Most skiers in Colorado will remember hearing about the avalanche that broke across 800 ft. of terrain and killed 5 out of 6 people caught in its path last year at Loveland Pass. I know I do. This stuck out to me because it is one of the only places I have skied in the backcountry. The terrain at Loveland is very accessible, with a parking area at the summit. Once you have taken a run down, your “ski lift “consists of hitchhiking back to the top; not bad for backcountry access.
I have probably skied Loveland Pass 6 different times, every time without any avalanche gear or knowledge of conditions. It’s true what they say, “Ignorance is bliss” but looking back I feel lucky for somehow keeping out of harms way. That fatal day at the pass was when it really clicked for me; I needed to have a better understanding of backcountry terrain. I have spent the 2013’-14’ ski season building my gear knowledge and preparing for our avalanche course in order to take the next step towards what I hope is a door to backcountry exploration. I would like to share some of the things I have learned. This post is in no way meant to replace an avalanche course, but merely meant to share my experience and a few things I have learned. Last weekend I had a chance to spend 2 days in the field with my girlfriend and two other close friends learning first hand how to avoid sketchy terrain and make safer choices.
Conditions were perfect for learning. The first weekend in February allowed for a decent snowpack, it had just dumped about 2 feet, and it was still snowing. The setting was Rocky Mountain National Park with Colin Wann, our personal guide from Apex EX. Our group is pretty comfortable in a variety of terrain whether it’s powder, trees, groomers, or the park. However, our knowledge in this environment brought us, or at least me, back to my rookie years on the mountain. This is one of the amazing things about the sport; I have been riding for over 12 years and there is still so much to learn, and endless amounts of exhilarating territory to adventure into.
The course started off with a 5 am drive from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park on a chilly 8-degree morning. Once we arrived, we threw on our snowshoes, packed up our gear (required: Beacon, Probe, Shovel) and headed out to learn current snowpack conditions and what it can tell us in terms of safe accessibility. We started out on a 2-mile loop and immediately Colin was eyeing the snow. He pointed out that the storm is creating what is a called a storm slab, a soft cohesive layer of snow that has recently been added to the snowpack. This is where our learning began. Previous to absorbing that term, all I would have seen in front of me was deep fresh snow, and endless lines to choose from.
As we continued through the woods and across Bear Lake we started discussing how we can evaluate what ingredients are needed to cause an avalanche. When looking at our destination for the day we need to take into consideration snowpack, weather, terrain, and most importantly human actions. Each of these variables can be discussed in depth to understand your conditions and how you should approach a backcountry mission.
The snowshoeing trail leads us to an opening where there are soft pillows with 3 feet of snow on top, a 40 ft cliff to the right of us, and thick trees to the left; this is called a terrain trap. On top of that, the slope below the cliff where we have to cross is in our range for a slide (slopes between 25 degrees and 45 degrees are prone to slab avalanches). This is considered a trap because we cannot see what the slope above the cliff looks like, and the trees below would cause serious harm if caught in a slide. In order to minimize danger when crossing this type of terrain we learn that it is best for 1 person to go at a time so that if there is a slide, not everyone is in its path. The lessons gained here give you a new perspective when looking at features and formations in the snow. Not everything is dangerous but should be looked at with a cautious eye rather than an anxious attitude. Slow down.
The day wraps up with building a snow pit in order to see layers in the snow. We can compare the snowpack to the rings on a tree that tell its age. Each layer in the snow has a story. You can see the strength of each layer, warming and cooling cycles, and previous snow events. The ability to test each layer comes with a compression test during which you can watch certain layers propagate, and realize where the snow is weakest.
A final push to Dream Lake and our day came to a close. It was time to head back to the cabin where the dog was waiting to welcome us. Our heads spun with information while we slurped down a couple of IPA’s, getting excited for another day of beautiful terrain and knowledge building.
Waking up with a fresh dusting of snow, and looking out at wind blown peaks, we could already tell the conditions had changed from the day before. The beginning of day 2 would start with a few hours of “classroom” activities. We were each given an avalanche report from last year that we would need to dissect and figure out what went wrong. This gave us the opportunity to read how human action caused avalanches. Colin gave us a quick reminder that hindsight is 20-20 in situations like these. Leaving the classroom we headed to Hidden Valley, an old ski resort inside of the park.
Upon arrival you could see old pathways through the trees of where ski lifts had once been. Our goals for the day consisted of route finding, burial scenario training, and hopefully ending the day with a lap down the terrain we had been studying. Heading up, we tested a couple of slope angles in order to find one at or below 30 degrees (the limit we set for ourselves that day based on the considerable avalanche conditions). After choosing our path and hiking up for a bit it was time to get the beacons out and practice a burial. Colin had us move up the hill about 100 yards while he buried his beacon. Then it was on. It is important to devise a plan based on how many people you have when searching. Communication is key and when there is a signal found you need to share that with your rescue team. As we tracked down the signal we had one person following it, another getting the probe ready, and the others prepping their shovels. Once we landed within a couple feet we conducted a grid test in order to provide direction for probing. In the controlled chaos, that was our first burial scenario, we managed to find the beacon within 8 minutes, which seemed like forever to us. Lessons learned from the first attempt were to calm down, communicate more effectively with our entire team, and assign each person a task to be as productive as possible. We had the opportunity to do a second test as a double burial. These scenarios brought a lot of our training together for me. It really showed me that continued practice of these kinds of drills is what will give you confidence if you are ever caught in a bad situation.
As we took our “Victory lap” down the mountain I had a new vision of terrain in front of me. Instead of focusing solely on the softness of the snow, I caught myself checking out terrain in front of me, and noticing how the snow had changed from the day before. I by no means felt like and expert but was happy to start the learning process that should never stop if I continue exploring the backcountry.
Colorado Avalanche Info: http://avalanche.state.co.us/