The acid hadn’t quite kicked in yet, but I could definitely feel the moorings holding my mind to this reality loosening. It wasn’t planned that I found myself on top of a big-ass line in the San Juan mountains tripping, but I came into this trip telling myself to have no expectations and to just roll with it. Didn’t quite plan on this.
The rest of the crew was already back at the sleds on the other side of the magical wilderness boundary where the machines, beer and about a pound of Durban Poison waited. We had skied two big runs already, the first a huge, classic San Juan death funnel, choking out down low and spitting out onto an apron. The second was a surreal run, skiing steep fingers through red red rock towers deep in the range. Its not often you can put a group of eight through these types of runs here, but the snow pack was green light after a couple weeks of clear warm weather with a solitary storm dropping about a foot on top of a rapidly consolidating early spring snow pack. The elevation was above 12000 for the cabin and terrain, which left the north, west, and even east aspects up high with a creamy smooth pow layer. The snow reminded me of AK orange peel texture snow in the spring, and skied and held as good as you can hope for a continental snowpack. The weather was perfect as well, bluebird and light winds. Green means go.
Our crew was a pack of 9 senders, all capable skiers and riders, with a pack of high-end sleds at our disposal in a vast wilderness with no one else for miles. We were all here to ski, ride and party, taking a needed break from the Vail valley ski season, deep in our respective jobs serving those that come here to catch a glimpse of the life that we live. Usually a group this large is a pain to organize, but everyone was ready to get after it and capable. Patrollers, photographers, ski bums, the love for skiing was well represented.
Hunter S. Thompson would’ve been proud is all I can say. Epic night sled missions punctuated days of sled accessed touring, climbing and sending. Sleds allowed us to bring anything we needed to this amazing cabin. Drinking, guns, sleds, skiing pow, food, party favors. Pretty much all time.
Our group had spaced a large portion of the meat products and cheese at the hotel in South Fork, but that was the only snafu of the entire trip. Too much Durban too early in the morning had contributed to the meats being left in the mini-fridge at the Allington Inn in South Fork.
I had spotted the line instantly when we got to the cabin. It was by far the most esthetic line in the immediate terrain. A winding steep entrance onto a huge steep face and into the basin. The far right line in a half dome face littered with old avi crowns and mando entrance lines with no way out, it was the only skiable line on the face and it was a gem. I mentioned it a couple times, but no one seemed to hear. So I waited.
Our two runs required us to skin out right under this face, so I had time to study it and look. The snow, weather, group dynamics, snow pack were all pointing to a go. All I needed was the opportunity. I wasn’t going to rely on anyone to make this happen.
The x factor was on a skin change over on our way out of our two runs. Quiet, reserved, baller skier, J Tsunami produced a “20 minute J” and ten strip of L. We were a group of four of the nine putting our skins on and shooting the shit, reviewing the runs at a cluster of stunted avi hammered pine trees.
“Hey, I have a 10 strip of acid.”
Everyone looked at him, at each other, and burst out laughing. The line of the trip by far, now and forever.
Now my big party days are long behind me, but at that moment I couldn’t think of a reason to say no. Here, deep in the San Juans, there was plenty of room for one’s mind to roam free and soar. What the hell…
It’s been a long time since I twisted myself is such a way. The skin continued on, through the basin, up and out. Things started getting weird around the time I crested the ridge, and assessed the situation. Everything was getting brighter and louder and starting to shimmer. The crew had headed left back to the sleds, across the ridge. I looked left, then I looked right. Over to the right, the line of the trip waited. Suddenly, I wasn’t tired. I was elevated. I was waiting for my spirit animal to appear. What I got were two ravens flying low in looping circles up the skin track. Good enough. I turned right and headed up the skin track to the low ridge cutover to the top of the half dome.
I remember being on top of the line, looking down the concave 55 degree entrance chute rippling like a white water bed. I didn’t have much time before things got seriously unhinged. Check the snow and go time. The first three turns in the chute was blower and deep, then gravity took hold and onto the apron. Shit flew by warp speed. I had time to make one sweeping turn to avoid the exposed moraine below the run. I wanted to gap it, but realized that I was going way too fast to do that. Around, down and hauling ass to the skin track laughing like a loon. It was over.
