Colorado Backcountry Ski Report – Terrific and Terrifying

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Julie drinking the fine white bubbly somewhere in the Elk Mountains of Colorado.

Colorado snowpack tends to be the most dangerous in the nation, yet a drink of legendary champagne pow lures many into her lair. Mistakes have been made, but we’ve survived by carefully approaching our backcountry travels. Small groups, in-depth communication and constant observation of snowpack, terrain, weather and route are key. Also the elephant in the room: how risk averse are you, and are your companions in the same place as you are with that? With the expansion of sidecountry, freeriding and backcountry travel, we heartily encourage everyone to consider these things as important as snow science.

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Lou, more of the same.

snowpack

At WildSnow Field HQ, Colorado snowpack at about 60% of normal. Several persistent weak layers make terrain choice and route finding some of our more important priorities. For example, you can sneak around and do stuff like skiing slopes that have already slid, or are sun cooked under just the most recent layer of powder. But overall, tricky. We remotely triggered an avalanche a few days ago. Totally safe and expected as we were picking our way down a safe line nearby, but an indicator of just how dangerous things still are around here.

Comments

22 Responses to “Colorado Backcountry Ski Report – Terrific and Terrifying”

  1. Jailhouse Hopkins February 12th, 2013 12:31 pm

    DPS again, eh big fella?

  2. john nobil February 12th, 2013 1:02 pm

    Where is “generally” considered the safest powder skiing in n. america? sierras? cascades? B.C.? after some extrapolation (i.e.: hoppy beer), can we determine the best ratio of powder day frequency to stability of snowpack, using locally accessible tree skiing as the standard terrain format? Average number of safe powder days/month is the desired result. From my eastern sierra perspective, sure the settled snowpack here is generally considered safe, but powder days are infrequent and tend to come by firehose all at once, leaving an oftentimes overloaded and dangerous snowpack when the goods do arrive- shortly thereafter come thy norse winds, bye bye powder until the next overloaded storm cycle. thus the sierras are traditionally known as the king of corn, but thats a whole other topic…

  3. Ryan Stefani February 12th, 2013 1:13 pm

    I hear ya. Unless it’s a safe spring day, it is rare that we ever venture above 30 degrees. Especially when the “safer” aspects don’t have any snow!

    Bearing that in mind, I had my first layer collapse on a 25-27 degree slope this weekend near Vail Pass. I was skinning towards a trigger point (small grassy knob) when an area probably 8′ in diameter just dropped. It was so dramatic, my partner noticed it.

    Glad that there are so many low angle slopes with safe approaches to keep the winters fun!

  4. Lou Dawson February 12th, 2013 2:02 pm

    Jail, am just about done testing. Mounted bindings one position forward to see what happened with performance. I like them better in the center position for pow, but I’ll bet they’ll be better in the forward position on hardpack. They’re indeed good skis, no problem there. Lou

  5. Lou Dawson February 12th, 2013 2:07 pm

    John, probably the Chugach out of Valdez, during high season. Or do the rain and storm days mess up the ratio? Thing is, if you’re going to have a lot of powder days you need storms that can shut you down… thinking more about this, I’m not sure any area can rule. Advantage of Colorado is when we get a decent snowpack, we still get a lot of really nice days with cold temps. Places like Kooteny area do better than us in that area, but on the other hand they don’t have as many nice weather days.

  6. Lisa Dawson February 12th, 2013 2:31 pm

    I’ve been having such a fine time in powder lately that the definition of “nice weather day” has changed for me. With modern gear keeping me warm on the chilliest days, I’m more stoked than ever to see the storms clouds roll in. Stable Kootenay cold smoke is pretty hard to beat.

  7. Tim February 12th, 2013 2:42 pm

    interesting question about where the “safest powder skiing” may be. i’d be curious for people’s thoughts on this… i imagine a statistical model that ascribes value to avalanche hazard and snowfall/quality somehow could produce some intriguing results. might be a good study for the city of kamloops to commission actually.

    going by the science, it seems to me you’d probably find the highest probability for stability in maritime climates and instability in continental climates. But then again, intermountain zones like the Wasatch and interior B.C. routinely seem to have years of good stability to go with copious powder.

    if i had to pick one spot, my guess would be B.C., kamloops or revy, b/c there you’re in close proximity to all three climatic zones, so favorable odds for being in the right place when snow and stability are in peaceful sync.

  8. Evan February 12th, 2013 2:56 pm

    Ya, I have lived around the lower 48, skied in AK, and now I live and work in BC. If you want consistent snow in a ‘skiable’ location you can’t beat the Selkirks of BC. Base out of Revy or Nelson. It might snow a lot in the Chugach but no trees means no storm skiing. I ski every day it storms no matter what the danger, you gotta love the temperate rain forest. But don’t show up if you like the sun, because it doesn’t shine that much just ask Lou about when he came to visit at my place in December!

  9. Lou Dawson February 12th, 2013 3:53 pm

    Evan is correct, you don’t even need sunscreen up there, and bring your clear goggles.

