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!
Well I guess the prayer worked, as the snow started falling around seven a.m. at my place in East Vail. Spent yesterday at the beacon park at top of Sourdough lift with my buddy Paul, who was off to the Peter Esten hut on Monday. It had been awhile since I had practiced intensely with my beacon and I was eager to try out my Tracker 2. I think overall most backcountry users, myself included, don’t practice beacon searches enough. There is also a contingent that treats them like an amulet, something that you turn on and forget, hoping it wards off the avalanches, with really no clue how to use them. I challenge all of us to get out and practice, especially in the face of the incoming storms and the avi warning issued for the Vail area.
A beautiful bluebird, insanely crowded day was a perfect opportunity to try out the BCA beacon park. Paul and I went through several mock scenarios, including multiple burials. We also had a guest appearance by local shralper Nathan Cook, 12, who has skied EV 3 times and wanted to get some practice in . I gave him my beacon and let him at it. His time would put most backcountry “experts” to shame. Nice work Nathan!
The biggest factor in a recovery is the human one, as even in practice sessions your heart rate soars and stress level rises. Imagine now how much that would be intensified if it was real and your friend was dying. Practice is essential to learn to operate a beacon effectively in a life or death situation when things are hitting the fan. With such a top-notch beacon practice area, there is really no excuse for any of us in the EV community not to be proficient. Under three minutes is a good goal for a single burial. Multiple burials are more complex and pose difficult choices for a single rescuer. When practicing, try to make it as real as possible. Make up a story, outline the “avi path” give your rescuer details about slide width, direction and last seen point.
Heres a quick overview of what should be the basic progression of a response to an avalanche accident if you are responding.
First, yell AVALANCHE!. Let everyone know, even if you are alone, do it. Next, mark your last seen point of you victim. You don’t want to waste valuable time searching above this point. Before you head to that point, turn your beacon to receive and make sure all of your party does the same. Turn and watch them do it. Would hate to be chasing another rescuer around while someone is waiting to breathe.
Have your probe ready and initiate the search. Stay on you skis and ski to the last seen point in the slide path. Start zig zagging back and forth twenty meters apart, ten meters from the sides of the avalanche until you get a signal, then use your recently honed beacon skills to zero in on the signal. Check every piece of ski equipment and clothing you might come across, as someone might be attached to that glove, that ski. Once you get within five to ten meters of the signal, get off your equipment and start your fine search using the grid method to pin point the smallest reading and begin probing. Probe in a concentric circle twelve inches apart until you get a strike. Practicing probing is very important so you can “feel” what it’s like to strike a backpack or wood practice box. Once you have a strike, LEAVE THE PROBE IN and begin digging. Do not dig straight down, but excavate the area to the downhill side of the strike and use the conveyor belt method(check out the you tube video on this). Get to the person’s head and get them breathing.
In a multiple burial, if you can turn off their beacon as well, that can only help you. Depending on the size of your group, the number of initial rescuers is up to you, but I would say two at the most, bring the rest down after you have located the victim. In a massive avalanche multiple initial searchers might be required. Having someone stay on top to act as a scene commander and a safety for you is a good idea if you can. Also as you are working on the excavation, make sure your equipment is accounted for and recognizable as yours, not to be confused with victim’s equipment for searchers coming on scene. Do not pee in the area, as if dogs are needed this will throw em off.
Multiple burials are a tough situation. That is why protocol is so important to keep only one person at risk at a time. Locating a person with multiple signals going off, especially in close proximity, takes practice and knowledge of that little sp button on your Tracker 2. Won’t go into it too much here, but research it and practice it these scenarios on your own. I found my Tracker 2 to be fast easy to use. I had been using a DTS for a long time and the improvement in range and speed was noticeable. I always like the simplicity of the Tracker, as it makes it easy for even novices to use. To many bells and whistles can get confusing, even for experienced rescuers.
I was stoked on the session, even more stoked to see a young warrior come out and practice with us old EV curmudgeons. As we move into the EV season, with the jones as high as the avi danger is going to be, please remember the old saying “the avalanche doesn’t care if you’re an expert.” Be safe everyone, enjoy the pow, see you out there.
Five thirty in the morning and I’m headed in the darkness to the small town of Paia on Maui’s west side, across from the legendary windsurfing mecca of Ho’okipa beach. The Fuji road bike is assembled and ready for the ride that starts here, climbs up country through the ranch towns of Makowao and Kula and into Haaleakela park. I plug in the headphones and I’m off, go team!
