Saturday, May 5, 2012

Down The Rabbit Hole With Alice

There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it: You need to be as mad as a hatter.  Alice in Wonderland.

Well, I had the weirdest day today and am still shaking my head over how everything played out. Two of us went out to traverse Ymir Mountain taking the same route I did with some friends two weeks ago. This is actually a pretty straight forward traverse up the west ridge of Ymir Mountain, and down the north ridge (you actually skirt just below the north ridge on the east side) to a notch where a prominent ramp leads out into west facing Ymir bowl. Once in Ymir bowl there are a variety of slightly different lines that lead down to the ski area.

I began to have my doubts about this trip not long after we started skiing up the runs at Whitewater Ski Resort. The weather was socked in, there was 15 cm of new snow at the parking lot (about 1650 m) which gradually increased to 30 cm by the time we crested the ridge at 2000 metres and my friend was blathering on about all kinds of things that seemed to have no bearing on the factors that we should consider in deciding whether or not to ski our planned route.

One of her more hair-raising comments was the suggestion that we ski one of the tight terrain trap couloirs that lead into Ymir bowl. Undoubtedly good runs under the right conditions, the day following a big storm with a dump of heavy snow does not constitute the right conditions. Endeavoring to sound polite, I pointed out that skiing a terrain trap under a big fresh cornice with a dump of wet heavy snow was "ludicrous".

We gained the west ridge of Ymir at the usual spot and I stepped aside to let my friend break trail for a while as I knew that if I didn't I would break trail all day as I usually do when I ski with her. She immediately began going in the wrong direction but I felt uncomfortable calling her back as she has recently taken some "guiding" (I use the term loosely) courses and is quite touchy about being corrected on things. Already that day she had got upset with me for skinning straight up the run instead of following her meandering track. At this point I made the mistake of thinking I could correct her error further along without much difficulty.

But, error correction always works better when you recognize your mistake early and correct quickly. While I recognized the error immediately, I did not correct it right away and we ended up not gaining enough elevation and contouring around a south facing spur ridge at around 2,020 metres when we should have skinned up to around 2100 metres to cross a flat spot on this ridge.

At this point, we were a full half a kilometre off course and my friend had no idea where we were. I pulled out my map and compass, took a bearing on the ridge and fairly quickly worked out our location, where we had gone wrong and what we needed to do to get back on track. All the while my friend was pointing at the map and exclaiming with great certainty "we are here" while pointing to locations some five kilometres distant and on the wrong side of the mountain. My misgivings about the trip increased.

Nevertheless we continued on and I led us up to the main west ridge of Ymir. Here my friend began to declaim about the west aspect slope we were standing atop off, and how we would be skiing an east facing slope in Ymir bowl. Tentatively, I said "No, this is a north facing slope and Ymir bowl faces pretty much west." She gave me a disparaging look and repeated her assertion, where upon I pulled out the map (which I always carry handy in my pocket) and showed her that we were indeed standing atop a north aspect slope and Ymir bowl was predominantly west facing, while thinking to myself, "this trip is doomed."

We agreed to carry on a bit further and consider skiing down a slackcountry run called West Ymir. West Ymir features a steep descent down north facing avalanche slopes. Once down from the ridge there are many options ranging from steep lightly treed terrain trap slopes to deep terrain trap gullies. As you've no doubt gathered, there are a multitude of options, all of which are exposed to serious avalanche hazard.

My friend now started babbling about how she wanted to dig a snowpit to check on conditions. I asked, with some trepidation as I was beginning to fear the answer, if she was worried about deeper layers. "No, no," she assured me, "I just want to check the wet layer from earlier this week." I'm out with an idiot, I thought. "That layer is down 30 cm under the storm snow," I said, "You can test it with a hand shear." I tried to sound patient, but I wanted to shout, "You've just spent the morning watching me do half a dozen hand shears. What are you thinking?"

At this point I decided that the weather was providing the perfect excuse for getting off this mountain under these conditions with this person, and I suggested we return the way we had come. My friend agreed, but, added the bizarre caveat that I shouldn't be relying on her to lead the way on the traverse route as she hadn't skied it before and needed to see it to lead it. "I've fallen down the rabbit hole," I thought. "This is what happened to Alice. The world has turned upside down." Given that I had corrected my friend a dozen times in the space of an hour, it seemed particularly daft to me to think that I would actually expect her to lead me anywhere excepting crazy, which she was quickly doing.

Mistakenly, I thought there could be no more surprises,. Therefore the suggestion that we "contour" back to the top of the ski runs caught me off guard. Given that we had just wasted a great deal of time "contouring" less than an hour ago, I didn't see how she could possibly think this was a good idea.

With dwindling patience and increasing apprehension, I suggested we follow the ridge and use it as a handrail as clearly "contouring" was not proving any faster in this terrain. I was relieved that she agreed, and, after stepping aside so I could break trail (surprise, surprise), she followed me back to a small chute that leads into Catch Basin. This chute has some minor avalanche potential, but I felt comfortable with it. Good thing as my friend immediately - how did I know this was coming - said "You go first." 

Poor visibility.  A good excuse for escaping the Mad Hatters Tea Party

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