FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE FLAT TOPS
By Ron Watters
Sometimes ski trips to the backcountry turn out . . . well, they just turn out a bit odd. I had one of these several years ago. It all started when I got a call from Colorado, from someone whom I’d never met—Louie. After some introductions and talk about our mutual interest in backcountry skiing, Louie popped the question: "Hey, Ron, how about a ski traverse across the Flat Tops?"
The Flat Tops Wilderness in western Colorado sits out in that stretch of sagebrush separating the main Rocky Mountain chain from the Utah border. Living in Idaho, I knew nothing about the Flat Tops, so Louie described them to me: "Awesome place, Ron! It’s a high, snowy plateau with small mountain peaks sticking up. Loaded with powder snow, Ron! We’ll have it all to ourselves."
Although I really didn’t know Louie, and though he had this annoying habit of using my name after every other sentence, he otherwise seemed like a nice chap. Moreover, the Flat Tops Wilderness sounded like a wonderful place for a ski traverse. Not many mountain ranges can be traversed without dealing with considerable avalanche danger, but Louie assured me that once we gained the plateau, the route would take us across rolling terrain. No avalanche danger there. It would be safe. It would be a snap! Since he lived in Colorado and I in Idaho, our planning was confined to several long distance phone calls. In time, we decided upon a route across the range, firming up a time and place to meet.
A month later after arriving at the appointed meeting place, I faced a problem: Louie was missing. Late, perhaps? Held up some place? That didn’t seem right, but I wasn’t exactly on time myself. Not good. Not a good sign at all.
I delayed, occupying my time by stopping to visit a camel—yes, a camel!—a poor, forlorn creature, obviously not at all that happy fenced in a snowy field. His predicament (or was it her predicament?) seemed to mirror my general state of affairs as well. I delayed some more. Then, I called Louie’s phone number again, but still nobody was home. Several weeks later after I returned from the Flat Tops, I tried calling again. His number had been disconnected. To this day, I have no idea what happened to Louie.
Nonetheless, I did manage get across the Flat Tops Wilderness on that trip. I have to admit, however, that I can’t really describe the area very well, for the dates we had picked just happened to coincide with a week-long series of storms shrouding the Flat Tops in clouds. Fortunately, even though Louie had turned up missing, I had company.
A skiing and boating partner, Dori, accompanied me. I plied Dori with stories of how wonderful the skiing would be: "Awesome place, Dori! It’s a high, snowy plateau. Loaded with powder snow, Dori. We’ll have it all to ourselves!" After I uttered those sentences, I realized that I was now doing it, and throughout the trip I was haunted with the thought that I was starting to sound like Louie.
But back to Dori. After inviting her, she thought it over carefully. Very carefully, since I was the one inviting her. And then she said, sure, she’d go—particularly for the powder.
Once in the range, there was plenty of powder. It snowed every day. But, as far as making runs in powder, that was another story. After humping heavy packs, breaking trail and navigating our way across unfamiliar country in white-out conditions, we just didn’t have the energy for downhill runs. I don’t know why I always have this impression that there’ll be lots of downhill skiing on multi-day trips—and convince unsuspecting skiing companions of the same—because trips never really pan out that way when you’re carrying big packs.
In the Flat Tops we also spent an inordinate amount of time getting to know our compass intimately, following bearings and looking for any of sign of the summertime hiking trail which was buried somewhere under six feet snow. If one of us found a trail sign or an old blaze on a tree, it was cause for a celebration.
We did have one opportunity to glimpse the surrounding landscape. It happened in the lull between one passing storm and the approach of another. The wind stopped, and the clouds dissipated. A mountain’s outline rose from the plateau appearing slowly like a photo taking form in a darkroom’s developer tray. From out of whiteness, another mountain emerged and then another. Trees appeared on hillsides and then a saddle, a ridge and two gentle humps on either side. A light switched on, and the scene spread before us: mountains cloaked in snow with low lying clouds floating between them.
"Dori," I said in all earnest. "Look at the mountains. Don’t they look like a great white camel?" Dori looked carefully.
"No," she replied after looking for some period of time.
"How about a white buffalo?"
"Nope. I don’t see a buffalo either. Are you feeling okay? Elevation isn’t getting to you, is it?"
When you’ve been on the verge of being lost much of the time, and you suddenly come upon such a sight, it is only human nature to reflect upon one’s place in the world and what lessons might be gained from the experience. And, indeed, three immediately came to my mind. The first lesson was to make sure that the guy who knows the country goes on the trip. Secondly, in case he doesn’t show up—and you never hear from him again—bring your own maps. Thirdly, if you see a great white camel appearing out of the mist, whatever you do, don’t tell anyone.
But, seriously, it was truly a beautiful scene. Though fleeting, that one glimpse that we had of the mountains rising from the plateau, illuminated by a yellow, ethereal light, was a magnificent and overpowering moment. It reminded me that most beautiful things in life are those things that you work for. True beauty can be elusive, as it was in the Flat Tops—and it may elude you for long periods—but when it finally shows its face, it’s worth it.
Hemingway said that the "truly good and wonderful things, you can know but once in a life." I’m not so sure I agree with Hemingway, that we’re limited to knowing wonderful things only once. Certainly they are rare. But not as rare as Hemingway lets on, particularly if you eagerly seek them out. I know no better way of seeking the wonderful than through backcountry skiing. But there are simpler, more basic benefits as well. Like wine. Wine, which is a good and wonderful thing, and which Hemingway thoroughly enjoyed, always tastes better after a long day of skiing.
