Monday, March 11, 2013

Linda's Great Fall

After all the birthday resort skiing, I was ready for a nice, quiet backcountry trip.  The Mazamas ski mountaineering class scheduled its first official tour for the Saturday of President's Day weekend.  An email hit my inbox asking for assistants - presenting the perfect opportunity to tag along.

Size matters!  Click on any photo to enjoy a larger version.

Ready to go!

I joined up with a group planning to tour Newton Creek.  Familiar with the area from a trip I did last year, a return visit was in order.  The class met up in the Hood River Meadows parking lot at Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort.  The plan was to ski uphill, following a trail leading out of Heather Canyon, and then climb up the adjacent ridge outside of the ski area boundary.  Supposedly, there were some good slopes at the ridge's end.  Last year, due to bad weather, my party only reached the top of the first pitch, before high winds and heavy snow forced us to turn around.

Starting up the trail

Today's snow conditions were 180 degrees different from last year.  Instead of fresh, fluffy powder, the snow had been melted and re-frozen.  The weatherman had predicted warm temps and possible rain.  Not remotely prime conditions for skiing, upon hearing the forecast, I'd considered staying home.

But, not one to back out a commitment, here I was.  Patrick, our group leader, gave out general instructions, and then sent us down the Heather runout trail.  A relatively flat path, the first part of the journey was an easy glide.

Here's where the climbing begins

But once our group left the trail, things got tough quickly.  Climbing through the woods up a steep slope got everyone huffing and puffing.  Class members began to spread out.  Some had more trouble than others navigating the steep, somewhat icy grade.

Poor Patrick was having the most trouble.  He'd just purchased a new set of skis, much wider than his old pair.  The problem was, he was still using the much narrower climbing skins from his old skis.  These skins didn't provide enough surface area for traction on the icy slope, which made ascending all but impossible.  Patrick was finally forced to take off his skis and boot-pack up the slope - a slow, tiring slog.

Looking down on my companions

The steep climb finally leveled out to a flatter ridgetop.  A gap in the trees revealed a nice view of Heather Canyon and Mt. Hood.  This warranted a quick photo stop.  When finished, I realized the rest of my classmates had already taken off up the ridge.  I got a glimpse to the last two guys as they vanished into the forest.  Looking back, I saw Patrick struggling up the final pitch.  I waited for Patrick before taking off again.

A steep climb up

I plodded along, following the ridgeline, making occasional stops to let Patrick catch up.  I kept following the ski tracks ahead, hoping to find the rest of the class.  I trudged along for at least a half mile seeing no one.  Finally, when Patrick reached me, I asked him if we'd somehow missed the group.  Patrick was as mystified as I.

We took a break, ate some lunch, all the while thinking someone would happen by.  After 20 minutes, Patrick made the decision to ski back down.  Maybe somehow we'd missed everyone.

One of my tour-mates

Due to the icy snow conditions, I elected to keep my climbing skins adhered to the bottoms of my skis.  (it was a thickly forested area, and I didn't want to hit a tree)  Patrick and I picked our way back down the ridge.  We'd traveled almost a mile when I heard a shout.  One of the other class assistants came sliding through the trees.  Turns out the group went higher up the ridge than anticipated and we'd turned around too soon.  The assistant came down to check on us.  Now that we'd been found, he was heading back up to rejoin the class.  Patrick said boot packing had worn him out, and he was going to travel back to the trailhead.  Also feeling a bit worn out, and thinking it was a good idea to travel in pairs, I offered to ski down with him.

Pausing for a brief rest

The assistant mentioned a treeless slope not to too far away nicknamed "the potato patch."  He said it was a good place to ski down.  Patrick and I decided we'd check it out.  After another half mile or so, we saw an opening in the trees.  Skiing up to the edge, I peered down a very steep barren slope.  It was completely clear, except for some large rocks sticking out of the snow.  At the bottom was a rushing creek.  This must be the place.

