Armenian Roulette

Sometimes you think the best idea would be to head back to bed with a good book. But after a 4 hour drive to reach the start of a ski tour you tend to persevere, even when you suspect that you could come a cropper.

We’re made up of around 60% water – the rest is flesh, fat, tissue and a bunch of chemical elements. And even though more than half of me is made of the same thing as the crystallized ice which my skis are currently sliding on, not to mention the quantity of air our compositions have in common, I am fully aware that despite our close family ties the snow will show me no mercy. Silent and sparkling, snow is cold, scornful and implacable. It has no feelings. These are the kind of thoughts running through my mind as my skis make their way over the spring snow which has such a peculiar consistency. Along with my two ski touring buddies, local guide  Mkhitar Mkhitaryan and Czech  Jan Pala, we hear numerous ‘woomphs’ as we head towards Mt Teqsar and despite the lack of snow the snow pack still manages to resemble a big pile stacked on top of ball bearings.

The onomatopoeic ‘woomph’ comes from overloading on the snow surface, characteristic of bad bonding between the different layers of snow. It’s known as depth hoar. It happens when snow crystals become pyramid-shaped after big variations in temperature of the snow pack. By virtue of their shape these snow granules don’t have many contact points with each other and form a layer of snow which lacks cohesion and compressibility. It’s also known as ‘sugar snow’ which is an apt description of the grainy texture of the snow. Basically it’s a death trap.

I’m walking on eggshells. My two companions are a hundred or so metres above me as I traverse across the treacherous, soft mound. It’s better like that. I’m not feeling so great after a restless night spent next to what sounded like a derailing freight train. The beauty of the landscapes which we’d crossed to get to the superb Yeghehis canyon were now well and truly behind us. My climbing rhythm stalls under the weight of dark thoughts: the new boots which are killing my feet, the horrible night spent in an inhospitable hotel, the roads surrounded by rusting industrial wasteland, the moroseness of this grey morning, the silence of our group under the dull sky…. The weather is grey, the mountains are grey, the snow is grey and an occasional icy wind cuts through my damp clothes. Were these elements all coming together to tell me something? What should I be listening to?  My guts, my heart, some kind of Cartesian reasoning? I’ll take stock when I get to the ridge.

Sometimes you don’t really know why you carry on. A desire to sweat a bit, to get some fresh air, you tell yourself you shouldn’t worry over nothing, that conditions are never perfect… You can find a thousand excuses to not give up on your little outing. But the alarm bells will still be ringing deep down in your subconscious. They’d been ringing since the start of the day, in the grisly atmosphere which, like the snow, was hinting that we should turn around. But no, we carried on along the slope which seemed too mellow to pose any real danger.

As I get to the ridge I watch my companions traverse along it around 50 meters away. I consider cutting across the slope a bit to reach them quicker. But I change my mind and decide to put in a kick turn and stay in their tracks. As soon as I change direction I feel the snow move and as I turn around I see a big part of the slope fracture down to the ground, accelerate and take out everything in its way. Everything happened in slow motion less than 2 meters away from me. If I had been a meter closer I would have been in it.

It was the guy in front who set the beast off. He was on the ridge but the vibrations had fractured the snow across the slope and set it all off in a landslide. It was unforeseeable. I take refuge on the top of the ridge. My companions watch incredulously and start to take photos. Everything seems surreal. I am furious with myself for not listening to myself, furious for not turning around even though the alarm bells were ringing. I shout out across the mountains with rage. The mountains are disdainful of my meagre cries.

I was bloody lucky to not be taken out. I need to thank my lucky stars. I take a big breath of Armenian air and soak in the view. A slice of blue peaks out towards the east over the never-ending peaks, towards the foothills of Azerbaijan and Iran – a horizon packed with temptation. I tell myself that it would be a shame to stop here. Living means carrying on, but turning back is sometimes the surest way of following the path. I will try to listen to the alarm bells next time. The snow may well be impassive but it isn’t Machiavellian. I just didn’t listen to it, pure and simple. My pride drowned out the warning signs. I need to be less of a fool next time. With these good resolutions in mind I fix my eyes on the horizon, clip in my navis freebird and get the hell out of there.

Words : Antoine Grospiron-Jaccoux

Images : Antoine Grospiron-Jaccoux et Jan Pala