On Turning Back

Author: Xan Marshland, FOW

When we jumped out of the van in the morning, excitement hung in the cold mountain air. About a foot of fresh had come down overnight, and more was piling up. In the van lay prototypes that we couldn’t wait to get on snow. 

The forecast looked reasonable enough. Some danger of wind slabs on North and Northeast aspects, but the risks looked manageable. We toed into our bindings and cruised up the access road to the rhythmic soundtrack of skins swishing.

Immersed in dense Sierra pines, we were sheltered from the weather and our minds swam in the powder that was surely in our future.

Winds were much higher than anticipated, and it was painfully obvious that a lot of snow was being transported away from our objective. Sierra Nevada Range, CA. Video: Xan Marshland (@xanmarshland)

But when we reached treeline, conditions were taking a turn for the worse. High winds whipped through the exposed rock above us. Massive amounts of snow were being transported onto our skin track. We dug a snow pit, and some quick and dirty compression and shovel tilt tests revealed an unstable wind slab on a roughly 30 degree slope. Skiing anything steeper would likely only exacerbate these issues.

None of these observations were exactly what we expected from the forecast, but our concerns were there, and the instability was real. 

Many questions ran through our heads. Could we avoid the wind slab? Could we choose another route or find a way to avoid open terrain? 

In the end, we made a decision that is often hard to make. We turned around. Simple as that. 

We skied some roughly 20 degree powder back down to the trailhead, hearts heavy for knowing what could have been, but accepting that today, the conservative decision was the right one.  We drank our celebratory beers in honor of this choice, and toasted to a day of making wise decisions.


Harrison Brickman - WNDR AlpineProbable concern for avalanche, here's an early season pit analysis by FOW Harrison Brickman, revealing a faceted bed surface supporting considerably denser snow. Wasatch Range, UT. Photo: Harrison Brickman (@hopturnharry)

Everyone likes a success story. One where ascents are conquered, lines are slayed, and cliffs are hucked. But we wouldn’t be honest if all we showed were our proudest moments of conquering summits and ripping descents.

This was its own proud moment - not for what we achieved physically, but for the decisions we made.

Tread Light, Charge Hard...and stay safe out there to shred another day.