Monday, July 10, 2017

Humble Pie on Mount McGown

I shouldn't be typing this right now.

I should be dead...

"Maybe I'll ski the McGown Couloir this weekend..."

I had my eye on the beautiful north couloir of Mount McGown for many years.

This spring, every time I had a Saturday with no plans I'd mention skiing this to some friends.  There would always be some interest, but I never pulled the trigger and did it.

The effort and risk of this adventure never won out over the simple pleasure of staying home and playing with my son.  The desire to do big things in the mountains is still there,  but the motivation seems to have faded.  I guess that's part of the biological brain washing that happens when you are a dad, but the ability to find the happiness you're searching for right at home is a good thing.

Finally it was July.  The forecast was for a high in town of 105F.  I knew the snow in the high north-facing couloirs would still be there, but I knew it wouldn't last long.  It was now or never!

I convinced my once-frequent partner in crime, Troy, to join in on the adventure.

2 AM.  The alarm rings.  Snooze.  2:10 AM it rings again.  Snooze again.  Man I've gotten really out of practice at this alpine start thing!  2:20 AM and I'm finally up.  Eat, load the car.  2:55am, and it looks like I'll actually be on time to pick up Troy at 3 AM.  Wait, I forgot to poop.  I text Troy that I'll be late.

3:30 AM we pull through Los Betos on State Street for some gigantic breakfast burritos.  We order a couple bean and cheese burritos for later too.  MMMMmmmmm...

6:30 AM we get our first view of Mt. McGown, bathed in morning light.  It looks beautiful and dangerous.  I feel desire.

Mount McGown (right) on the drive in

As we assemble our packs Troy realizes he forgot his ski poles.  No stranger to forgetting things (including poles), I suggest he look for some sticks.  He found a magnificent set next to the nearby lake.

Troy and his magnificent stick poles

Off we go!
The stoke level was high! We start hiking on a gentle trail, and after stopping for some DEET (holy skeeters!), we turn onto the Alpine Way trail.  Lots of dead-fall slows us down, but eventually we come to the intersection with the creek coming out of our drainage.  We leave the trail and head up.

Troy, in a rare clearing with no bushes on the approach
The bushwhacking was pretty gnarly!  This was quickly turning into an Alvin Walter-style adventure!
Much cussing and yelling ensued, including one incident where a javelin shaped branch punctured Troy's week-old biking wound and left a bunch of bark and splinters under his scab.  A brief break with some tweezers had him sorted out.

Eventually we were able to climb up some rocky slabs to our right to exit the hot bushy hell.

Troy opting for granite in lieu of bushes
The scrambling went on for a long while, and was a a bit steep and tricky at times with the skis on our backs.  Eventually we reached a talus field that led us to the start of the snow.  Straight up was a smaller couloir, and around the corner was our objective.

After a burrito break (mmmm beans and cheese, mmm) we donned crampons and started crunching up the firm snow.  The snow quickly got steep, but the going was pretty easy.  There were medium sized sun-cups that acted like steps.  This was a bit concerning for the ski down, but the warming day (it was only about 11AM) would soften the sun cups and make them skiable, we reasoned.

Troy enjoying the sun-cups on the way up

The climbing went well, and we scoped the ski line as we ascended.  We noted that the snow would need to be significantly softer to make this skiable.  The couloir was steep, holding probably a 40-45 degree pitch for a long distance, and steepening to close to 50 degrees at the top.  50 feet below the top (and just below where it steepened to its max) the couloir necked down to about one ski-width.  We both quickly agreed that we wanted nothing to do with skiing the top of that thing in these icy sun-cupped conditions!  Plus, just below the narrow point, there was a giant snow ledge in a sort of cave that would be a perfect place to clip in.

On the way up, I noticed (but didn't pay enough attention to grasp the meaning) that my whippets were difficult to use because they wouldn't fit into the sun cups.  The poles would hit the protruding edges while the blade would sit uselessly in the concave part, grasping nothing but air.

After topping out the couloir, we ditched all the gear and followed a fun spiraling 3rd class route to the true summit.  

We lounged for what felt like quite a while on top, knowing that the snow needed time to soften.  We basked in the sun, enjoyed the wonderful view of the neighboring mountains, and mused about ideas for future adventures.

Summit baby, yeah!

Troy's summit pose

The view from above

5 years later my homemade glacier glasses finally broke

There are not many things in the world better than summit sunshine!
Eventually, and in hindsight too soon, we headed back down to our skis at the top of the couloir.  In the searing heat on top I was worried about the snow getting too soft, and hence becoming unstable.

Upon arriving back at the top of the couloir we found the snow still very firm.  Re-affirming our previous statements, we made what we felt to be the smart decision to down-climb the top and put the skis on at the ledge 50 feet down, where the slope was ever so slightly less steep, and the route was much wider.

