Flashback Series Episode 1: TNT!

Happy Cinco de Mayo friends!  Today is an important day for The Rock Climber’s Training Manual, the 37th anniversary of the authors’ birth.  To commemorate the occasion, here is the first in a new “Flashback Series” of tales of past adventures.   The below story was selected because it has a strong “twin” theme that we think is appropriate for our birthday.  The story is based upon actual events, but names have been changed to protect the innocent.  It was written almost 15 years ago and is essentially  unrevised.  We do not encourage or condone the activities described.  That said, we were all young and stupid once.  Fortunately through some miracle we managed to survive long enough to learn from our many foolish mistakes….

Once upon a time there were two boys, named Tommy and Timmy. Tommy and Timmy were brothers, in fact, they were twins. Tommy and Timmy’s parents thought it would be really hilarious if they gave their twin sons names that started with the same letter, and boy, they were right!!

One beautiful winter morning TNT (as they were sometimes called for short—how cute!!) were out cross country skiing in the open wilderness of Northern Utah’s Wasatch Range. Their objective was the mighty, majestic Mount Timpanogos, the highest mountain in the range, and perhaps the most well-known peak in all of Utah.

Timmy was a boy whose mind was constantly filled with dreams of rock and ice. If Timmy wasn’t actually climbing something, he was thinking about it.  And Timmy’s real passion was accomplishing “first ascents”—climbing routes that nobody had ever climbed before. Whenever Timmy had a minute of free time he would scour the backcountry in search of unclimbed routes. Although the mighty Timpanogos had seen countless ascents over the years, no route had ever been established on the remote and domineering Northeast Face [Editor’s note: This is gratuitous unsubstantiated hyperbole, and likely incorrect].  This seemed to Timmy like a perfect objective for him. Unfortunately his usual Utah climbing partner, Tommie, was suffering from an intense case of elephantitous of the testicals, so he would have to find another partner…

A typical TNT First Ascent attempt c. 2000: Unappealing, already climbed, and ultimately aborted.

A typical TNT First Ascent attempt c. 2000: Unappealing, already climbed, and ultimately aborted.  This one was in the Cirque of the Unclimbables.

Tommy, on the other hand, was a boy who mostly didn’t want to die. However, Tommy had a weak spirit and was easily convinced to do things that any idiot could see were not very safe. When Tommy’s brother Timmy explained the unbelievably amazing and awesome new route potential on the North Face of Mount Timpanogos, Tommy had no choice but to whimper, whine, and feign enthusiasm. Tommy had been through this movie before: He knew that sooner or later, his brother would drag him up the North Face of Mount Timpanogos, so he might as well minimize the complaining and just get it over with.

Now although Tommy had traveled extensively in Utah, he didn’t actually live there. And Tommy had never actually seen the North Face of Mount Timpanogos. Some people may consider that a good excuse for Tommy’s decision to go ahead and attempt the route. Most people would think that was just plain stupid. But everyone would agree, that after actually  looking at the North Face of Mount Timpanogos, nobody would actually try to climb it, certainly not by the route Timmy had in mind, and certainly not on a warm winter day with such large quantities of snow accumulated high on the route.

You see, the route Timmy had in mind follows what laymen would call an “avalanche gully.” Well-educated alpinists with extensive experience would call it a “death trap.” Timmy called it an excellent opportunity to get famous really fast…

Tommy flew into the Salt Lake City Airport late Friday night, where he was picked up by his brother Timmy. Timmy’s reconnaissance of the potential route revealed, well, very little. However, it did reveal that an early start would be imperative if it were to be accomplished in a single day. So TNT awoke at some un-godly hour and proceeded towards American Fork Canyon, and the beginning of their adventure. Among the many things that Timmy’s reconnaissance did not reveal, was the exact starting point of the route’s approach. But after a few mis-starts the two youngsters were off.

After nearly three hours of skiing, the sun began to peak over the distant horizon, and trickles of light spilled on to the heavily corniced summit ridge of the great mountain. Throughout the morning’s journey Tommy had strained his imagination for some inkling of what lie ahead. But all his relentless conjuring had revealed was a vague silhouette of the rugged peak.  Finally, with dawn at his disposal, Tommy could see what his thoughtful twin had in store for him.

The northern aspect of Mt. Timpanogos

The northern aspect of Mt. Timpanogos

The first thing the observant climber noticed was that after three hours of skiing, the two were nowhere near the base of the route, and would be skiing for quite a while longer. But the route itself? The route Timmy had in mind was nothing short of magnificent. Actually, on second thought, it was about 1000 feet short of magnificent. You see, the route was basically one to two pitches of beautiful mixed rock and ice climbing followed by roughly 1000 feet of slogging up an enormous trough of snow to the summit.  Apparently Timmy’s extensive reconnaissance hadn’t uncovered much about the last part of the route.

