Wheatley Writes: Why Not?


Jan. 31, 2002--Cars look like specks on the road 3,000 feet below. The sunny day we began with has become a distant memory after spending three hours climbing in the shade. Scrambling over the snow-covered rocky ridge that separates the Y- Couloir from its down-canyon neighbor the Y-Not, my stomach is churning. The lower pitch of the Y-Not Couloir is not visible from above. The 50 degree chute seems to end in midair. I could be driving one of the miniature cars on Little Cottonwood Road making my way up to ski at Alta. Instead, I find myself up here with wet cold feet and a sweat soaked fleece, about to commit to something terrifying.

Styles is one of my best friends. This morning his infectious motivation rudely broke me away from my coffee session for a late start on this climb. His normally irie disposition vanishes as we become transfixed by the exposure below us in the chute. We could retreat and safely descend the Y-Couloir which we had just climbed. Or go for the 40 inches of cold powder in the top of the Y-Not. My instincts and observations say the snow is stable. However, the Y-Not is an exposed 50 degree couloir, with 40 inches of new snow, lying unsupported over a 50-foot cliff. This is never a safe place to ski.

Styles and I rope up together. He is anchored to an old wind gnarled tree as he lowers me into the top of the Y-not. I ski cut the top of the slope, stomping up and down as I traverse to another set of trees, anchor myself, and belay Styles down onto the slope. A hasty snow pit reveals the new snow is bonding well, and is as light as bubble bath foam. We pick out possible islands of safety, un-rope, and begin skiing one at a time. Each turn I sink to my armpits in powder and nervously check over my shoulder for loose snow avalanches called sloughs. Even a small slough up here could take me off my feet and send me over the cliff. The skiing is fantastic, but fear is keeping the celebration to a minimum.

Like thieves who have avoided the alarms and snatched the jewels, we made it to the crux. A 50-foot drop stands in the way of a clean escape. The lip of the ancient granite cliff is polished and icy. Trading skis for crampons, we begin downclimbing to the rappel anchors. Even with deliberate hard kicks, my crampons are barely penetrating the ice and I am trying not to think about what will happen if I slip. Setting the rope without a word, we back off the edge of the cliff one at a time.

Landing next to Styles, I see his look of concern has been replaced by his standard tooth gap grin. The slope below us is untracked fluff, and the danger is literally behind us. We pull the rope, replace the crampons for skis and ski back to the road linking figure eight's down the ridiculously deep snow on the final apron. To ski a line like the Y-Not Couloir in waist deep powder is possibly a life or death gamble. Why risk it? ...For a run that I will never forget... Why not?