Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
If you’ve been around western Colorado skiing for any length of time, you’ve probably heard of Rob Hunker. Starting out with the Crested Butte ski patrol in the 1970s, Rob was instrumental in the development of the Butte’s “extreme terrain, ” as well as the telemark renaissance instigated by other CB patrollers such as Rick Borkovic. He segued into avalanche consulting, and is currently in a stint as a Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) highway avalanche forecaster for an extensive area of western Colorado — everything from Independence Pass (where he works with the spring opening) all the way down to Slumgullion outside of Lake City in the San Juans.
I met up with Rob in Marble, Colorado, at his office. As a field worker and possible first responder (as well as active backcountry skier), his Marble digs are packed with gear such as avalanche probes and spare backpacks. Every square inch of wall is papered with all manner of reference material and memorabilia. You could probably get him talking for hours about the stuff.
But our conversation of course turned to the skiing around Marble, and how nearly all of it occurs on fairly active avalanche paths. We agreed that it’s somewhat amazing no one has died yet, though several serious close calls are attention getters. The worst of those was probably the guys a few years ago who got ‘lanched down the steep north face of Whitehouse Mountain, on a ride that is hard to believe they survived. Rob said that slide only involved a surface layer and didn’t step down, and that the backcountry skiers were “grabbing trees on the way down” which probably kept them out of the most violent part of the slide. Even so, they went more than 2,000 vertical feet on a slope as steep as Utah’s Mount Superior.
After some time in Rob’s office we took a walk to view the avy paths off the Quarry Road, where most of the backcountry skiing takes place. While not involving as much vertical as some of the more legendary slide paths around the state, the Quarry avalanches make up for that with shear volume, this being one of the deepest snow accumulation areas in the state. One Mud Gulch slide of a few years ago is a case in point. The apocalyptic avalanche launched off the side of the ravine, went airborne, and snapped the tops off a large grove of aspen trees about twenty feet up from their roots. The trees look like someone gave them a flat-top haircut. Another slide that came down Marble Peak that same year took out a large grove of mature conifer. That one improved the skiing immensely.
In all, fun to hang out with a real pioneer of modern Colorado skiing. If you’re skiing Marble this winter, keep your eyes peeled for Rob. As an avy guru and possible first responder he’s a good guy to know.