“It’s cold!” Charlie states through a clenched face while dropping his pack on the summit.
Lower down the ridge we had noticed the temperature fall drastically. Now, on the summit of this dome shaped peak above 11000 feet, the temperature is, at best, in the low single digits. I have on every scrap of clothing possible, but can still feel the chill touching me with its deadly fingers. I look to the sun for comfort, but it is hidden by a blanket of grey clouds. Behind us lies the canyon from which we came and now two other canyons fall dramatically below as I stare into the frozen wilderness of the northern Teton’s.
Only a day into our self imposed adventure, to explore and bag as many peaks as possible for three days in the middle of February, uncertainty is weighing on me. On one hand, I want to be here, but on the other, I’m having a hard time convincing myself that it is worth it. Pull the plug and go running home.
I conceal my discomfort and mutinous thoughts with the reply, “At least there’s no wind.” I chastise myself. You are NOT pulling the plug! What are you? Some kind of princess!
Two years ago Charlie, our friend Anna and I tried to pull off another escapade in the same area of the park. The plan then was to load up sleds, drag them across the lake and ski up to and climb some frozen waterfalls. From the get go we were doomed.
We arrived late to our launching point then wasted more time rigging the sleds before crossing the lake to set up camp during an unusually warm day. In the canyon, sunny skies that felt soothing during the lake crossing turned oppressive. While we were sweating the snow on the surface was melting and adding weight to the snow beneath. Soon we began to see wet avalanches on the south-facing walls. We stopped to reevaluate our plan when we arrived at a point in the terrain that would take us directly through a steep slope which had cliffs above and below.
I was not enthusiastic about continuing. The slides we had seen so far were small, but were still large enough to take one of us for a ride. Charlie and Anna were more optimistic so I stayed back and spotted for them in an area well out of harms way.
Anna began up first and then after about 50 yards Charlie followed. While I twiddled my thumbs and tried to stay positive I saw snow pour off the cliff above Anna. When it crashed into the slope it triggered a slide. I yelled, Charlie froze and Anna screamed for direction.
The slide was not fast, but there was no time for Anna to retreat. Instead, she did her best to point her skis down. The slide fanned out, gained momentum and scooped her up in the direction of Charlie. She fought to stay on her feet, but the heavy wave she was riding forced her back and when it stopped, only yards from Charlie, her legs and right arm were cemented in the debris.
Useless, I stayed put while Charlie helped extract Anna. They rejoined me and together we retreated down canyon to stop and watch nature at work. That afternoon we counted over twenty separate slides before returning to camp.
Back on the summit, the clouds have thinned allowing more light to cast a warming color about. It has transformed the cirque of the canyon into a beautiful wonder. I gaze south and begin to see the possibility of traveling from this summit and tagging several others before ending on a peak Charlie and I had tried to ski up two years ago. We discuss traversing the cirque then decide that for today we have gone far enough.
I watch Charlie skiing effortlessly. Few people have sat on this summit and fewer, possibly none, have done this traverse in winter. I consider the opportunity I have and then the regret that would follow if I allow myself to cave in.
I follow Charlie’s tracks. Fast, re-crystallized snow feathers my legs as I let my skis carry me gently down the slope. I feel myself floating from turn to turn. I imagine what we must look like from the summit; two small beings, calmly swooshing deeper into an astounding canyon underneath a glowing evening sky. Smiling, skiing, making their way back to camp.
The night after Anna’s close call was miserable. We were jolted awake at four by the inversion creeping up from the lake bed. Its subzero claws surrounded the tent and grasped us in its frozen grip. The thermometer on the watch screamed negative fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. We tossed and turned praying for the sun to release us from the chill, but being entrenched in pines there was no direct sunlight after dawn. Eventually, we sprinted out of the tent, strapped on our skis and raced up a ridge into warmth. 200 feet of elevation made a thirty degree difference.
During our retreat the afternoon before we had devised a plan “B”. Skin up a ridge to a worthy looking summit and ski its 3500 foot east face. After we allowed our bodies and equipment to thaw we stomped our way toward it. Just like the day before we ran into a dead end. A technical rock step that led to a knife-edge ridge with extremely steep snow fields on both sides. In our rush to get warm we had left our climbing gear at camp. Even if we had brought the gear the razor-sharp edge would have been a huge undertaking. Before skiing back to camp we agreed that the peak was something we would return for.
Seven AM. Charlie unseals the tent. The frost that is caked to the interior sprinkles onto my face as the sun breaks on a clear horizon. Direct light falls rapidly around and illuminates us. Glowing blue skies, stark fields of snow and definite warmth from the sun shed hope on our plan. The night wasn’t that bad. I might be ready for more.
