The Decision: How to Say Yes (or No) When It Counts

When pro skier Hadley Hammer leaves the house en route to a big line, she’s done the work to make the assumption it’s safe. “The day that I decide to ski a line, I’m pretty confident that I’m just looking for a lot of yeses from the environment,” she says. Well before decision day, she is developing an intimate knowledge of the snowpack, its layers and its instabilities. “If it’s a big line,” she says, “I want that relationship to be a winterlong one.”

Yu Sasaki investigaes a windslab release in the Revelstoke, B.C. backcountry.  Ryan Creary

Much of what skiers like Hammer and Brooklyn Bell, who is based out of Bellingham, Washington, are looking for falls into two categories: avalanche risk and dangers from snow or terrain. Avalanche hazards have been covered heavily in this section already—they include red flags like wind loading, new snow, warming, cracking and whumphing. Particularly on high-consequence lines, the risk from those factors can be pronounced, even with a small slide, so certainty in a line’s stability is paramount. 

Risks from terrain and snow can include buried rocks or ice bulges; firm, icy surfaces; rappels or cliff bands; and sluff—loose-snow avalanches that often accompany skiing steep slopes in soft conditions. Your ability to handle such conditions should dictate whether you say yes to a line. You should consider your physical fitness as well; tired legs may not be equipped to handle firm, steep snow or variations in snow surface quality. Conditions that don’t match your risk tolerance merit an early trip home. On a trip in Alaska while filming for The Approach, Bell says, she and her crew saw faster-than-expected sluff sweep Ingrid Backstrom off her feet. “That was the moment where we were like, ‘Let’s call it for the day and reassess for tomorrow.’”

Hammer recounted a similar experience due to avalanche danger in a Chamonix, France, couloir. She had developed her seasonlong relationship with the line, having checked in on the snow several times, but when she reached the slope, conditions didn’t match her forecast. “We didn’t ski it because it didn’t feel right,” she says. “There were a lot of avalanches that came down the day we were touring out there.”

Though it is inherently the safe thing to do, backing down from a line because conditions are unsafe might lead you to feel disappointed, especially if you only have one shot that season to ski it. To avoid disappointment, Bell maintains an exploratory mindset. “I’m not out there to conquer anything,” she says. “I’m there to be as playful as I can with the constraints I have.” Hammer agrees. She allows herself to feel the disappointment of missing out on a line, but she keeps in mind that the alternative (potentially injuring yourself in a fall or slide, or worse) is not worth it.

For those who end up turning around, Hammer has some advice, paraphrased from her late boyfriend David Lama. “Don’t stop until you get to the top, unless it’s dangerous, and then don’t stop till you get to the bar or a really good restaurant,” she says. “Treat yourself to something nice for the rest of the day.”

This article was originally published in Issue No. 150, The Skills Guide. Looking to for more skills-focused coverage? Check out “The Pregame”, “The Scene” and “The Talk”. Even better pick up a copy, or subscribe to read stories like these as soon as they are published in print.

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