Mountain Safety

Story and Photos by Exum guide Nathaniel Murphy

Last February I went to the Kackar Mountains near the Black Sea of Northeastern Turkey to work on the Foothills film project. We flew into the midst of a heavy storm blanketing these unfamiliar mountains with 2 meters of unstable powder. Our original destination, a high mountain town named Olongon, was unreachable due to recent avalanches closing the road. A circuitous 8 hour white knuckle drive to the other side of the Kackar range put us in another village, Ayder, which is only 20 miles away as the crow flies and, we hoped, comparable in terms of access.

As we waited for our weather window I was hunting for beta. This was not a ski town, and we were strangers in a strange land. Hazir, the owner of our hotel, busted out his old maps and showed us photos of his favorite trekking places in the summer. Every image of him on some high pass or ridge came with a caveat in broken English, “danger, slide, boom!”

Indeed, the terrain looked big, rugged, and complex. These were no foothills and
as I studied google earth images and potential routes it became clear that access to the best zones was going to take some creativity. Thankfully Hazir’s friend Hussein had a snowcat that he used to give scenic tours around the village. Our routine for the week would start with an early morning cat bump, up the road 6 miles and 3500’ feet above town. From there we would skin 4-5 miles to the base of the mountains.

At first Hussein was hesitant to just drop us off, and was always pointing out recent avalanches on the ride up. He spoke with gregarious hand gestures, in emphatic Turkish that became louder and faster the more important the point he was trying to make. Of course we understood nothing but the universal language of safety and that he wanted us to check back in with him when we returned to town, and if it was dark and we were not back, he would come looking.

Traveling to far flung corners of the world to ride can be both incredibly rewarding and challenging. Lack of beta is a huge hurdle. Notes in my blue book from those first days are riddled with red flags. Basal facets, deep slabs, depth hoar, poor structure, high energy, low strength, high temperature gradients, numerous natural avalanches to the ground! As a guide looking to help a film crew get shots, this can be stressful stuff. Once we were finally at the base of the mountains our situational awareness had to be 100%. Large avy paths and terrain traps surrounded us.

On all aspects there was a widespread buried crust down 100cm, and under that 10-20cm of sugary depth hoar. The snow was thigh deep, perfect low density powder, and the days that followed were cold, crisp, and bluebird. We stuck to low angle terrain and very conservative routefinding.

As the snow settled we ventured into a bit more exposure, but with widespread deep slab instabilities, poor structure, and other persistent weak layers, I just couldn’t justify making the decision to drop in on any of the serious terrain. Half a world away in a place that I will never be again with those people in those conditions, that was an incredibly hard decision to make.

One tool that helped make the decision easier was Ian McCammon’s heuristic decision making traps - Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment, Expert Halo, Tracks (scarcity), and Social Proof. Commonly referred to as FACETS, it’s an acronym often taught on level 1 Avy courses, for good reason. It keeps you in check, as long as you take the time to recognize each trap.

Our routine and the terrain was beginning to feel familiar and more comfortable everyday. Everyone had some degree of internal pressure to produce, and the trip was made possible with a budget from sponsors. Now four days after the storm, natural avys were subsiding and it seemed like we could commit to the bigger terrain we all had our eyes on since day one. Our crew was highly competent, even the film crew are pro level riders, and as a guide with all sorts of certifications the halo was certainly there. The only tracks to worry about were our own, but with only a couple days left in this zone on what may well be a once in a lifetime trip our time was scarce. The only social proof was from a European based heli operation that flew over us once, bypassing the steep lines and touching down on low angle terrain far in the distance.

In the evening we discussed our goals for our last days based out of this town. We talked about stepping out onto some lines and specific ascent routes. There was less energy in my stability tests and slightly more strength in the layer of concern, but the structure was still incredibly poor. Could we get away with it? Most likely, yes. But…

The starting zones on most these lines were broad connected ridges that would be difficult to control and mitigate. Exit routes all ended in a deep trough, a terrain trap that would be unrealistic to survive in the event of a burial. In the end, everyone was on the same page. It wasn’t worth risking our lives to ride this terrain and the project was rooted in snowsurf anyway, more cultural by nature. We weren’t expected to be riding the gnarliest terrain. And besides, we had good snow, good company and the summer village at the base of the mountains was a buried rooftop playground out of harm’s way. We had all we really needed, and we didn’t need to push it.

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Published on
6 December 2016
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