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Ignoring the Warnings

A narrow escape in the Tetons.

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This article appeared in Rock and Ice Issue 224 (February 2015).


Illustration by Dushan Milic.

We flew over the Tetons at sunset, psyched. Ron Funderburke and I had been planning our attempt
of the Cathedral Traverse— over Teewinot Mountain, Mount Owen and the Grand Teton—for months.

One of the range’s incredible multi-summit endeavors, the traverse is best done as a rock climb in mid-August, when the snowpack is usually smallest and
most stable. Our schedules, though, meant we had to try in early June, with ample snow still covering the Teton Range. We anticipated that most of
the rock climbing would be mixed rock, snow and ice, but hoped to finish in one long day.

The day after our arrival, we shopped, packed up and checked in with local guides, who confirmed that the mountains had finished their major “shedding”
of snow and rock for the season. We woke the next morning at 1:30 a.m., and clumsily strapped on packs in the deserted Lupine Meadows parking lot,
the dusty gravel still dark under a new moon.

We switchbacked through meadows and forest to snow that still lay below treeline. Beginning the 6,000-foot ascent to the summit of Teewinot, I led the
march out of the stunted pine trees. The snow was pleasantly soft, holding steps well, and the trailbreaking fairly easy. We took turns kicking steps,
making steady progress, though our lack of acclimatization showed. The snow grew increasingly soft. My steps sank to my ankles or knees, leaving Ron
with small post-holes to walk in. I paid little attention to this sign of potential instability, relying on the descriptions we’d gotten of a “stable
summer snowpack.”

Dawn fast approached as we continued up the central cleft of a steep, hard-packed gulley. Beyond the cleft, we encountered still softer snow, and switched
to fifth-class rock climbing to the summit. From the top of Teewinot, we warily scouted the rest of our route.

“Check out the collar on Owen,” I said in concern, pointing to the large open snowfield just below the peak’s summit.

“Yeah, pinwheels,” replied Ron. Even from our distant perch we could see the clumps and sheets of snow that had roller-balled down the slope.

“Definitely not a good sign, especially considering how sloppy this has been,” I lamented. A combination of sweat, sunblock and disappointment stung my
eyes. I wiped my eyelids with the back of my glove. We had stopped only a few minutes before and were quite warm in the sun. “It’s gotta be above freezing
by now.”

Ron said, “Well, that, and I really don’t wanna bivy.” A pause. Neither of us wanted to say the final words. The snow would be dangerously soft on Owen,
and we were behind schedule.

***

Finally I said, “Head back to the car?”

Ron simply nodded.

We snapped a few photos and began the descent, the mash of ice, water, gravel and sediment crunch squishing underfoot.

In the central cleft, what had been hard-packed snow was now slush resting loosely atop rock and crusty verglass. We cleared the first chute and rested
a moment on a rock ledge. Ron quickly crossed the next chute, about five feet wide, to shelter below a small rock buttress. Just as I approached the
chute’s edge, a few snowballs cascaded from above, picking up speed as they careened and bounced down. Soon rocks and ice chunks clattered by. A slow
rumble arose, perceptible only in my feet at first. I felt it in my chest as it grew into a noisy furor like rushing whitewater. A slurry of slow-moving
snow crept over the skyline more than 1,000 feet overhead. It began barreling down the chute.

Avalanche!” I shouted.

I watched in horror as the truckload of snow swept through the channel between us, the icy amalgamation dragging across the bed surface. The mixture of
pristine white snow, dirty brown snow, small dark boulders, and gray ice chunks flowed like liquid concrete. What had begun as a low moan near the
horizon grew to a roar and ended in a mixture of gushing and grinding sounds. The morass passed within inches of Ron’s stance.

“You OK?” I shouted across the chute.

“Yeah. You?”

“Yeah … sure,” I said flatly, and moved over the chute as quickly as possible to Ron’s stance.

“I’ll be happy when we’re back at the car,” Ron said.

“First we’ve gotta get there. So, what’s the plan?”

Unfortunately, the terrain separating us from the relative safety of treeline involved descending more than 2,000 feet across numerous avalanche paths.

Our next words were interrupted by the sound of rockfall skipping down another chute a dozen yards in front of us, precisely where we needed to go next:
first a few pebbles, then some bowling-ball-sized rocks. Finally a massive slide of wet snow and torso-sized boulders rocketed down. Either of these
two slides would have taken us all the way to the foot of the mountain. They both happened in places where we easily could have been—or were
about to be.

The smell of ozone from rock collisions tinged the air. I looked at Ron and muttered, “‘Stable summer snowpack’ my ass.” We shared a tense laugh as I flaked
out the rope.

***

“On belay,” Ron said. I began the arduous descent across the recently excavated chute and the next open snowfield, another potential slide
path. Kicking slushy steps and plunging my axe sideways, I witnessed yet another slide a few hundred yards ahead. This one was smaller, more like a
wet sluff, but still big enough to knock either of us off our feet. A few steps later I established a marginal anchor on a rock island. I turned to
shout “On belay” but the words barely croaked out of my dry mouth.

Ron followed and swung the lead onto the next traverse. As he left the security of the rock island, yet another small slide released near the summit, well
behind us now. The groan of avalanches was becoming as constant and familiar as distant highway traffic, merely existing at the edge of consciousness.

After four grueling hours of down-leading and rappelling, we collapsed into a heap in the snow just inside treeline. The slog down through the trees provided
ample opportunity to ruminate on my own stupidity. The warning signs were all there: a moist snowpack, plenty of sunlight, spring warmth, sinking footsteps,
pinwheels. I had stuck to the belief that the snowpack was stable because I wanted so badly for it to be true.

In early afternoon Ron and I trudged from the trees to a warm, sunny parking lot that contrasted with our murky emotional states. We were physically fine
but mentally fried, our shock visible. The day hikers in the parking lot stared at us. We shucked our packs, Ron fired up the van, and we headed to
town with some new beta.


Derek DeBruin is an American Mountain Guides Association certified rock guide who lives in Ogden, Utah. He strongly recommends climbers get avalanche training and remember to use it.


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