Paul Andersen: When is enough snow enough snow?
When people are killed trying to shovel their roofs, when cars are overturned and buried, when homes are crushed, when historic avalanches cut down old growth forests, when snow becomes the Sword of Damocles.
On a backcountry ski tour last week with my son, Tait, we skinned up a safe route through towering aspen trees while gauzy spring snowflakes pattered down. The air was calm and mild. The silence was ear-ringing. Beauty was all around.
Cautious route finding is the best call for avoiding avalanche. There is no need to ski in fear when you’re out for the sake of peace and beauty rather than risking it all for half a dozen powder turns.
The steep and deep is best left to the lift-served mountains where patrollers do their jobs diligently, where you can jump into pitches never to be risked in the backcountry on a winter snowpack. Sticking to that rule has given me 40 years of magnificent backcountry skiing — in safety.
A relationship with snow is like that the story of Damocles, who was attracted to the privilege and wealth of King Dionysius. The king offered to trade places so that Damocles could experience the regal life. Damocles happily assumed the throne, but with a condition.
Dionysius had made many enemies during his reign, and to illustrate the risks he faced, he had a huge sword suspended above the throne, held by a single hair of a horse’s tail. The sword evoked the risks of power and privilege. Damocles couldn’t handle the anxiety, so he returned to normal life.
This year’s snow is the sword hanging over our heads. Many have enjoyed the privilege, but the horsehair snapped for the man near Crested Butte who was buried while shoveling his roof, for the photographer who died photographing powder skiers, for the two local men training for the Grand Traverse.
Yet many of us exult at the snow that keeps tumbling down. Despite three hernias suffered from snow shoveling in the past 40 years, I’m caught up in a fascination with snow that began in Crested Butte in 1970.
I became a professional commercial roof shoveler with a regular job clearing the roof of the CB Athletic Club. I would announce to friends that I was off for a workout at the club, which meant climbing a 30-foot ladder and moving several tons of snow with a grain scoop.
As a snow-deprived youngster of the Midwest, the 300 inches per year in Crested Butte was manna from heaven. Watching snow falling helter-skelter from a dark grey sky is a miracle at which I still gaze with a childlike wonder I hope I never lose.
At home up the Frying Pan, I use a plow truck to clear our subdivision roads. But I stubbornly rely on a push scoop to clear our 100-foot-long driveway. The push scoop is my free gym workout as flakes tickle my face and their aggregate weight loads down the scoop.
Even as spring rains beat down on my roof and raise the smell of earth — raw, fragrant, biotic earth — I know that, high above, the rain is piling up as bonded snow crystals atop an already absurdly deep snowpack.
It is humbling to witness such a grand force of nature mantled upon sagging tree limbs, knocking down power lines, and rising to 10-feet deep on the high ridges and basins. Thoughts of spring runoff give pause for the flush that is surely to come.
The unsung heroes are ski patrollers who perform risky control work, end-of-day sweeps and exercise critical judgment on what to open for the skiing public. Same with search-and-rescue teams who face, not only snow and weather, but grim body recoveries of those who err.
Many are the tired skiers today who get up the hill for a few runs in the morning and call it a day while fresh lines stand unmolested, just begging a skier to break the monotony of virginal contours smoothed over bottomless fluff.
Last year was a warning — don’t take snow for granted. This year is a warning — be careful what you ask for.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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