September 25, 2016
Watching the sun as it set over one of the mountains that overlooked our base camp. Notice the small slide at the base of the mountain in the middle of the picture.
Written by Kyle Hansen.
Photos by Brandon Huttenlocher.
Trip members: Jay Hergert, Brandon Huttenlocher, Kyle Hansen.
The most terrifying part of witnessing a catastrophic avalanche isn’t the sound, the scale, or the sheer power. It’s the complete disregard an avalanche has for anything but physics. We were lucky enough to avoid a huge avalanche in Canada last season, but only because we got up late and decided not to ski that morning. We’d like to take credit for this decision, but instead would like to thank the Northern Lights for keeping us up too late–and keeping us out of harm’s way.
Our first warning. Within minutes of being dropped off and abandoned for a week by the heli, Jay remote triggered this 2000’+ slide. Solar effects, anyone?
There wasn’t a trigger for this particular avalanche. It released just after ten in the morning on the third straight sunny day. Apparently, as the temperatures warmed, the snowpack had finally reached its mysterious tipping point. The last snow crystal melted to water, soaked to just the right place on the mountainside to break the snowpack’s cohesive hold on the mountainside. That one singular melted crystal started a chain reaction that left myself, Jay, Brandon, and the wildlife of this remote wilderness witness to an entire slope avalanching hundreds of feet down. Facing that intense of a physical process happening of its own accord is truly moving. The slide was not caused by anything related to our activities. The slide was irreverent to any effect it may or may not have had on us. Witnessing this slide had great effect on me, but I had no effect on it. I didn’t start it, and I would have been completely powerless to stop it or control it had I found myself in its path.
That avalanche took place on a slope that held my dream line of the trip. Thankfully, we weren’t in its path. We were safe, watching from camp on the protection of a minor knoll. We had made several good calls on the trip– a weeklong heli-assisted touring adventure deep in the Selkirk range of British Columbia– but our avoidance of this particular slide may have been caused by nature’s light show (the Northern Lights) the night before. We would have liked to take a look at that slope early that morning, but the prior four days of touring, riding, filming, and maintaining camp from dawn till dusk had left us exhausted. We overslept the morning of the slide. Our simple exhaustion turned out to dictate the best decision we made all week.
Watching the avalanche that morning, as we were slowly stretching our legs and warming our hands on our oatmeal bowls, made it painfully clear that the mountain simply does as it likes, without care for man’s well-being, goals, dreams, decisions, or safety.
It looks like a beautiful bluebird day, until an entire mountainside of snow comes roaring down toward your camp. We were wide awake after that.
I can’t guess what would have happened if we had we been a little less worn, a little bolder, or simply less lucky. Had we more energy to tackle a line earlier in the day, had we more confidence to test a face that in many ways looked inviting, would the day have played out differently? Would we have noticed anything spooky about the snowpack and turned back? Would we have made it up and down before the solar radiation really turned on and destabilized the pack? Probably yes, probably no: I’ll never know for sure. I do know that regardless of my actions, that mountain was going to slide that day. It may have slid earlier, it may have slid at that exact time. Regardless, we would have had no warning, and no amount of quick thinking could have stopped that slide from carrying us all the way down that mountainside.
The most terrifying part of witnessing a catastrophic avalanche is realizing how truly indifferent the mountain is to you. The mountain doesn’t throw its daunting mass of snow down to impress you. It doesn’t to it to challenge you, to warn you, or to scare you. It doesn’t seek to punish you for your ego or brash decision-making, nor does it reward your conservatism. It simply moves when the sum of its innumerable, immeasurable physical processes precisely ordain. Finally, unpredictably, powerfully, the mountain moves of its own accord.