A lone skier ascends from the gates at a nearby ski resort as our group evaluates a northeast-facing slope. A foot of light density snow blanketed the mountains overnight, not enough to tip the scale on the persistent weak layer that haunts us below, yet enough to keep us on our toes and approach things conservatively. The skier climbs faster as we negotiate the entrance, avoiding a rocky bulb 30 feet off the entrance that notoriously slides during weak snowpack years. We safely ski the slope then watch him follow suit.
“HELP!” A scream resonates from the bowl below as we climb up following our second lap. We hear the lone skier, and then see him sprawled about at the bottom of the slope. Luckily he was on top of a 3 by 200 foot wide slide that ran 600 feet. Unable to stay away from what we avoided while opening the slope, he skied right into it – triggering a slide to the ground while keeping our tracks from the first lap intact. “I’m ok,” he yells up to our group and gathers his things and heads home.
It’s easy to read reports and armchair quarterback situations like this from afar, even the most experienced skiers will tell you that. But, this is just one of several incidents I’ve seen this year. I’m not sure why he decided to punch that spot which was clearly avoided earlier in the day. Perhaps he thought he could outsmart the slope, or perhaps he didn’t understand the risk. Both scenarios are equally scary, yet one thing was certain—he knew he was lucky after that accident.
Another storm came in a week later loading up the weak snowpack. The shallow height of snow was still suspect and we purposefully meadow skipped 30 degree powder. The quiet early morning sun’s rays bounced off the snowy trees erupting the birds into morning song at the bottom. I transitioned in the tranquil scene – typically a crowded location. As the day progressed our group remained the only skiers around. Weird I thought; safe powder skiing yet no one home. Almost instantly during that thought process my friend and I turned to see fresh slide debris across the drainage and a ski track going around towards the bottom. What the #@%#! We yelp, being too far away from being any meaningful help and content with seeing their partner’s tracks arrive to the scene. Another narrow miss…
This scenario continued to play through the early part of winter. High avalanche danger ratings followed by weeks of no snow, resulting in low probability but high consequence situations – the cycle repeating itself every couple weeks. The snowpack was and continues to leave most of our radars up, yet so many seem to not be really paying attention.
Where’s your brain? Why’d you hit me? This well known scene from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which the characters are scheming a way to skip school while planning to pick up their girlfriend following a prank call to the principle.
Where’s your brain? Was exactly what I thought when I heard someone haphazardly say a bigger steep slope should be skied that day—one that received strong southwest winds, loading the northeast aspect that hadn’t ripped since early December and was hanging in the balance after another eight inches of snow loaded the weak layer. The avalanche report that day noted five human-triggered slides that occurred on steep north through northeast aspects during the past week, commenting: “I just don’t trust it,” and rating the day considerable. Yet here I was hearing someone say it’s probably fine with no concrete evidence or facts to justify it. I brush it aside then later hear of a slide that day – 1,000 feet long, 3 feet deep and 200 feet wide… Damn it, I say to myself.
This season has become very tricky with the backcountry conditions and snowpack, it’s anything but black and white. To be able to safely move through the mountains, especially this year, you need to have your head in the game. I lost a best friend 13 years ago from a slide. It made me the backcountry skier I am today; it’s a process that not only takes didactic courses, but time and experience along with mentorship. Weather, snow, winds, slope angles, slopes and their history of avalanche history that year, up-track location, etc. If you want to backcountry ski and ride steep slopes and stay alive, you must obsess over these things and keep your head in the game by staying informed—not become the eager powder chaser who narrowly misses accidents, because if your head isn’t in the game then you shouldn’t step onto the pitch.