The clouds closed back in that night, and the next few days stormed again. But one more lull in the weather happened. On the next to the last day, just as we reached the far eastern edge of the plateau, we welcomed the good visibility, for the terrain dropped off steeply from the eastern edge. We really needed to see where we were going. With dumps of snow while on the plateau, we skied in relative safety in the rolling terrain, but big snows always equate to high avalanche danger. Now, beyond the edge, the terrain dropped very clearly into avalanche country. The break in the weather allowed us to ski up to the edge to look for a safe slope down.
We couldn’t find a safe slope, but we did see a short slope where we could minimize our exposure. The route dropped a short football field length to a lower bench out of avalanche range. From the lower bench, a brushy, but gradual, downhill ran to our vehicle. There were two problems, however, with the football field. First, it was steeply pitched at 35 degrees—not at all that good for football. And second, it was a leeward slope. Avalanches love leeward slopes.
We decided to wait a night, to give the snow pack a bit more time to stabilize, and we camped in a flat area just above the drop off. The next morning, we again skied to the edge of the plateau and looked down the reclining football field. This time a delightful little surprise greeted us. During the night, an avalanche released about 300 horizontal feet across the slope from us.
Oh yeah. Fear and loathing. An avalanche!
When you’re dealing with avalanches, you’re really never quite sure of anything. Those who are in the business of avalanche forecasting often claim the first rule of avalanches is that there are no rules. Most of the time when you say to your friends, "We probably better not ski that slope," you’re never really sure yourself. And you can tell by their silence that they aren’t so sure they believe you. And maybe someone skis it, and nothing happens. Or maybe you don’t ski it, and still nothing happens.
Nature is a habitual prevaricator, rarely telling you whether you’re right or not. It would be a heck of a lot easier if nature would just make things more obvious, telling you in no uncertain terms, as Moses might have done upon returning from the mountain, and exclaiming in a very deep voice: "Yes, you are right, this slope will avalanche!"
Well, that was one of the rare times when nature said: "That slope will avalanche!" Sure enough, during the night it did—and we congratulated one another that we held out for another twelve hours.
We weren’t quite out of the woods—or more precisely, off the plateau—but we were close. The path left by the previous night’s avalanche pointed the way for us. If we could reach the path made by the avalanche, we would be safe. Since the slope already slid, it was unlikely it would slide again. Once in the avalanche path, we could follow its path which stretched way down to the safety of the lower bench.
Getting there, however, still meant tiptoeing 300 feet across the steep exposed slope that had not slid to reach last night’s avalanche. Calmly, Dori and I discussed the situation. I volunteered Dori to go first. She volunteered me to go first.
"No, you first."
"No, you first!" She reminded me that the trip was my idea. Actually, it was Louie’s idea. Since he hadn’t shown up, I ended up going first.
I decided to make a slanting, downhill run to the avalanche path. Dori watched as I started off. Ten feet into my run, before I could get a glide going, fracture lines ran out from my skis, and the slope cracked. The snow gave under me. I even thought I heard a deep groan—which upon reflection, might have been Dori clearing her throat. I stood still, looking one direction and then the other for some time. Then, I took off again. This time I built up some forward momentum, heading straight toward the flanks of the avalanche path. Cracks radiated everywhere. I knew that the snow would give way at any moment. I braced myself for the avalanche to hit.
It never came. I skied all the way over to the old avalanche path. Relieved that I was still upright, I nimbly worked my way down to the lower bench, clear of any danger.
Next came Dori. There was no way she could ski safely across on my tracks. If the slope had been unstable before, it was really unstable now. S blocks hung precariously just waiting for the slightest disturbance to cut them loose and come down.
As I looked up the slope, pondering this, I saw something which gave me a whole new outlook on Dori’s predicament. Just below my starting point, over the edge of rocky lip, and out of our sight from the top, a new slide had released. It must have dropped as I crossed a few minutes earlier. The avalanche solved one big question right away: It probably made the groaning sound that I heard on my crossing; Dori hadn’t cleared her throat after all.
The newly run avalanche was a little miracle. It gave Dori a perfect escape hatch. From where she was, she could remove her skis, step over the crown face and walk directly down the new avalanche path to safety.
Which is what she did. It wasn’t the most dignified exit in the world. The crown face of the avalanche was substantial, perhaps five feet high. Negotiating it meant dropping over a vertical snow cliff onto a 45 degree slope. As she dropped over and touched the hard and slippery bed surface on which the avalanche had run, her feet zipped out from under her. She flipped around onto her backpack, swung around upside down and slid like a turtle, feet in the air, arms flailing, all the way from the top to the bottom where I waited.
To be expected, she was a bit shaky and took a minute or two to catch her breath. I knew she was fine, quite fine, however, when she looked up at me, and with very clear eyes said, "I should have gone first!"
We managed to get out that day, and later while driving back to Idaho, I started thinking about what wisdom could be reaped from the Flat Tops trip. Certainly underneath it all, there was a reason, some deep philosophical explanation for that convergence of random events: groaning mountains and avalanches, a place through which you travel but remains hidden and people like Louie who come into your life only to suddenly disappear.
As majestic expanses of wind drifted sage swept by the window, our vehicle alone on the highway, I was lost in thought. Suddenly, I arrived at the answer in one moment of great lucidity. "Yes! The answer!" But then … then it evaporated. Try as I might, the answer that seemed so close eluded me.
All for the best. Since then, I’ve realized that we should never try to read too much into experiences like these, for, if we did, we might do something rash, like hang it up and never go backcountry skiing again.
One of Mark Twain’s characters, Pudd’nhead Wilson, said it well. "We should be careful," said Pudd’nhead, "to get out of an experience only the wisdom that is in it—and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down on a hot stove lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove lid again—and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold one any more."
Like, Pudd’nhead, I decided to let it rest there.