Tuesday, March 11, 2008

In My Own Backyard

We stood on the flats, Max and I, squinting in thrashing winds and sideways snow. If I squinted, lowering my frosted sunglasses, maybe I could see which way the slope was dropping, or whether there was a crevasse or serac band beneath my skis. Max looked left and right hoping that the skies would clear for a moment and the pillars of granite we knew surrounded us would appear behind us so we could orient ourselves. My neck gaitor was stiff and frozen, basically useless. I kept reaching my frosty, gloved, hands to my face to warm my cheeks in fear of frost nip. Mentally, I inventoried what we had in our backpacks, a stove, half a small bottle of fuel, a few bars, some tea, two sleeping bags, two pads. We could spend the night out if we had to. Max and I stood silently, in our own worlds, desperate for something to appear in the white fog. We had been standing there long enough to lose track of which way was up or down. Our tracks were covered by the swirling snow and winds already, we couldn't backtrack.

I stood awestruck. I was lost in my own backyard. Less than an hour ago we stood, with our backpacks packed, at the tram ready to go down to town, watching the winds swirl loose snow around the Aguille du Midi from the safety of the other side of a window. We chatted kindly with the station Gurdian Nicola, in hopes that he would let us sleep again another night in the bathroom to save the $70 for a night in the Cosmiques Refuge, even though it was INTERDIT!! And maybe even give us a few more hot chocolates and espressos when we returned from a long day in the mountains and missed the last tram down. Just as the cable car arrived, the sun poked through the clouds giving false hope and Nicola pushed our buttons, with casual arrogance, and a small modicum of demeaning "Ah, c'est pas trop mal, j'imagine tu peut ski le Vallee Blanche, et peut etre avec une peu de poudre, tout seul"

Which translates loosely to you wimps, the weather is not that bad suck it up, ski the Vallee Blanche, you'll have some good snow and be all alone. In the Alps, you're never alone unless you are on some scary obscure route, a really hard route, or in super bad weather.

So there we stood, totally lost, no compass or map, and we had only skied because our tender egos had been bruised a bit. Peer pressure, complacency. I was in my own backyard. I had skied the VB more than 50 times, but not this year. And here I was completely lost.

"Maybe we should rope up Max?" I shouted in the wind. "Yeah." He agreed.

My mind flashed to the snowboarder who had just died last week on the "Salle a Manger", the "Lunchroom", falling through a snow bridge into a crevasse after unclipping from his snowboard.

Even roped, the light was so bad that one of us could easily just step INTO a crevasse.

Looking left and right, still not moving up or down, I finally shouted "Maybe we should just skin back up, it's safer. Even though we're totally turned around now, we'll eventually hit a wall of granite that we know and be able to locate ourselves."

Max tossed down his pack in annoyance, agreeing that it was the best idea, remembering the same situation last year with Freddie.

As we skinned back up, or at least what we thought was up, I thought about all the people who take the Alps lightly. Of the group of guys who set off for the committing Biannossay Ridge on Mont Blanc last summer with the worst weather forecast I've ever seen in the valley and ended up dying of hypothermia while on the telephone with the Helicopter Mountain Rescue. I thought of all the people who skied down the Vallee Blanche or climbed Mont Blanc thinking they would just follow guided groups. Or set out for routes that were far too difficult for them with the idea that they'd just climb until they got scared and call a helicopter. I thought of the few extra ounces the map and compass would have weighed in my pack, and was glad that we had bivy stuff from the night before with us, and even more glad that I was familiar with the landscape, and strong enough to skin until I hit a wall the I recognized and could orient myself.

As we got to the base of the last hill, Max finally smiled and laughed. "That was so stupid it's almost funny."

"Yeah, we stilll have to climb back up the Arete, let me know when the story get's funny." I still wasn't convinced, my legs were jello, and my cheeks stinging from the cold and wind.

"We were five minutes from taking the bin down and eating pastries in Chamonix," Max grinned.

"Yeah, and then our egos got pushed and we went for the bait. And we were a few hours away from an epic." I scolded aloud, but more to myself for being complacent and succeptible to the peer pressure that exists in popular mountain ranges.

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