The shrill beeping of your watch alarm pierces the fog of an all-too-short slumber. The freezing night air sears your nasal passages as you reluctantly lurch into a sitting position inside a warm sleeping bag in the bed of a truck. The last dreamy wisps of sleep evaporate into a state of shivering grogginess. It’s 3:30 a.m., but the hardest part of the day is over; you’re moving, you’ve got momentum. It’s time to charge.
This is a big day–everything about it: big preparation, big anticipation, big climb, and, of course, a big line. Not necessarily some sick, celluloid-style Alaska line, but certainly a quality run that you’ll hopefully remember for decades to come.
You’ve taken avalanche-awareness classes, learned how to assess the snowpack, read topographical maps, and find safe routes. You’ve done your homework. Avalanche danger is low, the snow should be perfect, settled powder, and the weather is full-on bluebird without even a whisper of wind. It’s looking good.
You’re well rested, fit, and hydrated. You’ve got food and water, and buddies who not only have shovels, beacons, and probes, but are also skilled in using them. This is your gig, so you’ve got the map. You make sure there’s at least one first-aid kit, and that everyone has spare binding parts and tools.
One last call to the avy report via cell phone confirms what you already knew–no winds of significance on the upper ridges. Chances are good that the soft, loose pow you’re looking forward to riding won’t be transformed into deadly wind slabs. There aren’t many days like this one in a season–the upper-elevation peaks and ridges have both quality snow and good stability. You’ve monitored the weather and snowpack all winter, and now that your window has arrived, you pounce on the opportunity.
Having spent a good half-hour memorizing the shape of the topo lines on your map, there’s a solid image of the topography of the route engrained in your mind’s eye. You have a good idea of where there might be cliffy terrain, and an accurate sense of all the important slope aspects and angles. You’ve considered things like where the team has to cross under steep, exposed, south-facing slopes and have planned to be through these sections early and onto a protected, north-facing ridgeline before the sun has a chance to start any wet-slide activity.
With 5,000 feet of climbing on 35-degree settled powder and four people sharing trail-breaking duties, all equipped with climbing snowshoes and poles, you figure a maximum of five to six hours of ascending time. Since it’s now 4:45 a.m., the estimated summit time is around 11:00 a.m. The 5,000-foot, 35-degree descent shouldn’t take much time at all, so you could be back at the car by 1:00 or 2:00 p.m. The descent line is not threatened by wet slides. Since it’s March and the sun sets at 5:30 p.m., there’s plenty of time before dark.
After steadily ascending, you arrive at the top at 10:45 a.m. feeling loose and ready to ride. But, there’s a four-day-old wind slab extending two-thirds of the way across the entrance of the planned descent route. From daily monitoring of the avy report and your own personal observations, it’s clear that the bond between the slab and the old snow surface is fairly strong and probably not sensitive to the weight of a rider. And because there’s a way around the slab, the likelihood of it releasing is quite remote.
But your turns lower down in the chute would be in the slab’s path if it did release. And at 38 degrees, the slope is at an angle that’s notoriously prone to slide. Deciding to play it safe, you test the slab to see if it rips; whipping out your trusty 8.5 mm rope, you tie off to some rocks, and while belayed by a buddy, you drop the five or ten feet from the toop of the chute, landing on the upper edge of the slab. Climbing up and repeating it a few times, nothing happens–no cracking, no nothing.
While still roped in, you dig a pit and examine the bonding–throwing in a quick isolated-column stability test. Thoroughly convinced it would take a small nuclear device to trigger this slab, everyone straps in.
You drop the chute one at a time, the three who aren’t riding watching every turn just in case. Everyone is careful to avoid the slab. As you descend down to the car, the snow is epic, just like you knew it would be. Everyone is stoked–high-fiving, grinning, and laughing. You nailed it.
A good way to gain experience on bigger terrain like this is to make your first big vertical foray a spring corn-harvesting mission. You’ll need to be aware of wet slides, and maybe rock-fall on steeper terrain, but if you go early on a cool morning, well into an extended melt-freeze cycle, the avalanche danger should be low. Your only major concerns will be getting off of, and out from under, any steep terrain before the heat of the day, and not taking a nasty slide on an icy slope.
Also, before attempting a full-day trip like this, you should familiarize yourself with mountain travel by putting in many laps at your local lift-assisted backcountry stash and/or road shot. Of course, your avalanche and routefinding skills need to be unquestionably solid.