Better lucky than good
It was the usual evening-before text exchange:
"What do you want to climb tomorrow?"
"I'm not sure... How about Route X?"
Both Mate Man and I had done the route in question before. In fact, over the years I'd climbed it when it was fat, skinny and downright mixed. However, just because you've visited a place already doesn't make it any less beautiful. I always liked the way the ice on Route X started out in a twisting canyon before rearing up to a vertical pillar, shining in the sun high above the valley floor.
As I threw some quickdraws, screws and, just in case, a few pins into the pack, the only thing that gave me pause was the forecast for high winds. Route X sits below a sizeable bowl, and as I drifted off to sleep, I thought of the fresh snow from the last few days blowing around and settling into a slab. Then again, we could just glass the mountain from road and decide in the morning...
From the parking lot, the bowl above the route didn't look particularly threatening. Mate Man and I passed the binoculars back and forth and engaged in some mutual conformation bias:
"The bowl looks pretty bony, don't ya think?"
"Yeah, I don't think there's all that much snow up there."
Up the familiar approach we went: along the wide riverside trail, on a faint track beside the cobbled streambed draining the mountain, up the frozen scree toward the start of the ice. Stashing the poles and strapping on crampons we continued, scrambling up short steps in a tight gully. Where the upper pitches reared up, we kicked out a ledge and pulled the ropes out of the packs. Mate Man won the game of paper-scissors-rock and started up the first pitch.
Now that we'd stopped, I finally had a good look around. The forecast had been right, the wind was howling up there. Spindrift poured from the lip of the canyon a hundred metres higher, where vertical ice backed off into snow. Most of it went straight back up, carried by gale-force updrafts, but enough sifted down that I had to dig out the pack from a small snowdrift when it was my turn to follow.
Hood up, I tapped up the detached shell over a smooth rock slab.
"Good job, man!", I shouted up, impressed.
By the time I rejoined Mate Man in the cave behind the pillar at the start of the second pitch, enough snow was swirling around us that we were both having second thoughts.
"Maybe I could just run up the pillar and lower back to the cave from where the ice backs off", I thought out loud. Judgment. Desire. A fork in the road. Alpinist and physicist George Lowe offered some advice for such situations: "Try to separate your fears and hopes from a rational evaluation of what you should do."
"Nah, let's just head down. It'd probably be okay but it'd suck if anything happened."
We threaded the ropes through the anchor and rapped toward the relative calm of the canyon below. Not even stopping to coil the cords, we grabbed an end and started pulling while we plunge stepped down our already faint uphill tracks. Now that the possibility of avalanche had factored itself into the risk calculus, we didn't want to spend one unnecessary minute in this confined gully.
Back on the benign approach slopes the December sun still shone brightly. It was only early afternoon and it seemed a shame to go home just yet. We stopped below a sheltering buttress, where some short but steep pillars seeped from the rock. Soon, tapping up chandeliers and stemming between gravity-defying columns had us smiling again. Hundreds of metres higher, the wind shouted and raged.
I was climbing yet another variation on our afternoon curtains when what sounded like an especially loud gust of wind had both of us stop and look around. A second, two of silence, then a cloud of snow charged out of the canyon below Route X. Overloaded by the wind, the bowl above it had released.
We exchanged meaningful looks:
"Glad we got out of there when we did!"
"Yeah, but should we have been there in the first place?"
As alpine survivor Barry Blanchard said, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.
Better lucky than good?