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Published by Jeremy Jones
Mountain Safety

Straight fall line into a flat outrun. If it does slide the debris will fan out. This is about as clean as it gets in the Tetons.

Story and Photos by Jeremy Jones

"What happens if I get caught in an avalanche or take a fall on this face?" This thought is always with me when climbing up or riding down a mountain. I let my mind go to a dark place. "You will die, you will never see your kids again." This may sound harsh or negative, but the consequences are real in the mountains and one bad call can erase a lifetime of good calls. Especially if the mistake is on a "dirty" line - meaning a line that has secondary exposure. Secondary exposure is anything that can kill you if you fall down the mountain or get caught in an avalanche. The exposure could be a stand of trees below you, large cliffs, sloping cliffs, crevasses, or a terrain trap that would quickly fill with snow if you are caught in an avalanche.

The first line of defense in staying safe in the mountains is picking clean lines. I have made a career out of picking steep, well featured lines that have clean out runs. I learned early on that instead of looking at the tops of the mountains and falling in love with beautiful lines with bad out runs. I first focus on the outruns. This is the key to any line. Figure out where the safe outruns are and go up from there. Once on top of a line the first thing I do is figure out where my exit is. By picking clean lines, I am able to take risks I would never be able to take over exposure. I would rather throttle a clean line then side slip down a dirty line. The cleaner the line, the bigger risks I will take.

Steep, straight fall line, clean out run, already sluffed, 3,2,1 dropping.

There are times I will ride over exposure but it is an exception, not the norm. Take the Grand Teton for example. It is a large hanging snowfield that ends in a couple hundred foot cliff. Getting caught in a small sluff on that line would be fatal. 99% of the time I would not even consider riding that line. The exposure is too massive and the consequences too high. But every once in awhile I will find myself in the dream cycle of clear weather and stable snow conditions. I am able to work my way up to these unthinkable lines after days or weeks of riding the surrounding safer terrain. It is only when I can say with out a doubt that the line is stable that I will ride it. Something as minor as a change of the predominant wind direction, or increasing temperatures can close the window. A foot of snow in these scenarios can erase weeks of snowpack confidence.

Dropping in above cliffs on the otterbody route.

Why Climb The Line?

The accepted belief in ski mountaineering is that a person should always hike up what they intend to ride down. This way you know if there is hidden ice or avalanche danger. If I am concerned with hidden white ice and worried that I may not be able to hold an edge then I am climbing the line even if it is exposed. In this scenario hard snow is the danger not avalanches so spending extra time on the face is fine.

Why Climb Around?

If there is a big hang fire above in the form of cornices, a heated slope that funnels into the face or concerns with avalanche danger then I am hiking around. I would way rather evaluate a slope from above by cutting a cornice, or doing a ski cut. If a ski cut in between islands of safety releases a small pocket it is much easier to get out of than if that small pocket released while you were hiking up. I have had picnic table size pockets release while hiking up and been pulled off the face. If I encountered that same pocket riding down it would not have been a major issue.

Big Slopes

I generally try and avoid huge slopes or bowls. There is no way right way to evaluate, climb up or ride down big slopes. I have much more fear on 38 degree, seemingly mellow terrain then on 50 degree, chutes, flutes and rocks.

We had very stable conditions in Austria but this face was still scary. It was a huge 38 degree face and if it slid, you would go 4000 ft to the valley floor and die. I rode the skyline ridge to the riders left.

Saying No!

No matter how great your route selection is, how fancy your avy gear is, how many avy books you have read, how cool your group is, Saying NO is the most important tool in your avy kit. Read the local avy report and respect it. Ride to live another day!

There is no such thing as a clean line when the depth of the slab you are worried about is this large. Squaw Valley - KT-22

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Published on
1 December 2018
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