Accepting Plan B

The Tunnel Creek hut is probably my favourite weekend hut within reasonable driving distance from Calgary. It's small and basic, but the terrain it accesses is simply incredible. The Tunnel Creek hut is absolutely surrounded by awesome tree skiing. It's steep, tight trees, and there's straight up nothing I like skiing more than that.

Every fall I call up the Guide's Hut in Fernie to book a couple of weekends out there. This year I was slow and only managed to book one weekend at Tunnel though, so I knew I was going to have to make the most of it.

We assembled a great group and made plans to spend Friday Night in Fernie before touring into the Tunnel Creek hut early on Saturday morning so we could spend two days charging the trees.

Last Monday, a pair of skiers got unlucky and were swept up in a slide. One skier was partially buried, they extricated themselves and got to the exhausting work of digging out their fully buried partner. Their partner didn't make it.

Whenever someone dies right next to where you're skiing the next weekend, it casts a bit of a somber note on things - but it doesn't generally stop me from skiing. It's another data point that goes into the calculus of making decisions.

'Okay, conditions are tricky enough that it fooled someone and the resulting slide went big enough to have real consequences. How am I going to learn from this and try and avoid the same traps?'

After Monday though, the avi bulletin just got worse, and worse though. By Thursday evening it was just a sea of red. High-High-High.

avi bulletin

A Sea of Red

Well that's going to affect plans...

Once again, High avi danger isn't necessarily a deal breaker for me. When the sea of red shows up, I go looking for terrain that is low consequence, low angle, planar, supported, not-wind-loaded - I try and manage the terrain to keep things as safe as possible.

But when I went deeper and read the details of the forecast - some serious alarm bells started going off. The forecast talked about HUGE slides going from the alpine to valley bottom. The approach to the hut crosses some slide paths at valley bottom - this might be the cycle where the slides actually reach there. The forecast talked about low angle terrain sliding even below tree-line. Even the most mellow line around Tunnel Creek that I could think of would be prone to sliding right now - and a slide in the trees is high consequence - getting sieved through trees or hung up while the slide pounds you down is a bad day.

A widespread avalanche cycle was observed on Tuesday through Thursday. Numerous large natural avalanches (size 3 to 3.5) were triggered in the alpine and ran to near the valley floor and numerous size 2 avalanches started at and below treeline. Operators also reported numerous large human, vehicle, and remote-triggered avalanches. Some of these avalanches ran on relatively shallow slope angles (around 30 degrees) and in fairly dense trees. Expect continuing avalanche activity because of the touchy snowpack.
— Avalanche Canada Forecast for Lizard Range

The group I was skiing with had some of the most experienced and best decision makers I know. I was just up at the Discovery Hut with Brad and I've skied sketchy conditions with him plenty of times. Paul is basically my default co-organizer for ACC trips into Rogers Pass and the guy I call to really systematically break down safe travel. I probably have more decision making mileage with Katherine - on everything from idiotic climbs to idiotic ski missions - than everyone else I know put together.

This was as good a group of decision makers on snow as you could ask for in order to head into scary-ass conditions.

We pulled the plug. There wasn't even debate. Plan A is shot, let's figure out a Plan B. Just getting to the hut would involve serious hazard and once there - what's the point? We wouldn't even be able to ski anything without crapping our pants. The risk simply wasn't worth the reward.

It was time to build a Plan B. We had our Friday night booking in Fernie - we drove down and skied the resort Saturday. Half the resort was closed and giant crown lines on numerous faces made guessing why pretty easy, but the half that was open was great skiing (you know, for a resort).

Saturday evening we bombed over to Castle Mountain where we managed to snag some rooms at the hostel last minute and cooked the big dinner we'd planned to make at the hut in the hostel's kitchen. We drank beer, hung out, ate cake to celebrate Marie-Eve's birthday and then Sunday we spent another resort day.

I hadn't ridden a chair lift in something like three years before this weekend. I'm just not a ski-resort guy anymore. I ski 40-50 days a year and it's only in the backcountry. For all that, I'm glad we ended up at the resort.

I think it's easy to develop a bit of a decision making god-complex. I ski in the backcountry a lot. I'm confident of my decisions and confident in my group. It's easy to get suckered into the trap of 'well, the approach isn't too bad, we'll just cross slide paths as quickly as possible and then try and make things around the hut work'.

It's the same thing with climbing or anything else in the mountains. There's conditions when I feel like I can push it, like when there's incoming rain I'm hoping will pass us by when we start climbing a retreatable route; and there's conditions when I feel like I can't, like when when that incoming storm is throwing lightning around or the route is high consequence and I can't retreat. There are times that I need to recognize that today I need a Plan B - and then I need to accept that Plan B, not wallow in FOMO, wondering if I made the right call. 

Recognizing it's a day for a Plan B keeps me safe. Accepting my Plan B let's me have fun regardless. Yea, skiing at a resort isn't really my thing, but ultimately, I got to spend a weekend skiing with a great group of friends. I'd rather recognize and accept the occasional Plan B and avoid having that really bad day.

Grumpy, cantankerous, wildly opinionated and so much more! Getting really tired on skis is what makes me happy.