A Lesson in Judgment From the Y Couloir
"Good judgment comes from experience, experience comes from poor judgment.” Cliche, but true. Yesterday was a serious lesson in what can go wrong with poor planning and a lack of gear. We were lucky. But luck isn’t something to be proud of in this context.
This semester I’m taking a class on counterterrorism. The heart of this class is legal analysis and quick decision-making under pressure. Do we detain a suspect? What are the international implications of detention? Do we blow up a potential target and risk severe collateral damage? In simulations we are given minutes to make these decisions. Yet (obviously), these decisions do not have any real world implications beyond my grade in the course.
Conversely, the decisions my friends and I made yesterday had real time consequences. Though our choices were not all wrong, we did put ourselves in a potentially dangerous situation, and I feel that it is important to share our experience so that others can learn from it.
I wanted to go out for a tour Friday morning and be back by noon so I could get back to studying. My friend suggested the Y Couloir considering the low avalanche danger. I’d never been up there before, though my friend had hiked it twice. After 6 years of staring at it from Highway 210 I was excited to finally check it off the list. I invited another friend along who, like me, had never done it and was game for checking it off as well.
(Photo Credit to www.Straightchuter.com)
We were a group of 3 and we began our climb a little after 7am. We had planned on a short day, so I packed light. I left a mid-layer in the car, and I figured one protein bar would be enough of a snack. We all had our avalanche gear and two of us had float packs. I had also packed my Wilderness Medicine first aid kit for good measure.
The bottom of the couloir was a minor icy debris field. We didn’t think much of it and chalked it up to it being the bottom runout. About a third of the way up the couloir, we hit an icy section where we could barely get our toes in. Instead of considering that we didn’t have an axe or a pair of crampons between us, we decided to continue with the hope that the snow at the top would be skiable and that the bottom would have warmed up by the time we skied down. Instead, the chute varied between ice and sugary snow until about 100 feet from the top. There were three sections where we found ourselves scaling ice covered rock, each with progressively higher consequences. Because we did not have ice axes we used shovel blades to pull ourselves up over the rocks. The hike up was horrendous enough that we decided that we would not ski down the couloir and would find another way out through Hogum.
The shoddy conditions meant that our hike up took much much longer than we had planned. We reached the ridge just after 1pm when we had originally planned on being there by 11. We skied along the ridge looking for a spot where we could drop into Hogum, only to find that these shots were sheer cliffs and not skiable without ropes and other gear we did not have.
We kept traversing and eventually ran into a skin track. Desperate for a way out, we decided to follow the skin track. Mind you, we did not consider the fact that none of us had brought skins when we decided to climb up the couloir and find another way to ski out. We side-stepped the whole skin track up to the ridge only to find that who ever set the track had just been lapping our side of the ridge as there was no where to ski down on the other side.
At this point it was 3:30 pm and the snowstorm forecasted for the afternoon had set in. We were running out of daylight and frustrated by our options. The only sure way out that my friend knew was by skiing down and around to hike back up towards skiable options near the Hypodermic Needle. The problem was that we did not have skins and we would have to ski a long way down before we could start walking up. We had two headlamps between our group of 3 and we knew that if we tried to ski that route we would be skiing a potentially dangerous line in the dark.
We started taking inventory of the gear we had between us in case we had to dig a snow shelter and make due for the night. We were out of food and water and all of us were wearing all of the layers we had brought. This was the moment when reality set in. The choices we made and the consequences of our decisions were real, and there was no safety net.
We had to believe there was a way out on the Hogum side of the ridge and with an hour and a half of daylight left this was really our only viable option. I called a couple of friends of mine who I knew were familiar with the area, or could at least find someone familiar with the area and could point us in the right direction. I sent my location and I sent pictures.
Earlier that morning, I had told another friend of mine what I was doing for (what was only supposed to be) the first half of the day, and she continued to check in with me to make sure we got out safely.
At this point we were about 50 feet below the ridge on the Coal Pit side and we had two choices: 1) ski down and around and work our way towards the Hypodermic Needle and possibly dig a snow shelter and camp until morning, or 2) go back up to the ridge for one last look and hope that we would find a shot to ski down.
Our second look at the ridge turned up an untouched chute that would take us down through Hogum and back to the road. We made it back to our cars just before sunset. This was pure luck, and coincidentally, our day had gone as planned with the exception of it taking twice as long as it was supposed to.
All of the ridge line phone calling resulted in a number of guys waiting at the pull off for us to make sure we make it out safely. To everyone who was there: Thank you, I owe you all beers.
Though it turned out that there was an out, and though we did make it down safely, it was a serious wake up call about what it means to be prepared. We did not anticipate a longer day and none of us had the extra food, water, or supplies that we should have been carrying. We did not have the proper tools for the conditions (axes, crampons, rope, etc.) We did not have a map of the area, and we relied on one member of the group to be our guide when we all should have had sufficient knowledge of where our plan B routes could have taken us. Above all, none of us spoke up when we had our doubts about the snow quality when we encountered our first icy patch. Later, on the ridge, we admitted to each other that each of us had reservations about continuing, but no one wanted to be that person to call it a day.
Two guys passed us on our ascent up the Y earlier in the day. They were headed to the Y-Not and were carrying axes, crampons, and rope. The next day we saw a UAC observation noting that those guys had been caught in wet sluffing in the Y-Not. Thankfully no one was hurt. After seeing this, we felt better about our decision to find an alternative route to ski down, though we all agreed that in retrospect our decision should have been to turn around at the first point we realized we lacked the gear for the conditions.
There’s no better teacher than a big mistake, and this is one I won’t soon forget.
#1 Go with your gut. Speak up. Communicate.
#2 Keep the group together.
#3 Know the area beyond your plan A.
#4 Double check the conditions and bring gear for the conditions.
#5 Pack supplies for the unexpected.
#6 Tell others where you are going and when to expect you back.