Happy New Year EVI from the Tetons!
What a long strange road 2013 has been. Radio silence, not even a pin drop. It has been a while for me and my two cents in the whole wide world of EVI and rightfully so. I have taken a huge step back and am now looking at my life in the mountains from a totally new perspective. A “Grand Perspective” if you will. Everything in my Rocky Mountain life seemed so large and important, so safe, predictable. constant and calculated. Come to find out, my life in the valley was only a fleeting illusion and the life I was enjoying on the summits was completely different from the life I was grinding out down below. Much like the infamous snow pack of Colorado, a wedding cake resting on top of champagne glasses just ready to tip and come crashing down. Sometimes a change of scenery or even aspect and angle can have a profound effect on what we choose to hold near and dear and what layers we choose to shed down to and move on. 2013 was my year for that imminent change in scenery, aspect and angle. I even shed down a few layers.
After a textbook Vail-Valley-Style divorce, I was left with the only prized possessions any self-respecting mountain man needed for survival. She got everything; the house, the money, the valley and my friends. I got what was left; the dog, the Allroad, mountain bike, fishing gear, ski/mountaineering arsenal. What more did or do I really need? The real question was/is, where would I need it? The obvious choice was the Teton Range, Jackson Hole, Wyoming. So I loaded up and got the F outta dodge.
I’ve become incredibly used to the fact that all I need in this Peter-Pan-Life to be truly happy are the tools to be waist deep in pow, waist deep in the river, or out exploring with my unconditionally loving four-legged companion. All said and done, with those very simple and humble possessions, I will never grow old, I will not waste or want and I will be ever-ready and packed for the next big adventure.
So here I am now, smack in the middle of Davey Jackson’s Hole. I have replanted some roots, although shallow roots they be, made some good local friends, (local = born and raised here. Not oh, my family has a fourth home here and I have summered since I was a kid and now that I am so, like, totally funded… my parents just let me live in our 3,000 ft. guest house rent/problem/job/responsibility free…). There are all types here, as there are anywhere else.
Fortunately, I have found my way into a contingent of skiers and riders who are humble, down-to-earth and who ski and ride harder than anyone I have ever seen. The gals rock Dynafit/Kaestle/108/187’s and are just plain, so much radder than you. They even have this thing called the “JH Babe Force” and it is a force to witness, with drool, dripping off the chin. I just offer to buckle boots and give calf massages and in turn, get to chase after “Ms. 108’s” as we drop into places like Granite Canyon, Cody Bowl and some of the more “Top Secret” lines that the Tetons have to offer.
So here we stand, clipped in and ready to drop into a new year. And me, with a whole new range of mountains to explore. As I follow along with the crew back in EV and the Gore Range, I will be pursuing all that the Tetons have to offer and will bring you along for the ride. Look forward to some of my adventures in Jackson Hole and Beyond this season and I will look forward to hearing from everyone back in Colorado. The scenery from this aspect and angle are looking extremely promising! Now if I could only find a hoar in Jackson Hole that will support me better than that loose one in Colorado, I will be living the ultimate Peter-Pan-Life.
L.L.D. & EVI Worldwide
Last night could not have been a better night to get out under the bright moonshine on Vail Mountain! EVI was in full force, we met up with the Surefoot guys and brought “Beeeaaans” the legendary “Wayward Pup” for some priceless entertainment. The full moon rose brightly just after 7pm and our group of 8 started out from the Vista Bahn in Vail Village. We made great time ascending the freshly groomed cat tracks and head walls.
Charged by the magic of the night and the thought of being in Alaska in less than four weeks, the sounds of the Streetbeat Ska-Punk measured out a quick tempo to skin to. Thanks to Troy’s Ski Shop for the new badass skins, made my life much easier than the borrowed ones I’ve been using and it is good to have my AK set-up dialed in. Halfway up, our fat ski brigade was already drenched in the cool blue light of the moon.
Spirits were high as we skinned swiftly by other children of the night and their canine friends. Laughter and good vibes were the tone of the troop and we were soon gathered at the base of Avanti Chair. Snowcats meticulously laying down row after row of perfect moonlit corduroy.
