Idaho Trails: There’s scary stuff out there

The photo above tells a cautionary tale about travel in the mountains.

Taken last week, the slide is in a popular area for hiking and skiing on the north side of Table Rock Mountain in the Tetons. With the snow piled a little higher at the upper elevations, take care when traveling on or below steep terrain.

“The slide happened along the main north-facing cliff line about .9 miles west/northwest of the summit,” said Jeff Slagle via email, who took the photo while skiing on Table Mountain last week. “There was significant rainfall the evening before, and warming temps Thursday morning caused a saturated cornice to fall from the ridge into the north-facing bowl. The cornice released a wet slab on the steep slope of the bowl below, which triggered a second, sympathetic slide just west of the first one.”

As you can tell from the photo, the depth of the slide is huge. Braden Hepner is standing at the crown of the second slide and it’s above his head.

“Both crowns appeared to be the approximately the same depth, though we didn’t walk to the first crown because of the difficulty of reaching it from where we were,” Slagle said.

He said according to his GPS unit, he estimates the length of the slide to be more than .5 miles. It ended near the Huckleberry Trail on the northwest side of the mountain.

Rainfall from passing thunderstorms or periods of warm weather and sunshine (or both) can set up snow clinging to steep slopes with a hair trigger. A passing skier or hiker may be all that is needed to set off the slide.

I have seen other photos from friends visiting the Lost River and Lemhi Mountain ranges showing similar avalanches that have occured in recent weeks.

Generally, spring and early summer is a safe time on mountain snow, but not necessarily this year.

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On Saturday, my son Sam and I stood and stared at a rock cliff and were flummoxed.

The route was difficult (at least for us), but we could see the holds — many were chalked up and obvious. Rock climbers love to chalk up their hands with gymnist’s chalk.

We were enticed to climb it because someone else left their quickdraws hanging from the bolted route (a common practice for people working a route they haven’t climbed yet without hanging or falling). With quickdraws already hanging there would be no pressure to climb all the way to the top to retrieve our gear.

“Maybe if you used that hold out left,” I suggested as Sam worked the route. Nothing we tried seem to work. We took turns after our forearms gave out from gripping. Whatever combination we tried, didn’t seem to work.

“There’s got to be a sequence that works,” I said, “there’s plenty of holds.”

A woman — a college student from Rexburg — who was climbing nearby joined us.

“I’ve been working on that route, too. Put your right hand on that hold,” she said pointing, “thumb down, then go up left to the next hold.”

We tried the sequence in the way she described and BAM, like magic, we fired through the section of rock.

“Thanks!” Sam and I both said.

She didn’t have any magic formula for the middle of the route where climbers were forced to commit to two tiny little holds to make a big move.

“I’m still working on that myself,” she said.

Oh, well. Maybe we’ll get there eventually.

One of the fun things about physical activities is how one’s mental or emotional status has a major influence on performance. A bit of guiding or pointing the way and, bingo, life it good.

I learned years ago that if I could keep my children chatting or telling stories or singing while we hiked up a long trail, they rarely slowed down. But as soon as their minds began to wander or they got a bit bored, even the easiest trails became a struggle. When our children brought friends along on outings, they would spend the entire time chattering away and didn’t notice the work of hiking.

I have noticed that when hiking, biking or climbing, the group mix can make a huge difference in how stoked people are to get in the miles or challenge themselves to try harder things. Some days because of the group dynamics there seems to be energy in the air to breathe in and power you along.

I have seen this principle illustrated on hard hikes up Borah Peak and on a climb up up Mount Rainier. Halfway up the mountains, some groups would be laughing and joking, even singing, while others were turning around, discouraged and beaten. Sometimes, all it takes is a sit-down with a candy bar to get back your mojo. Other times, it takes another day.

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