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Great Deeds… Great Risk? Knowing When To Turn Around in the Mountains

Great deeds are usually wrought at great risk. — Herodutus

This has been a tough season and the losses are overwhelming. Because so many friends died in the backcountry this year, it is in the spirit of discussion and education that I thought I would share more about some latest adventures.

There have been many moments of confusion and sadness. It has been a difficult process of personal internal recovery to get back out there.. but, the mountains are what move me.

In 2007, I skied the Grand Teton in WY. It was a long and exciting day, but fairly easy going. Everything fell into place and the mountain welcomed us at each pause. My ski partner Karen and I had planned the trip and took a long weekend off from work. We drove 10 hours from Telluride, arrived at 8pm, and our team left for the park at 12am. We climbed 7,000 ft, covering some miles with heavy packs. Conditions were great for climbing and for skiing so we pulled it off. It was my first time skiing in the Grand Teton National Park, and 16 hours after we started we were back in the parking lot, elated with the accomplishment of a great ski descent.

Skiing the Grand Teton along with climbing Lobuche and Ama Dablam in Nepal in 2005, were notable turning points for me because both endeavors went so smoothly. With these two successful experiences I was deeply enchanted with the big mountains and with bigger possibilities in ski mountaineering.

I moved to Jackson, WY on Sunday and one of my great Telluride ski pals, Dan Hehir, came up for a quick 3-day visit. There was a good weather window and we were excited to ski, but we were tired. We had no set plan. Dan is an ER Doc and he rallied in his car after three on-call night shifts. I had just returned to Salt Lake City from back-to-back trips to Colorado and California via car and plane, loaded and unloaded a uhaul and was settling into a new place.

Dan showed up and we left for the Middle Teton at 4am the next morning. It was a later start. Unwittingly, we did the long start from Taggert trailhead as opposed to the much faster Lupine Meadows. We had “escape” and “exit” plans at each stage but kept getting to points that were just within our pre-established limits, which allowed us to continue ahead. We summited via the SW couloir, which was in rough ski condition, and looked down the East face.

We felt we could manage it. Once we committed to the route, we were locked into the descent. There were some sporty down-climbing solo moves above a massive cliff band that took some time to negotiate. Once through the technical sections, we skied as conservatively as we could down the exposed, steep entrances to the “Glacier Route”. Dropping in on the face, I cleaned the run, knocking down surface slides as I went. Then, as we exited down around Bradley lake two miles from the trailhead, my Dynafit toe piece pulled off my ski. Close one. It was a 12-hour day. In our subsequent discussions, we felt we cut the margin of safety a bit too small.

After the Middle Teton foray, Dan and I both entered the next adventure with an even more conservative mindset.

We pondered our next objective. As our group numbers fluctuated, it was just Dan and I again and we decided to go for the Grand. Once again from Taggert trailhead, we were hiking by 1am and made decent time up to the base of the Stettner couloir. My gut instinct was uneasy that day, as was Dan’s.

We looked up the route and it had significant ice and ice bulges to negotiate. It was trickier than the last time I had led it. I was short on ice gear (2 screws for 230 feet) and longer on rock gear (with few possible placements) but I was excited to try. It is a daunting position to be in ski boots with skis on your back and with limited gear to climb a route with unknown conditions above but it is also what makes for adventure.

At the first anchor, we both recognized a tough road ahead. Pressing on, as I led the next pitch, it was long and run-out. When Dan reached our second anchor, it was 10am. Debris was coming down in small light bursts and we still had about 1,000 feet of climbing to go.

We should have been on the summit at that hour. Had it been our first day at it we may have pushed on and taken more risk in the climbing, the rockfall and the warming face above. However, having been on top late a day before, we made the tough decision to back off well before we reached the line. If we had continued we would have pushed the limit farther than either of us needed to go.

As it was, after two rappels, on our ski descent, we were rewarded with 3,500+ ft of perfect corn turns down to Garnett Canyon’s entrance… any later and we would have been skiing isothermal slush, setting off larger wet slides and who knows what else. Fourteen hours later we arrived back to Taggert.

Read more from Kim on her website, Havell Travels

Kim Havell is one of the world’s premier female ski mountaineers. Her career began as a ski coach in the Telluride valley before transitioning to climbing and ski mountaineering in the San Juan Mountains. Before leaving Telluride, Kim went on to claim first female descents on several classic lines. She is one of only a handful of females to have major ski descents on all seven continents, including first descents on four of them. Kim has been featured in several ski films over the years, and when not skiing, keeps herself busy by writing for Outside Magazine, Powder, ESPN, National Geographic and more.

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