A Wet Excursion to a Monster Avalanche Path

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

This past weekend we did a bit of exploring in the West Elk Mountains of Colorado. I’d always wanted to visit a certain monster avalanche path that went huge a few years ago, so off we went. Goal was to tour up past the path to a friend’s cabin, then recon a new ski route we could use on a powder day. The trip was wet, with bottomless sugar snow at the lower elevations but a few decent powder turns up high. Mostly, we enjoyed the surreal environs of nature’s power. A few photos from the trek.

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
It’s always interesting to visit the monster avy runouts of Colorado. The avlanche cycle that cleared these trees a few years ago mowed down large patches of mature forest all over this part of Colorado. Living around here long enough to see these things happen over and over again gives one an interesting point of view. Humbling, for starters, and a different take on logging.

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
Looking up the path. This monster drops about 3,000 vertical and gains energy as it falls over cliffs, but the slide crashes to a halt in a sort of gigantic pit formed by terrain features. The wind blast alone would probably kill you if you were this close when it ran big. Sort of like a roadside bomb in Iraq. Seriously.

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
Out of curiosity we measured the path’s alpha angle from the fringe of the runout, sure enough, just over 22 degrees. Interesting how the laws of physics tend to stand (in Colorado, the point at the bottom of the avy path where the path averages about 22 degrees is usually as far as the avalanche will run). You tend to think things this big make their own laws, but no, they are just as subject as we are.

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
Where to now? I think Earth First should do something about this logging!

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
At our friend’s cabin, the question in view of the monster avalanche: which book first (or last)? And perhaps a card game instead of skiing?

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
The snow fell wet on our shoulders, collapsed beneath our skis, and even iced our skins. Since when is snow so unfriendly?

Backcountry skiing trip in avalanche terrain.
While we did get some good skiing on the way down, the last 900 vert or so involved breaking trail downhill through knee deep slush. The cheer is not for the tracks, it’s for the tour being over. Louie was glad he had the fat BD Verdicts, but even those sank like a steel 2×4 when the muck was at its worst. The day was a good test of our shell clothing. Cloudveil Serendipity jacket worked well, but when it rained I did throw on my hard shell. In all a fun day — but not exactly a segment for a TGR movie.

Comments

18 Responses to “A Wet Excursion to a Monster Avalanche Path”

  1. Henri February 14th, 2007 4:57 am

    “we measured the path’s alpha angle”… Could you please elaborate a bit on how one would measure slope angle from a distance? I’m sure its dead easy, I’ve just never done it before.

    Love the blog!

    Thanks,
    Henri

  2. Damian February 14th, 2007 7:04 am

    Interesting post:

    - Logging sarcastically mentioned twice
    - An environmental group sarcastically mentioned once
    - Religion mentioned once

    oh, and using a road side bomb in Iraq as an analogy.

    Subliminally, my mind now associates anti-environment, Religion and bad war-victim jokes with Cloudveil jackets.

  3. Lou February 14th, 2007 9:06 am

    Hmmm Damian, I don’t see comparing the danger of this type of avalanche to a roadside bomb as being in bad taste, nor was it a joke. Both are scary, dangerous things.

    Sarcasm — I guess I was feeling sarcastic. It happens.

    As for the logging references, I was indeed playing around with the comparison of natural devastation to what man does. I believe there is an interesting philosophical conundrum about this, in that we tend to think anything we’re not involved it is somehow okay, and if we do it ourselves, it’s not and is the subject of much wrath from outfits such as Sierra Club and Earth First , even as we continue to build and live in houses built with wood products (btw, I realized I was redundant in my comparisons, and did some editing soon after I posted).

    As for religion, people do own bibles and read them, even some backcountry skiers. I thought it was interesting and thought provoking and perhaps amusing to see Snow Sense and the Bible located together. As for associating religion with Cloudveil, if that’s what happens when I mention Cloudveil in a closing paragraph and show a book somewhere else, then whatever…

  4. Lou February 14th, 2007 9:09 am

    Alpha angle: You just stand where you are and measure angle from that point to top of path. That’s your alpha angle. If it’s greater than about 22 degrees then an avalanche could run to you, if it’s around 22 you’re on the fringe of possible runout. If it’s lower then you’re probably safe from being wiped out by a slide coming from above. Just a rule of thumb used for route finding.

  5. Matt Kinney February 14th, 2007 9:38 am

    The Bible is a good book….the whole thing. So is Snow Sense.

    Interesting to see you shooting angles with the LL Slopemeter. I get beat up using that inexpensive devise, which some say is inaccurate. But to me it works fine for field work like…..skiing!!

  6. Ron E February 14th, 2007 9:43 am

    Reminds me of the Scottish weather we get every once in a while touring here on the West Coast of B.C. (near Whistler). One thing that is always in my pack is glopstopper for the skins. I usually put it on at home – even if it’s not needed, it seems to also help with glide.

    Alpha angle – with our usually wet coastal snowpack, we generally go with anything below 25 degrees as “safe.” Some people have told me to use 25 degrees in coastal snowpacks, and 20 for the dryer interior snowpacks.

