It’s all fun and games until somebody pokes an eye out. Or until someone is in an avalanche… but I’m putting the ski before the horse.
In the midst of “Springuary” (one of the dryest, warmest January and early February months in the recent collective Slummit County memory), Tyler, myself and two friends decided to take a trip to Janet’s hut. Lamenting the lack of new snow, but sporting t-shirts before noon, we headed up for a sled-assisted lap through Black Lakes. Tyler and Marcus pulled us on Princess and Snowflake while Steve, Andrew, Amanda and I descended the steep-flat-steep-flat of Black Lakes.
Before descending the very first steep rollover (a steep convex slope that rolls over in such a fashion one can’t see the bottom and a common trigger point for avalanches), we all felt the slope settle (or collapse). We skied down one at a time, avoiding the steepest spots.
On our second pitch, when Amanda cruised down last into the area where the rest of us were waiting, that slope settled as well. Just a note that both slopes happened to be a northeast aspect.
In between both pitches and as we continued to traverse towards where we thought the bridge might be, we took turns battling glop. What is glop, you postulate? The feeling that you are carrying two small, overweight children on the bottom of each ski (or a boat load of warm, wet snow that has bonded to your ski’s bottom like white cement).
Nevertheless, we managed not to overshoot the bridge at the bottom and end up in a) the lake or b) the creek and rallied with Tyler and Marcus for a tow back to the parking lot where a snack break and some Banquet beer (Coors) awaited us. And then, back out in the obscenely warm weather for a “world tour” of Vail Pass.
After gaining the summit (and sliding around on the wind and sun blasted snow like newborn mountain goats), the wind finally abated. We cruised down the mellow bowl towards the hut in the most variable snow known to humankind and the sun began to sink towards night, lighting up the Gore Range in a mysterious orange glow. “Look, it’s Narnia…” Marcus said.
In the hut, we stuffed ourselves with chips and salsa, instant hummus, carrots and some Patron Tyler and I inherited when our neighbors at Cinnamon Bay campground in the US Virgin Island of St. John went home. A lot of lime, a bit of Disaronno and a flask of Laurel liquor we’d imported from our last trip to Italy (and some masterfully crafted tacos courtesy of Anne), made us stuffed and sated. After a painfully lengthy game of Uno we slept like drunk little babies.
Day two, a couple new angry inches of snow (“Grrrr! There’s only two of us? Everybody went to Boston again?”). Tyler and I had instant pancakes to make, but we got lazy (more lazy than instant pancakes?) and noshed on semi-warmed up sausage, cookies and almond butter.
After that breakfast of champions — and unearthing the generally hung over status of the group — we decided to light up the wood-fired sauna outside the hut and see if we could get our toxins out before our skis. After more than an hour, it all ended with some really awkward underwear-only yoga. Marcus and I left last; I had to be sort of drug out, as I was the warmest I’d been since my last visit to a sauna at Nico’s old loft on the Olympic Peninsula in October.
Onward ho! We helped hutmaster Anne tidy up the hut, donned our skis and headed up Jacque Ridge slightly south and east of the hut. A gray sky accompanied us, snowflakes falling at will, a patch of blue arriving over the Gore Range now and again. We picked our way up the ridge to treeline, in an epic marathon of side-hilling. For my part, I had grabbed Tyler’s new skins instead of my own (the only real difference being their width and length). Since I now bring my new “powder sticks” (which are 125 cm underfoot and “ridiculous” according to my friend and co-worker Tracy 🙂 ) everywhere, Tyler’s skins didn’t adequately cover their undercarriage. The result: I slid around like a disgruntled booger on a greasy piece of uncooked bacon.
After a couple tricky, slippery uphill turns most of us decided to go for a little walk (Tyler pressed on skinning). Marcus broke the way, a slow, painstaking ascent as he sunk to his knees in snow, his skis strapped to his pack. I didn’t fare any better; at the ridge, I felt like I’d climbed for days. But ahead, the valley stretched before us, the creek far below, the Sky Chutes along Highway 91 (so named because several paths curve in the letters “S,” “K,” and “Y”) beckoning us to continue.
