Sunday, November 27, 2011

Don't Do This, Early Season Dramas

Even with something that is as innately familiar as skiing is to many of us, the early season can to lead to uniquely great and often humbling experiences in the backcountry.  The following is a realistic scenario of an early season day ski touring. Humbly, I will say that I couldn't really make this shit up; it includes some truths of some antics over the years, though not all of these truths occurred at any one time as stated below. Enjoy and try to avoid getting into these situations, avalanches aren't the only thing that can ruin your ski day!

Imagine This:

After months away you click into your old reliable ski set-up and shortly after you start wondering how you ever skied every day on these things.  They are noodle boards now, with rusty edges and with spotty patches of petex remaining; relics of once greatly civilized equipment. Memories stir.

You start out with a friend on an ambitious canyon to canyon ski tour; thumbing a ride out from the other side should not be an issue now as a ski area has opened for the season in that canyon.

The ascent seems like more effort than it should be and now it’s already the afternoon; finding batteries for a transceiver caused an earlier diversion. Some clouds roll in and the light is very dim under the thick pine forest canopy. Coming up the trail your head sags as you try to catch your breath, your legs seem heavy. Rounding a turn a moose’s head suddenly appears right in front of you!  Motionless it stares at you, lips sagging as it chews on a tasty branch. The moose doesn’t seem amused and smells quite earthy. You are frozen in your tracks.

You divert off the main trail to get around the creature. Aimed on cleaning up your shorts you struggle through some shrubbery where a willow loads up under one of your ski tips and then releases, making perfect impact with your right testicle or respective area.

At sunset you find yourself on a high ridge with a mellowish slope below. It is a familiar and beautiful sight. You would have preferred skiing something steeper but you fear the additional rocks you might hit and potential for avalanches on the steeper slopes. Just before you start to ski you remove your goggles because you can’t freaking see anything with them on any more. It’s getting dark and it’s really cold, particularly on your face. Your partner is still working out putting his old split board together, one of the attachment points is missing but he should be alright getting down with some finesse.

Your first couple turns feel great, the sound of crystalline snow echoes each turn. The light is flat but you go faster anyway. You clip a small rock before accelerating over a blind roll that you couldn’t see, hitting several rocks with great force. Sparks fly quite noticeably off your edges in the dimming sky. At the bottom of the run you regroup after some nice turns.

You continue on and after ten minutes of log hopping and traversing through a lower elevation thicket you stop to catch your breath and evaluate your route. Suddenly, you hear some loud yelling from somewhere around you; it is coming from the tree, the one above you, huh? A bow hunter perched in his tree stand isn’t amused. You keep moving and then stop to grab some water, a quick bite and to evaluate the condition of your shorts, again. Your water bottle is frozen, the candy bar seriously stresses your jaw with its new-found diamond like hardness, and your pants are thankfully still clean but one pant leg is in fact a bit torn.

It’s cold, colder than before, and dark, completely dark at this point. You have one head lamp between you and your partner and it’s really dim as the batteries are nearly dead. You take your jacket off to put on a fleece, your final article of clothing in your pack. In the process you notice the flashing light on your transceiver, an idea strikes you. Mostly out of avalanche terrain at this point you sacrifice the functionality of your beacon for the commodity of light. The batteries that were purchased only five hours ago prove to be dual purpose.

At 6pm you reach the road with your partner, reasonably unscathed but with cold fingers and colder toes. Wearing your black jacket and black pants you stick a thumb out on a dark stretch of road in hopes of getting a ride, any ride. The ski area up canyon has closed hours ago and there aren’t any cars coming this way anymore; it’s going to be a long walk to the valley you think. You joke to your partner that the only person coming down canyon is going to be some drunk spilling out of the ski area bar, as those were the only folks still left in the mountains this time of day.

Twenty minutes pass before a car is sighted, this one driving UP the canyon. Ultimately you need to go down the canyon but with the thought that there may be a greater chance for a ride leaving from the bar up canyon you decide that any ride is a good one. Plus, there is beer and warmth at a bar, an improvement of your current situation. The car stops and helps you make it to the bar without any issue. In the parking area a man walks to his car and happily agrees to give you a lift.

On the way down the canyon the driver, already heavy with booze and drinking a tall boy asks you whether you have any green. You tell the man that you are fresh out but this doesn’t ease his paranoia.  Every so often he asks in a loud raising voice, “Is that Johnny?” He is hyper-paranoid about getting pulled over and slows every now and then to allow cars from behind to pass. On one of these courtesy maneuvers he succeeds in getting stuck in the snow bank off the side of the road.

It is dark and cold, really cold. You have your avalanche shovel assembled and are shoveling some drunken asshole’s car out of the ditch, somewhere in the wilderness. You ask your friend, “So, do we just keep hitching now or what?”  Before long you are underway again, still with the drunk jackass. He drops you off at your car and you look at your friend and laugh at the end of a fine day.

What was the most dangerous part of your day?

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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

What Mountain Range Has the Best Snow?

Snow, it is the median which makes it all possible for skiers and snowboarders alike, fuel for an entire culture of winter addicts. But who gets the best snow? Well, this may be a more difficult question to answer than you might expect. The answer? well, it depends, largely on what type of skiing that you want to be doing.