Patrick (on the left) our super-nice leader who helped me out of a tough spot

Patrick went out first.  I heard the unsettling sound of ski edges scraping.  Uh-oh!  The entire slope was a sheet of ice with a thin skiff of snow on top.  If there's one thing I don't like it's skiing on ice.  But already committed, I tentatively pushed out onto the slope.

And then suddenly, my skis went out from under me.  I slid into Patrick, knocking him over.  We untangled and I righted myself.  I'd no sooner gotten back on my feet, when my skis slipped again.  This time Patrick wasn't there to stop me.  I found myself sliding head first, on my back.  I'd lost my poles immediately upon impact, and didn't have them to slow myself.  I could feel my body accelerating as it traveled over the slick ice.

Following the ridge

I've experienced sliding falls many times when skiing in resorts.  So I think instinct kicked in.  Somehow, I got my body turned around so the feet (with skis still on) faced downhill.  Then I dug in my ski edges, elbows, and butt with all my might.  Miraculously, I came to a stop about halfway down the slope.

Patrick, visibly shaken, shouted "don't move!"  He retrieved my poles and skied down to where I lay sprawled.  Patrick said he saw me starting to accelerate, and was afraid I was going to hit a rock or end up in the water.  Looking around at the many rocks poking out of the snow, and the creek, now much closer, I realized how lucky I'd been.  If I hadn't stopped myself, I would've surely hit something, sustained broken bones, or worse.

Now, totally freaked out by the icy slope, I told Patrick there was no way I was going ski the rest of the way down.  If I fell again, it was very likely I'd slam into something and get hurt.  I decided the safest thing to do was slide on my butt to the bottom.  Patrick was very understanding.  He offered to ski directly below me to make sure I didn't get going too fast.  Using my ski poles as brakes, I slowly inched myself to the bottom.

Nice Mt. Hood view!

So that's how I ended up traveling to the bottom of the "potato patch."  Not exactly the way I'd envisioned, but at least I made it down safely.  Patrick and I crossed the creek on a snowbridge, then removed our skins for a fast ride down the Heather runout to our cars.

Later that evening, now safely home, I realized how close I'd come to disaster.  The only casualty from my tumble was a very sore right knee (that is unfortunately still bothering me).  It could have been so much worse.  I'm a very lucky gal.

Looking back on my experience, I think keeping my climbing skins on prevented me from using my ski edges to dig into the icy slope.  With nothing sharp to hold me, I was unable to keep from slipping.  Patrick's narrow little skins only covered the middle third of his ski bottoms and didn't impede use of his edges. That's why he was able to ski down with no trouble.  Another lesson learned!

Will I still backcountry ski?  Oh yes.  Although not a pleasant experience, I'm not one to let a scary fall stop me.  But next time, if the snow is icy, I think I'll stay home.


  1. Wow! I am SO glad you are, more or less, OK...skiing on ice towards a creek or boulders at a fast rate of speed does not sound fun at all! Hoping your knee feels better soon too...
    Beautiful photos as always--love the trees and the view of Mt Hood. LOVE that mountain:)
    PS: How can you tell if a snowbridge is safe for crossing over?

  2. What a scary experience. So glad you came out of it with body and soul in tact.

  3. Glad you ok! That sounds terrifying, though glad you not out off something you love. Lovely photos too :)

  4. That was positively scary. I'm so glad you're ok.

  5. Wow, although quite interesting to read about, not something you want to happen to your friends. So glad you are safe and experience told you what to do! Kudos on the insistence that you and Patrick remain in a pair. Yes, I hike solo and anything can happen, but I'm also very judicious about where I choose to hike solo and would never do that on a trail with creek crossings or other types of "icy slopes!"

  6. Hi Aimee - Thanks for your question. The snowbridge we crossed had very deep snow, that was firm and icy. The snow looked so solid, we were sure it was stable. But just to be safe, I let Patrick go first! :)

  7. Wow, what a scary experience! I'm so glad you are ok. Good thing your instincts kicked in and you were able to stop yourself!

  8. Yikes! I cringed reading this because I hate falling and I felt it with you! I am glad you're okay, Linda, and that you won't let this fall stop you from taking to the backcountry again!


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