Ski mountaineering – the internal conflict | The Sam Smoothy blog

Fall Line's columnist Sam Smoothy attempts to tread that finest of lines between control and chaos

skis strapped to back, reaches apex of a snowy peak on a blue sky day by climbing

A Sam Smoothy Blog

Soaring temperatures and heavy rainfall to high levels have stalled the NZ spring season. With it a weight has temporarily lifted from my usually pack-strapped shoulders. For the last few years, I have become focused almost exclusively on exposed, technical ski mountaineering lines and its wide range of existentially critical skills.  

But as my days in risky terrain increase so too has an internal conflict built. What is it about dancing along the razors edge that I love so much? Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer stated: “A man can do what he wants, but not want what he wants.”  

I believe he means we are not free to choose our deepest desires. That what we want is determined by our nature, or programmed into us by nurture. However, I do think/hope I have the ability to veto any desire and govern the manner in which I pursue them. To learn as much as I can. To make the most objective safety decisions I can. To constantly review them and only ski with those who think similarly. This learning process saw me pass my NZMGA Ski Guide Level One course in September. An intensely engaging educational process that casts new light on previous alpine experiences.  

Make Good Decisions 

October 2021. Nearing the final pitches of Aoraki, Mt Cook’s East Ridge, horror struck as we watched a large avalanche sweep down the Caroline Face. “If we’d been a few hours earlier we’d have all just died,” someone muttered.  

Will Rowntree, Joe Collinson and myself pushed on to higher ground to talk options. We had previously stated open and honest communication was key. That staying alive was priority number one, and only one person’s opinion was needed to turn us all around.  

One of us believed the face unstable, while the other thought it safer having been cleaned out. The final member stated that this was the Caroline, whose erratic and not-infrequent serac falls were the main hazard. And that to continue we had to make peace with that and move fast.

One problem with backcountry decision making is when you are right you have no idea how close you were to being wrong  

Staring down the face it was clear the slide had come from seracs below our chosen line, but the debate continued for another 30 minutes due to their widespread and precarious nature. Eventually we agreed today was the day, so into the breech we swung with two rappels. Will skied the first pitch on belay and finding cold, well-bonded snow, we descended towards our fate.  

Escaping out the bottom, after 2,000-plus vertical meters of brilliant steep skiing on the most ridiculously spectacular line of my life, I choked up. Will and Joe arrived hooting, their joy bursting out at full volume, but it was dread-induced relief that coursed through me. I was so happy to be alive and back on relatively flat ground. But how close to the ‘line of no return’ had we really gone? As we hugged, I began to softly cry.  

One problem with backcountry decision making is when you are right you have no idea how close you were to being wrong. I have been told “Get comfortable being uncomfortable,” but how about being in control when the main hazard is basically uncontrollable?  

My mother has always told me to make good decisions. But this time I hadn’t told her the Caroline was the goal. I just couldn’t. A mountaineer and skier herself, who raised me with a passion for the mountains, Mother knew all too well the lethal ramifications of simply entering this face. A place more in line with astrophysical chaos theory than quasi-determinism where simply being faultless was not enough. You also need luck on your side to keep the seracs maze slumbering. Back at the hut I sent her an InReach message that we had succeeded and received a simple response. “FFS.” 

Sam Smoothy blog
Exploring new, unpredictable zones makes Sam “feel more alive than anything else”

Immense Joy and Bare Necessities

The mental drain of bold ski mountaineering takes a toll over a heavy spring at home. Extended time in high-exposure now has me starting the northern winter much later than before. There is a real need to step out of the mountains and that constant confrontation of my own vulnerable mortality. To run for the coast and soothe my nerves in mellow surf. I swap daily alpine weather forecasts for landscaping at home; dropping my ice axes to plunge my hands into warm, fertile earth. Failure to rest my mind and body adequately through November, December increases the chance of a mid-winter burnout once back in the North.  

That October night in the hut celebrations rolled on joyously, but for months afterwards the Caroline haunted me. I had finally skied my ultimate pipe dream line, the high-water mark I had worked towards for decades, never daring to seriously consider skiing it until recently. A line I know I will never repeat.  

But a deeper answer to the ‘why’ still seems somewhat elusive. “Because it’s there,” is not enough for me. Is this really necessary in my pursuit of a happy, fulfilling life? I know  

I have a massive responsibility to those I love to do all I can to ensure my survival. But I also know while questing in the mountains I find immense joy in the all-encompassing focus on the task at hand – that rare flow state where everything else is stripped back to the bare necessities.  

And that risk and consequence are massive driving factors in achieving this state. Exploring beautiful new, unpredictable and complex zones makes me feel more alive and happier than anything else. More in tune with the rich environment around me. These mountains are the centre of my universe and these missions are my deepest homage to their majesty. This internal debate will rage on, pushing and pulling inside me. I may climb on to new great heights, pull back to powder eights or walk away all together. Maybe I’ll decide, maybe the universe will do that for me. For now, I’m going surfing.  

Sam Smoothy