Paul Andersen: AT gear sales convey an avalanche warning
My wife just bought a set of used alpine touring skis, boots and bindings. This is her lift ticket for skiing during COVID, the ultimate insurance should the lifts stop running as they did in March.
For many skiers, lift closings last year marked the beginning of some of the best spring skiing in memory. Aspen Skiing Co. kept up the grooming for hike skiers to enjoy fresh tracks over a firm, consistent base. That translated into innumerable powder turns with no lift-line frenzies.
My wife plans to use her new gear for skinning up Buttermilk, perfect for her AT ski debut. Many AT skiers, however, will set their risk factors considerably higher.
As more skiers discover the beauty of backcountry access, the law of averages guarantees that more will die in avalanches. Beyond fitness, beacons and probes, safety has to be more about temperance.
Along with lightweight ski gear, there has evolved a GoPro identity to backcountry skiing. If it’s not a worth a video of the steep and deep, it’s not worth skiing. Vert and turns are the currency. Visibility on social media is the dividend. Avalanche fatalities are the cost.
According to a survey of backcountry skiers from last winter, 52% said they had triggered avalanches; 25% said they had been caught in slides; 30% had never taken an avalanche class.
Many skiers possess the gear, the fitness and the righteous desire for backcountry adventure, but many also lack the necessary caution. A GoPro may be more valued than a transceiver. When a slide occurs, video footage may show fatal mistakes — after the fact.
Fewer and fewer backcountry avalanche fatalities occur with folks using old school cross-country skis. Basic touring as a means of getting out in the woods has gone out of fashion as powder turns have come to define what most skiers crave to carve.
In my early ski years spent backcountry touring around Crested Butte in the mid-’70s, turns were a bonus if we got them at all. We were skiing straight boards with little side cut and minimal flotation. Our boots were flimsy leather, at least in contrast to five-buckle Scarpas. And still, we were happy on wooden, pine-tarred, green-waxed Bonnas tracking through the silent forest over a glistening carpet of white.
That doesn’t mean we didn’t push our boundaries with long, ambitious tours. But the reason to ski was not the so-called extreme skiing that many see it as today now that YouTube and GoPro define the experience.
As a telemark skier of 45 years, I recognize that lightweight AT gear is more appropriate for most skiers — like my wife. Rather than suffering tele faceplants, today’s AT skiers prefer the ease of parallel.
But being a backcountry aficionado is not so much about skis, boots, beacons, probes, airbags and Avilungs; it’s about experience and familiarity. My old ski partner, the late Randy Udall, remarked that he would just as soon wear a bear claw talisman than strap on a transceiver.
Randy understood and respected backcountry skiing. He once skied with Bill Frame from Crested Butte to Steamboat before any hut systems. Pacing, route finding and snow caves got them through without hypothermia, frostbite or avalanches.
Randy never graduated from his old-school gear, on which he toured throughout the Elk Range and beyond, often long, arduous tours up wilderness valleys and over high passes. Most of those miles were on wax kickers.
Randy never skied downhill worth a damn, but he could set his mind and body on trudge mode and go all day, taking in the beauty around him without jonesin’ for face shots. Many times he negotiated slide zones, always finding the most cautious routes. I know this because I was with him.
Whether the lifts run this winter, more skiers will be exploring the wonders of the beautiful backcountry under human power. That’s admirable because human power is soulful and sustainable.
I’m stoked that my wife has AT equipment and a self-willed ticket to free skiing. On Buttermilk she can ski to her heart’s content — without a GoPro or avy gear.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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Some very philosophical and long-overdue discussions are finally happening among the members of the Aspen-Piktin County Housing Authority board.