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It’s summer – skis are covered in storage wax, the grass is green, and here is the final installment of the Adventure From Home series. Hope you enjoy the story.
The Adventure From Home Series Part III takes place in the San Juans of southwest Colorado. AFH Part I talks about backcountry skiing the Tetons and Part II about the Elks. The San Juan mountains are located within the San Juan and Uncompahgre National Forests. Backcountry skiing in the San Juans is based out of either Ouray, Silverton, or Telluride. The San Juan mountains have a reputation for expansive terrain, unstable snowpack, and jagged, difficult peaks. I grew up in the area and learned how to ski here. I hold this place near and dear to my heart.
For this leg of the AFH series, I made plans to ski with two close friends: Sheamus and Fritz. Sheamus and I grew up together in the San Juans. My first time ski touring, using crampons, and traveling internationally for skiing have all been with Sheamus. He’s an exceptional mountain athlete for how little he attaches his talent to his larger personality. Fritz and I met at university. He’s from the Roaring Fork Valley. Fritz is similar to Sheamus in that he under-acknowledges his expert level of backcountry skiing experience. Fritz and Sheamus have yin and yang skiing styles. Sheamus skis controlled and tight. Fritz skis fast and loose.
Sheamus, Fritz and I made plans to ski and camp without specific objectives in mind. Our goals were more:
— Stay safe
— Have fun
— Ski inspiring terrain
In that order of priority. We all had a hefty level of decision fatigue after a season of unstable snow and active avalanche conditions. We were excited for the newly arrived warm spring weather and isothermal snowpack.
Before our trip, I spoke with two local experts/friends to learn more about the area: Sheldon Kerr and Hilaree Nelson. Sheldon is an IFMGA mountain guide living in Ridgway. Hilaree is a professional skier based out of Telluride.
Risk and Snowpack Assessment with IFMGA Guide Sheldon Kerr
Sheldon works as a ski guide in the San Juans. She is dialed: she makes conservative evidence-based decisions, seems to always find good snow, and makes her ski partners feel empowered and heard. I aspire to be as pro as Sheldon when it comes to backcountry decision making. Sheldon and I spoke about the snowpack in the San Juans and the risk assessment as it pertains to this region. Here’s a summary:
The San Juans are in an arid continental climate that lends itself to a sensitive snowpack. Depth hoar lingers throughout the season, near surface faceting events are common from prolonged dry spells in between storms, and total snow depths are relatively shallow season-long. To manage the stress of backcountry travel with this variety of complex issues, Sheldon simplifies things. “Some other people talk about crust and layers and multiple avalanche problems, but I like to think more simply. For me , there’s No Season and Yes Season.”
For instance, Sheldon will ask:
Is it safe? (i.e. Is there an absence of avalanche problems?)
If no, it’s No Season.
If yes, it’s Yes Season.
During No Season, avalanche terrain is off limits. If there isn’t a clear avalanche problem, then it’s Yes Season (which according to Sheldon started the second week of March this year). “Yes Season is when decision making gets hard because the option to enter avalanche terrain is now on the menu.” Since there is the absence of clear avalanche problems, you can more readily manage complex terrain.
“Either the snowpack needs to be simple or the terrain needs to be simple. Skiing on a complex snowpack in complex terrain leads to compounding uncertainty.” says Sheldon. The No/Yes Season Idea doesn’t mean that the backcountry is safe during Yes Season. There are still hazards to manage during Yes Season like wind slab, wet loose avalanches, uncertainty, falling, getting lost, running out of snacks, etc. Deciding between No and Yes Season is deciding between simple terrain or more complex terrain based off of the snowpack structure. The point that stuck with me is to stick to simple terrain until the snowpack is simple.
The way Sheldon describes how she survives No Season ‘is to truly enjoy powder skiing.’ She explains, “Don’t tell me 25° pow isn’t bliss. Because it is. No Season is about powder skiing as a spiritual experience. There is amazing skiing to be done in January and February, but it’s chill.” (If you want to get deep into the spirituality and practice of powder skiing, try to sniff out a copy of Deep Powder Snow: Forty-Years of Ecstatic Skiing, Avalanches, and Earth Wisdom by the late Silverton-based backcountry skiing bad ass Dolores LaChapelle.) Sheldon continues, “Then March, April and May come around. That’s when you can potentially consider steeper, more complex objectives.”
This binary No/Yes Season is an appealing simplification for skiing in a continental snowpack. If there is a complex snowpack, avoid avalanche terrain and go ski low angle pow (Read more about low danger powder skiing here). If the snowpack is simple, then there’s the option to step out into bigger terrain.
Local Ski History and Ethics with Hilaree Nelson
Hilaree Nelson is a professional ski mountaineer and the current The North Face Global Athletic Team Captain. I know of Hilaree from two perspectives — as a pro skier and as a Telluride local. She has a laundry list of impressive ski descents from around the world. But Hilaree is also another Telluride local that developed local backcountry skiing around the area. I spoke with Hilaree to better learn about the modern ski history in the San Juans and local concerns for this zone.
Hilaree moved to Telluride about 20 years ago to live with her partner at the time Brian O’Neil, who had lived there 10 years. These two were a part of a small community that pioneered a lot of the modern backcountry skiing around Telluride. “For many years, I would know every person out in the backcountry and most of those people were the ones that named the lines we skied,” said Hilaree “A big change as of recent is the growth of backcountry skiing. There are so many new faces and it’s harder to connect with the core community. Communication is necessary here because of the complex conditions and terrain.”
There are growing pains tied to the increase in backcountry skiing and a lack of communication and community is one of those. Newer skiers are entering unfamiliar terrain with a lack of information/experience. Older skiers are pushing into unfamiliar terrain to try and find fresh snow.
“I’m really afraid to see some of our amazing access get shut down because we don’t adhere to land use regulations or because we unnecessarily endanger Search and Rescue by getting caught in avalanches. The future of backcountry skiing is to promote localized education and communication.”
Following Hilaree’s advice, a few ways to improve localized education and communication in your mountain region are:
Submit detailed observations to your local forecasting center (CAIC Submit Observations). This can be weather observations, avalanche obs, or field reports. The more the better!
Get connected with your local mountain club (Telluride Mountain Club for the San Juans)
Talk to people! Chat with other backcountry users at the trailhead about snow conditions or terrain selection. Get to know local members of your backcountry community. Build an open dialogue around skiing to help keep each other safe.
Route Planning and Weather Sussing
Sheamus, Fritz and I planned a weekend of skiing near Hope Lake, situated in the southwest corner of the San Juans. This trip was close to home for Sheamus and I, and a great excuse to get our friend Fritz to travel down from Aspen. We wanted to keep our plans mellow and enjoy a spring camping trip all together after a long ski season. The snowpack had gone isothermal and snow depths were still moderate. In Sheldon’s words: it was Yes Season. We had a simple snowpack, so there was the option [but not the necessity] to choose more complex terrain.
Our plan was to approach Hope Lake Friday after work and set up camp. Fritz would drive from Aspen and meet us Saturday morning at camp before breakfast. We would ski Saturday and Sunday before packing up and heading home Sunday afternoon. We had two objectives in mind: Rolling Mountain and Vermillion Peak. Snow conditions and weather would dictate if we could ski either. The weather was…mixed. There were snow flurries in the forecast and overcast for both Saturday and Sunday, but we decided to go anyway. We all had limited schedules for the spring and this weekend worked. The anticipated quality of skiing took second place to the quality of company.
Stay tuned for Part II of Adventure From Home San Juans, where the crew attempts the north face of Rolling Mountain.