Avalanches, Snowmobiles, and Pole to the Pole — News Roundup

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 30, 2012      

I’m not sure what I think about the ascendance of the adaptive athlete. On the one hand, I’m truly inspired by these guys. On the other hand, I sometimes get the feeling that cutting of an arm or a leg could be a good career move. In any case, the latest stunner is Grant Korgan. He made 250,000 pole pushes on his sitski to be the first such athlete to reach the South Pole. To top off the PR value, Korgan timed his “pole to the pole” arrival to coincide with 100th anniversary of Captain Scott’s ill fated South Pole visit in 1912. The documentary film and TV series are of course following. Check it out.

Pole to the South Pole.

Pole to the South Pole. Grant Korgan making one of 250,000 pole plants that got him there.

Out here in the cowboy hatted west of the U.S., we’ve still got a snowpack in many places that resembles a minefield. A couple of avalanche deaths near here in Colorado bring that home. Close calls have happened as well. Up at our local haunt near Marble, a group of cowboys that I’ve heard called the “wrecking crew” triggered fully three separate slides down towards themselves within just a few minutes. I’m told one man was wallowing with a lost ski in the direct path of a death ride. Why the slides stopped where they did (I went up there and took a look) is probably a miracle — as is the type of washing machine that will be required for this individual’s underwear. A backcountry snowboarder in Utah wasn’t so lucky, and took a huge ride to his death this past Saturday.

We were out this weekend checking the minefield. With my eyelids pinned back so my avy retinas could stay fully engaged, I was stunned at how bad the snowpack actually was. Unfortunately, the worst aspect in the area I evaluated is that much of the snow is still hanging in the avalanche paths and has not come down. Enough smaller pocket slides had occurred to prevent gigantic full-path avalanches in the paths we passed underneath, but actually skiing anything still in those paths would have been suicidal. Basically, the snowpack is super inconsistent. Some areas have up to a meter of loose sugar snow “facets” with multiple slab layers sitting on top. Other areas are so thin you can see the weeds. With fat skis, you can pass over and even have fun skiing the minimal “bridging” the top layers provide, thus not realizing the facet layers are waiting under there to suddenly compress from your weight, then trigger an avalanche comprising the poorly bonded and minimally bridged upper layers. In all, ridiculous. Our snowpack will heal, but it may take weeks and bad areas could linger long after that — even extending into the spring season.

Ah, yes, and then we have snowmobilers vs skiers. It’s the issue that won’t go away — and probably shouldn’t till it is resolved. I still believe that some of the opposition to snowmobilers sharing non-wilderness terrain with skiers is based more on philosophical differences rather than true problems. But put too many of both groups in one small area, and reality does trump philosophy. As they say, the “sphere of influence” of one rabid powder-eating sledder is equal to dozens of human powered backcountry skiers. Thus, get a half dozen sledders funning your favorite backcountry skiing haunt, and they can completely trash in a few hours what would take your band of merry skinners multiple days to track out.

As for snowmobilers intruding in legal Wilderness where they’re outlawed — they need to be stopped, period. The outlaw sledders who scofflaw their way though banned lands from Colorado to Washington are cutting their own throats and possibly screwing things up for backcountry skiers as well. Why? Because land managers (mainly USFS) have few tools to control the outlaws, and one tool is to make ever more Wilderness “buffer zones” that close easier to patrol access points. This in turn closes more land to the snowmachines — and, don’t forget, to hut building and skier/snowmobile hybrid access. Witness what’s going on up in Washington State. And check out this little tiff zone in Wyoming.

There you go, a bit of coffee break fodder for the big Monday.


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19 Responses to “Avalanches, Snowmobiles, and Pole to the Pole — News Roundup”

  1. Charlie January 30th, 2012 11:49 am

    Looks like some of the CAIC-listed accidents are occurring on layers that later receive ECT scores well above 20. Hard to find those layers by feel on the up, and easy to convince yourself that things are ok on the down. Y’all grow spooky snowpacks.

  2. John J January 30th, 2012 9:28 pm

    Grant is clearly a talented and driven athlete who has a brilliant future ahead of him, and I wish him the best. I am having a hard time seeing this trip as anything other than a publicity stunt. “First such athlete to reach the South Pole”- what does that mean when he was dropped off on the plateau, 75 miles away from it?

    Lou, your link to the Chronicle article goes to the second page.

  3. Rob Mullins January 30th, 2012 9:57 pm

    Thanks Lou for blogging the article about snomo & Wilderness issues in WA! We hope the discussion will broaden, that the general public will become aware of the current situation on the winter Forest!

  4. Randy Young January 30th, 2012 11:56 pm

    It is I, the man wallowing for a ski and part of what I guess others are referring to as the “wrecking crew.” Lou, I’ve heard you referred to as less than upstanding for constantly spraying about a sport which is likely about anything but. Then again I know how easy it is to armchair quarterback especially when you have an audience. Now that I’ve said it I’d like to apologize for doing so. I want you to know, Lou, that when I think of all you have accomplished in skiing it gives me a sick feeling because, as much as I hate to crush my own dreams, I seriously doubt that I will ever come anywhere close to accomplishing what you have. My hat and soiled shorts are off to you. I guess I would also like you to know that immediately upon getting home (thank god) I sat down and wrote about all that had happened that day so that I never forget the mistakes I made, can learn from them and hopefully make better decisions in the future. I’m not much with the written word, but would be glad to share what I wrote. Lastly, I’d like to ask that we could sit down for a coffee or a beer? I know that some friends and I have bad practices, to say the least, and I need beta from an outside source so that I and all the people I love touring with can continue to do so for a long time to come.

