When I was a budding youth trying to get into skiing, I was pretty cheap. I tried to get away with spending as little money as possible to enjoy the backcountry. Sure, this came from a “live simple” philosophy, but it also came from necessity. So, like many skiers out there, I was (and still am to a degree) very skeptical of new flashy tools that claimed to “save your life”. If I had seen Andrew McClean’s brainchild, the Black Diamond Whippet back then, I almost certainly would have scoffed at it. Even if I had the money in my pocket, I would have walked away. But then I went spring skiing…
On a cloudy April morning when I was seventeen, I climbed Mt. Lincoln, a fourteener in the central mountains of Colorado with skis on my back. My friend and mentor, A.J., and I waited on the summit for temperatures to warm up a bit so that we could have a classic Colorado corn descent. I was very new to ski mountaineering; rocking leather boots, 3-pin cable bindings, and I-don’t-know-what-gawdawful-skis. We had spent the two prior days practicing transceiver searches, crampon walking, and self arrest techniques. A.J. first showed me how to self arrest with our traditional mountaineering axe, easy enough I thought. Then I asked him “what do I use to self arrest if I fall while skiing?” He went on to teach me how to use my ski pole, or even violently stab my elbow into the snow. “Basically, use anything you can possibly think of that will help you slow down”. Got it. Being the late 90’s, Andrew McLean’s Whippet had not yet hit the mainstream market. Not that it would have helped my overconfident cheap-o teenage self.
In case you can’t see where this is going, the clouds never left that morning and the snow never softened. The wind picked up and a storm seemed to be brewing in the west. We accepted our fate, and began to descend the bullet-proof crust on a 55+ degree slope. I made one solid jump turn which gave me a nice little boost in confidence, so I tried a second turn. That’s when I went from zero to twenty in a matter of seconds. Jutting bedrock littered the slope we had chosen, so “riding it out” was not an option.
As I slid on my side with skis flopping all about, my poles were dangling from my wrists like a string of tin cans on a “just married” car and I couldn’t quite figure out how they would help. I heard A.J. yelling “elbow, elbow!” So I went for it. At top speed, I threw my elbow into the crust and put all my weight on it. First, the crust absolutely shredded my light parka, then my long underwear (that’s what we called base layers in the 90’s). Next, the not-corn snow took my skin. Two good things came from the bloody elbow self arrest: the first is that it worked. The second is that I was still in high school and managed to impress a good many girls with my bold and harrowing mountaineer tale.