Troy, arriving back at the lower snow ledge, with the steep bottleneck just above

At the ledge we assessed the condition of the snow.  Hmm, despite the warm air it was not nearly as soft as we had hoped, especially given the sun cups.  We waited perhaps 15 more minutes, but then I got impatient.  We should have waited another hour...

"Screw it man."  I said, "I think the snow is soft enough.  I'm going to go." 

Troy had chopped out a little flat takeoff platform.  I clipped in, attached my leashes, and got ready to ski.

Ready for an exhilarating descent!
I cautiously slid across the slope... My edges . . . held!  Well that a relief!  I gathered together what courage I had and made my first turn.

Bopbopopbopbop!  I almost stuck it, but all the bumps from the sun cups put me off balance.  I tipped over.  I instinctively jabbed to dig my whippet into the snow like I'd done many times before, . . . but this time it didn't bite.  I think the suncup didn't allow much penetration into the snow.

I started to accelerate.  I jabbed with the whippets a few more times to no avail.  Then one of my skis caught and I was airborne.   Troy said my first flip was all the way over, landing on my feet.  I remember my skis both releasing at the same time.  I flipped again.  I'm not sure which way I landed this time.  The flips came faster and became continuous.  My skis, attached by leashes to my ankles, flung around me, slicing me with their metal edges.  The effect was one of being put into a giant blender.

The whole thing seemed incredibly fast and violent, yet simultaneously slow motion.  I had time to think.  My thoughts were of the rock island a few hundred feet down where there was a choke point. I knew I would hit it.

Amid the barrage of flips, bangs, and ski slices, I thought, "Any moment there is going to be a big hit."  I fought desperately to orient myself so that that hit wouldn't be on my head, but I had little control.  "Am I about to die?"

Then I thought I got a glimpse of the rock Island go by.  I wasn't sure.  After a few more flips with no collision I knew I had missed it.  My thoughts went from death to a fierce desire to FIGHT!

I struggled for all I was worth to stop the flipping.  Eventually I was on my back, sliding fast feet-first toward a large boulder strewn debris field.  I dug my heels in, and felt myself slowing, but the boulders were coming fast!  I pushed my heels in for all I was worth!  I hit the boulders with a little speed, but had enough umph in my legs to absorb the hit.

My first thought was of Alvin's fall on Baldy and how cold he was when in shock.  I quickly scanned my legs, and not seeing any bones sticking out I crab-walked off the snow onto the rocks to get warm. 

I scanned myself for injuries; there was no way I wasn't fucked up:
-Neck: I moved my head left and right, up and down.  No pain.  I couldn't believe the result of my experiment so I did it again to make sure.
-Legs: Some blood, but no bones sticking out, and judging by my successful landing and 5 foot crab walk they seemed OK.  A fair bit of blood flowing out of a laceration on my right shin and into my ski boot.
-Left arm: more blood, but no bones.
-Right arm: My hand was swollen and in pain.  Probably broken.  Looked like someone had shoved a kumquat under my skin.
-Face: The left side was totally numb and felt like it was swelling up.  I closed one eye and then the other to make sure they both worked.  I struggled to pull my phone out of my zipper pocket and take a selfie so I could assess.  A small cut and a bloody nose, but otherwise OK.
-Back: Felt fine. WTF?
-Head:  I shook it.  No pain.  I took off my helmet.  Not even cracked! WTF???

Self assessment selfie
I looked back at my Strava after the fact (which was running during the fall).  It said I fell about 900 feet, and hit a top speed of 34.9 miles per hour. [Edited: Someone pointed out that Strava only gives you the horizontal speed.  Assuming a 45 degree angle of descent, this puts my actual speed at more like 50MPH]

I looked back at my hand.  Was I going to get out of this with nothing more than a broken hand, a shiner, and some scrapes and bruises??? How did I miss both the rock island and the rocky sidewalls of the couloir?

I felt lucky.  Then I felt guilty.  What the fuck was I doing?  Why did I think I could ski an icy, sun-cupped, 45-degree couloir that was not much wider than my two skis laid end to end? Why didn't I down-climb and come back another day to ski it in better conditions, or at least wait another hour for it to soften??  I shouldn't even be here now having these thoughts.  What would Thy and Max go through if I hadn't gotten so lucky? How selfish!

"CORY!!!"  "ARE . YOU . O.K.?" Came the yell from Troy.

"YES!" I said in amazement.


As Troy speedily climbed down he periodically yelled instructions and questions.


"AUSTRALIA!" - I decided it had been far too long since some comedic relief.  I quickly followed up with, "MY HEAD IS FINE!"

Troy got to me and assessed the situation.  Judging by his calm and composure it seemed that he had some serious first aid training!  Nothing but what they taught in boy scouts, I later learned!  He told me not to move.  He checked my neck and back.  He checked my pupils for dilation (left eye was a bit slow to dilate). He taped my injured fingers together, then made a splint for my right hand using his backpack foam back panel and some tape.  Then he made a sling from his extra pants.

