Riding with Ghosts: A Day on Mt. Sniktau

Driving out of Denver up I-70 I have mixed feelings. I hate the traffic and struggle at how a road that should be quick takes so long. But, I love being surrounded by the mountains. Some jump out through the windshield. For others you need to drop your head and crane your neck to look through a gap. There is one stand out summit before you reach Eisenhower Tunnel. Ever since I first drove I-70 20 years ago I have gazed at the NE face of Sniktau. It is a beautiful 1000 ft line that urges you to ski it.

Last Friday I did. 

The day was incredible. Burn your face off sun and copious snow. There are various possible routes. Given the conditions, John and I opted to go via Sheep Creek. Here is the thing. The following day marked the 6th anniversary of CO’s most tragic avalanche. Five folk attending a backcountry event lost their lives. Like many winter travelers I have avoided this spot since. 

Passing the site my feeling towards the accident changed. It was a friendly, sunny day and there was something about the place. I did not see the faces but I could hear laughter and whoops, I saw fist bumps, and smiles. The ghosts seemed to tag along. 

We skinned most of the way, except for the final ridge to the peak. It was covered in a perfect strip of firm snow. Climbers call it nevé and guides and instructors love it due to the way you can efficiently create a line of steps. I felt compelled to kick a set. As I did I the memories of clients followed me up this summit staircase. Up top the views were incredible and went on for miles. Every direction sparked a memory or a desire.

We made our way to the face. The laughing voices were now telling me to make good choices. There have been a lot of times this year where I have skied nervously. Put it down to two injuries in 3 years or feeling the need to come home to my son. Looking at photos from just before I broke my leg I can see how stiff and nervous my body was. I know I would have fared better if I was not so tight and I may have even escaped injury. The photos show that at some level I knew something was wrong. I wasn't comfortable with the conditions and I opted to not do anything about it. How often does this happen? On Friday I was spooked by the blind nature of the face and also my lack of time in steeper terrain this season. Skiing it was not my prettiest moment. Yet I was in a place I love with a good friend and the voices of ghosts and there was a sense of elation. There was also a lot of thought.

In particular I thought about the Sheep Creek tragedy. Entering the valley you immediately step into topography that can create an avalanche. Down below is a terrain trap. It is easy to expose yourself to the large slide path and requires a plan to avoid it. An accessible safer route is easier to see on the map than on the ground itself. If you are in a large party and do not stop and have a conversation you will focus on other things. The avalanche that took them was only a few minutes from the road. Like many I had tried to make sense of it. I had wondered what had led up to the moment. I had pondered what I would do. I had read all the reports and I had come to my own conclusions.

We started to climb back out. Not having to deal with split board transitions I left John behind. I made my way out of our valley and onto the ridge that led back to the summit. Again the views opened up and I pondered as I waited for John. I looked for our best route out. I thought about the season. I considered our incredible snow pack and all the powder days we have had this season. And, I meditated on what it means to be safe in the backcountry. How we make our decisions and how some folk come home and others don’t. 

I had not known any of the folk caught so it had always felt a little impersonal. When you do know them analysis is often kinder. Also, enough time had passed that I did not see the horror of such a cataclysmic event, I saw a likely scenario. Six friends happy to be out. Six friends old and new enjoying each others’ company and sharing excitement. I could see myself making a similar mistake, even though I like to think I wouldn’t. It was a lesson in humility. Being here I felt how worthless my arm chair critiquing is. The real take home was the only things that will save me from situations like this are rituals. Ones that I do not skip over. When climbing I rack my gear before each pitch. That way I am never struggling to find something when I am tired and frightened. Backcountry skiing has a few too. The trailhead revisiting of decisions and plans. The beacon check. The one last look at a map. The hasty pit even though I think I know the snow layers. These are the things that will save me. 

I thought of the times I have not done them this season alone. 

Soon we were making turns down towards to the bottom of Sheep Creek. As I skied past their resting place. It felt like the ghosts wanted me to have fun. They wanted me to find the most stoke. They wanted me to be safe. And, they wanted me to use my rituals. They wanted me to share this message. Thanks for riding with me and rest in stoke.

What rituals do you use and what ones are you going to create? 

Wil RickardsComment