No way home

Ron RashAspen, CO Colorado

The doctor was walking to the outhouse when he looked up to see me open the door and miss the first step, falling into the snow. The steps are narrow and steep to the Friend’s Hut outhouse. I was uninjured except for my professional pride.I had met the doctor and his companion, another doctor, at the Green-Wilson Hut earlier in the day. We then skied over Pearl Pass to the Friend’s Hut, where we planned to stay for two nights before skiing back to Ashcroft. I was ecstatic that we got over 12,705-foot Pearl Pass in high winds and with an approaching storm coming from the southwest.One way to get mountain guides involved in a lively discussion is to ask if there is a safe route over Pearl Pass if avalanche conditions are high. The answer is yes, but, at the same time, the risks with clients would influence me to say no. Once you get over the pass, you need to have an alternate plan if the weather conditions make it unsafe to go back over. Our alternate plan was to head down to Crested Butte. There were three fellows staying at the hut with the seasoned appearances of winter mountaineers and the smell of the unwashed. They were the snow safety crew for the Elk Mountain Traverse. Their job was to evaluate snow conditions as to whether to run the race or not.The storm literally chased us into the Friend’s Hut with wind and snow starting to pick up. That night we had winds in excess of 45 mph and snow falling at a rate of 2 inches per hour.The new snow was so deep that the low angle terrain just north of the hut was not steep enough to turn on. But, at the same time, with avalanche danger becoming a real concern, we could not venture onto steeper terrain.It continued snowing all day, and after trying to make a few turns the doctors were content to stay in the hut reading and eating. My Sisyphean challenge was to keep the trail open to Pearl Pass, which after three attempts I gave up to reality. While I was abusing myself trail breaking, the snow safety crew was doing the same mantra up Star Pass. Each time we regrouped at the hut, we would compare notes on weather, snow stability and the likelihood of the race happening. We had no choice the next morning, we were going to C.B. The snow safety crew informed us they were recommending that the Elk Mountain Traverse not go over Star Pass. About that same time, one of the doctors asked me why the snow was red. I explained to him that we going to be skiing on southern Utah today. I had seen this phenomenon before; I just had never seen so much dust in the past. It made me realize two things: This storm was huge, and our decision to go to C.B. was absolutely the right one. When skiing from the Friend’s Hut down East Brush Creek, you’re still exposed to avalanche paths coming off the ridges that extend south from Carbonate Hill and Timbered Hill.When encountering these slide paths, we would spread out or travel one at a time. Since we were going downhill, we carried some speed in crossing these paths; still, I could not help myself from encouraging the doctors to hurry. The change from winter to spring is an especially dangerous time of year for backcountry skiers. March and April storms tend to come in with high winds and lots of moisture. Northern slopes may have unstable layers deep in the snow pack, just waiting for a trigger. Daytime temperatures may be well above freezing. I get pretty nervous in steep terrain when any of these weather extremes are happening: lots of moisture, high winds or high temperatures.Upon our arrival in C.B. I was greatly relieved in getting out of the mountains safely.C.B. had only a few inches of snow, and most people were surprised to hear there was over 3 feet of snow at the Friend’s Hut.The doctors were exhilarated with their new adventure and kept talking about skiing from one town to another just like in Europe.The organizers of the Elk Mountain Traverse decided to run a shortened version of the race, all on the C.B side of the mountains. Since Aspen competitors had to drive back, we had no problem securing a ride back home.