September 29, 2016
In this installment of BCA’s blog series #unepicadventures, two experienced wilderness professionals find themselves at the nexus of some classic heuristic traps while out scouting some new lines on snowmobiles up on Togwotee Pass in Jackson, WY.
by Rob Meeker
There we were, sun setting, failed communications, above a cliff band, at dusk, with a half broke motor… yelling back and forth to try to determine if the line I was going to attempt to descend was going to go, or if I was going to have to abandon my sled, and ski/ hike back to the truck through the night.
Tom Zimmer and I were about 10 miles east of Brooks Lake up on Togwotee pass, just south of the Wilderness Boundary line. The day had started so simply, two dudes on two sleds out on an exploratory mission into the Tetons, scouting potential ski lines and routes for summer fun as well.
Tom and I have almost 40 years as wilderness professionals between the two of us. Together, we run a very safe and successful outdoor program based in Lander WY. What we found that day were a couple of classic examples of heuristic traps all wrapped into one event, traps which we teach our students about regularly. Throw in some rapidly changing snow conditions (spring), a mechanical on a sled, and a fairly committing route back to our front country access…. Tom and I were thinking to ourselves, “we should have brought sleeping bags”.
As far as heuristic traps go, familiarity and our ‘expert’ halo – it is an area that we know fairly well, and we were there together without students – lowered our guard. We were just not keeping risk management at the front of our minds.
We descended a pretty committing slope, knowing that it was going to be challenging to get back out, but rideable. But after we descended, my snowmobile throttle got stuck wide open. By the time I got the motor shut off, I had burned through the drive belt, and blew up a valve on one of the cylinders, so I was not running only on one cylinder, half the horse power, making the climb back out impossible.
At this point we started looking for other options, and that is when we found the chute through the cliff-band. We dug a pit that morning and found that the snowpack had gone almost isothermic. We had not had snow in about a month with the exception of the top 20 cm, which had fallen in the past 48 hours, which was now wet, sticky goo on top of a very cohesive pack, making trying to drive a half broken sled down a southerly facing steep couloir…. sporty;)
We now have yet another #unepic decision-making “example” to share with our students in class.
Rob Meeker is Assistant Director of Outdoor Adventure Programs at Wyoming Catholic College in Lander, WY. He previously was adjunct instructor in the Outdoor Studies Program at Colorado Mountain College in Steamboat Springs, and a teacher for both Science and Biblical Studies at Heritage Christian School. Rob is also a member of National Ski Patrol.