  5. Lou January 31st, 2012 6:44 am

    Randy, thanks for chiming in. It wasn’t me that came up with that term, but it seemed to apply in both a serious and humorous fashion. A little chuckle sometimes helps us when we otherwise take ourselves too seriously, and I’m talking about myself as well as others. Also, please note out of deference to you guys I didn’t use any names. Basically, if the shoe fits, wear it. Beyond personal feelings, the point here is to help people be safer. By using that incident as an example, I’m certain some folks were much more careful out there over the past days. As for me being less than upstanding, I do my best to contribute to the sport, help people be safer, as well as making a living as a writer. After that, the cards will have to fall where they may — I’m willing to take the risk and put myself out there. If you want a debrief I’m game, but I’ll bet you’ll guess what I have to say. And yeah, I’ve made similar mistakes.

    Main thing, people want to know if your underwear came clean (grin)?

  6. shoveler January 31st, 2012 7:55 am

    Where exactly was Lou quarterbacking? As far as I can see, he just wrote a few sentences about an incident, with some lively prose. What I want to know, and Lou didn’t touch on, is how flawed a decision making process leads to you wallowing in an avalanche path and having fully three different slides come down at you from what I assume are three different exposures? How bad does it have to get before you guys stay home or go to the resort?

  7. Dave Field January 31st, 2012 9:10 am

    Props to Randy for acknowledging his involvement and displaying some humility. Finger pointing after the fact or armchair quarterbacking is useless. It would be much better to have a factual discussion of the events and decisions made leading to the triggering of the slides for all to learn from. Nobody is capable of making perfect decisions all of the time. Part of a good education is to get out there and try and make good decisions. We learn the most from and hopefully survive our poor decisions to use better judgement and group management the next time out.

  8. Lou January 31st, 2012 9:21 am

    Details can be good, for those of us who want to approach things analytically and learn from incidents. On the other hand, just knowing a mistake was made is sobering and hopefully makes you think about your own behavior. That’s what it does for me. Sometimes, I think people just bring their own emotional state to these things. I mention an accident, and to some people I’m “finger pointing, ” to others I’m “quarterbacking,” and for others it’s simply a brief report a about a close call, and helps them with self analysis. If the individuals involved want to share details for public, that’s up to them. As for a person’s feelings about something written about them, that’s a strong lens to be reading though and probably influences their take at least a little bit…

  9. Jeff Hollenbaugh January 31st, 2012 11:03 am

    Let’s go back: http://www.wildsnow.com/2557/winchester-lookout-larabee/

    Louie makes a mistake and uses bad judgement. He skis onto a wind pocket over exposed terrain, pocket flushes, he takes a slide for life and is able to self arrest in the nick of time.

    Louie is supported, encouraged, and gets to have a “learning experience”.

    We make a mistake and use bad judgement. We ski a feature and at the bottom remotely trigger a slide 400 feet above which then sympathetically releases two adjacent features. We ski out of the path to a safe zone in the nick of time.

    We are labeled, judged and made examples of in hopes that someone can pull out of the context a message to be safe.

    What beacause we are vetran backcountry skiers we are no longer allowed to have ‘learning experiences”? We should use perfect judgement all the time and never find ourselves in a situation like this?

    Your description Lou and the labels you place on us make it out to sound like events like this happen every time we go out, that we are needlessly careless, and take a maverick and cavalier attitude toward our skiing. The opposite couldn’t be more true.

    Your blog is rife with disparity and inconsistency in your tone and who it is applied to. For the majority of your readers out there your paragraph on us has no real context and I struggle how they could find more than a simple, “hey, be careful out there” in your colorful prose. However, you blog from a small town with a small ski community and for that audience the way you worded your paragraph takes on a much different meaning and leaves much to be read into it by those who know you, me, Randy and Steve.

    None of the “wrecking crew” ever blogs or posts in any way shape or form, whether it be the over-the-head days we’ve had in this area or events such as this. Therefore we did not feel obligated to do so in this case. Steve submitted an observation to the CAIC. Had this happened anywhere else besides above your backcountry HQ we would have not been fodder for your colorful prose and we could have had our “learning experience”.

    For the record: Randy’s underware were just fine and he wore them proudly to the deadmau5 show that night where we celebrated our learning experience.


  10. Lou January 31st, 2012 11:50 am

    Ok Jeff, points taken.

  11. shoveler January 31st, 2012 12:23 pm

    So, you guys nearly get avalanched, receive a tongue lashing from the crusty old mountaineer, and have a problem with that? Get over it. That’s what crusty old mountaineers are for.