Some beers, whiskey, wine and good eats passed round set a real positive tone. Our trip to AK is going to be lights out! Our group is solid and it is nights like these that make getting ready for the trip that much more bearable with the countdown looming. Not to mention gathering with new friends and having a good time on the local hill.
Cheers to anyone else who made it out last night and charged their souls with a perfect moonlight skin/shred session!
Fire was falling from the sky, locusts clouding the air, frogs and toads eclipsing the streets… Satan’s Etch-a-Sketch was in full effect with winds of ash and red hot glowing embers!!
Got everyone checked out of my building and finished dealing with a livid Big Appler who’s ski bags have sat in my lobby since Tuesday, unbeknownst to me with no pick-up scheduled. Okay Chief, I’m sure you need them over-nighted to go rip your non-existant snowpack on your local landfill with a chairlift on it… cry me a river.
Lunch, time to un-plug, tune out and head in the great blue yonder, sans the mob scene traveling from lift to lift. Up Centennial, Cinch and out the gate at the tip top of BC. Signs painted in red blood, screaming murder and suicide!! High Danger…probably for good reason. Took heed, said my prayers and calculated my chances as being safer outside the resort rather than inside it.
A solo skin up Beaver’s “Baldy” and the amusement of a ridiculously useless skin/boot track on a sub-15 degree slope that would burn five times the calories than any of my A-to-B “Crow-Flies” routes. I was beside myself, laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes… See for yourself. Not to knock on good ‘ol fashioned route-taking skills, but this is the most conservative example I have ever seen, you might as well go run on the hamster wheel for a couple hours. I would say that this is a very appropriate pattern for beacon searching that particular stretch, but I’m always trying to look on the sunny side I guess. Thanks for breaking trail… or I guess, you’re welcome, but thanks for the laugh, I needed it.
Shot up lookers left ridge, blowing through big wind rolls and baking soda deposition in between. Cleared the trees and was in the midst of a cross-loaded moonscape of Sastrugi and wind scraped rocks. Made it to the most accessible drop-in point at the lookers right side of the “Baldness” and sat to enjoy the solitude, scenery and the distance between myself and the rest of the world’s insanity. It’s enlightening that one can find moments of true inner peace surrounded by “hell-fire”. Goes to show one can still enjoy the backcountry on “High” Danger days, all it takes is the right route planning, slope and aspect and ice cream dreams can become a reality.
Made my peace with the afternoon and looked down onto a completely blank canvass. Unmolested and untainted the Beaver’s “Baldy” was good to shred. Stomped around the top higher angle wind slabs with no results. Dropped in and had the best run at Beaver Creek all year.
Skied my choice line and the snow pack never budged, even got to send a couple of the medium sized cliffs lower down by the trees and finally put some air under the skis. Felt great to have a slope to myself and not have to deal with the Presidents’ Week Holiday madness. Short lived, it was time to plug back in and get the game face on… after all that was just a “ski lunch break”, back to reality whatever that may be.
What better a day to grab that powder loving guy or gal and take them out to EV to get the love juices flowing? The overcast to broken skies with S-1 light snowfall and blending from light to calm winds ((L) 1-16 mph) didn’t deter the most discerning of inamorata/inamorato from blazing up the skin track to the top of Benchie and dropping in to profess their passion for the goods with some fine pow turns and periodic wails of pleasure and ecstasy. On the “Danger Rose” (oooh that’s sexy) one could profess that the “dangerous love” was at least considerable on the NW-S facing aspects… Those not blinded by the considerable chance at some likely “rough lovin” could get their moderately risky business done on the W & SW facing slopes. Tracks abound and no shame (recent debaucherous activity) in sight… the powder lovers were painting their affection all over the big white fluffy canvass with big S-Turns abound. Only a few dysfunctional examples of tracks seen hitting the top drops off Old Man’s, traversing skier left over the first cliffs in Old’s then directly over to the northern cliffs two-thirds the way down the open +35 degree avg. aspect, the prominent CDC cliff band. Not sure that relationship is really going to last, but one could conjecture that love makes some behave in some very incredibly peculiar ways.