  10. Dave Carver February 12th, 2013 4:15 pm

    I’ve only skied in the Selkirks for 5 weeks. I’ve always had very good snow there but never had face shots of champagne deep snow. Several times it was deep but heavy. I vote for Wolf Creek for road-closing deep, true powder and safer terrane than Red Mountain.

    Yes, the champagne was a treat last weekend in the Elks! Awesome tree skiing.

  11. Cameron February 12th, 2013 5:25 pm

    There’s no good skiing around Wolf Creek, that’s just a rumor ; )

  12. Louis McBride February 12th, 2013 9:36 pm

    Nor at, or around Red Mountain Cameron, so as Dave is suggesting, safer to stay away.

  13. dmr February 12th, 2013 11:49 pm

    Interesting article and comments. Having longtime skied in the Sierra Nevada I confirm John’s comments that it is a very stable snowpack in general, but catching a powder day in the backcountry is not always easy. The one thing I found “reassuring” was that whether in Tahoe or the east side, the snowpack was very similar at a given elevation. Unlike the Alps, for example, where avy risk varies from one “massif” to another, so often hard to keep track of the snowpack other than in one’s local area.

    Is this the same for Colorado, varies across the state?

    FYI – not trying to be pedantic (or a douche) but the expression is “risk averse” and not “risk aDverse”, read the latter twice recently so I thought to let you (Lisa and Lou) know.

  14. Chase Harrison February 13th, 2013 6:55 am

    My first time ever skiing in BC was 3 years ago. I was at the Ice Fall Lodge
    and my guide and I were doing some pit analysis and I remarked to him
    about how we here in Co. would give anything to have such a beefy and
    safe looking snowpack. With the type of winters we have had the last 2
    years i’ll wait till spring, thank you very much.

  15. Lisa Dawson February 13th, 2013 6:59 am

    DMR – thanks for pointing out the typo.

  16. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2013 7:54 am

    DMR, the snowpack in any large mountain range is going to vary greatly. The Alps are no exception (the range is 700 miles long). But one can make generalizations for the sake of discussion as there really are significant overall differences, especially in coastal mountain ranges as opposed to interior. As for the Alps, they definitely do not have the depth hoar problem that Colorado has, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have much avy danger.

  17. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2013 8:23 am

    DMR, yes, it’s even written as risk-averse with the hyphen, in the financial world. We’ll watch that, it’s a good term for discussion of avalanche safety protocol and style. Perhaps even one of the most important concepts and one of the least discussed.

  18. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2013 8:52 am

    Chase, indeed, it’s really really hard to play the backcountry powder game in Colorado, compared to many other places. Things do often get better starting in March or April and on through June, but some of these weak layers can persist till the snow actually melts away so it’s not all roses. Sigh. Makes a man out of you, anyway (grin).

  19. Matt Kinney February 13th, 2013 9:15 am

    The last thing I want to think is that my snowpack is more stable than anywhere else. It depends.

    Some who think that perhaps are only familiar with steep ski movies filmed during 6 tropical weeks in April/May, which is kinda/sorta winter in Alaska. Ahhhh,..Beware the deadly world of false positives

    Try skiing here in Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb, March with your “chugach super stability theories” and see how that works out for you.

    As far as powder skiing, its off the charts, better than Vail, at least we think so.

  20. cory February 13th, 2013 9:56 am

    I gotta say, it has been a long time since I’ve seen a write up on BC skiing in Colorado on this site. I am thankful to see a bit of the old days return to Wildsnow, where it isn’t all focused on spending $ or the latest controversy, but rather a simple look at what we all enjoy.

  21. Lou Dawson February 13th, 2013 10:16 am

    So long as it’s better than Vail, I’m good.

    Cory, it’s been slightly difficult to achieve and subsequently write about much Colorado backcountry skiing as the past two seasons have been a bit limited, to make the understatement of the century. But we try.

    More importantly, WildSnow.com is not a Colorado website anymore, even if it ever was. That’s something we all have to just roll with. As for the gear reviews, they’re important. Though I totally agree that the balance of gear reviews to everything else should always be tweaked.

    On the other hand, anyone familiar with this website should know by now that we have somewhat of a pattern. During and after trade shows we file a lot of gear stuff. If a press trip happens, it’s gear combined with trip reports. Come late winter and spring, we do a lot more days out and a lot more trip reports.
    We also have periods where an interesting project takes the lead, such as Denali, or Portahut. There will be more of those.

    Then in summer it’s just a mix of whatever we feel relates — which has actually been pretty fun.

    Lou

  22. Samuel Savard February 13th, 2013 12:13 pm

    I think the question «how risk averse are you, and are your companions in the same place as you are with that?» is a very important one. It happened to me a few times in the last years to go powder skiing with people on different levels of «carefulness», and it got scary (me being of the more careful type) at some points. Some people, more often than not younger than me, tend to be careless and have a death wish. Before you go on a snowpack skiing trip, the matter should be openly discussed amongst the group….

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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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