The skin out was a face-melter. By the time I crested the ridge again a permagrin was plastered on my face. D had mercifully jetted over on the sled, into the wilderness terrain, to save me a slog out. I had hoped that he had gotten the shot from across the ridge, but he wasn’t expecting the warp speed velocity of the run and missed it. The free ride out was much appreciated, and he was instantly forgiven. I had gotten to ski it and that was enough.
Back on the ridge was a party going on. I had wondered if the group was pissed for holding them up, but they were psyched, hanging out drinking beer and watching the show unfold. Hi fives and a beer…A moment of pure ski bliss.
We headed back to the cabin for a night of debauchery. Those of us on the paper watched the others lap the log rail and ski the pow shots near the cabin. I was seriously torqued and headed upstairs to hide from the sun for a while. It was an overwhelming urge after being stuck in a white salad bowl for hours.
A tripping vampire, I emerged downstairs after the sun went down, after a few tacos and several beers. Switching to tequila for the leveler, the night unfolded and the slednecks took the opportunity to rip it in the huge lower pow meadows for hours. I laid on the couch, became part of the couch and chilled. J Tsunami guarded the fire with his white shades on. We held down base camp as the others brapped around till the late hours.
Not often a trip comes together so well with so many green lights. This one did. It will live in infamy for many reasons. For me it was an opportunity to ski something amazing and get ready for Alaska. The three day hangover was worth it.
EVI has learned that a Vail local has died today in an avalanche in East Vail. A four pack headed out to the old man’s bowl and triggered a wall to wall slide that buried the deceased and injured 3 companions. Early reports indicate one companion suffered broken ribs while the extent of the injuries of the other two are unknown. We here send our deepest condolences to the family of the deceased, and that quite frankly seems horribly inadequate.
Sunday’s storm came in with high winds and cold temps. The small sharp densely sintered grains produced a slabby feel to the new snow, especially on the ridge lines and upper wind affected cross loaded N facing areas. It was a change from the several days of 3 to 4 inch storms that came with little wind and mild temps which produced light blower snow, resulting in a snowpack that was upside down.Dense storm wind loaded storm snow on top of a base layer of loose facets is a dangerous situation. The first signs of localized instability during was a slide in T-falls two days ago, which I have little information on.
Skier accounts today indicated that before the slide the old man’s area looked fluted, with mini spines in the bowl itself, a sign of serious wind affect. Same observer dug a hasty pit on an E aspect, different than the N aspect of Old Mans but found serious instability with a score of CT 2 on a quickie column test. Old Mans usually runs wall to wall at least once a year. This year parts of it ran early, but not the whole thing. Critical load was reached with this storm and skier traffic. The slide seemed to originate from the CDC area, stepping down from a thin spot in the new wind slab to the ground by a large rock on skiers right in the hourglass entrance of CDC. It’s the same trigger spot that has claimed others lives as well.
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!
Pass it to the man and boom goes the dynamite! Finally, a no doubter. The last of the MLK weekenders returned their stuff at Troy’s ski shop today as the snow fell and the weather was in and out all day. ( the best shop by far in the valley, especially for fat ski lovers, shameless plug here). I had a couple of 303er’s bitching that the storm “had passed through and is over Winter Park now.” Obviously, if you didn’t know, the weather patterns and storms are synced to the vacation plans of our guests. I would have to guess the two had Winter Park plans for a mid-week escape from the Front Range. “Marge, cancel my appointments, Goddammit I’m gonna go ski Mary Jane.” Who was I to crap on their sandwich? Inside I chuckled a little, as the storm was barely even there as these guys departed back down the hill around noon. Now it’s 11 pm here in EV and the wind and snow continues( I’m sure it’s dumping at Winter Park, too, it’s o.k guys).
On a much more serious note, the accumulation is getting there, upwards of ten inches up top by now with significant wind loading. I didn’t head out today, so I have no new beta on what is going on in EV. I do, however, have a good idea what tomorrow will bring. Hopefully the arenas we need to rip will release naturally tonight during the storm, but that really is just hoping. Throwing out the black flag guys all aspects elevations, which means if you are planning to head out you need to have your stuff wired tight. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that we will see significant avalanche activity in the next 24-48 hours based on the weak base, the new fresh snow availible for transport and the forecast for 30 to 40 mph winds. Boom.
It’s zero to a hundred in a day, and by being lulled in to complacency by months of no snow, this is a dangerous time for us backcountry travelers still getting the feet wet in the midst of a storm on a bad snow pack. Let’s look out for each other out there and use good protocol. Deep breath, ready, go.