My original intention was to leave my companions unnamed, so as to take any damnation for our choices on my own head. They however pointed out that background, experience, and knowledge influence decisions, and were happy to take any wrath that pours out.
On Friday the 13th of March, Nick Quinn, Scott Gaffney, and myself headed out to try what was to the best of our knowledge, a first descent on the main couloir on Caldron Peak. We will happily be refuted in knowing that others have ridden it. The point is that we made our choices with that mindset: that we would be the ones opening up the map for others.
The sound of the slide was monstrous, echoing and reverberating off the walls beside us. I am uncertain whether it was just that strange way time slows down, or whether it really poured off the face beside us for minutes. Huge wet chunks of snow tumbling off the cliff in a colossal flow. I looked at the boys who were just down from me…nobody looked thrilled. We were just into the couloir, in the safety of the shade, we had finally arrived. I gestured upwards to an outcropping of rock, a spot to regroup and make decisions. I started moving as the slide stilled and left only the sound of my breath. Fuck. The snow beside us was perfect.
The line faces north. A gash in the east face of Caldron Peak. We were out of the sun now, but the slope 50m to our right was still roasting in the sun. A massive outcropping of rock had been soaking in the heat; the result had been the slide that had tossed debris all over the tracks we had made earlier as we traversed over small cliff bands to get onto the fan. I stood there waiting for the boys to catch up, looking at the face above us. Making decisions. They arrived and it was the time for the talk. The time for everyone to be honest about their opinions and about whether we should drop and enjoy the corn snow down to the lake, or push upwards.
Three votes. All in favor. We went up.
From where we were the most obvious danger was a secondary funnel into the base of the line. The only portion of the headwall that was still roasting in the sun would be rendered less of an issue in a matter of 100m. So we moved fast. A few small point releases well off to the side, but nothing substantial as we moved upwards and further into the protection of the line itself. Safe from the heat of the sun. We moved upwards from that point on without a lot of talking, trading out turns kicking in steps or wading through waist deep powder as we navigated up the bends and turns of the couloir. A few small pauses to joke about whether this was the corner to turn back at, to catch our breath, until we were finally perched 40m below the cornice which hung above the line.
And for that fine day, that is where we stopped.
The last 40m looked to be largely hard debris with less and less space to put in turns. However, the real issue was above us, still roasting in the sun; a lovely minivan of a cornice. This straight shot to the top would leave us with nowhere to go, and with a line that was roughly the size of the cornice, we wouldn’t have much chance of avoiding it if it popped. 40m off of what could be in our minds a first descent. Hard to say. Couldn’t find much to go on as to whether the line had been ridden. Yet there we were, so very close to the top, with nothing more than the dice roll between us and the top. Yet we trained the hard skill that day. The willingness to make the call and go down. The call that lines are worth a whole lot less than friends.
The riding itself turned out to be far better than expected, and in some spots, just pure bliss. The sluff from the pockets of powder flowed down over the harder debris, giving us something to put turns into. Only a few small spots where the axe in my hand even seemed needed. We fist bumped at the bottom, big grins, standing in deep snow. Then we were out and into the sun on the fan. Riding the corn downwards, snaking through the cliff bands all the way until the bottom. 982m from where we turned back to the point where we were standing on the lake laughing and looking upwards. Grins and Redbull, bluebird skies stretching endlessly around us. All of that was worth way more than rolling the dice and hoping we would be okay for 40m.
Risk tolerance is a strange thing, and we all have to decide where we sit on that spectrum. I am totally fine with our earlier decision to go up. The math worked. Yes, snow was moving on solar heated faces with lots of exposed rock. Yet, I had a lot of confidence in the protection offered to us by the shade. Some would likely say we were fools to keep going then, and that is their right. Everyone has to choose where they sit on that spectrum. It is that hard call that I wrestle with every time: the one to stop. We are all capable riders, we could have ridden the debris above us. We turned back because this isn’t a game of ‘hoping it will be okay’. The consequences of the mountains are absolute. For me, I am willing to take risks that I can manage or mitigate, even when others think I am nuts. However, I refuse to make decisions based off of ‘hope’.