Don’t leave your brain at home
Aspen, CO ColoradoDid you see the movie where Laurence Olivier plays the role of a demented Nazi dentist? He’s performing his special brand of dentistry on Dustin Hoffman, extricating his teeth without any anesthesia one by one. As he is torturing his patient, who is strapped to a chair, he keeps calmly asking, “Is it safe?” over and over. Hoffman’s character has no clue what’s safe. He doesn’t even know what his tormentor is talking about. Finally, in desperation, he says, “Yes it’s safe, it’s unbelievably safe, it’s completely safe.”If you have no clue what to look for in avalanche terrain to know if it’s safe, take an avalanche class. I can’t stress how important it is to be able to assess risk when crossing avalanche paths on the way to a hut or skiing slopes that have the potential to slide.Avalanche professionals often say you should always travel in avalanche terrain with a beacon, probe, shovel and your brain. If I’m not using my brain in my personal life, how can I expect to use it properly when I’m tired and want to get to a hut, or if I want to get in a few more untracked turns? One of the wonderful things when it comes to making reservations for the Braun Huts is if the avalanche conditions are high, you don’t need to go. You can receive hut credit for a future Braun Hut trip. Everyone has a different perception of risk, and it changes as we age and gain experience. I had a friend whose perception of risk just amazed me at times. He is the only person I know who has skied Toner Bowl solo. Rich was a quiet, unassuming person who loved to play hard in the mountains. He was a good skiing companion who watched out for his buddies. A few seasons back, he went to Canada skiing with a guided party of friends. The guide recommended line for skiing a certain slope. Rich wanted a few untracked turns and skied left of the guide’s line, setting off a small avalanche that killed him when it carried him at high speed into trees. When you mountain bike next summer on the Hobbit Trail or Jedi Trail, think of Rich. He’s the one who built them.According to Dale Atkins, who worked for years with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, 83 percent of avalanche accidents are due to human factor – or, to put it more bluntly, not using the brain. The study Atkins mentioned included people that had some avalanche education.With that in mind, the first step you should take before leaving the house is to check the Roaring Fork Avalanche Information Center (www.rfavalanche.org) to get the latest information on avalanche conditions. When you enter the backcountry, put your avalanche eyeballs on. Is avalanche activity happening? Is the snowpack whumping or settling? Are there shooting cracks in front of your ski tips? How steep is the terrain you’re traveling on, and how steep is the terrain above you? It’s important to remember the majority of avalanches start on slope angles between 30 and 55 degrees, with 38 degrees having the most occurrences.If you’re traveling to the Braun Huts, there’s certain travel rules to follow. I recommend these rules even if the avalanche forecast is low for slide activity. When you travel to the huts, you’ll cross numerous slide paths. If you had the option, you would travel high on the avalanche path or even on ridge tops. Unfortunately, you don’t have that option.Just past the Pine Creek Cookhouse are the Durr chutes. They’re named after Lynn Durr, who perished there in a massive avalanche in March 1993. You don’t have to cross this path. Go into the King Cabin at Ashcroft and get a free avy pass; then use the touring center’s trails to go around this slide path. Always cross potential slide paths one at a time. The other members should be in a safe location watching each other cross. Remove pole straps and safety straps. You don’t want either on if you get caught in a slide. The other members of the party should yell if anything starts to come down, and they should never take their eyes off of the person crossing.These few rules will make for a safer backcountry journey. Have the proper rescue gear, some avalanche education and travel one at a time when crossing suspect slopes.When a mountaineer of Mike Marolt’s stature writes a letter to the editor describing our snowpack as the world’s most dangerous, we should listen. He’s been on snowpacks in Alaska, South America and the Himalayas.We constantly should ask, “Is it safe?”Ron Rash is a Professional Member of the American Avalanche Association and has been teaching avalanche courses for 16 years. He wants people to look for signs of instability, not stability. Reach him for comment at email@example.com.
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