Slough management. The expression suggests an ability to somehow control one of winter's most powerful natural forces - piles of snow yielding to the force of gravity. We see the term written in stories and hear it and see it in adrenaline-fueled ski porn. The fatter skis and higher speeds of today's free skiers allows for "managing" ever larger so-called sloughs. But at some point we need to call a spade a spade and admit that some of these events are really avalanches. I mean, who are we kidding here?
I often watch these videos, jaw agape, at guys starting and then riding out what were formally known as avalanches. I admire their skill and nerve to do so but they're really just a tip catch away from being a burial victim. I don't really have a problem with them accepting these risks. It's what they get paid to do. However, I think these antics give the general skiing public a false sense of security that such control of similar events is possible in their own skiing. After all, who doesn't want to live out their own little TGR fantasy?
Last weekend I found myself treading around the blurry line between management and burial. I was treating a visiting friend to one of the more exciting lines in the Tetons, the Apocalypse Couloir. I knew from all the recent internet chatter that the line had been skied a bunch recently. New snow fall had been trickling in over the week assuring good skiing. I certainly considered the potential hazard but rationalized it away with the recent traffic and the fact that I had skied it a few times before in fat conditions.
The approach went easily as snow fell steadily. There was lots of spindrift coming off the faces above the line. I watched a couple of sloughs come out the bottom of Son of the Apocalypse as we skinned by. Should have turned around right then. But the desire to show Alexis a cool Teton classic kept me plodding upward.
The snow in the couloir was deep. There were lots of piles of loose debris in the gut which somehow reassured me that some of the danger was decompressed already. I usually loathe skinning in steep gullies, preferring to boot a direct line up the side. But after doing so for a couple of hundred vertical and getting my ass kicked in crotch deep snow while Alexis skinned easily nearby, I decided skinning would be better. The only problem was that I stashed my skins lower down, shedding weight I didn't need for the climb. Stupid.
So, down I went to retrieve them and I was quickly back to my high point, sure I made the right choice to skin again. As it turns out, the delay in my upward progress may have saved me some serious grief. Higher up, I finally relinquished the skin track and started booting as the couloir choked down tightly. I was 50 feet from the ice bulge that provides the crux when the line isn't fully filled in.
Just as I was considering putting on crampons to negotiate the looming ice bulge, my scary slough-date-from-hell arrived. I saw her coming as I glanced up the route. Bitch. She looked pissed. At first, I simply braced myself as she pushed against my thighs. But I was quickly gripped by panic as the volume increased and my balance was challenged. A moment after that I was thrown backwards and down I went, swimming, choking, trying to stay upright. Was this the real deal, I thought to myself. I always wondered what this moment would be like. I was choking on snow in between breaths. It was not unlike struggling in a foam pile while surfing. Just heavier.
I quickly found myself even with Alexis who was watching out of harms way on the south side of the couloir. My panic ebbed as I came to a stop no worse for wear. I was scared but calm. A glance upward revealed a second wave that I took at waist level and started tumbling downward again. Now I was pissed. I finally released my grip on my poles and they were carried away in the growing pile below me. I was disgusted with myself having been caught like that. It was time to leave, I said, but I really wanted to find my poles. I could use them on the skin out.
Fighting conflicting emotions about hanging out in the couloir while we dug around through loose debris, I kept one eye upward, a little freaked at the possibility of getting hit again. But nothing happened. The heavy snow fall had slowed so the spindrift had backed off considerably and, with it, the slough accumulation from above. I found one pole after 20 or 30 minutes and decided that was good enough. I was still feeling uneasy, to say the least. It was with great relief that I ripped skins and started down. I remember feeling irritated at Alexis taking longer than I thought he should to start descending. Clearly, I was still scared battling "bad feelings" and all that.
I couldn't help but consider the delay I created by going back down to get my skins. Had I not, I would have likely been above the ice bulge when I got swept and the consequences would have likely been more dire. Lucky me.
The snow in the gut and down on the apron was great. It was a nice consolation prize. The out was a little awkward with one pole but manageable. Slough management, indeed. A valuable lesson for next time.