Back on the crest we can see into the Snake River Basin, north into Yellowstone Park, east to the continental divide, and south to the major peaks of the Teton’s. Uninterrupted wilderness in every direction. Openness so large it makes me feel trivial. I have the desire to cast out even further. Why stop here? Why not continue on? Turn away from the ridiculous daily grind. Embrace more of the beautiful silence in this place… Because you are weak and scared. Out there is the unknown!
We rapidly reel in a handful of peaks while heading south toward our plan “B” peak of two years ago. At the third summit of the traverse we discern a possible weakness to that peak, a short couloir on its southwest side.
To avoid the dangerous north facing slopes of the ridge we keep to the south. Here, the snow is only a few inches deep, too thin for skis so we leave them behind. What was simple terrain to cross on skis becomes tediously uncertain in ski boots. Each step is a wobble and we fight for solid ground in the loose talus below the snow.
My thoughts float from the task at hand to the questions. Why would someone spend three nights out here? Why suffer, feel cold and continue? Why not be home in a warm bed? Why am I doing this?… Listen Princess! Stop asking so many questions!
I struggle with answers. When my wife asked I told her it’s because I had to. I told Charlie it’s comforting to see and know there are still places that are empty of development. I know the truth. I have no answers.
At the entrance to the couloir I find a pillow of wind deposited snow, 50 feet wide, 200 feet long and a couple of feet deep sitting around 40 degrees. Turn around. I consider going below and stomping up its far side, where the snow looks thinner, but if it slid I would have the whole thing on top of me. I decide to ascend, hugging the large rocks on this side of the couloir. I cross the slab of snow near its top where it is only 20 feet wide, hoping that if it does slide it will only go below me. I kick my way slowly in the firm snow. Half way my heart jumps. The snow cracks. This is it! I flex all the muscles in my body in anticipation of the whole thing moving. I have a vision of being swept down with the snow. It’s a gentle ride at first, but when I reach the end of the snow slab I tumble through the jagged talus. Not death, but tears and bruises. I watch the crack shoot from me to the edge of the slab. I blink, but nothing else happens. I peer down in the crack. I can see rocks. Go back!
“Heads up Charlie.” I take another step and then another. I am across with my heart in my throat. Charlie dances across with no hesitation.
“Did you see the crack?” “What crack?” “In the slab we just crossed.” “No, didn’t see anything.”
As we pick our way to the summit my legs wobble while I suck in air. That was terrifying! I pushed too far. I could have tumbled down. I could have torn my clothes… Do I have to be such a drama queen… eerr princess?
On top of our peak I manage to gather myself from the far reaches of the park and realize that we had made the traverse without any real hitch. Satisfaction replaces my doubt. See, it wasn’t that bad. All that worrying and here you are. Glad to see you finally sacked up.
I gaze east to see our high point from two years ago and I hear my wife’s voice, “Silly boys.” Not only is there a technical ridge from where we turned around leading to a summit east of us, but an even longer, more difficult ridge from there to the one we are on. I am relieved with the simplicity of our present course, but this other route has me intrigued. Maybe next year or in the summer we could give it a go. Yeah right. Keep talking.
Returning to our skis Charlie passes me while I rest. It’s icy, the lighting has worsened and for the first time I’m relaxed. I’m no longer worried. I eat a piece of chocolate and breathe in the cool air and wonder. Who else has been here? Who else has shivered here from the sweat on their backs? Who has spent nights, seen the sun and the moon rise, watching the light reflect off the untarnished finish?
In a rush to get to the last peak we had passed below a less pronounced point which was now only 100 feet above me. Giddy up, Princess. I trudge up to the final summit of the trip.
Sticking to north facing slopes and keeping the angle low, we find the skiing is better than the previous day. We make turns toward a line we had eye-balled from camp. Lost in the canyons of the park we find our exit. 1200 feet of knee deep consolidated powder. A cherry to finish off the traverse and our day.
The coldest and windiest night went barley noticed. Charlie was snoring by seven and I woke only once, so hot that I was sweating. By sunrise we are heading back up for one final run. I let Charlie go ahead. I look across the cirque trying to see our tracks from the previous days. Searching for proof that we had danced our way around this corner of the world. Some of them have survived the wind while others are latent images in my head. Tomorrow there will be no sign that we were ever here.
I was never too cold. I was never too tired and my only regret is that I am leaving too soon. Why did I do this? I tell myself I did this because I needed to find myself. To recall that feeling of being small and insignificant. I came to find a place so quiet that I am forced to listen to myself. I did this to see the world as it truly is; a wonder beyond explanation. I came here to explore and be reborn. I did this because I can.
Copyright 2010 Louis C Arevalo
To see more photos from the story check out the Waterfalls Canyon Gallery in the Photos page.
Why do you get out? Let me have it.