Snow Smorgasbord: Stay safe from overindulgence with these key tips |

Snow Smorgasbord: Stay safe from overindulgence with these key tips

Amanda Rae
Food Matters
The view from the top of Aspen Highlands last weekend shows the product of a fruitful winter with plenty of snow, but also the dangers of the avalanches this month.
Anna Stonehouse/The Aspen Times

Rusty grills up some Canadian bacon at Buttermilk for Bacon Appreciation day and closing day in April 2018.

9th Annual Bacon Appreciation Day

Speaking of on-mountain indulgence: Buttermilk’s Closing Day celebrations heat up on Sunday, April 7, at 9 a.m, “featuring a schedule of all things bacon, including bacon waffles, bacon doughnuts, and bacon samplers around the mountain,” according to Aspen-Snowmass. Also enjoy live music, an outdoor bar, kids’ games, and face painting—plus bacon-and-beer happy hour at Bumps restaurant from 2-4 p.m.

Hallelujah! Ullr, the snow god, has answered our prayers and rewarded our hopeful worship: Aspen’s winter season 2018-19 is a true-blue powder buffet. Our four mountains and the Rockies beyond are blanketed with caches, stashes, and treasure troves of the fluffy stuff. More than 4 feet of flurries within a week? Yep, that happened!

Since ski-town morale is intimately linked to inches and conditions, local business is booming and spirits are high. Despite representing a breathless, knee-buckling blast, such an epic snow smorgasbord spells certain trouble: fatal and destructive avalanches in the backcountry and very close to home, pandemonium at ASE, traffic accidents, city plow-induced potholes galore, and close calls within on-mountain boundaries. Turns out that “too much of a good thing” might be a real phenomenon after all.

Recently a friend posted a detailed account of his harrowing near-death experience, mere feet from the middle base run-out trail anchoring the Highland Bowl. I read his story with rapt fascination and building horror: how he double ejected into 8-plus feet of heavy, loose, untouched powder, landing upside down amid a cluster of massive pine trees.

Buried face-first by snow, immobilized and fearful of sure suffocation, he screamed for help. Those yells went unnoticed by dozens of skiers who schussed past him over the course of the next hour. In fact, when he did get ahold of ski patrol via cellphone, they struggled to find him, since he was totally hidden—and muted. He couldn’t see daylight. Even for an expert-level skier—the dude is a certified ski instructor, too—the struggle was horrifyingly real.

My friend’s 1,098-word chronicle credits his life to a few “instrumental” factors, including having first-responder phone numbers accessible in his phone (see sidebar below). While he had to dig around for 20 minutes with an ungloved, frozen hand to reach said phone in a chest pocket, he may not have survived had that lifeline been located in a pants pocket.

“Even though I was in-bounds and just feet off of the main trail, a beacon would have been helpful. At minimum, a whistle,” he writes. “I yelled at the top of my lungs for close to an hour. The snow and the tree above muffled it to barely being audible.”

Other tips: making small, intentional movements and breathing calmly were key; big motions caused more snow to fall from tree branches and drain precious energy. After being dug out and hoisted from the hellhole by an intrepid, eagle-eyed patroller, the victim describes feeling shaken for a while afterward: “It was—and still is—beyond surreal to have been so close to death and then to click in and ski off.”

His missive includes chilling stats from 20 percent of skier and snowboarder deaths happen in tree wells and 90 percent of tree well and SIS (Snow Immersion Suffocation) research participants are unable to rescue themselves. Signage in some markets—Steamboat Springs, for example—warns of avoiding tree wells altogether, which is no small feat, though, when shredding amid woods.

Quite clearly, the ridiculous depths of snow we’ve received in the past few months are both a blessing and a curse. And in Aspen, where overconsumption, unfortunately, seems to be worn as a badge of pride in many circles, gorging oneself can spell serious danger.

Perhaps most crucially, he was adamant that the ordeal could have been deadly had he been intoxicated when it happened. Having clear-headed awareness, information and tools (phone, a ski pole strap used as a probe/signal) are necessary to enjoy natural abundance safely. Experts caution that skiing with a buddy is a smart way to increase one’s chances of avoiding catastrophe.

As cofounder of Aspen Weather, Ryan Boudreau describes a perfect storm of elements that creates a winning recipe for an incredible ski season.

“This winter was on the colder side and it was consistent—we didn’t get that two-week winter warm up,” he says, crediting partner Cory Gates for calling it this past fall. “It was good to get snow in October, because snow acts as an insulator, where it blocks the sun’s rays (from the earth). It’s tough to warm up because we’re blanketed by so much snow.”

Thanks to the precise location of El Niño—the warming of equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean—more snow seems on-trend through Closing Day, at least.

“El Niños tend to go deep into April/May, based on percentages in the past. That Pacific hose doesn’t like to shut off just yet,” Boudreau says. “These storms are relentless. We’ll have stormy periods later this week and into next week, and it looks stormy for the end of this month.”

Boudreau is no stranger to indulgent predilections; backcountry athletes regularly consult Aspen Weather for guidance before heading out on adventure because forecasts vary wildly depending on altitude.

“People depend on our timberline forecast for skiing off-piste,” he notes. “The Gastons will ask us (before) doing the Grand Traverse. Above timberline, it’s a different forecast. The wind and the sun f—s it up per day. That’s why the avalanche forecast is different every day.”

While Boudreau himself is a fan of backcountry pursuits, he’s kept distance lately. The meteorologist understands firsthand how fast a run can turn from fun to frightening.

“A few years ago I got caught in a tree well in the side country of the Tetons up by Jackson Hole,” he shares. “That was scary; I got chased by a powder ball. This year I stayed away from everything. I skied 70 days so far, but I’m hoping to golf by the end of April. We’re so spoiled!”

If Boudreau’s estimation is correct, Aspen powder hounds shall feast for a few more weeks at least. Gluttony won’t serve you well, however. Take precautions, protect your heads, and stay safe out there!