All patched up thanks to Dr. Troy
A bit worse for the wear, but psyched to be upright

Troy said he would carry down all of the gear.  I protested, noting that my back and legs were fine.

"Are you calling me a sissy?" Troy said with a grin.  I relented, and he somehow got all of our stuff in and on his pack.

Troy, the pack with legs
Troy strapped my crampons on for me, and we begun to trudge down the remainder of the snow.  I noted that this bottom stretch of lower angle snow that had finally softened would have been really fun to rip some turns down.  Oh well!

After the snow came the rocks.  I scrambled as well as I could with one arm, and Troy did as well as he could with 4 skis, 4 boots, and a 60ish pound pack.

At last we reached the bottom of the rocks, and the snow field that we had used to access them.

"Is that a hole???" I said, staring at several dark holes in the snow.  We realized that the snow we had crossed in the morning to first access the rocks was in fact a snow bridge over about an 8 foot drop into a rocky creek.  Several holes had formed in the bridge during the hot day.  We couldn't find any other way around as everything else ended in a cliff.  Troy went first with the heavy pack and it held.  I was having trouble getting purchase on the snow with my sneakers.  Troy dropped the pack and came back up with his ice axe.  He chopped out some wonderful steps for me that got me down.

Then came the bushes.  We took a different route farther from the drainage.  This helped to minimize the bushwhacking, but at the cost of extra steep dirt and LOTS of downed trees.  I took my pack back here to lighten Troy's load, but left my skis and boots with him.  The skis kept getting caught on trees, and several times we dead ended into bushy alders and had to backtrack.

Bushwhacking be damned!  I was just happy to be standing!
Eventually we made it back to the car.  Cold beers and ibuprofen greeted us.

My pain was low enough, and exhaustion level high enough, that I elected to just go to sleep when I got home.  After a good breakfast with Thy and Max we went to the ER.

The irony of having driven 3 hours down highway 21 with a broken hand, and then visiting the ER with my pregnant wife  did not escape us.

Batman is here to protect me!

In the end, two broken hand bones, some cuts and bruises, and a dozen or so mosquito bites was the damage tally for the day.

Needless to say, I've got some thinking to do.

There are detailed lessons to learn about assessing the danger of a ski line with questionable snow conditions and serious fall consequences.  About respecting my current ability level, and acknowledging that when I'm seriously getting out into the mountains twice a year instead of every week I can't depend on abilities that are covered in rust.

Then there are bigger picture lessons to ponder.  What is, or should be, my risk tolerance, given that I am risking not only one life, but also risking damage to all those I care about? What does "risk tolerance" even mean?  If I roll the dice 9 times and get away with it, only to get my number called on the 10th, was I good or just lucky on the first 9?  After roll 6 if I confidently proclaimed that I have accepted the risks, do I even know what that means?  The vision of Thy breaking the worst news to Max makes me sick.

Prior to Max my happiest days were spent high on a mountain, climbing up until there was no more up, basking in the sun and incredible exposure.  Sun Ribbon Ribbon Arete on Temple Crag.  RNWF of Half Dome.  The Thunderbolt to Sill Traverse.  The northeast face of Ranrapalca.  These are what life was made of.  That was what I lived for, and all I wanted.  The risk was worth it.

Now those days feel hollow.  My happy days now are spent watching Max bomb lower Hulls Gulch Trail on his strider bike, or playing with Max in the backyard kiddy pool while he tries to shoot squirrels with his water squirter, or out on a date night with my Pretthy.  Maybe I need to let happiness be my guide.

The next day, I feel unblievably fortunate to be at the Shakespeare Festival
watching the Hunchback of Notre Dam with my Bear.


  1. Wow Cory! Glad to see you got out of that relatively unscathed. DBE is next on my ski objective list, but after reading your TR and I might have to re-evaluate my priorities as well. Get well soon.


  2. Dang! Glad you are mostly OK. If you need some tame outdoor adventures you could start hanging out with me. I'm nice and slow. Ryan

  3. Cory, a great account of your adventure, near death experience and lessons learned. It is so easy to take a step we should not take in the mountains. Your story is a great reminder to be careful and honest when assessing risk. I'll take the lesson with me. It is also a solid reminder to climb/ski wth competent companions. Troy did an impressive job looking after your health and helping you get out. We should all be so fortunate to travel with such a competent climber. Thanks for sharing the story.

  4. Cory..... ho man. So glad to hear you are relatively, all right. So many times we listen to our ambition, give in to our desires and ignore that little voice. Mine had served me well in later years- as I have learned to listen and be guided by it. But when I was young..... well I'm happy to be here now. I'm very happy to read Troy took good care of you after the fall. Lucky to have such a partner. You will heal. The couloir will be there next season. You can go back with an improved skill set, better conditions and Troy to look after you! Perhaps we will get to the high mountains one more time before I give it up for good. My little voice is telling me my days of high altitude, big hills is coming to an end. Be well buddy. Heal well and fast!