Linked up with Marty, the legendary wing-man himself, to not only get our powder fix of the day, but to also put a cross hair on our beloved snowpack and shoot it straight in the heart. We sought to identify a deadly problem that has been plaguing some unfortunate riders recently. We’ve all seen the recent reports of the very gruesome reciprocation that the star-crossed snowpack has taken out on members of the BC riding community. The trend of doom has been below treeline in some very precarious terrain traps and that is where some more careful examination is due. From the “hasty” and not so hasty test pits of the season, it’s about lovin time we drop some SWAG on this very problem. Freshly and stalely outfitted with the latest in snow-nerd standards, we figured it’s about time to throw down and get neck deep in the business. What is the problem that we are dealing with? In short, deep persistent weak layers releasing the majority of the top of the snow pack on an interface between the buried depth hoar and the upper “cake” layer of the good stuff. So let the intricate romance with our naughty snowpack begin… (this would be way more bad-ass with snowpilot, but whatever).
2/14/2012 @ 2:30pm on Forgotten Trees with an elev. 10,200-10,400 (estimated from topo).
Small clearing in trees on N-facing Aspect below treeline of 30 degrees.
Sky: Fluctuating from broken to overcast. Wind: Calm to Light. Temp Air: -6.5 deg C. Precip: Very Light (S-1).
Boot Pen: Balls Deep, Yeah, that’s what she said… Type: Profile Pit. Temp Surface @ 150cm: -6.5 deg. C
No Red Flags besides the low-moderate obvious wind loading of leeward aspects.
<150 DF’s (decomp & frag. precip particles) 1.5mm F+ -6.5 deg. C
140 DF’s (decomposing & frag. precip part.) 1.5mm F+ -6.0 deg. C
130 DF’s (decomposing & frag. precip part.) 1.5mm F -6.0 deg. C
120 FCsf (near surface faceted particles) 1-2mm F -5.5 deg. C
110 FCxr (Rounding Faceted Particles) 1.0mm F -5.0 deg. C
100 RG’s (Rounded Grains) 0.5-1.0mm F -4.5 deg. C
90 RG’s (Rounded Grains) 1.0mm <95cm 4F -4.0 deg. C
80 RG’s (Rounded Grains) 1.0mm 4F -3.5 deg. C
70 RG’s (Rounded Grains) 1.0mm 4F -3.0 deg. C
60 DH (Depth Hoar) 3.0mm <60cm F+ -2.5 deg. C
50 DH (Depth Hoar) 3.0mm F+ -2.0 deg. C
40 DH (Depth Hoar) 3.0mm F+ -2.0 deg. C
30 DH (Depth Hoar) 3.0mm F+ -1.5 deg. C
20 DH (Depth Hoar) 3.0mm F+ -1.0 deg. C
10 DH (Depth Hoar) 3.0mm F+ -1.0 deg. C
Did a very nice ECT (Extended Column Test) 30cm deep X 90cm wide X to 120cm deep from surface, back cut out.
Results yielded: ECT23Q3(PC)… the whole 150cm down to 60cm collapsed on the interface (if you can remember the December surface hoar produced by endless clear days and cold clear nights) ~60-63cm is where the ECT collapsed but did not shear. This indicated a collapse and even propagation, but no sudden planar or resistant planar shear @ 30 deg. So that would put us at ECTP23. Read from that what you will… in leymans’ that’s a deep persistent weak layer that will propagate distances, collapse and cause instability in the snowpack, hence, most aspects on the CAIC Rose being rated as considerable. Watch out for higher angle slopes that will cause the upper layer to collapse as well as shear and slide.
That’s all the snow-geek and SWAGger I got for ya! hopefully you were suave and savvy enough to get your significant other’s adrenaline and love potion pumping with you’re superior shredability out in EV today. If you didn’t here’s some snow porn to help you thru tomorrow… but remember, never trust a hoar, no matter how deep you bury it (Whammy!).
Beacon, probe, shovel, saw, collapsible ruler, Avalung/ABS float pack, First Aid kit, Snow Study Kit, Klean Kanteen (camel hoses freeze), knife, compass, headlamp (you never know…) Sunscreen, chap-stick… This damn pack is like forty pounds now… Extra hat, extra pit gloves, cordelette, big orange Black Diamond ski straps (nicely holds ridiculously fat skis/poles together and make wonderful tourniquets), skis, poles, skins and AT Boots. Whew! Am I missing anything? Oh yeah! Pen, notepad, “The Avalanche Handbook”, “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”, “Human Factors in Avalanche Accidents”, “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications”, “Snow, Weather, and Avalanches: Observation Guidelines for Avalanche Programs in the US”, the AIARE Field Book and a bunch of Topo’s.