I feel good. I break throught the first twenty minutes and get into a rhythm, slowly leaving the ocean behind. My support vehicle, Ryan on his Honda Rebel, has decided to tag along for the entire journey. The sun comes up over the east side of the island and I catch a glimpse of the incedible sunrise. Up country Maui is a world unto itself, far from the beaches and tourists, it is a land of cattle, cowboys and sheep ranchers tucked underneath the shadow of the volcano I’m about to climb. Glimpses of unparalleled beauty here, flowering vines entwined in barbed wire, sheepdogs chasing their flock through rolling grasslands, estates with flawless Japanese gardens roll past.
An hour has taken me through the two towns and I stand at the Haleaakela park sign, my first break. The approach is done and now the true climb begins. I try not to think about the twenty two miles left. I still feel strong but the first fifteen miles has me sweating and legs feeling it. Time for the mental games to begin, trying to take chunks out of the miles by aiming for smaller goals, the next sign, the next switch back. Fueling and drinking as much as i can, I begin the endless parade of switchbacks up the flanks of the volcano. There are markers on the pavement for bikers like myself, indicating the elevation and giving instructions when to eat and drink. Ryan putters by me and waits every half mile to give me a towel as I am drenched in sweat 2500′ feet and climbing…
At 5000′ the road breaks out from the lowland trees and ranchlands and into the steep grasslands, two of the four unique climates that I will go through. Here the switchbacks tighten and my first real battle against fatuige begins. Altitude hits me and I’m sure I’m dehydrated even though I’m drinking as much as possible. My speed slows and I have to take a break, surprised at the effect of the altitude. I’ve already eclipsed my max vertical for a single bike ride and the road is relentless, up up up. Ryans’ cheerful exclamation “only seventeen miles to go!” are welcome but his voice seems farther and farther away. The view are stunning and surreal, looking down on the beaches and towns, but there is work to be done seventeen miles to go and another 5000′ feet of climbing. The bike is too small and brain is starting to find reasons not to do anymore of this silliness, but I push upward until the switchbacks mellow just a bit, savoring every extended section of road that doesn’t have a hairpin turn in it. A parade of rental cars passes me up and down, occasionally a fist pump out the window or a incredulous look. Allez allez allez.
Passed the lower ranger station stopped on the grassy lawn and spawled out for a bit, staring into the sky and wordering how the hell I’m gonna get up the last 2500′ vertical. I can’t seem to eat enough mini snickers or drink enough water. Up above the clouds soar up and over the rim of the volcano. The summit crater looks tantelizingly close but still 12 miles away. At 8000′ the clouds roil and churn. The land is shifting into a beautiful but barren moonscape, lava and sparse plants, reminiscent of the terra high up on a fourteener. I hunch down over bars, and deperatley try to find the mental zone where the pain fades, jabbering mind quiets and all that exists is the white line you are following and the sound of your own breathing. Final push, here we go.
I’m talking to dead relatives now. There is no escape from the sheer exertion I have put out and my mind is rebelling and legs are screaming. I cycle through happy thoughts to get just one more peddle. Cheeseburgers, milkshakes, powder skiing all are temporary cures for the pain. I crawl upward through the clouds whipping over the summit and down into the lee side of the volcano. The tempeature has cooled and the breeze is welcome. Trying to figure out how I can lash my bike to Ryan’s motorcycle for the rest of the way. At 9000′ up, the only option is to finish this ride so I don’t have to come back and do it again. I hate my bike with a absurd ferocity at this point. I feel like a bear at the circus riding the little bike around the ring. Get me off this thing.
Hit the wall harder than I ever had in my life. Staggered into the visitors center and collapsed on the first bench I could find, curled up in a fetal position and passed out for a half hour. Nothing left at all. I’ve never been so tired in my life, unable to sit up for twenty minutes. Voices fade in and out, Ryans, tourists. Like any big mountain climb getting up is only half the battle, I have no clue how I’m gonna get down. I feel like dog poo. Sat up finally and realized that the summit was another five hundred feet up another half mile. I look at Ryan and shake my head. He laughs and nods, knowing I have to finish the ride. A nice lady from Breckenridge stops and lets me know she saw me on the way up. I remember her, she mouthed the words your crazy as she went by. She gives me two bannanas and wishes me luck. Force myself to stand up and wander around the visitors center and listen to the ranger talk. The crater is so big that manhattan could fit inside it, growing two inches a year away from the lava source. It is amazing and barren, a place not to be lost in.
