Moving snow, part 1
When speaking about avalanches, some avalanche professionals describe them as dragons lurking in the mountains. I had an encounter with a dragon in the late ’70s at Steamboat Springs, a ski resort not known for avalanches. A late March storm dumped two feet of moisture-laden snow during the night – not the famous champagne powder. My skiing buddy, Mike, and I headed for the top of the mountain as soon as the lifts started running. We headed to Crow Track, a steep 400-foot chute that has a pitch of more than 40 degrees. Normally I would ski right in and make two or three jump turns to get off the headwall. But, because of the new snow, I decided to ski across the top of the chute and have a look before making any turns. Mike was right behind me. Little did either of us know that life was going to get very exciting. The entire chute started moving. The fracture line went right across my skis. I fell on the slope and started digging in. I slid about 5 feet on the bed surface. I jumped up and started hooting and hollering. I was 23, and my adrenal glands were out of control.I looked back at Mike, who was crawling out of the chute. I yelled, “Where are you going? It’s safe now.” He never looked back and just kept crawling away. I slid down the chute. Mike took another route and met me at the bottom. We walked around on the avalanche debris. Ten to 15 feet of snow had accumulated at the base of the chute. The snow in the debris pile was as hard as cement.After reporting to the patrol, we continued our ski day. We both had a new respect for the mountains. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good. We were lucky that day. We had a small glimpse of the dragon, and our respect for the mountains in winter changed dramatically. When teaching avalanche classes, I ask participants to put themselves into one of three categories: The first classification is where you completely avoid avalanche terrain. The second involves some interaction with avalanche terrain, such as crossing steep slopes, touring to a hut or occasionally skiing down terrain where the possibility of an avalanche exists. The final classification is when you ski or ride in steep terrain all of the time – such as Highlands’ Toner Bowl, Five Fingers or Maroon Creek Bowl. We will get to the second and third categories in future columns, but for now let’s stick with the first classification. There are places in the upper valley where you can tour safely. But, it’s still good to carry a beacon, shovel and probe on your tours. Also, you should take an avalanche class to learn how to use avalanche equipment and what to look for when traveling near avalanche terrain.I avoid slopes with an angle greater then 28 degrees, those with no anchors (trees that would be hard to walk through in the summer) and those with a possible avalanche runout zone. Slide paths look like ski trails in the summer. Avalanches do run through open forested areas, too. Using maps in avalanche terrain is paramount to safe travel. You want to know what’s above you, even in areas where you cannot see the higher slopes. By reading the contour lines, you are able to assess the slope angles before traveling in the area.One of the most important tools you should purchase is a slope inclinometer. With it, you can measure slope angles. Purchase one that you can use with topographic maps. Places that have little avalanche danger in the upper valley are along the Government Trail between Snowmass and Buttermilk, the middle of the Hunter Creek valley and the Sugar Bowls above the Government Trail. (The Sugar Bowls do have some small pockets steep enough to slide.)Routes to the Benedict Hut, Gates Hut and McNamara Hut are virtually free of moving snow. Again, that is with our current knowledge of snowpack, weather and terrain and how they relate to avalanche conditions.Before starting any winter outing, refer to the Roaring Fork Avalanche Center (www.rfavalanche.org). They provide daily avalanche forecasts for local mountains. While your goal is to avoid avalanche terrain, it helps to know the avalanche activity in the area.Ron Rash is a local mountain guide and a senior instructor with the National Outdoor Leadership School. His e-mail address is email@example.com. For more information on avalanches, Mountain Rescue Aspen is offering a two-day avalanche seminar in January. The Roaring Fork Avalanche Center also is hosting a fundraiser Monday at Six89 in Carbondale.The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.
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