Last winter during a ride in Grand Lake, CO,
Chris Burandt came over from his home in nearby Kremmling to ride with us for a
day. I’ve ridden with Burandt before, so I thought I knew what to expect. I
knew I wasn’t about to set the pace for Burandt, but I had one rule for the
day. Stick to his rear bumper and spare nothing in following him.
We had gotten through most of the day without incident,
mainly because the incidents were being used up by other people. But as the
group emerged from the trees and peeled right on a goat trail, I noticed a line
straight ahead up a trackless, narrow canyon. I figured we could take the
canyon up a ways then roll right back into the group.
(Hindsight note No. 1: I severely underestimated the terrain
we were in. It was steep, alright. I’d even been into this range a couple of times
the year before. But I missed this spot.)
I waited for the first half of the group to follow the
leader down the goat trail before zipping across and pointing the sled I was on
upwards. Burandt and Shae—one of Cat’s mountain engineering team members—took
the bait and followed.
(Hindsight note No. 2: I had just violated my rule. I was in
front of Burandt and about to experience a change in running order.)
I rode up the canyon, hugging the right side at first before
crossing over the drainage to the left side to shoot up another line. I was
high against the treeline, losing momentum and working the sled through a
six-foot gap. As I leaned back to adjust the sled’s angle at the gap, Burandt
shot by a foot below me like I was walking the hill in snowshoes.
I followed Burandt (and, seconds later, Shae) up the canyon,
gaining longitude faster than latitude, until I was back alongside him. We had
peaked out on that line and had to drop back down. Not back down to the trail
where the group had gone, but back down to the next level where the trees
opened up (several inches apart) and allowed Burandt and Shae to begin what’s
now known as “the cliff incident.”
(Hindsight note No. 3: Seeing Burandt and Shae turn through
the trees and traverse across the mountain [there are no “hills” at 11,000 feet
should have been an indication that there were two options for me to choose
from and one was glaringly obvious.)
I’m the adventurous sort at times and figured at the very
least I could drop into one of the tracks if I had to to get through any tricky
spots (Hindsight note No. 4: do I have to point this one out?). But my line
coming back down behind the two was too high (trying to overtake the lead if
but for a brief moment) and I had to drop off another ridge, slingshot around
the well of a tree that obviously did not pick a very level place to grow and
roll back into Burandt and Shae’s tracks. They were long gone by the time I corrected
my route. I rode after their tracks for awhile, shooting through some extremely
tight lines, across some hairy off-cambers and using rocks for traction to get
over a few ridges. The tracks went across a natural shelf on the mountainside
before disappearing into the remains of absolute insanity.
The shelf ended at a small gap between two very large pine
trees. It was honestly cliff on the low side and cliff above it. But the bad
part was the cliff in between the two sleds that had just gone through this
area had left behind bare rocks. I don’t know what those two guys thought when
they shot that gap, but I’m pretty sure they didn’t even slow down or take a
second look. (Hindsight note No. 5: They did take a second look, but neither of
them was going to be the guy who turned out, not that there was anywhere to
turn out to.)
I wasn’t about to quit now, although I did stop and consider
it long and hard. I probably would have if there were actually anywhere else to
go. I certainly couldn’t go up and going down meant someone having to explain
to the authorities where I was last seen. I figured if I at least made it
through the gap I could pick a better spot to turn down and take my chances
with the trees.
I hit the gap on the highest available line, but you can’t
sidehill over rocks. The sled stopped going forward almost instantly and
dropped 15 feet vertically. I hit a patch of snow that was just big enough to
stop on. I planned out my next maneuver (which didn’t work, either) and found
myself only about another sled length ahead of where I was, this time sliding
down with no sign of stopping. The tail end of the sled came around so quickly
it left me hanging onto nothing.
I was off the left side of the sled, looking downhill, still
holding the left handlebar. The back of the ski went between my legs and hooked
my knee, using my leg as a self-arrest apparatus (I had no problem with that).
As the sled slowed, I grabbed the ski tip and pushed it so that the back of the
ski caught the tree we were sliding past. It hooked. I was stopped. Nobody was
coming to help.
It took another 10 minutes to get the sled worked around
into a position that I could launch down the hill, and another 10 minutes to
muster the courage to actually do it. It was so steep I couldn’t see the
bottom. Just trees.
I rolled out of the bottom and eventually located the group.
I had done it. Like a biologist emerging from deep in the Congo, I had followed Burandt through
his terrain and lived.
I had also apparently interrupted lunch.
“Want a sandwich?” someone asked.
No, I’m good. Don’t worry about me.