Fear and Reverence—BD Athlete Angel Collinson in AKWednesday, September 7, 2016
As the days start to grow shorter and more and more people are posting photos of skiing, I can’t help but reflect on one of the more serious, scary, yet rewarding trips from last winter, up in Juneau, Alaska. The memories usually start with this line as an extremely memorable moment:
“This is Sage, I’m 100 percent and fully gripped”.
A very rare thing to come from Sage Cattabriga-Alosa’s mouth, and his voice was a little high-pitched on the radio. I could see him up the ridge from me, about 200 feet. When we’re filming we use the term100 percent as “I’m ready to go”, not necessarily, “I’m feeling 100 percent about this” as was clearly differentiated by his current position. Sometimes the scariest part about skiing in Alaska isn’t always the lines, it can be putting your skis on and getting to your line. In this case, the heli dropped him off on the backside of the ridge in what seemed to be an ok spot until it flew away and he realized it was all boilerplate ice mixed with breakable crust, on a lunchtray size platform on 50 degree slope in a definite no fall zone. These type of toe-ins are usually fine if the snow conditions are good. In this case they weren’t, and sometimes you don’t know until you are onslope without the heli hovering above you. He couldn’t navigate to his line on the frontside of the ridge because of big cornices and it would be too steep to traverse to the top of his spine anyway, and he had a blind view of where he needed to enter down the ridge 10 feet or so.
I was watching him get both skis on and as soon as he stood up his skis jetted forward off the lunchtray and almost sent him off the frontside of the ridge. I heard him swear and sit down. At this point it would be just as scary and difficult to try and take his skis off while balancing on the lunch tray, and then call the heli back in- he needed to commit to his situation. He yelled down to me, and I gave him some words of encouragement. I could see where he needed to ski in order to make his entrance- it was only 10 feet below him but he would have to slide down the boilerplate without losing his edges, then make a hard edgeset after a rollover and turn towards the frontside of the ridge and stop himself immediately. In these conditions, slight miscalculations shoot you in directions you REALLY don’t want to go. His move needed a lot of precision and even more guts.
“You got eyes on me Angel? I’m gonna go for it.” The rest of the crew was on a totally different ridge over a half mile away getting two other athletes set up. Sage and I were alone for the time being.
“Yep, you got this Sage!” I yelled back at him. I could hear some loud deep breaths and then he went for it- a fast turn to an edgeset and stop. He did it perfectly, stopping just before the dropoff to the frontside of his spine. I could hear a sigh of relief- but it wasn’t over because he was still balancing on an icy teetering edge- tricky with skis.
He skied his line first, and then I went. Two turns onto the steep slope revealed ice underneath 6 inches of light density fluff and I made one highspeed turn on the spine and pointed it out to the bottom. Skiing up to him I could see the lines of relief in his face.
“Holy cow, I’ve never been so relieved to ski a 55 degree face!” he said chuckling.
That experience seemed to sum up this years trip to Alaska. The annual spring Alaska film trip that Teton Gravity Research does every year almost didn’t happen- Alaska had a really tough winter- warm, bad avalanche conditions, and not a lot of snow. We decided that whatever we got was going to be better than nothing, as long as we were super aware and careful of the avi conditions and played everything smart. Plane tickets booked to Juneau, we decided to hit up some spots that TGR had been before around the Taku Glacier. This time, the athlete team was Ian McIntosh, Dana Flahr, Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, and myself.
We quickly realized conditions were not ideal. A rain event in January had created a persistent ice layer that would hold about 4-8 inches of fluff on top of it- meaning you couldn’t see the ice, but it was under there. Some of the ice was more grippy and easier to ski, other places it was boilerplate and super slick- most of those zones were unskiable.
It began a game of trial and error- getting dropped off and assessing the slope in front of you as best you could- however, the conditions on top of your line might seem ok, while 2 turns down they might change drastically. It required making an exit strategy for worst case scenario and deciding if worst case scenario was safe enough or not. These kind of calls took really advanced risk assessment, a familiarity with Alaskan terrain, and a keen eye for calling out potential risks that aren’t obvious to the untrained observer. I think big part of it is having good “mountain sense”- a combination of intuition and experience, simply time spent in the mountains. Growing up in them as a kid has helped a lot. We spent a lot of time clambering over rock, ice, and exposure, and on this trip I was particularly grateful for those times.
I learned a lot from the guys on this trip—when to be ballsy and work through your fear and when to get back in the heli. Even if you haven’t gotten a single film line yet in the trip, you have to remove your ego from the situation and not have the attitude “I’m in Alaska and I’m going to make this line work no matter what!” which is easier to do than you would think. It’s amazing what you can talk yourself into seeming rational when you have a lot of pressure to perform and produce results, but that will get you seriously hurt or even killed. You learn how to take a step back and look at it from the outside.
It was kind of funny to rewatch the footage from the trip- the 6 inches of blower on top makes everything look perfect- we are all getting white-roomed and there is TONS of slough, making it look like a perfect powder run. The loud grinding and scratching in the audio on our headcams is the only clue to the fact that we are actually using all our skills just to hold it together. The guys made it look damn good though, and most people probably won’t know what a gnarly strugglefest it often was.
To come out of that trip safe and uninjured meant that everyone did an amazing job knowing their abilities and making the right calls. We got enough footage to make it work, and learning the dance of respecting the mountains and listening to what they have to say is the reason why Alaska has the reverence it does. It’s big, awe-inspiring, powerful, scary, beautiful, and magical. Any time spent there in my life is always a learning experience, and always moves me. It’s not always easy, but it’s always so worth it.
Check out the trip and the movie, coming to Salt Lake on September 16 at Red Butte Gardens.