Describe A Humbling Day in the Backcountry
The mountains serve up humility when we least expect it. Several seasons ago, when I was first starting to move into big mountain splitboarding, I went into the Eastern Sierra backcountry on an exploratory mission with a new friend. I knew the area, but this zone was new to me, and my friend had never been there.
Kyle (not his real name) and I had done a test mission the day before, so I knew he understood the basics of backcountry travel. Also, the guy could definitely slay pow.
Our mission was to explore an aesthetic east face that, as I found out later, doesn't get much action because of its extremely awkward (and laborious) approach—not to mention its aspect.
After several miles of bad creek crossings, broken gear, and momma+baby bear sightings, the Sierra sun glared down, harshly. I should have pulled the plug then. But Kyle (not his real name), didn't want to turn around. He thought (as did I) that we could access the face if we just kept looking for that "one" gully. I ignored the voice in my head reminding me that Kyle had splitboarded only with (male) guides that he'd hired before. I forgot that Kyle didn't rock climb, as I did. And I didn't consider the ticking time bomb that was the sun on a quickly warming face.
Kyle thought he found a good ascent gully; I ruled it out, observing ice-covered debris on its apron. He insisted; I pushed back. Only after mentioning my previous day's conversation with two older men about the rock quality "back there" did he concede.
So we found another gully, and bailed up. Maybe two hundred feet of exposed class 4 climbing got me to the first ledge. I realized then that this was a bad idea. I'd been gripped; how would Kyle do?
I watched him scramble up the crumbling chose face below me, wishing he was on belay. Breath baited, I watched as he methodically inched his way up the route. After an eternity, he arrived on the ledge, sweat pouring down his face.
The adventure wasn't over yet, but this crux (and out ensuing debrief afterwards) taught me that sometimes, avalanche conditions aren't the only things threatening our lives in the backcountry. Bias, particularly of the gender variety, and heuristics play a huge role in the decisions we make out there. They determine the shortcuts we take and the acceptances we make. We got lucky that day, but might not have under even just slight changes in conditions.
Ever since then, I've asked myself: how are my (and my partner's experiences) informing our decisions?