Backcountry Skiing News Digest – Avalanches and Huts

Post by blogger | February 10, 2012      

WildSnow staff is headed outside today, but first we’re checking our heads with the mental maze below. Is it confusing us or helping? How is the emphasis? What do you guys think? See the whole thing here, over at the Casper Star Tribune. Once you’re done with this one, if you’ve not worked through our own avalanche safety quiz have a gander at that as well — anything helps that peels the lids of the avalanche eyeballs.

Avalanche safety judgment for backcountry skiers.

Avalanche safety judgment for backcountry skiers. Click image for complete quiz.

More avalanche news. A fatal avalanche in Montana a few days ago began with cornice fall. Reports indicate the skiers were attempting to climb an avalanche safe ridge-route when one man strayed a bit to far on what turned out to be the overhang of a cornice, which broke and took him down. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that snow cornices are one of the real gotchas of the alpine. Look back through history or talk to older alpinists, and the litany of cornice incidents is alarming. Experts are not immune. For example, famed pioneer climber Herman Buhl died in a cornice fall.

Most of you reading this have probably been in the situation. You’re on a ridge or summit and due to the gentle curve of a cornice edge you have absolutely no idea whether you’re next to a gigantic overhanging death trap, or a 10 inch drop onto a gentle slope. In terms of danger, the big cornices tend to garner more attention, but the small ones can be just as elusive and dangerous depending on what’s below.

I’ve never figured out a 100% solution for cornice travel, other than sometimes being ridiculously cautious and taking lines that add time and difficulty to the route, to avoid any chance of exposure. Problem is, sometimes topography will force you into a zone that might be hazardous, or the light is so bad you simply can’t figure out where to march. Roping up saves lives in these situations, but how many backcountry skiers are going to fiddle with ropes during a normal day, or how many even carry a rope and know how to use it? Gets you thinking.

I’m delighted at reports of new hut building endeavors here in Colorado, specifically in the Berthoud Pass area. Any of our huts near population centers and main transportation corridors are maxed out with thousands of user nights, so the more the merrier.

On the other hand, for what you get (a roof, a bathroom, a crowd, and a communal kitchen) I believe many of our huts are over priced and their popularity will wane as the backcountry skiing population’s tastes change. This due to a couple of factors. First, as gear becomes lighter weight and the uphilling ski population becomes more experienced, the huts end up “closer” to trailheads. Result is disincentive for use of the huts as overnight shelter. More, I know for a fact that many Colorado skiers are burnt out on the need for making reservations at most of the huts, along with the need to plan and pack their own victuals. So, when I read the report about the new Berthoud huts, one thing that leapt out at me was they are addressing the needs of day skiers by including a day-lodge room at the huts. If they make the step of providing some food and drink in those day lodges, in my view immense popularity will ensue. All in time, but inevitable?


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10 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Digest – Avalanches and Huts”

  1. wick February 10th, 2012 9:57 am

    ….don”t forget the new “Taylor Pass Hut” location that got approved recently!

  2. Scott February 10th, 2012 11:10 am

    Lou –
    Have you been up on Marble Peak lately? Given the bad snowpack, how are things looking up there?

  3. Tom February 10th, 2012 2:08 pm

    Take a look at the N.Z. system of very cheap alpine huts, a little less fancy than what you’ve got, but beautiful all the same.

  4. Lou February 10th, 2012 5:06 pm

    Scott, was just up there today testing the Ultimate Quiver You can find some stuff to ski. Depending on your risk acceptance level. Some is quite safe (where it’s been heavily skied and previously avalanched) but the snow is super inconsistent. I augured into a hoar pond and did a forward release. If you don’t mind imperfect conditions, you can just stick with the usual bowl routes and you’d probably be fine, but that depends on snow and wind between now and then, of course… Lou

  5. Ben C February 11th, 2012 9:23 pm

    An East Coast interloper here..

    Getting ready to come out your way in March. Tracking the avy reports and looking to build up a bank of plan-B avy safe(r) tour options.

    Any recommendations? Lower angle or trees? I’ll be based in Snowmass but willing to travel quite a bit. (Heading as far as Vail for 3 days at a hut.) Regarding imperfect conditions- we’re easily impressed by any snow conditions that aren’t ice.

    Many thanks for sharing-

  6. brian h February 12th, 2012 8:04 am

    Regarding the ‘avie comic’: I think its inevitable that this sort of simplification is going to happen (has happened) with the whole “backcountry explosion”. BUT if it creates a mental pause with the rope duckers or people who have been b.c. skiing without gear and training(?!), then yeah,why not. Especially given the venue is a daily paper. Comics grab your eye better then something preachy or academic.

  7. Mark Allen February 12th, 2012 9:00 am

    To: Ben C,
    Come on down to the San Juans. We can show you around. We have a great group of AMGA ski guides and have several huts that we work out of. I hope you find what your looking for.

    All the best,

    Mark Allen
    SWAG Ski Guide Director

  8. Clark February 13th, 2012 9:22 am

    To Ben C – what Mark said.

    [Note I have no affiliation to their guide service nor have I ever used them, although judging from the website I wouldn’t hesitate. I’m just voting San Juans, you can’t go wrong.

  9. Kevin February 13th, 2012 5:48 pm

    I think the maze is a neat idea but I was pretty bothered when I got to “Did you tell your buddy where you’d be…” I was assuming grabbing a buddy would be right up there with “bring all your avalanche gear,” as the cart doesn’t really work without the horse. Also, I’m probably not going to think twice about skiing a 25 deg slope on the way home no matter how hot it’s gotten. Content is pretty poor for a mass publication.

  10. RyanHC February 27th, 2012 10:00 am

    Thanks for posting the maze and asking the important question of if it helps or over simplifies the decision making process. It was a fun process to work on with the journalist from the Tribune. I definitely struggled with how in-depth we should go and how everything would link up in the final graphic. Over all I am pretty pleased with how they represented the information we discussed, while recognizing that the decisions we make in the backcountry are far more complex that illustrated in the graphic. I hope that the maze at least spurs some thoughts on backcountry travel for less experienced travellers, and for those with more experience it could be a good reminder of some of the more obvious things we should be thinking about. Thanks for sharing it Lou.

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