Perception Emotion and The Reality of Snow

I originally started this site as a specific supplement to the CIAC broad forecasting of a massive area that encompasses the Vail and Summit zones. I always felt that in such a specific spot like East Vail, that a “micro forecast” and more importantly current snow reports would be useful. Weather, terrain and usage are unique in East Vail in relation to everywhere else in the zone.

Somewhere along the lines it went off the rails. Honestly I got tired of reporting on the same runs. I received a lot of flack for exposing what now social media has completely exposed as a locals’ spot. I railed against the haters and put up some ski porn as well. Then I left, off to ski other places.

It has recently become a place to mourn the loss of friends. As I get older, the list gets longer. People either stop skiing like they have due to life, families and age, some are still active, doing what they love, some get killed. Since I am back here for a bit I did want to put up a post that was more of what I had hoped this could be. Informational maybe and opinion driven, based on my own experiences.

There is always a blowback after an avalanche accident, especially when it encompasses a longtime local who is charismatic, talented, respected and loved. The news circulates among the community, grief and sadness grip those that are close. Those on the fringe are affected as well. Consequently, usage in the area where it happened, goes down. EV’s latest tragic accident combined with the broad CAIC forecast of deep slab instability adds to the perception of risk even more. It fuels the decrease in people traveling out and runs skied for a short period of time.

Slowly time passes and the initial sharpness of the loss fades. People who aren’t the core diehards start to travel into these areas again. Motivated by ever increasing pressure on mountain, the desire for good snow and less folks drive people back out. The emotion of desire overtakes the perception of risk, especially in easily accessed sidecountry areas. When I was younger, there was also a desire to push limits and boundaries, to chase bigger and bigger dragons. Somehow I survived that stage of my backcountry life. Now I am motivated as much by the uphill travel and the space and the quiet expanse of the winter natural world.

I was interested in going out to EV to see not only the slide that caused the accident, as well as to get a feel for the snowpack and conditions. I ventured up on Wednesday to the top of Benchie to see what I could, absolutely ready to turn around if I couldn’t find a way down that I felt ok with.

The West Marvins area, east facing and fairly low, receives a lot of sun and is notoriously crusty as the year gets later and the sun grows higher. Adding a windy West snow event on top of this layer, especially after an extended period of no snow, can create a old snow/new snow interface problem. What I saw lead me to believe that was the case. There was no step down to the ground, just a huge release of new snow on top of a firm bed surface. DSI was not the culprit.

I went down to Tweeners to see that half of it had run down to the flats. The other half was hangfire, but again the depth was no more than 30 cms of new snow on top of bed surface with no step down to older layers. This is a bit of a misnomer as Tweeners gets hammered regularly and doesn’t represent an untouched snow pack. I kicked around the rest of the hang fire and skied it through to the ridge and spent the rest of the run in the trees, with no red flags in lower open pockets or last faces over thirty degrees.

Taking a look back at Benchmark, I was stuck by how little snow there was. Shrubbery is everywhere. The was evidence again of some shallow slab releases, but nothing to the ground or massive size across the bowl.

Old mans is the one most likely to step into lower layers if triggered, the one that concerns me the most. There were four tracks on the far lookers left side, with the rest of the bowl untouched. The most concerning issue is hitting a thin spot by the upper rock band and triggering a slab that could step down into old week layers and trigger the entire thing. The reason the 747 area has produced multiple accidents, unprotected and right in the maw of a full bowl slide.

Tele line had multiple tracks, as it has the reputation of being “safe” due to its lower angle. Any run that puts you in a middle of a large face is a risk with a bad snowpack with recent activity on similar aspects. This perception is driven by positive reinforcement.

Perception and emotion have no correlation to the actual risk of avalanche in a particular place, yet they are intertwined in the human element of traveling in avalanche terrain. Well funded broad based forecasts can give you an idea of what is going on, but cannot give you specifics. Tragedy can lead to more reverence for a place, but it is always temporary and desire will always push people back out. Stay safe.

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