When Something Goes Wrong
Naomi slowly untangled her skis, poles, and limbs as she picked herself up from a snowy crash high on the east face of Single Cone. Below in the distance, the lifts had closed on the Remarkables ski field. The sun was setting, and the cold wind that had hounded us all day began howling again. She made her way down to us with uncharacteristically wide turns.
“I think I tore something in my knee,” she gasped.
I had plans with my friend Niall to skin up the Remarkables on opening day to harvest some untracked powder before the masses descended. I showed up at his place in downtown Queenstown in the pre-dawn darkness to discover that our mission had morphed. The new plan was to summit Single Cone with a good friend of his, Naomi, and two friends of hers neither of us had met. I’d never skied Single Cone, and was psyched to try something new. But then I watched Niall coil a rope and harness into his bag next to his skins, and I realized we’d moved past my expertise of ski touring to something more serious than I’d bargained for.
He looked up at me and read the doubt on my face. He said the climb to the summit was easy, straightforward, most of it on skins with just one gully that got a bit steep. He’d done it a dozen times. The climbing gear was just a precaution.
I secretly hate climbing. I’m afraid of heights—not when I have my skis on (inexpicably), but dangling on a rope above empty space terrifies me. Still, I said nothing as Niall handed me an ice ax and crampons—two pieces of gear I’ve never used in my life. I didn’t want to miss out on an adventure. I didn’t want to be the girl who was too scared to climb an “easy” mountain. I hoped that if I pretended I could handle it, then I would magically be able to.
We watched the sun rise as we waited for the other three to show up, our alpine start falling victim to group logistics. Niall wasn’t worried, convinced our ascent would only take a couple hours.
“We’ll see about that. I have no climbing experience!” I joked, my only attempt to communicate my lack of skill. I didn’t expand, and no one stopped to clarify. In our impatience to get underway, the human factor was already in full effect.
It was a bluebird day, and the skin up the mountain in the sun was glorious. Even the gale force wind on the ridge wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits. I’d almost forgotten about the crampons and ice ax I was carrying.
Then came the crux for me: We ditched our skis to walk across a steep face above a cliff band to access the summit. Without the comfort of my skis, my fear of heights took its ugly hold. I paid desperate attention to Niall’s quick explanation on self-arresting with an ice ax, took a deep breath, and set out post-holing after the crew.
At the base of the gully, I saw that Niall had used that word loosely. It was an 80-degree chute the width of my outstretched arms, 10 meters of straight-up that left my heart in my stomach. I remained silent as the others bantered, setting up a belay. When Niall asked if I was alright, I smiled and told him I was just a little nervous. Because, god, I wanted to be only a little nervous.
Klara and I roped in together last. I slipped and pulled her down with me on the belay and immediately panicked. I can’t do this. What was I thinking? Klara calmly talked me through it, coaching me to focus on the rhythm of kicking my boot into the snow, stepping up, placing my ax, stepping up, repeat. I made it to the top and congratulated myself on my accomplishment.
Then Niall pulled the crampons out of his pack. I looked up and the spit dried in my mouth. Another 10-meter face of ice-covered steep rock dropped off into space before the true summit. I finally listened to my nerves and told them I’d gone far enough. They were surprised. To them it was a simple walk that no one who’d come so far would pass up. At least, no one with the right skills.
I took in the view from the notch above the gully while the rest of the crew summited, thinking about what had held me back from voicing my fears earlier when I’d had hours in which to do it. Niall had said it was easy, and I didn’t want to be the only one who couldn’t handle it. I like being capable and strong. I didn’t want to admit I was afraid.
In the end, there was no logical reason. It was the human factor, and I had let it win.
Finally, after the others summited and a last rappel over a snowy cliff face, we reunited with our skis. Confidence came flooding back as I clicked into my bindings. The snow on the east face was light and deep. I stopped at the bottom of the first pitch laughing, and turned just in time to see Naomi hit an errant patch of crust and go down.
She stayed down too long.
When she reached us, she pointed to the inside of her knee where she felt it pop; she’d torn her MCL. My backcountry first aid training kicks in, and as the sun sinks behind the mountains, I guide her out on a traverse with as few turns as possible.
Just a kilometer from the ski field, Naomi could no longer put weight on her knee. Niall took off down to the ski patrol hut, hoping a few patrollers were still there. The rest of us hunkered down against the wind and plummeting temperatures, wrapping Naomi in our arms as she started to shake. We get lucky; patrol took pity on us and brought out the sled. We divided Naomi’s skis, poles, and pack between us and skied out after them in the gathering dark. We spent a late night at the hospital, but in the grand scheme of backcountry emergencies, a torn MCL is a relatively insignificant outcome compared to more dire consequences.
If anything went wrong on that adventure, it should have been due to my selfish silence about my fears and climbing skill level (or lack thereof). I’m only lucky it wasn’t. That night on Single Cone was a too-close reminder about why it’s crucial to communicate with your adventure buddies in the backcountry. When you’re taking risks together and trusting each other, your lives literally depend on your crew. That fact is easily forgotten when the human factor slinks in, when no one stops to name it, and we let it win.
That night in the emergency room, I resolved to never stay silent again. I also resolved to beef up my mountaineering skills. And in the meantime, I’d stick to keeping my skis on.
Photos by Martin Skuhravy.