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On February 8, sometime in the mid morning, Colorado-based Leland Nisky was hit by an avalanche. He was unroped and alone, making the final moves of The Ribbon (WI 4; 400 feet) in Ouray, Colorado, on a day off of work.
It was his first time climbing The Ribbon and, despite the first pitch being in mixed condition, he told Climbing “the rest of the climb was arguably the best ice I’d gotten on this season.” He made quick progress up the route, aware of The Ribbon’s substantial overhead hazard and its reputation to release large, catastrophic avalanches on occasion. However, with the Backcountry Avalanche Forecast showing low hazard at all elevations, Nisky believed a morning lap up the northwest-facing climb would minimize his avalanche exposure.
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Climbing reached out to Nisky to learn more about the incident, the conditions he experienced leading up to it, and what was going through his mind as he entered minute-two of weathering the avalanche. The interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, can be found below this horrifying video captured by Nisky’s helmet camera.
Climbing: What were the weather and avalanche conditions like that day?
Nisky: The weather was beautiful. It was quite cold in the morning, clear skies and full sun. An absolutely breathtaking day. Small gusts of wind every once in a while. Avalanche conditions were green, and had been for a while. I had known of several people climbing this route and finding success over the last few weeks, which significantly aided in my decision to go up there. After the fact, the head guide at the company I work for called me to talk about it, and told me that the bowl above this climb is actually quite unique—it’s basically just filled with loose facets. This was absolutely unknown to me prior to making the decision to go up there. I usually talk to everyone I can about conditions beforehand, but had blanked on asking him.
Can you describe the avalanche?
It was loose snow sloughing off the surface and building until it became an avalanche. Probably caused by a gust of wind. In the video it’s hard to tell, but I was slightly under a bulge of ice, meaning that I did not see it coming. I was actually switching my hands to place my tool when it hit. It was terrifying. I’ve been partially buried in an avalanche years ago in Washington, and the same terror overtook me. I knew if I stayed terrified I probably would die, so I concentrated on controlling my breathing, hugging in tight to the wall to prevent snow buildup on my body, and tucked my head down to breathe a little air bubble. There was a wave in there, about 10 seconds after I managed to calm myself down and throw my second tool in the wall, that hit me with a ton of weight. It was immense pressure, and I felt chunks of snow bouncing off my backpack and body. I thought I was going to die. If a wave of any more force hit me, I don’t think I could’ve held on.
What was going through your head?
At first? Sheer unbridled terror. I swung wildly trying to get my second tool into place. I thought for sure I was going to die. Then I felt calm. I focused on my breathing. I pushed any thought out of my head. I kept breathing, slowing my heart rate. I knew that, no matter what, I was going to hold onto my tools. I thought about what kind of force would be needed to make me budge, for it would not come easily. I tucked myself into the wall, breathing, constantly working to clear my mind, waiting for either another huge wave or for the snow to start dissipating.
How high up The Ribbon were you?
I was about 400 feet off the ground. I’m not entirely sure; I’m basing that off the fact that I did two full-length 60-meter raps to get back down.
How many minutes did the avalanche run for?
About two minutes of actual snow weight. It started to slow down, but continued to run while I downclimbed.
What did you do once the snow stopped?
I hadn’t done this route before so I didn’t know exactly where the anchors were. I shook the snow off my face and looked around only to realize I had accidentally climbed about 10 feet above the anchor. So I downclimbed while some weak spindrift rained down, and attached myself to the anchor. My mind was running wild at that point. I tried my best to suppress it, and made my two raps to the ground. I got back to the car in about 20-ish minutes, moving with some gusto. Went back into town, grabbed a hot chocolate and a cookie and sat in the sun soaking up life for a couple of hours.
Any lessons learned or advice you’d like to share?
When I leave my car I am at the mercy of the mountains. I understand this fact. I also understand that justifying solo climbing when something goes wrong is incredibly hard to do. But I love it—it grounds me, makes me happy, makes me calm, it’s like my version of meditation. I’ve been in some really scary situations in the mountains but I think this takes the cake.
I believe the only reason I lived is because I focused on my breathing to control my fear response instead of allowing fear to control me. I pushed my thoughts away and did my best to remain calm. I wanted to live. I fought with everything I had. I feel incredibly lucky. Lucky that there wasn’t any more force hitting me, lucky that the anchor was nearby, lucky that I studied fear psychology in college and learned breathing techniques to keep my heart rate down. I wanted to live and I’m lucky. Situations like this test the culmination of who you are as a person. If you play music maybe you’re great at improvising, if you do art maybe you can come up with a creative answer. Absolutely everything that makes you you comes into play.
Besides that, it’s important to gather every piece of information possible before soloing a new-to-you route. Ask your mentors, people in the community, and those who do avalanche-mitigation work. People who would know the nitpicky information that isn’t readily available. This has been an ongoing learning process for me as I grow older, and my zest for life continues to grow. Soloing is inherently dangerous and leaves no margin for error, but there are still so many ways to assess and mitigate the risks. Many people view what I do as an unnecessary and thought-free act, instead of viewing it as an art form that I’ve dedicated my life to.
I’m still mentally unpacking this situation and coming to terms with its effects on my head game and mental psyche. I’m sure my list of learnings from this experience will never cease.