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Out the past three days in the Raggeds subrange of Colorado’s Elk Mountains. Snowpack up there is chock full of weak layers — with recent wind loading we rated the danger as at least “Considerable” before even hitting the trail. When the big paths came into view we could see at least one large natural release, so we ramped our assessment up to “High.” Even so, we knew we could poke around on our favorite moderate tree runs and get some goods, and perhaps head for higher terrain that wasn’t too “big.” But we got schooled. Read on to find out how the lesson was learned, but first a few shots for the sake of blog design.
|One of the best skis out there for human powered vertical on Colorado’s variable snowpack is the Black Diamond Verdict (light and wide). Here, Louie proves that the Verdict has been read and the jury rests. I know, I know, blatant advertiser product placement. What can I say. Good skis. Good company.|
Day one involved a fairly lengthy ski to the cabin, then an evening stroll over the hill to see friends who we made plans with for the next day’s tour (this is an area with a number of private cabins). After a beautiful ski by headlamp back home, we stoke the fire and get a good nine hours of sleep. Nothing like being up in the mountains where cell phones and DVD players are not part of the sport plan… Sometimes I can’t believe how good I sleep.
Day two. We team as a group of nine and charge up the mountain, trying to gain some quick vertical that would put us above a fairly moderate descent. Problem is, the crux of our climb is a small but potentially serious avalanche slope that doesn’t slide often, but exactly matches other slopes that have dropped in the last 48 hour or so.
Normally, 48 hours would mean things would be settling down in terms of avy danger, but the wind is blowing (we can see the snow being moved) and lurking depth hoar is still creating settlements (whumphs) we can feel.
Before we reach the decision point we’re already a bit spooked, as the route involves climbing up the runout of a massive slide. Though this gets my attention I’m not worried enough to turn back, since part of this big one has already dropped, and the rest is wind hammered. Nonetheless I’m glad when we turn uphill to a tree island — after all, a wrong call about this could result in certain death for all of us…
Problem is we’re now below another smaller avalanche slope. This is the infrequent slider that’s used as a route when things are stable. Today you could be half blind and still see it’s loaded and dangerous. It just doesn’t look right to me. The conversation doesn’t last long — I’m incredibly gratified when everyone quickly agrees to simply turn around. What a good lesson for my son, I think, when he can see a bunch of adults agree so quickly to take the safe option. Confirmation would come soon.
We take a safe ridge route that places us at the top of the slope in question. Friend walks the ridge out ahead and remote triggers the slope, which runs to within twenty feet of where we’d been an hour before! Indeed, confirmation doesn’t get much better than that. Confirmation that we made a good call in turning around, and confirmation that we made the wrong call with being there in the first place.
|Our highpoint is behind the tree island. Avalanche that almost reached that point is indicated by obvious fracture (it happened after we left — but we were thinking of climbing that exact slope). Click for enlarged annotated version.|
What a strange mix of smarts and mistakes. Yes, we shouldn’t have been going for that slope in the first place. Bad. Yes, a group of nine people were able to make a quick unified decision to turn around, then see their decision confirmed within the hour by a slide that could have badly hurt or possibly killed someone. Good.
Lesson for me: if avy danger is assessed as high, be careful about going and “looking” at possible routes. Doing so can get you in some uncomfortable and potentially deadly situations. We still got a bunch of good skiing this day, but on slopes that were unlikely to slide, and were more easily managed.
I got an email from one of the folks on the trip who’s got a ton of experience. His take:
Lou, I was thinking some more about yesterday – really a good subject for your blog. While we made the right decisions, it reminded me of how close we often get to screwing up. A little more hubris or ego in the group dynamic could have led to a bad call. So, a few lessons learned:
1) No matter how familiar the terrain, always pay attention to the obvious signs of instability.
2) Always ratchet the risk acceptance way down when any risk factor is present.
3) Always default to lower-risk terrain and routes that have decent escape possibilities.
4) Check in with every person in the group when making risk assessments; if a single person is uncomfortable, turn around and/or take the more conservative route.
5) Every day is a chance to learn something new.
A few more photos from the trip:
|Lisa cruises to the cabin.|
(Note, my mother pointed out that the 19th is the anniversary of my big avy ride back in 1982, a little irony, could have been more than a little…)
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.