Sometime in the early '80's, after I had successfully exiled myself from the Valley, and was working as a carpenter on Bay Area concrete tilt-up jobs, I felt a great need to escape the big city crush. My muse assigned me a vision of a solo ascent of Mt Shasta, complete with a nordic ski descent from Lake Helen. I believe it was spring, because there was a nice deep base of snow on the mountain.
I had a week off work, and on monday I spent the day driving up through central California, arriving in the afternoon at the Bunny Flat trailhead for the Avalanche Gulch route. About 7,000 ft altitude.
Next morning I set out with some rather old-school gear and a comforting sense of delusion. I knew I was in good fitness -well, skeletal-muscular at least -not sure about the lingering effects of San Jose bar-hopping and Camel straights, but upon reflection, I have little doubt that it somehow contributed to a hypoxic-induced lack of good judgment. I felt at home in the wilds, but perhaps my confidence and escapist joy allowed me to downplay certain acclimatization issues from living for months at sea level.
I went up the main ridge which is the south edge of the whole Avalanche Gulch bowl. A pair of three-pin Fischer metal-edged 215s strapped to my pack, plus an ice axe, I used my pair of cane ski touring poles. Always thought old-style wood poles were cool.
On the way up, the weather was partly sunny, and the snow was a fresh deep layer which hadn't yet melted or iced up. The snow base was deep enough in the bowl to cover all the rocks. Beautiful. Looking down into the bowl as I climbed the ridge, I fairly drooled at the sight of my anticipated descent of a couple thousand feet of moderate and easy terrain. It was past noon when I arrived somewhere near the base of the Red Banks.
Somehow, I had apparently decided not to summit that day, but to do the skiing first. I had gotten greedy and become lured to the steeper slopes above 10,000 ft Helen Lake for a super-long descent. But I was oblivious to the consequences.
This was it. Time for skiing bigtime. There was still some intermittent sun, and I had hoped to catch my run when the snow would be warmest -to help with any unwanted crust I might encounter. So finally, there I was on my boards, ice axe strapped to the back of a nearly empty daypack, traversing out from some rocks, into the center of a couloir -maybe 300 ft wide. Somehow in my high-altitude glee, I had failed to notice an important detail or two. I was now somewhere over 12,000 ft. And I hadn't registered the steepness or the condition of my departure point. After traversing about 50 feet out, it dawned on me that the center of the broad chute was an icy consolidated snow surface. I could almost touch the uphill side by just reaching out my right arm. Way too steep for me, especially with the ice.
Ok, I thought, just a careful kick turn here and traverse back. I examined the contact of my edges. Each ski was contacting the snow on a just a few inches of edge. I was barely on. I knew I couldn't guarantee reversing my track without slipping off. Looking downhill to my left, I acknowledged my spectacular demise. Ice axe couldn't be reached without unsafe shenanigans. I decided to continue traversing to the other side of the bowl, where I could see better chance of re-rigging my situation.
It was going okay until I reached the very middle of the couloir. My edge contacts dwindled to nothing on a bad icy section, and I slipped off for a good 1,000 ft of ride. At least there were no rock formations in my path. It was zero to 50 in 5 seconds. Instantly I self-arrested with my bamboo ski pole. It snapped off uselessly. My next instinct was to keep from going into a tumble. I spread out my arms and legs flat on the surface, while trying to keep my ridiculously long non-release skinny skis from catching and either ripping my legs off, or slicing up my head with the tips. I couldn't control anything else. Sometimes I would rotate so my head was downhill. Even though my path was basically a smooth incline, my speed caused the exaggeration of little bumps, and I was flipped into the air a few times to land on my stomach or my back, but thankfully I still never began tumbling. My vision was a total incoherent blurr from all the rapid bouncing. It went on this way for what may have been 30 to 45 seconds, and included several sharp painful jolts to my back. Finally, as I approached lower altitude above Helen Lake, the snow became soft, and the angle laid back. I slowed and then came to an abrupt halt, on my back, head uphill, and my right ski tail jammed in up to the boot. The left ski was gone.
Lying there I figured I'd broken my back and was paralyzed, but I found that I could move very painfully. Here I was around 10,000 ft. It was afternoon, quiet, windless, and sunny. My truck was about 4 miles away, and it was Tuesday; the mountain was deserted. Well, I post-holed down in thigh-deep snow that was melting into mush; crawling sometimes to rest my back. Reached the truck by dusk, and could barely drive with the clutch pedal and column shift. Waited into the night to get x-rayed in Shasta town, to learn that I'd cracked my tailbone. Stupid ice axe... Stayed in the Mountain Aire Hotel that night to soak in their outdoor hot tub before next day's painful drive back home. Live and learn, if you survive.