When to say “No”
Sion has a great guidebook, “Freeride in Dolomiti”, with Italian & English info on various different routes in and around the massive area serviced by the Dolomiti Superski pass. An exceptional book, it gives plenty of ideas, fairly detailed info and lots of inspiration, without completely exhausting the possibilities out there. In essence, it covers the classics, allowing monkeys like us to turn up and get on with getting some good stuff done all over the place, opening our eyes to the options around about and giving a series of starting points for adventure.
Generally, the book is great. But today, it let us down.
The day actually started with what I guess was the most uncomfortable / terrified I’ve been in more or less as long as I can remember. From the top of our ski yesterday, we’d seen a somewhat rocky access line down into a valley with only two tracks. The traverse to enter obviously came directly across from the top lift on the Marmolada, and whilst the rocky section didn’t look great, the line it accessed seemed to justify a bit of awkward shimmying down snowy/rocky terrain – so when we arrived this morning, they boys skied the normal route down and hooked round to the bottom of my line, which was on our way towards the skin-track for the couloir we were aiming for, and I quickly pushed my way across to the traverse to drop this line and join them.
As I got to the traverse, the exposure was quite obvious, but the snow looked healthy, sufficiently deep and wide with only a couple of steppy section in the middle to get to the apex where it turned away from the traverse onto what we’d seen the day before. But by the time I’d side-stepped and slipped to a point of total commitment across this traverse, beyond a passage where I had to shuffle my skis onto a wee rock band and then hop forward and down about 1ft in each direction to continue (tricky to reverse), it became obvious that the snow was thin, unconsolidated and over hard and uneven rock, on which my axe and crampons would have done nothing, and that the snow ran out about 2m to my right as the slope steepened into a cliff which you could not hope to survive a fall off. And up ahead, there was a further rock-band interrupting the traverse, and the apex from that angle didn’t look good…
To make matters worse, someone had followed me, and was thus-far still not past the point of no return. Feelings of guilt swept over me – he shouldn’t be here, is it my fault? Having been concentrating so hard on not falling for the last 3mins, I shouted to him without thinking, “don’t come this way! It’s not worth it!”, and was surprised by both my words and my tone.
I wanted to shout again, to warn this man and to save him what I was now dealing with, but in my delicate standing-point, I didn’t dare twist my body and risk losing an edge, and was aware that even my shout hadn’t been as loud as I’d have liked, but felt I couldn’t do more and needed to focus on getting off this awful smear of snow & rock alive.
Shuffling resumed, and I gained the apex, from which it had looked like plain sailing the day before from the top of the next mountain over; but now, standing on top of the line, I could see that the cautious skiing of the 2-4 people who had gone in front of me had swept the slope clear of snow in two places, so I was left with two options: fast or slow. Of course, I chose slow, because fast would have been a 45 degree near straight-line, jumping first a 4ft long band of rock, landing on an 8ft long patch of snow, likely to have been as thin and rubbish as the snow I’d been traversing (i.e. not deep enough to make a turn in) and the jumping the next 4ft band of rock, to then make a shallow turn leftwards away from the broken ground below and down into the valley at full throttle…
So I tried to side-step down the rock of the first rock-band, which was still horribly exposed to the cliff below – but there was nothing. I could get one foot down and bridge my right/bottom ski between two notches in the rock, but then there was just nowhere lower for my left/top ski to go where it would hold. I spent an awful minute on one ski and two ski-poles, placing and replacing my other ski, but there was nothing for it…
So my two options became one.
I’ve had friends make fun of my fondness for going very fast on skis, saying that turns are what takes skill, not just pointing – and generally, they’re right, but I often think that learning to air off stuff and skiing under control when you’re going super-fast are really just training for when you need them.
This was such a moment. So I stepped back up to the point where I could get both skis stable for a proper launch from standing over the first bit of rock, took a deep breath, thought briefly of the guy behind me, remembered the One who somehow I believe works in all things – injury or rescue, my own wisdom or foolishness, other’s kindness or their malice – for my good because He loves me, and pointed straight down, over both bands of rock with a tap on the snow in the middle, and veering across the snow-apron, away from the cliffs and into the valley below.
Within about 3 seconds, I was charging out powder turns in untracked snow in the sunshine. Pumped on adrenaline.
I met the boys at the bottom, and they said it had looked pretty bad. I told them I couldn’t remember having been that scared, and I meant it. It was awful. I watched the guy behind for a moment, agonising over his progress, but we needed to get on with our objective for the day, and honestly I felt physically sick watching him – so we had to trust him with his own decisions and let him and anyone who was watching out for him deal with it.*
The mountains can be a lonely place.
SIGHT OF NW GULLY
Yesterday, we skied off the north of the Punta Penia, and we’d seen the north-west gully from above – not a single track. Normally when you are looking down a classic off-piste line and there are no tracks in it, you take it as a warning, but yesterday we had put the only tracks up and down the Punta Penia, and had a great run at it – even despite it being 4 clear days after the last snowfall. When we came back this morning, the north side must have had 20-30 people going up it, so our thought was that we needed to be fast to get to the NW-line before others tracked it out ahead of us…
So we skinned halfway towards the summit of the Punta (c.350m vertical) and dropped into the line from the top. Beautiful, could hardly have been better – glorious, cold, dry, light north-aspect snow, with the sun glistening across it, and no tracks. Steep enough, yet playfully so.
some truly wonderful skiing (chest-cam)
Piotr, confident (oops)
And then Piotr said he didn’t like the look of what he could see below. Having seen the guidebook pictures, I went forward to have a look as well, to understand what was going on – but we just couldn’t see a way through. It looked much more like the top of an ice-line than the crux of a ski-line…
… that awful moment when you feel your line is going nowhere
… still, good company = good times, even if you have to climb back out.
Climbing back out of the top was actually quite fun – hard enough to be sporting, yet straight-forward enough not to be intimidating. Punching our way up through and up onto the 2m crown-wall of an obviously long-gone avalanche was the crux, though there was also a spot where the unconsolidated snow was thin over a rocky layer on which our crampons were only of marginal use – but it worked.
Darby surmounting the old crown wall
Still, after all this, we had had a fairly significant amount of ascending and felt we’d got hardly anything done – which was frustrating.
So we skied a few powder-lines off lifts that afternoon, and it was good. Who could argue with 1300m or so of untracked snow, leading to a fast piste back to the lift, and Glühwein waiting at the end of the day in one of the huts and great pizza for 6,50€ waiting in the restaurant?
We looked at the guidebook that evening, and though the route had said nothing about possibly ending in an ice-pitch, it included the innocent-looking statement at the bottom under “equipment”: “A rope and an ice screw may be helpful.” Hmmmmm…
Still, as a consolation prize, we indulged in a spot of (inevitable) after-dinner buildering back in Arabba – Stokes with a very bold solo, running at at least HVS, on “Balcony direct”, the rest of us just taking the Diff route up “Corridor Window mantle” ;o)
P.S. The next day when we looked from the other side of the valley, it was obvious that we made the right choice:
* – to my regret, I honestly don’t know how the other guy’s story ended: we skinned off around the mountain up the next valley. After about 20mins, the rescue helicopter appeared to fly up to that valley, circle a bit, fly out, fly back again, and disappear from view. It appeared to then fly to the top of a lift about as far as we could see below – and we heard nothing in the news, but how would we? Giulio, my Italian friend, also heard nothing, so I am hopeful that one way or another he also got down OK.