My God, just a few thousand dollars in gear, a couple thousand pages in texts and articles and it’s no wonder that its so easy for armchair avalanche quarterbacks to get outfitted at the local shop, take a couple runs in dangerous terrain and have the hubris to act like an authority or an expert… better yet, an “Institute” (I hope you can understand the sarcastic humor, if not, please just save your brain cells and Google “Backcountry Skiing” on Youtube and enjoy the safety of your parents’ basement shredding virtual pow.
The point I’m going to excruciating lengths to emphasize here is that for a given amount of time, money and reading effort, anyone can get the gear, read some print and get out in the backcountry and slay like a hero. And there are a staggering amount of these “Tom Brady’s of the Backcountry” hitting our favorite zones and stashes. The crucial link that is missing in this already weakened chain is a good dose of education, hence, the backbone of this textual poetic waxing.
I was fortunate enough to be able to forego the Super Bowl weekend in the “Male-Valley” and head down to the legendary town of Silverton, CO. We have all seen the ski-porn, the sick double/triple stager lines on film and the limitless attitude/mindset of the popular culture powder skiing industry that has turned an old historic mining town into the Mecca for extreme powder skiing in the lower 48. It all looks sweet on the silver screen, personally, I love the segments and it admittedly sucks me in every time. But again, the big factor missing here is education. Never once do I see in these segments any kind of emphasis on getting educated/trained and what it really takes to drop such aesthetically pristine lines complements of Red Bull or Warren Miller.
Contrary to popular culture’s awareness, Silverton is also home to the “Nation’s most respected avalanche education since 1962”. If you want to learn from an expert, professional or a professional expert, Silverton Avalanche School is your ticket to priceless knowledge and they are an actual bona fide licensed “School”! I bagged Level 1 there and liked it so much, I came back for more… Level 2.
Getting the Level 1 or 2 cert. is not a license to post up and become an authority. It’s more like the fundamental knowledge of backcountry education. Where tools and info are presented so that the students can start to build a solid foundation of knowledge and a “tool kit” to become educated travelers and observers of the “Off-Piste”. Level 1 and Level 2 are the beginning steps in a lifetime of learning and exploring the backcountry. After one or two of these important steps are accomplished, we should all be able to enjoy and play nicely in the sandbox… and be able to speak the same language.
To be quite honest, the SAS Level 2 is more than the 30 student classroom can handle in four and a half days of drinking from an informational fire hydrant. There is so much info and particular nuances to pay attention to that, it is surprising people don’t leave the San Juan’s dumber than when they came. I certainly was humbled and reflected on all my stupidity and bad decision making prior to my formal Avi education… It makes one realize how very little one knows, or thought one knew! Thank goodness for the instructors’ expert and professional presence of mind to reel in the blind sheep as soon as they lose the forest for the trees or the pasture for the grass, however one can make a synopsis out of it. And then take the students out into the real backcountry environment and reestablish the application of theory to actual backcountry praxis. In a way, it’s an education for both the teacher and the student. The student is able to learn and apply their knowledge and Avi skills, while the instructors observe the human nature of groups in the backcountry. Win-Win, we are always going to be learning, whether we are Mr. Miyagi or little Daniel-san. But once school’s out and we’re on our own, those pros and experts won’t be there to coral us from our idiocy. Hopefully, we have been able to choke down as much info as we can and not lose the big picture.
This trip, like any, was a real eye opener, a quintessential microcosm of the backcountry public. From mountaineering late teenagers to off-piste shredding silver foxes and foxettes and everyone in between, these people are our backcountry community, our family. Fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters and we owe it to them to make sure that when we are recreating in the backcountry that we posses the skills, tools and knowledge/education to be able to look out for one another and to be able to save each other from our own stupidity/bad decisions or just mother nature being the cruel bitch she can sometimes be. I’ve made some really dumb mistakes, poor decisions and I am probably due for a few more, but being Avi-educated has allowed me to mitigate those human errors and become a better member of the backcountry community.
