Shuksan: Anatomy of a Bail 2/2/11
Probably 8 turns into the line, to my despair I broke through the windbuff to a very icy sub surface. It was the dreaded “white ice.” Hoping it was Isolated I traversed to what looked like softer snow. I had no such luck. After a few more turns and a long look at the line below me I made the decision to bail. I had a two reasons for bailing, one more obvious than the other. The first was that my razor sharp edges were barely gripping the ice and I was supplementing my edge grip with a plunged ice axe. The second was the fact that the North Face was one of the most beautiful Lines I have ever gazed upon. I didn’t want my memory from the line to be a hairball sideslip, or a nasty down-climb. I knew that with the right conditions this line would be thousands of feet of steep-ass bliss. I was ready to wait for those conditions.
I used the adze on my ice axe to dig a platform out of the 50 degree slope. I always hate transitioning in steeps but I have always found that investing some time in building a good bench makes the process much less sketchy. I climbed out with crampons and 2 ice tools feeling very solid on the steep slope.
One other piece of encouragement for me to bail was that my first bail option was a decent of the NW couloir. My second option was to follow my ascent route back down the white salmon, a line I knew would be safe. Since it wasn’t even 1pm yet I decided to drop in on the NW knowing I still had plenty of time left if that required a bail. It also appeared to me that the wind should have been depositing snow taken from the N face into the NW couloir.
The NW couloir worked out very well and I only had to use my axe to pass two spots where I broke through the wind-buff. It was a truly memorable line, and one that had been nagging me for quite some time. The thing I noticed most being solo was the sheer silence. Once in the couloir there was no wind and the soft snow was very quiet. For 3000 feet the loudest noise was my own breath. FInding myself constantly surrounded by distraction in normal life I found true beauty in the silence of the mountain.
After having to take my time in the couloir to let the slough run I got about 6 great powder turns below the run outs of the sloughs. Standing below my most significant descent of the season I knew I had found what I went out looking for. It was one of those days I will never forget.
I found out two things after the fact that were rather interesting, the first was that the party of 3 behind me ended up skiing the N. Face. It isn’t my place to judge their decisions, I’m just glad we all made it home safely after some hair-raising moments. The thing I just learned was that yesterday a person half fell into a hidden crevasse under the skin-track that we had all used to ascend the White Salmon. He was probably the last of 2 dozen people to cross the snow bridge. It serves as a reminder that big mountains have big consequences. The skin-track was clearly not expertly set but I followed it anyways, If luck wasn’t on my side things could have ended up much worse. I have found that close calls can have a lot of value, if you chose to learn from them.
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