True Tales: Uncontrolled Slide Down an Icy Slope

A summer snow slope gives this reader the scare of his life.
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A summer snow slope gives this reader the scare of his life.

Survivor Ron Whittaker, 50, Boise, Idaho
Predicament Careening down a summer snowfield without an ice axe, Centennial Trail, Idaho
Lesson learned “Respect mountain conditions in every season. If you’re facing steep, slick terrain, bring crampons and an ice axe—or turn around.”

Escape Plan: Cross Summer Snow Safely

"My rate of acceleration was so shocking that I could barely react. I was hurtling down a snowy slope at frightening speeds. I managed to flip onto my stomach and get my trekking pole into a self-arrest position, but the icy slope jerked it out of my hands, and I slid out of control toward a minefield of rocks.

"I’d set out on that sunny July day with two buddies, Jerry and Tyler, to hike a 10-mile stretch of the Idaho Centennial Trail. The unusually deep snowpack was definitely a surprise. This typically wasn’t a technical or dangerous area so we hadn’t packed crampons or even microspikes for our hiking shoes, but even near the hike’s beginning we encountered 10-foot-deep snowfields in our path.

"At about 3 p.m., we set out across a packed, 200-yard-wide drift clinging stubbornly to the western face of Eagle Cliff. Jerry crossed the 40-degree slope without incident, driving his boots into the hard snow. Tyler almost made it all the way across, but near the snow- field’s edge he slipped, careening 15 feet downhill before digging his feet into the icy surface to stop himself. I followed Tyler’s footsteps until, just a few steps from the edge, I lifted my foot and my trekking pole simultaneously; I was down and sliding before I knew it. My pole ricocheted out of my grip, and I couldn’t get any purchase with my hands and feet. I was hurtling faster and faster toward certain death in the boulders below.

"Jerry, who was on solid ground, grabbed onto a tree and then for me as I slid past him. He clutched at my shirt, but his effort only shifted my momentum, slowing me slightly and twisting me toward the edge of the snowfield. As I tobogganed past a half-buried tree, I grabbed a branch and swung to a halt—just seconds above the field’s rocky base.

"If I had glissaded into that jagged edge at full speed, this wouldn’t be a survival story at all."