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June 1, 2010

U-Notch Ice Dancing

Here’s what I was thinking: I was nine hours deep on a ski attempt of North Palisade’s U-Notch Couloir, and all was going well until the easy snow I was climbing abruptly transitioned to ice thirty vertical feet or so below the top of the couloir. The ice was steep—probably 45° to 50°—and it definitely wasn’t skiable...but there was a patch of powdery snow immediately below, on a slightly flatter pitch, that could with some optimism be viewed as a sort of marginal safety net.

The prudent choice was to stop right there and ski down. Instead, I decided to keep climbing and try to manage the ice on skis. I knew there was a good chance my edges would break loose, but I also knew there was a good chance I’d be able to stop once I hit the powder pillow below. So...it’s possible to say everything went exactly according to plan.

On the other hand, when I did break loose, the speed and violence of it was terrifying. At a 45 degree angle, on ice, your acceleration is basically equivalent to free fall. When I started sliding my angular momentum caused my body to rotate so that my ski tails were pointing downward. This complication, as you might imagine, was not something I had anticipated. All in all, it was a sobering reminder, for those of us who practice the art (or madness) of high-angle skiing, just how close the edge is when you’re standing on skis, on a steep slope, deep in the heart of an icy wilderness.

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When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.

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