I heard the crack and felt the rumble. I barely had time to establish myself on the ice before the snow filled my hood and pulled my collar back. Then it filled my jacket and went into my pants, it got progressively heavier and harder and was pulling me back off the ice...
In January of this year Nick Black and I got absolutely pummeled by a size three avalanche while climbing the notoriously classic Polar Circus in the Canadian Rockies. The experience itself and the media explosion afterwards truly rattled us and has provided me with ample food for thought.
Alex Ratsons famous photo of me bracing for round two of the pummelling (Photo: Alex Ratson)
Nick and I got back to Beauty Creek hostel later that afternoon (still out of cell reception) and did some debriefing. We were quite shaken by the experience and recognized how much of a mistake we made, but we decided to get back on the horse and climbed Curtain Call on our way back home.
When we got back into cell reception we found out that Alex Ratson, a gentleman who had left a beer for us at the car, was also insta-famous and had shared a wild photo of me. In the photo I can be seen as a small dot on lead as the avalanche crashes down. Very soon after the photo was taken, I was enveloped and praying that I would not be taken out by the chunks of snow that were battering me. There is no denying that it is an incredible photo and Alex was not going to let it go to waste. He made sure that the story spread, often telling it for us.
I understand where he is coming from, but It was a shock to have to explain our poor decision making to everyone. Most people don't have to deal with their life threatening fuck-ups being broadcasted to umpteen thousand people. I felt vulnerable and defensive and spent a week answering questions instead of catching up on my schoolwork. I wan't only responding to media (Gripped, newspapers, some magazine in New Zealand etc.) but also responding to friends and family who wanted to know what on earth I was doing up there. I did my best to justify why we were where we were in order to avoid the criticism that might come my way.
I tried to get Nick involved in all of this. In the end he was the one holding the rope as it was getting jerked around by the snow and watching his belay get buried. He was the only other person that went through it. Nick was not as keen. He wanted to tell the tale, but didn't like how the accident was being portrayed. "Personally, Im not that motivated to support what [the editor] wants - an epic photo with an epic tale, rather than material that anyone could learn anything from. Frankly, I think it just glorifies our epic fuck-up." I tend to agree.
Nick looks up from the belay mid-route
The main reason why we were up there was not so much that we were unable to read the warning signs as I mentioned in the interviews. Instead it was because we accepted the risk we perceived. We were moving fast and having fun. It was a rad day! We did see spindrift and we even got pummeled by a preliminary avalanche. Both of us saw the warning signs, heck we even discussed them, but we still continued on up... "the wind seems to be dying down hey?"
In hindsight I recognize the power of drive, and the danger that ones drive can put you in. The lesson is that we should all try to remove our ego and our ambition from our analysis of risk, or at least recognize the roll that it is playing and accept it. We should also recognize that we often come out of dangerous situations without any incident or learning because we are lucky. There could easily have been no avalanche on Polar Circus that day, but I feel lucky to have learned. I have often seen climbers on Polar Circus in worse avalanche conditions than we had who come away thinking they made a good decision.
Another interesting thing that has come from this all is hearing about how many people have been in avalanches while ice climbing. In the last while since, at least eight people have spoken to me about personal accidents - three of which were on Polar Circus. People don't always broadly publish these accidents, and we often only hear about them only because somebody is killed or injured.
I have a good friend who posted about his own experience screwing up several years ago. The post was intended to help people, but instead he was torn apart online. He clearly new he had screwed up already, but for some reason the online response was to rub salt in an already excruciating wound. He was doing our community a service sharing his mistakes. If people ever have the balls to share their errors (we all make errors), don't be the online coward that pretends you're better than them. Instead support them and listen to what they have to say, because it is valuable experience that you have likely not been through yourself.
A photo from the 'In a Faraway Land' travel guide showing the avalanche terrain above Polar Circus
In ice climbing we can't feel the snow beneath our feet as you can skiing. You have to make judgement about what is going on way above you. You also have to draw the line between spindrift vs. slough vs. avalanche and that can often be a rather blurry one. Truly understanding snow and avalanche potential is next to impossible. Even the best technicians, with a lifetime of learning behind them, make mistakes (although they would definitely not make one as stupid as ours). With a massive amount of new ice climbers hitting the ice, I think it is all the more important that people recognize how common avalanches are and how cautious they should really be.
I sincerely hope that this photo can teach people what the experience taught me. I hope that it makes people more aware of themselves and their surroundings. I hope it makes them more cautious, calculating, and rational in avalanche terrain. I hope they recognize that unless there is no snow, an avalanche might always take you buy surprise regardless of how much you think you know.
Another photo from the avalanche sequence (Photo: Alex Ratson)
* It's been a year since the avalanche now and I'm reflecting some more. The other day I was flicking through the latest edition of Gripped (Jan, 2018) and saw the photo pop up again. Along with it came more instagram features etc. The article frustrated me and I'm trying to figure out why. On the surface, I found it superficial and glamorous. I felt like it belittled our decision making process, making it sound like we were inexperienced idiots for being there. I guess we were, but It doesn't address the grey area in which many of us climb. I feel like It made for an eye catching, 'easy-to-read' article, but did not actually confront anything of substance. I think that this is one of the problems with social media. The recipe for success is to provide eye-catching superficial stuff. Its exactly what my partner Nick was frustrated about a year ago.