t completely new information.

If you’re unfamiliar with your local forecast, or will be traveling to a new area, check avalanche.org to see all the centers in the US, as well as links to other international forecast centers.

A very tempting line that I backed off in Cooke City last year due to potential storm slabs.

Check The Weather
Always know the detailed weather forecast before a tour. Weather will effect avalanche danger and also visibility and comfort level. NOAA’s point forecasts, forecast discussions and animated radar are a great place to start. Snotel sites and wind stations are also valuable as you can get good information specific to the area your going. If you want invest a few hours in learning the big picture check out sites like windyty.com or earthwindmap.com.

Using Observations to Make Decisions

Now here’s the fun part. Given snowpack information, the avalanche forecast, and the weather, it’s time to figure out where and where not to ride on your tour. If the primary avalanche problem is wind loading, you want to rule out steep runs that top out on lee ridges, or come in contact with ribs or gullies – all typical places for wind deposited snow. If the problem is a persistent slab that has been recently loaded, then you can rule out any terrain steeper than 30 degrees. Tools like Google Earth are great to get a lay of the land. Caltopo is also excellent to see slope angle which can aid in helping find the most gradual ascent route. Consequence of a slope is huge too – a clean runout is a whole different story than a terrain trap.

Selecting terrain might involve picking very specific runs, or just making a general plan of which aspects to avoid. The higher the hazard the more you’ll want to plan. When your planning your likely ascent and descent routes think about critical areas where you might need to make a decision, re-assess, regroup, or use a different travel protocol. Talk all of this through with your friends and come to some kind of a consensus before hitting the skin track.

Know Your Plan And Keep Observing
When your out on your tour don’t just blindly follow your plan. You might start poking around in the snow and realize the avalanche danger in a localized area is worse than the forecast described. Even your "safe" route may now be sketchy. Changing your plan because conditions are worse than you anticipated is a great call. On the opposite hand, just because conditions may appear safer than you’ve anticipated, it’s not the best idea to scrap plans and drop into runs that you had originally signed off on. On the fly decisions are when accidents happen. Feel good about sticking to your guns even if it looks epic.

Looks dreamy, but definitely not worth the risk. We backed off this lee-side face due to significant wind loading.

On Chimborazo, we had identified that wet avalanches would be our primary concern. The new snow on the face would see it’s first sun that day after a long storm. Turning around was a heart breaking decision at the time but I’m so proud we made it. Pre-planning our tour that day likely saved our lives.

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Published on
23 December 2015
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