I recover amazingly fast. The bannanas help and my body seems to adjust to the altitude pretty quickly. Compared to how bad I felt just a little while ago it is night and day. I break no land speed records for the last half mile to the actual summit but I make it. The clouds break and we get great views of the Big Island’s 13000′ foot volcano. Ryan and I get the obligitory photos up top and turn around for the descent. All downhill now. It is done. Kind of like hitting mushroom rock in EV. Glad I did it, more glad I never have to do it again, but what a challenge. I push off for the downhill and the miles clip past, somewhere in the middle of the descent I start laughing like Stewie from Family Guy and name my bike Silky for its superoirty on the downhill(I’m still a tad loopy) Only one scary moment coming down. I hit a hairpin too fast, laid on the breaks and Tokyo drifted towards the opposite gaurdrail. I stop, reassess and proceed with a little extra caution toward the beaches and towns where I belong. I give myself a passing grade, maybe not an A but sometimes passing is enough…Aloha
We are coming down to the wire with the training as the slide toward ski seson nears its finish. To me it’s the most impatient time of year, waiting for the first big storm to erase the six months of off season. I know that the lifts are open at certain areas, but I’m not one to hit the strip of death. Hopped up college kids and eager early seasoners looking to drive you into the trees isnt what skiing is to me. Don’t get me wrong the passion I respect, the chance of injury I don’t want to deal with. Do I sound like a jaded local? I am, admittedly. I’ve paid enough insane rent and nine percent sales tax over the years to qualify. If you do go be careful, watch your nine and six o clock and I’ll see you all at the end of the month.
So what to do now? Keep training and choose somewhere warm to finish the wait if you can. As important as the physical training is, mental preperation for the seven months of skiing is equally important. Even the most die hard skiers know its a long winter, and stocking up with some memories of warm sand and lapping ocean is a good idea.
I’ve been in Maui for a week now, and my brain is saturated with perfect beach sights, beatiful girls and turquoise ocean, but now I’m restless. I can feel the pull of the season and I catch myself looking out into the ocean at the far away storms and wonder if its headed for our neck of the woods. At 39, I’m still as captivated by the cycle of the winter season as I was fifteen years ago.
Inspired by the xterra race hitting here on sun I’ve decided to put the EVI training to the test. Looming over the island of Maui is the immense volcano of Haaleakela, rising from the ocean to 10000 feet above sea level. It has been called one of the most grueling bike rides in the world. And dammit I’m gonna do(try) it. The acid test of the EVI training school.
Let’s make something clear. I’m not a road biker. I don’t shave my legs, my forearm are larger than toothpicks and I don’t own any Postal Service jerseys or spandex shorts. But sitting outside my door is a carbon fiber steed that I rented today and its waiting for me for tommorow at five am. Can a gorrila on a bicycle get up the Maui monolith? I don’t know. I do know what I’ll be thinking of to put the miles, the screaming legs and the cars of gawking tourists and the heat behind me. Three feet of blower in EV on a Tuesday morning….Aloha
Squats, yeah, 100’s of em. Hip thrusts. Jazzercise. Billy Blanks Cardio kickboxing. Zumba!
This is EVI and we aren’t gonna give it to you like that. If you like flying down a mountain on skis, we’ve been training for it by going up. Walking, hiking, trail running, biking…doesn’t matter, but get started. Gaining 2000+ ft of vertical over 2-3 hours will get you in shape no matter who you are or how you do it. So how’s it gonna help?
- Lungs: check, gotta get that cardio pumpin’ ready for long skins and long descents.
- Legs: yeah, your quads always hurt for the first few weeks of ski season. Often forgotten is training the other half of your thigh, the hamstring.
- Sore knees and ankles: add strength with joints that flex better and work at off angles.
- Feel: Nothing like getting a feel for the mountain. Know the rolls, the dips, and the holes before you go. Especially important this year is finding out where the pine beetle kill has impacted your favorite tree lines. The Vail Daily has a great article on the epidemic, looks like 80% of lodgepoles will be down in the next couple years.
So what are you waiting for? September and October are training months at EVI and we’ll keep you posted on what we’re doing so you can do it too.
You gotta get up to get down.