For those in the audience that want to just say “screw it” and go drop in on our favorite zones take heed. You really owe it to yourself to go and get educated first and foremost. It will make you a better rider and a better human, not to mention a hero if you are put in a situation where you will have to be the one to save a member of your family/community (the respect is also owed to them). The whole purpose of my involvement here is to raise the awareness of the uncontrolled environment such as EV and to help raise the bar and caliber of the typical shred-head that slays it out there. We are not egos yelling from across the valley that “you’re a gaper” and you should “turn your beacon on because we say so”… we are a part of the community that care about the well being of anyone who loves to ride where we do. We are more than willing to share our stories and experiences and hopefully add a little humor to the mix to keep it fresh.
If you want to know, ask questions. If you need the education, check out Silverton Avalanche School, Friends of Berthoud Pass or your local community colleges, amongst many local guide/education services. There are awareness classes, Level 1 and 2 certs abound. There are awesome people at these organizations and future friends and riding partners. It’s an obvious win-win. You won’t leave any of these places an expert in Avy-savviness, but you will leave with the tools and skills to get out there and be safe when you are traveling and riding avalanche terrain. But lastly, if you haven’t noticed, this is the most notoriously dangerous Colorado snow pack in recent history. If you haven’t taken advantage of the opportunities to go get some education, this is a better time than any. This snow pack laboratory is probably the best you could learn from. It opened my eyes wide and taught me many important lessons. Don’t really need to be preaching to the choir, but the choir does need to learn a few new songs now and again…
Some Pictures for your view pleasure and see you out there!
Went up with no expectations today. Caution was on high. Saw the activity under blue-sky’s famous cornice and took notice.
We encountered a couple other riders on the skin up, as well as at the top of Benchie. We all talked about our observations and our plan of action. They had mentioned having observed avi activity next to Tele-Line. The activity was visible from the top in a couple different areas. Let them go ahead and waited for a long time for them to make their descent. They did not set off any new activity.
The initiation was on the downhill side of the cliffs, potential release area for both natural and human triggered slides. Ranged from 0.2m-0.6m. deep and ran a ways downslope.
Evidence of two slides can be seen here, one during the last storm the other since yesterday. Also noted, were shooting cracks and obvious instability in the open glades. Further down to our riders right was a much more significant avi event that ran much farther.
Depth of some of the crown surface was an esimated 0.4m-0.6m.
Did not approach slides due to the presence of hangfire and obvious signs of instability. Stuck to lower angle pitches and skied amongst tall pines that were possible anchors for the weak snowpack. Below treeline, more cracking below the traverse through the aspens was observed.
Signals were everywhere and careful route planning and good decsion making are a must. Stay safe!
So the snow has fallen and we are on the cusp of the “Full On” EV season. Too many red flags for us to venture back into EV today with the peaks flagging hard and the obvious avi activity in the back bowls off Two Elks. Took Martin’s advice and rolled up on a perfect powder day in the untouched Beacon Park. Scraped the rust off my single and multiple burial skills and waxed the time to under 3 minutes. Try and hold your breath for 3 minutes, imagine it being a lot worse when you/your buddies are buried and counting on each other to rescue them/you in time.
Hopefully, the two groups of skiers that braved the obvious warning signs and B-Lined back to EV or Mushie today are super dialed in. After meeting up with some of the crew, it was a no brainer to let the potential human avi bombs go do their work sans EVI. Besides, it was a perfect blue day to go rip Colorado’s finest packed pow.
We had a ton of fun ripping the front side and staying out of the danger zone. Sometimes you have to make your own decision to hang it up. I ultimately made the personal decision to not risk my season or my life based on my observations and gut feeling on the day. Tomorrow is another day and you can bet if all adds up to a safe drop, we’ll be back there doing what we do best!
Now that I’m safe and all cozy in my abode, I was digging through some folders and came across some notable pix from the snowmageddon season of 2010-2011. Just take a gander at these pics from 1/16/2011 and compare them to the pix in the Benchie Pit post… huge difference, enjoy.
