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.

Andy Lewicky

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow



  1. Sam Page says:

    Yikes! The video was very suspenseful. Glad you made it back.

  2. ScottP says:

    Reminds me of an icy patch I hit on Baden Powell this winter. Tried to turn, nothing happened, I fell through a spiny bush, inverted, and finally managed to self arrest before sliding into some trees. Scary and humbling experience, to say the least.

    Probably be a little while before you do the steep icy again, eh?

  3. Andy says:

    You know, if I hadn’t rotated around and skidded toward the rocks, everything would have gone exactly as I was expecting, but I think that would have been a much worse outcome. It was good to be reminded that once you break loose on ice, all bets are off. It was a good learning experience.

  4. Dood, I hope you appreciate just how much you sound like Bear Grylls at the end of that. Especially those moments when he’s like, “well, that’s not normally what you want to have happen. But it’s important to remember that if you’re ever 200′ in the air swinging from an old rusty chain and a grappling hook you made from a couple of rabbit bones, you have to be prepared to improvise.”

    Very gripping video – yikes!

  5. Michael says:

    Hoooly crap man! Unreal. I think it’s kind of funny that I mentioned U-Notch in my last post. How recent was this? How far up the North Fork did you get until you hit snow? Off to make nice mellow turns on Alta tomorrow morning… As an aside, it looks like Tioga opens tomorrow.

  6. Joseph says:

    Wow, i saw your life flash before my eyes! Well, powder saves lives, what else can you say?

  7. Dan Conger says:

    Definitely wild! Love the Bear Grylls comment … that guy is truly a nut. “You never want to try to cross a frozen lake like this in late spring when the water level is rising under the ice … but if you do, go ahead and do it like this!!!”

    Hey, Andy, how does the snowpack look in the Whitney area? I have a permit and 4 friends and I are heading up on June 14th and hiking out on June 16th. Crampons or something less on the main Whitney trail?

  8. Andy says:

    This was Memorial Day. I thought snowpack was deep everywhere above 10.5K in the Eastern Sierra. I’d definitely expect snow from Trail Camp to Trail Crest. Check Whitney Portal Store for the latest on conditions.

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