We approached the first pitch we had been oogling the night before via phone-assisted topographic map. It looked more like a bowl of Oreo ice cream (if the rocks are Oreos) than ski-able terrain, so Anne and I abstained and continued to sidehill across the slope. The boys met up with us half an hour later, looking kind of tired, Tyler sheepishly quoting the Grateful Dead: ” That’s right, the women are smarter…” Apparently Anne and I had the right-er idea…
At any rate, we pushed on, spacing out across a decent distance of steep terrain. I walked in silence at the end of the pack through a flock of trees lacking uphill branches, revealing the presence of avalanche activity.
Late afternoon approached as we came up on the unnamed, north-facing avalanche chute we all agreed to descend, if it looked safe. Skins off, packs on, boots in ski mode. We assembled on the skier’s left side of the chute. To our right, a rocky band dissected the path, dividing it essentially into two chutes. Below us, a steep rollover started out the slope, which disappeared into a stand of trees and the rest of the path, littered with juvenile pines (a telltale sign of a path that slides consistently).
Marcus went first, zipping down the slope, yelling something and then cutting hard right and out of view. Tyler headed over quickly to check on his progress, as we could see snow moving downhill and no Marcus. Anne went next, crashing a couple of times before also cutting hard right. As she left my field of view, I went, unconsciously skiing just right of the steepest rollover.
Suddenly, the slope to my left broke away in a straight line and began to move.
“Avalanche!” I yelled. “Avalanche!” I turned sharply right and began to ski towards a jagged rock in the safe zone where Marcus now stood. Then, I saw the slope to my right break and move downhill in a sheet of white.
I remember thinking I was out of it. Then, the wave knocked me off my feet and I was up to my armpits in moving snow, swimming, fighting right. I must have gone under and come out several times; the snow crested my head repeatedly, like a wave. I felt helpless, like I had being trapped under a strong wave in the ocean in Cancun. I could only think about keeping myself pointed straight, my head up, my ski tips up. The trees approached. I began to panic. Swim!
After what felt like a year, I came to rest on top of the snow, my legs only slightly buried, my skis sideways, one under the other. I came to a stop, shaking and Tyler pulled me out of the debris. Apparently he asked me several times if I was okay. One of my poles came to rest 20 feet below me, in a stand of small spruce trees. The other — after some time searching — we discovered against a large spruce 50 feet down.
Later, I learned what Marcus had yelled was that he triggered a small slide, subsequently buried by my larger one. He then yelled at Anne to cut hard right.
Although it carried me, I was lucky: I ended up on the right flank (the left flank sailed further down into the trees), it wasn’t a particularly large slide, and it was a soft slab avalanche — a soft slab being a cohesive layer of new snow that breaks within the storm snow or on the old snow surface. The surface this slab failed on was one of a couple notorious weak layers (the type that always exist in our snow pack). This particular layer was one of buried surface hoar (which, although it sounds like an insult, is actually a frost that forms on the snow surface over cold, clear windless nights and doesn’t bond well with new snow).
All of us were understandably shaken up after the end of the afternoon — me, after taking a ride and the others after watching me. After almost a week of reflection, I believe it’s important to write about our experience so that others can learn from our mistakes. The biggest mistakes I believe were our terrain selection (skiing near the steep rollover where the slab failed), not communicating about or evaluating our route as carefully as we should and a certain level of complacency — it was late in the day and we were all tired and “over it.” Additionally, I learned my “micro terrain” lesson: even smaller terrain features or less conspicuous avalanche prone areas are just as dangerous. Or, as Tyler would say, it may not look like “the hanging face of death,” but “watch your cornhole.”
Not surprisingly, this experience renewed in me a desire to live life to its fullest, as trite as it may read. I have also been given the gift of perspective; for example, scrubbing bathroom walls and mirrors and dealing with a 20 person table with 18 kids pales in comparison with good friends and good health.
Being caught in an avalanche is what every BC (back country, not British Columbia, Carl) user aims to avoid. On one hand, the more risk we expose ourselves to, the more likely something adverse may occur. On the other hand, the more risk the more reward: and that’s why we go out in the woods. For the future, having been caught in a slide, I am determined to become a wiser traveler. And I have my chance tomorrow: it’s snowing, our buddy Graham is in town and as Anne said, ‘It’s time to get back on the horse.”
And what a horse it is. Scott Toepher of the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) said it best in an email exchange after we submitted our avalanche report online:
“Mountains have a way of spanking you if you get out of line. Sometimes that hurts. Sometimes it is like nothing else on Earth.”
Read our full avalanche report on the CAIC Web site here.