Featured image: Erin Spong
It was December 23, 2022. We woke up to -11 degrees Fahrenheit in Golden, British Columbia, and after a long, high-pressure system, the faucet had turned back on. Red flag number one.
We packed up our bags and food and loaded into the helicopter for a seven-day stay at the Meadow Lodge within the Golden Alpine Holidays backcountry hut system. After an exciting flight in and organizing the lodge with our personal items, a portion of our 14-person group decided to venture out just above the lodge to a mellow zone that was not exposed to avalanche hazards. We practiced beacon searching, which eased my avy anxieties a bit, but just a few turns in to our first real ski run we found the rocks. Red flag number two.
That night, at our first dinner in the hut, one of the men in our group asked for each of us to state our individual goals for the trip. While some said that their goal was to have no goal at all or simply just to meet new people and enjoy the experience, the ring leader of this particular conversation responded with, “to get as high and as rad as possible.” Red flag number three.
The next morning, our lodge custodian, Jason, suggested we all go out together as one group, making us a total of 15 people. While it’s not usually in good practice to travel in the backcountry with that many, I went along with it because we all needed to get a lay of the land. Red flag number four.
As we approached an east-facing ridge, I noticed two distinct cornices looming above on both the left and right side of the face. I looked over at my life and ski partner and asked if the group’s intention was to ski this face. Uncertain, my partner shrugged his shoulders. By the time I looked up at the twin cornices again, I noticed a newly developed crown in the middle of the slope and underneath, about 200 yards down, were two of our group members digging out their skis and scurrying out from under the face. With absolutely no warning and no sound, our group had just remotely triggered a size 1-2 storm slab. Red flag number five.
In a matter of 24 hours the red flags had stacked up to a size I couldn’t possibly ignore. Neither could my partner and most of the others, but for a handful of the group, this was simply business as usual. Maybe it’s my past experiences with avalanches and digging out friends, or maybe it’s the AIARE 2 course still freshly in my mind from last season, but I just couldn’t seem to fathom playing with such a touchy fire.
Avalanche conditions remained high and considerable on all aspects and elevations throughout the week because of consistent snowfall—we received over two feet in three days—and a persistent weak layer lurking near the bottom of the historically low snowpack. While my experience and education have given me the tools to make decisions for myself, I couldn’t help but feel inferior to those in the group who seemed uninhibited by the conditions. Was I being over dramatic? Was I playing it too safe?
And then the call came in on the Golden Alpine Holidays radio.
A group from the Vista Lodge had triggered a size 3 avalanche from the ridge of a southeast-facing slope just one drainage over and it ran all the way to the valley floor about 3,000 feet below. Virtually the exact same aspect and steepness as what I was watching my new and old friends walking up at that exact time. From a mellow pillow zone across the valley I could see them debate and rip skins half way up the slope and carefully ski down one by one, each looking over their shoulder every other turn to ensure they weren’t being chased by debris.
While I like to consider myself a calculated risk taker, I’ve come to learn that the risk I’m willing to take is in my control. I’m eager to jump off big cliffs, skirt down steep rock walls and jib over natural features where the control generally lands in my lap but when it comes to avalanches, I find that I’m usually the first to say no and turn around.
I admittedly struggled quite a bit on this trip, not because anyone was making me feel bad for saying no, but for comparing my own tolerance to others. We all have different levels of risk we’re comfortable with taking and that doesn’t make any one person a better skier than the other. Nor should we judge our friends for the decisions they make. We are all out in the mountains for a similar reason: to find freedom and solace on a pair of planks. But also let this be a lesson that your education and your intuition are your two best partners out there, listen to and respect what they have to say and don’t follow the pack if that’s not where your heart is. Because after it’s all said and done, the ultimate goal is always to live to ski another day.