With renewed motivation, Timmy and Tommy returned their attention to the task at hand: several more hours of difficult skiing…

Two hours later, the sun was fully up, and the two lads were nearly at the base of the massive face. The sun was so ‘up’ in fact, that Tommy was wishing he had brought his sunglasses and sunscreen. While packing, Tommy figured he would never need such things, it being wintertime, and since the route was on the North side of the mountain (and therefore not exposed to sunlight). However the approach was such that the last hour or so of skiing would be done on a 35-40 degree snow lope that faced almost directly East, and was warmed by the intense high-altitude sunlight all morning. While traversing the slope, Tommy remarked to himself (Tommy was the sort of nutcase who was always remarking to himself) that he and his brother Timmy were skiing through classic “slab avalanche” conditions. The steep slope, the warm day, and the hard crust of snow were notorious indicators. If not for the reassurance of the current Avalanche Report (which suggested low danger), Timmy and Tommy might have been concerned.

Tommy side-hilling towards the mountain.

Tommy side-hilling towards the mountain.

Tommy paused from the march for a moment to study the beauty of a distant peak (and to take a leak). He turned his attention back towards the destination just in time to watch Timmy begin his slide down the slope, along with the 2-3 thousand cubic feet of snow he was standing on.

“AVALANCHE!!!” Timmy yelled as he struggled for mercy.

Tommy pretty much stood there starring, “Wow, I’ve never seen anything like this before!” He remarked to himself (that’s Tommy-always cool and calm in a crisis. Sidenote: When Tommy got his first car, his Dad bought him an “Emergency Kit” with road flares, jumper cables and all that good stuff. But when he gave it to Tommy he said he didn’t want to call it an ‘emergency kit,’ because he would hate to think of what sort of tragically horrible calamity would have to occur before Tommy deemed it an ‘emergency.’ Ha!). After sliding a mere 30 feet, Timmy was able to arrest his fall, and the two watched as heaps of snow continued for several hundred feet down the slope.

Any sane humans would have been worried at this point. But not Timmy and Tommy! By their bizarre logic, TNT had just proven that their only serious concern, avalanche danger, was nothing to worry about! Timmy had just survived a so-called avalanche, so therefore the two would certainly be able to survive all future avalanches, right? Once Timmy dusted off the
fresh coating of powder snow from his person, he continued steadfastly towards his objective.

Not more than 10 steps further along, Timmy felt a now familiar sensation.  Tommy could not believe his eyes. The entire hill side, a slab 100 feet wide, over 500 feet long and up to several feet thick began sliding down, with Timmy standing on top of it.

Avalanche Diagram

Tommy watched helplessly as his brother cart-wheeled his way down the slope, ski poles flailing uselessly. His first instinct was to toss his pack and ski madly towards his brother, and begin the inevitable excavation. But he realized it was far more important to keep his eyes locked on Timmy, so that he would know where to start digging.

The slide from Tommy's perspective...

The slide from Tommy’s perspective…

However, almost immediately after the slide started, Tommy lost sight of his brother as he tumbled behind a small grove of trees. Several seconds passed before Timmy popped up out of the churning river of snow, arms flailing, over a thousand feet below where he once stood. Timmy knew the textbook avalanche procedure.  He had to do everything in his power to stay above the snow. But his skis were dragging him down like two high tuned, top-of-the-line, carbon fiber anchors. Timmy felt like a mobster had tossed him off the pier with a block of cement around his ankles. As he bobbed helplessly in the current, Timmy felt the snow closing in around him. He realized that if he didn’t do something quick he would eventually be buried alive within seconds.  At long last, Timmy managed to kick off his useless skis. He began swimming madly in the snow. He could feel solid ground below, and dug in his heels to slow his descent. Eventually, Timmy was able to stop himself, and watched in disbelief as the snow continued plowing down the slope for another thousand feet.

...and Timmy's view looking back up the slope after arresting his slide.

…and Timmy’s view looking back up the slope after arresting his slide.

Tommy called anxiously to his bewildered brother. To both the boys’ amazement, Timmy was un-injured, aside from a few minor bruises (that Timmy would complain about relentlessly for days to come). The slide settled under a plume of powder snow (the best snow on earth!) as the two fools contemplated all the things in life they were thankful for.

A look at the slide from the boys' retreat.

A look at the slide from the boys’ retreat.

Timmy and Tommy decided that this would be a good time to abandon their proposed climb. After a few minutes of searching Timmy miraculously located his ditched skis (though only one ski pole) and shot a few photos for the scrap book.  The two skied calmly towards the parking lot, feeling lucky to have enjoyed such a beautiful day in the wilderness.

Timmy approximating the  beginning and end of his near-fatal journey.

Timmy approximating the beginning and end of his near-fatal journey.

THE END

[Editor’s note: The cavalier attitude displayed in the moment, and after the fact (when the story was written) was typical of our early adventures.  I can’t believe how many times we nearly killed ourselves, and then casually shrugged off the danger five minutes later.  This wasn’t the cool bravery of experienced climbers, electing to take a calculated risk—this was blissful ignorance unchecked.  I mention this in case some young gun is reading this–when that crotchety old has-been warns you to take it slow, consider just for a moment that they might actually know what they’re talking about—they might even have some first hand experience 🙂 .  Fortunately we eventually ran into a few of those guys and they talked some sense into us.]

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