  12. brendan madigan February 1st, 2012 9:44 am

    After hearing Grant’s story last night at Squaw, I can affirm to all of you that it is indeed a story for the ages. Amazing is always relative to the task/challenge at hand and even if he got dropped off by airplane 75 miles away, how else did you expect him to get there? Not to mention the majority of people get there in a motorized fashion. Grant was a professional athlete before his life altering injury, and he continues to be one to this day in his pursuit of full recovery. I’d suggest having a look at his story before calling it a publicity stunt, and to be honest Lou, I’d expect more from you as an icon of the backcountry ski community before speaking of such personal challenge as arbitrary or a career move.

  13. Lou February 2nd, 2012 8:26 am

    Poor and ok decisions I was involved in and made myself a few years ago:


    I’ve got other articles like that as well. Check “avalanches” in the category listing or just use the search box.

  14. Lou February 2nd, 2012 8:36 am

    Brendan, read what I wrote. I was simply pondering the whole deal, that’s a least part of what a blogger does. Not every personal challenge is earth shattering, and you have to admit that the “I got disabled and here is my inspiring story” thing is becoming a bit of a cliche. Grant’s story sounds cool, but my PR BS meter definitely jiggled when I got the email blast about his trip. Sometimes I think these guys get poor work from their publicists and they might do much better with a bit less hype. Example: to time his trip with that of Scott, who messed up and led his whole group to die of starvation, that seemed a bit weird to say the least.

    As for where he started, whatever. This whole Pole thing is getting like the Everest circus. Best approach is probably to gain a take on these guys by examining what comes after they do their feat (in terms of inspirational speeches, that sort of thing), as the feat itself can often appear a bit contrived.

  15. Lou February 2nd, 2012 8:41 am

    I was thinking more about this. We are all adaptive athletes, some just more obvious than others. No body is perfect. What’s that mean? I don’t know, but it seems to put all this in a bit more perspective.

  16. KR February 2nd, 2012 10:16 am

    I would like to join this “wrecking crew.” Is it closed to bumblies, like Twight’s “Gym Jones?” How many burpees do I need to do?

    I have been enjoying touring just for the sheer variability out there, which is astounding even for Colorado standards. In Europe you have to be ready to encounter every kind of snow because you might get 6000 feet of descent and it certainly won’t all be blower. The advantage of Colorado is that you have the same experience but the snow changes with EVERY TURN. So no need to ride telepheriques or skin 3000 meters to sample the full menu!

  17. Lou February 2nd, 2012 10:18 am

    Ha! You be dissing our snowpack now? You Euro elitist you!

  18. charlesg762 February 2nd, 2012 2:52 pm

    Concur with Brendan. The “career move” and “publicity stunt” comments are a low blow, particularly to the Veteran community who’ve lost limbs and didn’t choose to spend their time in the 40’s, 50’s, 60’s or the 00’s skiing blower and sipping lattes, as well as to civvies like this guy who busted himself up doing a snowmobile jump or some who were just born with a disability. 12 days/75mi of hard poling in the polar high/dry/cold, dragging a pulk to boot?….sounds like a legit accomplishment to me. Ever try it? As for the Poles becoming like Everest circus…been there lately….ever? Yeah, there are cameras, scientists, flashy gear, arrogant Old Worlders, sex-drugs-rocknroll, etc…. the terrain itself is no less legit though maybe less attractive for the Patagonia catalog shoot peddling chinese-made coats and shirts to well-heeled, environment-loving Americans. No more a circus than much of the sanitized CO backcountry safely linked by daily CAIC reports, roads, huts, cell phone networks, and ski-resorts (is that the going definition of “adventure”?). In the wrong light the up-downing of 54 fourteeners by a fully “able” man/woman skier could be viewed as little more than basic fitness, avy skills/luck/good guide-partners, and a lot of free time…but hell, in the right light, that stuff could also be viewed as the work of a stud, worthy of a couple of books and a daily gear/trip write-up that has built a loyal herd of followers. I think most tend to have the latter opinion of you Lou, but some of the comments here are a bit rough on the guys/gals down a limb or two. I’d give this guy Korgan a hand (with no caveats) for getting out there and reaching the pole under his own power.

  19. Lou February 2nd, 2012 3:23 pm

    Thanks Charles, I’d agree that I could have made the same point with more sensitivity. Grumpy Monday or something.

    Backstory: The start of that blog post was getting an email that seemed a bit over on the hype side, from a girl who seemed to be working as a publicist or something. A more core email from the man himself would have been much wiser on their part. It would have immediately communicated authenticity.

    All above asside, I feel that the issue of just what constitutes an inspirational event is an open discussion, whether it be an event based on being an adaptive athlete, or gender, or age, or whatever. The thing we all need to do is not let PC fog get in the way of the discussion. In other words, I’d hope there is some way I could have written about my concerns in a way that folks would have gotten past the PC violation reaction, and seen what I was _trying_ to say and apparently fell short of. The thing you’ve got to remember about me is I’ll keep trying, and I’m willing to fail. That might be the result of the “inconsistency” and so forth folks see when they go back through 6 years of blog posts…

    Good challenge for a writer, really. I’ll try again. Your comment does a good job of bringing up such points.

    Thanks, Lou

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