Tuesday I made the most of the sunny afternoon to shoot up to the top of Benchmark, poke around and see what’s going on back in EV. Skinning out from Two Elk’s, it’s pretty obvious we are no where near the much needed snow pack to get things rolling in the back bowls. I love the sunshine, but seeing a brown-out on all the south facers that were caked deep only twelve months prior is a bit of a downer. Guess the snow is only hanging in the shade and baking in the sun. The slopes are littered with surface hoar, caused by the clear night’s frost and the sunshine baking bonds into weak facets.
Storms like this past Saturday’s is a little more what we could use three times a week for the rest of the month, but let’s face it, what’s here is now… and now we have a pretty weak snow pack. Studying the avy roses of the CAIC, the weakest areas should lie on the east facing slopes in the Vail-Summit Zone. I decided that’s exactly where I would belay to a shaded 38 degree slope on the NE side of the tall pines that separate East Abe’s and the open east facing slopes of Benchmark. Reason being, this is most likely where persistant weaknesses will remain throughout this season’s snow pack.
I harnessed up and tied in with the glacier line around a stout tree. Please be clear, it is not my intention to rope off and start popping off slides on purpose. A safety line is in every guide’s pack and is an extremely important tool for any back country traveler. Not to mention, it is the 8th Commandment in Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain”: “Thou shalt use a Belay rope! Most serious avalanche professionals carry and use a belay rope.”
I am not an avalanche professional (yet), but I do posses the knowledge and self-preservation skills to have a 30m glacier line as a part of my BC toolkit. Hopefully it’s a last resort preventative from crack, pop, pin-ball ride through trees and a push off a cliff.
I dug a pit in what could be the sweet spot of a likely starting zone. During the careful descent amongst sloughing loose snow and little failures of the top layer my observations showed that there weren’t any cracks propagating off into the distance, but the small failures under my skis were enough to be wary of.
Got settled in, dug the “pit” and started to gather some data. There are presently as of 1/10/2012, 3:00pm above 11,400 ft. East Vail Proper, three layers to this shallow 70cm “snow pack”. The bottom 30cm is basically larger facets slightly bonded resting on depth hoar. The next 30-55/60cm are comprised of faceted loose grains and the very top layer 55-70cm is the last storm accumulation. The exposed snow is already riddled with surface hoar. Doesn’t look too great for the future, but some avi cycles are likely to occur with a big snow and flush this particular zone of some of those pesky white dragons for the time being. The snow pack is constantly changing and this does not mean that those dragons will not creep back into the mix in the future. So, beware.
An isolated column test resulted in the top 58-70cm layer failing after four shots from the wrist. Not too surprising, while the break was not completely a shear one (Q3). Four shots from the elbow failed at the 30-58cm range, again not a clean break (Q3). Under the right conditions, I’m sensing a collapse in these weaker layers after a good snowfall, or a human loads them.
For the real snow nerds out there (myself included), I measured the temps of the pack to see if there were any major gradients. Chose to use 20cm increments to measure within the noticeable layers and came up with 0 deg. Celsius at 10cm, -1.7 at 30cm, -3.4 at 50cm and -6 at 70cm. Towards the bottom 10-30cm that’s 8.5 deg/m, 17 deg/m in the middle
and 13 deg/m at the top. The numbers below 30cm represent a weak temp gradient (<10 deg. C/m). The rest of the snow pack has a strong temp gradient (>10 deg. C/m), and results in a loss of strength with facet formation. Math aside, we have plenty of weak snow to make conditions unfavorable in the future.
Cautiously negotiating my away from terrain traps and cliff bands, I skied my way to the lower angled aspect of East Abe’s and made some really fun turns. Crossing the creek and sticking skier’s right, I rode through the deeper shaded snow amongst the short pines until the waterfall. The ride was sugary and mellow. After the falls, the traverse left into the woods and the scarcely packed ski trail was extremely variable. We definitely need some serious snow in those woods to make the ride back to the bus a little less rough. The last bit of the trail is packed down by some snowmobiles and make the last portion along the water tower a welcoming slide home.
Not bad for my first “benchmark to water tower” trip of the year. Grand from afar, far from grand. It will be interesting to see how the snow pack in the zone evolves and how conditions will change as our season trudges on. Glad I was able to take the afternoon for some recon and gauge conditions until the next storm. Until then, keep it safe and pray for more snow!
