Into the danger zone
February 3, 2004
“If it doesn’t snow for a while, the ski hill’s beat up and the stability looks good, people usually go out [into the backcountry. That’s normal. Except we usually see this in March; now you’re seeing people act like it is March. And it is.”
” ‘Vicente Notartamaso,’ local backcountry skier
“Additionally, if I wasn’t working right now, I’d be touring all over the ***** place.”
Kevin Heinecken is agitated and the awesome vista from the Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol shack isn’t helping.
The buff new shack affords a swooping-bird’s eye view of Maroon Bowl, the sometimes treacherous, out-of-bounds gem on the opposite side of Highlands Ridge from in-bounds terrain like Temerity and the Y-zones. Last Monday, Jan. 12, Heinecken, assistant patrol director and a 13-year Highlands veteran, looked out and counted 10-or-so tracks in Maroon Bowl.
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A few were only hours old. And skiers in exodus from the Highlands backcountry gates accounted for a “ton of tracks” on tempting steeps elsewhere ” below Steeplechase, out in Five Fingers, K-chute, beyond.
It makes Heinecken uneasy.
But, he says, “If it’s not in the ski area, it’s out-of-the-ski-area. They leave, they’re on their own. It’s not our responsibility. … Don’t check in with us either. We don’t keep track. People need to check in with their own friends and not count on the ski patrol for anything.”
That has long been the rule. Don’t expect it to change with the next close call or casualty, either. Just understand it.
Recent “moderate-level” avalanche danger forecasts from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center have brought out Aspen-area backcountry skiers in force. Most skiers and riders carry self-rescue gear, patrollers say, some do not.
But Heinecken, by virtue of Aspen’s open-boundary policy, won’t offer any kind of official statement on backcountry conditions, decision-making or risk assessment. Aspen has pioneered the open-boundary policy in the United States, and so it goes.
“People have died because of that philosophy and policy, but they were able to make their own choices,” Heinecken says.
That, in a simple hard slab, is the game of backcountry skiing in Colorado.
Avalanche Camp, Part I
Last Friday night, Jan. 9, Dick Jackson, guide/owner of Aspen Expeditions and Paragliding since 1977, introduced himself to a classroom full of novice backcountry skiers and riders this way:
“You guys could not be taking this course at a better time. … The trend this year is toward one of the best years we’ve had in five or six years,” Jackson says.
“But,” he hedges, “it’s not a no-brainer. There’s a point where you have to decide ” go or no-go ” and that’s what avalanche training is all about. … This is one of those sciences where you don’t really know unless you screw it up.”
Rich Kerr, the Hunter Creek Condominiums maintenance chief killed in an avalanche in British Columbia Jan. 8, brought this idea into focus when the news broke locally Saturday morning. On that day, there were 112 people enrolled in a two-day Mountain Rescue Aspen course and 13 in a course offered by Aspen Alpine Guides. I was among another 11 people in the Aspen Expeditions Level 1 class.
Departing from the agenda of American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education Level 1 course work, Jackson turned to the Aspen Daily News, citing and challenging details of the Associated Press article about Kerr.
Not actually buried, Kerr triggered a slide that swept him into trees and killed him. The first thing Jackson noted, in a paragraph deep in the story, was that the overall avalanche danger warning in the Selkirk area was high.
“Red flag,” he says, and we all look down at our “decision-making matrix” to see where it falls on the chart. “Whoompfing” sounds in the snowpack, cracking and cross-loading caused by winds are also on that “hot list,” he says.
Then vocabulary lessons begin, with words and phrases like propagation, spatial variability, compression, tensile strength, shear failure, surface and depth hoar, bonding, repeatable results, mid-pack, trigger points, concavities and convexities, micro-features of terrain, terrain traps, and so on.
Four bright-eyed, 20-something snowboarders scribble on notepads, recording everything Jackson says. Three of them ” South Africans Marcus and Ian, and Brit Tom ” are buddies, taking the course together so they can tour together. All three have self-rescue gear, passion and broad smiles, and later all three swear to somehow procure split-boards, posthaste, for better backcountry mobility.
The fourth boarder, Ben, drove straight through from L.A. to enroll in the first of two courses with Jackson and Aspen Expeditions (Level 2 starts Jan. 30). Ben, 26, has a business card that reads “owner/adventurer,” and he wants to make a career in the backcountry industry.
After two seasons in Jackson Hole, Wyo., Ben came to Aspen to learn from Dick Jackson and 27-year-old guide Amos Whiting, a Martha’s Vineyard native who put some tracks in Five Fingers ” just beyond Highland Peak on the Highlands Ridge ” with other clients on the Friday we started the class.
During the first field session the following day, on Richmond Ridge, it’s with great interest that we all spy Amos’ tracks through binoculars, across Castle Creek.
Says Ian: “That’s what it’s all about, eh!”
“The skiing is good. Good,” said a seasoned backcountry skier, who insisted on the name “Vicente Notartamaso.” “And those pockets of considerable [danger] they’re forecasting for, I’d say they’re few and far between. You’d have to be extremely unlucky to kick something off right now. It’s quite a nice snowpack right now, and it’s quite unusual for Colorado too.
“I wouldn’t be pooh-poohing anybody for going out right now, because I would be too if I wasn’t working. … It’s a free country. It’s all cool.”
Perhaps. Jackson, the only Aspen guide certified with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Association and also the current board president of the American Mountain Guides Association, takes a more conservative approach.
“No matter what level of confidence we’re feeling, we’re careful how we project that to the broader audience,” he says.
On the backside of Ajax, and then again above the Markley Hut in the Castle Creek Valley, Jackson and Whiting lead the class through a variety of exercises (protocol, beacon searches, etc.) and two different snowpack tests: the Rutschblock test and compression test. Each exercise involves digging a snow pit and isolating a block of snow, which is then placed under stress in order to gauge stability, or lack thereof, in the snowpack.
The novices, and Jackson and Whiting, all found that the snowpack gave way at some point, so it wasn’t, as they say, “fully bomber.” But on paper, Jackson noted, the result aligned with our hypothesis that the avalanche danger ” of course allowing for “spatial variability” ” was in the “moderate” range (meaning natural avalanches unlikely, human-triggered avalanches possible).
In itself, this was comforting information. I could tell by watching Marcus, Ian, Tom and Ben that they, too, had learned a lesson in taking protocol and practical skills into the field. I’m certain they’ll be repeating the tests and procedures soon.
But this knowledge still presented a problem for me. And Luke, a 26-year-old Ajax Tavern barkeep, shared the sentiment. “If knowledge is power, how empowered do you feel?” he asked as we skied down Express Creek Road at the end of the third day Sunday.
“I know more,” I replied.
“But would you make the call for yourself?” he said. “That’s where I’m still sketchy. How can you know?”
And that’s a question I can’t yet answer. That’s what’s unnerving, scary and thrilling about the backcountry. And that’s why Luke, Marcus, Ian, Tom and Ben, it seems, will be going back for the Level 2 course at the end of the month.
Where they go in the meantime is their call.