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Striving to be a Chicken

March 11th, 2010

This winter my goal is a chicken-shit mentality.

After a hellish summer of climbing deaths—Johnny Copp, Craig Leubben, the Toulumne climber on the route next to us…—I began questioning my risks. If the odds caught up to Craig, they’d surely catch up to me. Novices appear to have surreal luck. They center-punch the gnarliest avalanche path on an extreme hazard day and survive. But how about me? I want to spend 200 days a year in the mountains for another 20 years. The smallest risks I take quickly pile up, unless I can outsmart the odds.

I realized skiing high-consequence avalanche terrain is my greatest risk. Especially those steep, powder-filled gullets. Those lines I crave so bad that the hazard becomes imaginary. My goal is to claim “Chicken Shit!” 10 times this winter. I’m up to four.

The first two times I chickened out were on the south face of Kickstep at Turnagain Pass—a steep run with huge consequences. After heeding my senses and bailing twice for alternate tours, Ryan Hokanson and I got Kickstep on round three.

A few weeks ago I was skinning up below the Col du Passon above the Argentierre Glacier in Chamonix, France with some random Californians I’d just met. Ahead, a group broke trail, tip to tail, through deep snow up the moraine wall. One of the Californians looked up and said, “Was that crown there before?” The skin tracks disappeared into a fresh avalanche. The debris pile, and track setters, were out of sight.

“Oh we would have heard some thing,” said another Californian and they went back to putting on their skins. I sprinted over the crest and spotted the dazed and snow-plastered track setters extracting themselves from the avalanche debris pile. Seeing everyone okay, I went back to the Californians. “Hey guys, I’m going to bail. Have a great day though!” Tic! That’s three! I skied piste at the Grand Montets. Not a bad alternative. 

IMG_0672

Then Cathy and I tried the Haute Route, the famous trail from Chamonix to Zermatt. A route crossed by thousands each year. Being super early season, we waited for clearing storms then started from Verbier, Switzerland. We plowing through deep storm snow and crossed three passes. 

IMG_0279-2 Fifteen minutes from the Praflueri Hut, our first night’s destination, I crested a moraine wall and Cathy yelled, “Avalanche!” I skied off the shuddering slab and it piled into a deep, cracked mound.We skied the avalanche bed surface until the hut was just minutes away. Although deserted, the hut was shelter. In fading light, another heinous moraine wall appeared before us. We searched, but only found steep, whoomphing slopes.

IMG_0292-2We spent our first night on the Haute Route inside this ancient concrete water tank. That’s four. Six to go.

See more photos from skiing in France at www.stockalpine.com/posts/chamonix.html

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  1. majka
    March 19th, 2010 at 18:46 | #1

    I think this could be the next movement in climbing and life, Joe. I’m in.

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