Still in the midst of the waiting game, Wednesday November, 30th was the perfect opportunity to dust the cob webs off the ‘ol Avi gear and put the “Avalanche Thinking Hat” back on to go poke around in the Vail Pass Backcountry.
The week was full of sunshine and moderate temps that kept the somewhat minimal “snow pack” at a danger scale of Low or Level-1 on NW-S aspects below treeline up to the peaks. Aspects near and above treeline facing N-SE were rated as Moderate, or Level 2. Wednesday afternoon was a true bluebird day, mid thirties on the mercury, 34% humidity and 5-10 mph winds out of the west at 10,600 ft. All signs pointed to Uneva as a first good “tour” of the season, with relatively safe conditions and a chance to hunt down some ski-able powder.
Starting out at the Vail Pass Winter Rec Area, sets of perfect powder turns were already visible up on the SW facing aspect of the drainage just South of the Uneva bowl. A well established skin track already set on Corral Creek Trail made it very nice not to have to break trail, but here and there to keep in tune with “Avi-Thinking”, it’s really important to me to get out of the grooves and break some trail of my own, to gather info and tune into the signals and Red-Flag warnings the ascending trek and snow pack can scream or whisper at me… i.e; whoomphing, collapsing, cracking and sinking up to the top boot buckles. Not to mention poking into the snow pack to gather data on depth and what kinds of hazards are lurking under the deceiving white surface of snow. There are still some buried roots/downed logs, “Shark Fins” (buried rocks) just waiting for an unsuspecting rider to viciously end their season early… Right now the data is a mixed bag of sun drenched areas with zero snow up to two and a half foot deep drifts and everything in between, so be very careful on the way down!
Each step of the trek through the old fire-scarred area just South of Uneva up into the 30 degree sloped gully produced incredible views that improved with each lunge upward. Soon, treeline was well below and Panoramic views of the Ten-Mile and Sawatch Ranges started to peak out in all directions. The ridge-top was so scoured by 20-30 mph wind gusts that boot packing was the only remaining option of ascent. As I traversed north to the ridge-line that lay south of Uneva Peak, it was obvious that the prevailing west winds have been working hard to load the easterly aspects with as much faceted snow as possible. This wind loading is burying the “White Dragons” of the past record-breaking 2010-2011 winter season and hiding potentially very deadly scenarios for our upcoming season. Just stick that under your Avy-Savy-Hats and save it for later on this winter…
There was the first “Red-Flag” of the Tour! The Next was a 40-60 meter long crack that had shot up-slope from where a bunch of dog tracks danced in circles out on the wind loaded cornice. The crack measured a fist and a half to two fists wide creating a semi-truck wide cornice that would have no doubt given that pooch a First-Class ride to a summit county demise on the east side of the ridge. The third and final “Red-Flag’ of the day was my misstep from the scoured solid earth of the ridge into a thigh deep hole just short of the previously mentioned cornice. What a way to emphasize the oldest Avi-Traveling rule in the book… never walk out onto a cornice! That sixty pound dog was lucky, just another 100 lbs. and a few more of those deep steps out onto no-no-land and you’ve got the human factor that so famously causes deadly avalanches.
With all the data and info fresh in my head, “Red-Flags” resonating their priceless messages and the final ascent to the 12,522ft peak that is Uneva, I took the time to sit down and reflect on my journey to the summit. All of the little details and warnings add up to one of the most important decisions of the tour; how and where to descend. I opted for the SW facing shoulder of Uneva north of the Cirque, stuck to the 30 degree and fewer pitches and stayed clear of the rock features that create the chutes. Half traversing, half dropping into steeper zones, navigating the terrain was a mix of sun baked crust, facet filled depressions and full-on powder near and below treeline. Sticking to the shaded sides of the trees and the uphill side of the drainage that flows out of the Uneva Basin, I quickly descended to the natural downhill ramp that leads back to corral creak trail, the car, safety, a hot meal, and not to mention cold beers with good friends.
Not a bad first tour of the season! Being able to take advantage of the chance to dust off the Avi-thinking dust and cobwebs, the opportunity to snap shots of the surrounding mountains and scenery are what makes living and riding in the Vail Valley backcountry so rewarding and enjoyable!