Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Just got back from a mellow afternoon of skiing powder with some friends. None of us were feeling particularly energetic after a full day of pounding vertical at Aspen Highlands, but felt a short tour would suit us fine. With the avalanche report indicating high danger above treeline, we thought the lower woods would be a good place to poke around, play it safe, and perhaps even get a few faceshots.
We hadn’t skinned more than a few feet before we had our first WHUMPH, something that was to accompany nearly every step or turn we made all day. Despite experiencing it over and over again, it always has the same stomach wrenching effect. We altered the usual skin track a bit and attempted to break a new one through the lowest angled trees we could manage.
One particular settlement sent a huge shooting crack that we couldn’t resist excavating to take a closer look. The BCA Arsenal EXT shovel did the job nicely, revealing the failure to be at the depth hoar lying on the ground. It has an ovalized shaft which makes extending the shovel to full length lightning quick as there is no need to align the buttons in the holes. The Arsenal EXT comes with the Companion Blade, which is square and flat, perfect for pit work. It does the job of cutting smooth pit walls better than my older, more rounded shovel blades.
Another bonus for the snow pit is the included 35 cm saw, which is easily drawn from the Arsenal shovel handle. It features a very aggressive tooth pattern and a good handle. The blade is fairly stiff, helping to keep it from wandering; but there is no built in way to attach it to a ski pole or the shovel handle to extend it.
The new BCA Slope Meter showed the slope to be at 30 degrees. A little steeper and it might have slid. This slope meter is handy as it’s smaller than the gold standard Life-Link inclinometer, allowing it to fit in your pocket for convenient access. It’s also much easier to read and seems considerably more durable.
Our observations confirmed our feelings of needing to take it easy and we were soon on our way to threading turns through the gentle pitched aspens and firs.
Back at the car, we were wet but decided to rally for another lap. Lou had previously given me a couple packets of Acli-mate mountain sports drink to try out. In addition to the usual energy drink benefits, it claims to aid in preventing altitude sickness. I’m not sure I can verify that one yet, at least not until I get to some higher elevations, but it certainly helped us get energized. Rachel and I were feeling a little sluggish at the start of the skin back up, but after putting down some Mountain Grape flavor, we were buzzing along on the sugar train. I don’t use sports drinks very often, but this has got to be the most sugary tasting one I’ve tried — next time I’d dilute it more than the 10z of water per packet suggestion. I was worried that we were going to be crashing from our sugar highs before long, but that wasn’t the case. In fact, I was feeling great and awake the rest of the day, even on the car ride home which I usually fight to stay awake on.
I’m not sure the Acli-mate can take all the credit for keeping me awake the rest of the day, however. On our second run, we skied some tight trees that lead to a large, steep clearing. As I pulled to a stop a good distance back from the edge, the expected whumph and crack shot out under me, but it kept going and ripped out the entire clearing. Sorry, no photos as I left the camera in the car for the second run. I would give it a D2,R3, as it surprisingly didn’t propagate across the entire path. It’s always a thrill to watch an avalanche from a comfortable position; the rumbling chunks and powder spray hitting the trees below serve as a sobering reminder to take it easy. I believe careful travel during high danger days can be a rewarding learning experience. You get to see how snow reacts on different slope angles and can get instant confirmation of your judgments. It’s a great time for going on a “walk” through the woods with few expectations beyond maybe scoring a turn or two, and perhaps even some avy excitement.
Shope for BCA shovel here.
(Guest blogger Nick Thompson is part of the WildSnow Denali crew. He tele bashed Telluride for years, and for some unknown reason moved to the Aspen area and locked down his heels at least part of the time.)