  7. Jon Fredericks February 14th, 2007 9:44 am

    Lou,

    Good photos and report of the massive “Cleaver” avalanche. My friend Andrew & myself were the ones to originally discover this slide that took place on or around January 12, 2005, after a monster storm cycle that left behind nearly 7′ of snow and a wake of destruction throughout the West Elks. You can read the original report and photos submitted to CAIC on their website.

    Dale Atkins did a wonderful job piecing the information together, and credit also goes to Rob Hunker for providing us with the aerial photos to graphically document the destruction.

    The power of this avalanche was truly amazing!

    Cheers-

  8. Lou February 14th, 2007 9:56 am

    Life-Link Slopemeter works for us. It’s easy to trim for size so it fits in a pocket, weighs very little.

  9. Scott February 14th, 2007 10:48 am

    Disclaimer: I have some limited experience with both wilderness medicine and first responder medicine. I have been formally trained as a first responder but don’t have any formal Wilderness First Responder (WFR) training. Tension pneumothorax is the name of one of the possible injuries that you’re talking about. (being killed by “the windâ€? from an avalanche). As a result of what is going on in the war in Iraq, the military first responder community has really improved diagnosis and treatment. It is one of the three top “preventableâ€? mortalities in Iraq (the other two are bleeding extremities and shock). In my opinion, The BC community should pay attention to some of this science—it doesn’t translate 100% into WFR training, but is relevant. In layman’s terms, tension pneumothorax results when the lungs are torn and air leaks into the chest cavity in a one way valve. This increasing air pocket puts external pressure on the heart and the lungs are no longer able to get fresh oxygen. The less oxygen the lungs get, the harder you compensate, the harder you compensate, the more air you force through the tear thus complicating the problem even more. The treatment is insertion of a catheter between the 2d and 3d rib. I carry one in my BC medical kit. I’m guessing that most WFR instructors balk at this, however my risk/reward analysis says it’s a good trade off. Tension pneumothorax will kill a person in 5-10 minutes. Mis-diagnosis and puncturing a person’s lungs certainly is going to hurt a victim, but isn’t going to be life threatening. With the BC community’s culture of self-reliance and personal-responsibility, I thought this may interesting to the group. Maybe you should start a medical tag/category, Lou. If you want a more scientific write-up on tension pneumothorax, start with Wikipedia.

  10. wolfy February 14th, 2007 10:58 am

    I like your blog, but comparing avalanche destruction to logging is stupid. It ignores not only the impacts associated heavy machinery and road construction, but the 100+ year history of fire suppression, anthropogenic fire destruction and over-logging that went on early in the history of the west that made the forests what they are today. Unless you’re saying we should only log in zones that are already prone to natural devastation.

    And lest you call me a hypocrite, I own a 90 year old house made of bricks.

    -M

  11. Will February 14th, 2007 11:08 am

    The differences between man made logging and large slide paths are so large one could write an entire book. I’ll try to cut it down to just two sentences. Large slide paths are infrequent, limited in size, part of a natural cycle, inevitable and all the fallen trees stay on the land where they can decompose and form soil to regenerate the forest. Man’s logging is not infrequent, is not part of a natural cycle, is not inevitable, is not limited in size, and the fallen trees do not stay where they land.

    As for our houses they are getting more and more efficient in their use of lumber as it becomes more expensive and there are companies making amazing furniture out of bamboo that can be made into boards that look like hard wood.

  12. Lou February 14th, 2007 11:29 am

    Thanks for the comments guys, points taken.

  13. Cory February 14th, 2007 1:23 pm

    Some people take things too seriously.

    p.s. no more wood core skis for me…foam baby!

  14. Ricky February 14th, 2007 1:56 pm

    Lighten up people.

  15. Lou February 14th, 2007 4:23 pm

    Don’t they make any skis out of recycled honey bee sweat? I thought I heard of something like that…

  16. Andrew February 14th, 2007 7:06 pm

    On the subject of monster slides, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I saw a debris field so large I did not initially realize I was looking at the remnants of an avalanche.

    This was below the Bairs Creek Cirque on Mt. Williamson’s east flank, in the Southern California Sierra.

    I was touring in late Spring, after most of the snow had melted (except the debris pile), and I was confused by what appeared to be scattered, shredded lumber–tree boughs and splinters–as far as the eye could see.

    What had happened? I wondered. Had God gone on an anti-tree rampage. Honestly, the idea that I was looking at an Avalanche’s work didn’t cross my mind until later, when I was looking over photos of the area. The scale was just too big for me to process it.

    I went back to the same area a year later. The debris pile, including large amounts of snow and a huge snow bridge tunneled through by the creek was still there. The violence and large-scale impact of a big avalanche just defies description.

  17. Mark Worley February 15th, 2007 5:20 am

    I once hiked a peak in Montana and then descended down another route which very rarely sees anyone. As I descended I came across the deepest debris field I’ve ever attempted to get around. Seeing the mature trees that had snapped like brittle twigs was pretty humbling. The force of even a moderately big avalanche is hard to truly grasp.

  18. Chris February 16th, 2007 10:14 am

    Mark- where did that slide occur? Just curious. I’m in SW Montana and we are having a pretty dangerous year. There have even been in-bounds avalanches at ski resorts AFTER patrol did their control work. Everyone stay safe!

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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