It is fairly common knowledge that snow varies in its density, or water content. In general, the colder that it is the less moisture you will find in falling snow. If it snows near the freezing point snowfalls will generally be of heavier density than if it is colder. Warm air masses also hold a far greater amount of moisture than colder ones, so a warm storm is not only more likely to produce heavy snow but it is also far more likely for it to snow more in general.

After snow falls out of the sky, the elements take over manipulating its destiny and changing its form. Snow is constantly changing from the moment it starts to form in the sky, every moment it spends on the ground, and to the moment it melts entirely. The warmer and sunnier it is, the more likely settlement (the more air that will come out of the snow) and the more snow crystal bonding and cohesion that will occur. The cooler and shadier it is, the less the likelihood of settlement that will occur will be and the more faceting (angulation) that will occur to snow crystals, which creates a greater lack of cohesion between snow crystals. (To be specific the true cause of snow crystal metamorphosis is one of gradients of temperatures and coinciding vapor pressure. Snow and ice continually sublimate just as liquids evaporate, causing a transfer of vapor out from, into and around individual crystals).

Some will argue that high elevation coastal areas such as the Sierra Nevada's, CA have the best snow because the powder skiing is great during storms and it sits on a thick base left by other past storms that cover and stick to the mountain like super glue. It often snows so fast that, even though the snow is of a higher density it simply can’t settle fast enough. The result is high quality deep powder skiing conditions that after storms sets-up more rapidly than it does in more interior areas due to comparatively mild temperatures. Avalanches in coastal ranges are often frequent and massive during and shortly after storms and then stabilize quite readily afterward.

Bill Fleming having the time of his life on Wizard Rings, Chugach Mountains, Alaska.


Others swear by the “cold smoke,” or the super light density snow which falls in more interior, often high elevation ranges. It doesn’t snow as often here, nor nearly as much as it does on the coast, but when the conditions are right it is the true “white room” experience. The issue at ski areas in this snow climate is getting enough new snow so that you are not skiing on a hard surface below the storm snow; as due to the light nature of the snow it takes a lot of it to keep you afloat. High quality surface snow conditions often last great lengths of time after storms here. Avalanches  in continental areas are slightly less frequent than in coastal areas during storms but, however, are large and less predictable when they do occur. Instabilities often last long after storms, even through whole ski seasons. The Colorado and Canadian Rockies are great examples of this snow climate.

There are several ranges which share a bit of both coastal (maritime) and interior (continental) snow climate characteristics. These inter-mountain areas often still get lots of moisture though not as much as coastal ranges. Being a bit colder than on the coast; the result is often significant amounts of dryer snow which stays good longer. Variations in weather can at times can make it seem like one climate extreme or the other. Good examples in North America include the Tetons, Wasatch, Sawtooths, Selkirks, etc.

The latitude of an area also plays a significant role. In addition to overall temperature it plays a large role in which aspects of the compass will spoil or not due to sun exposure. You might be skiing powder on a south aspect in Canada on a given date where in say Utah it would be greatly unlikely to do the same. In mid winter there is less and less sun exposure over the entire compass the farther north one travels, come late spring the opposite is more or less true as the far north starts seeing a great increase in daylight hours which keep slopes warm longer. (It gets to a point where there is very little cool down during the night).

Megan Boyer trying to stay afloat in the Uinta Mountains, Utah

  An argument can be made for so many different places having the best snow for the best skiing that it is hard to say that it isn’t true of any one location without serious consideration. Additionally, it is unlikely that you would see the best chance of superior snow or skiing quality in one region for the course of a whole season. Another large contributing factor is terrain, as the snow is pretty meaningless without steep mountainsides for it to reside.

I therefore would like to break my opinionated answer to this grand question down to two places which offer great and very different skiing from one and other:

Best Powder Skiing: The Wasatch Range, Utah.

Because the license plate told me so… and a multitude of other reasons, to name a few of the many: It's in an Inter-Mountain snow climate. There is a large elevation change from valley to peak creating a huge amount of lift and cooling potential for air masses. The valley is also occupied by a large body of salt water which is reluctant to freeze and provides immense amounts of added moisture to storms, particularly when the lake is at its warmest early in the season. The overall elevation is reasonably high which cools air just enough, but the mountains are not too high as to be dramatically affected by extreme winds in the free air mass. The range is in a virtual bowling alley for storms that come off of the west coast of the continent.

The terrain of the Wasatch is comprised of reasonably steep and consistent fall lines of moderate length. The snow is often bottomless (unsupported underneath) and breathing can be a commodity. There is a speed limit in this sort of snow though because of its unsupportable nature to a rider. Rocks still loom over steep break-overs and super steeps as the snow that falls is often too dry to stick and stay on the mountainside, but rather it sluffs off steeps during storms.

Best Snow for Having the Ride of your Life: Chugach Range, Alaska.

The Chugach is a coastal range and it snows a lot there, a real lot, a different sort of real lot! Snow comes in warmish (remember we are talking about Alaska here- it’s still fairly cool) and sticks to the steep mountain sides. As storms pass colder air comes into the area and virtually sucks the moisture out of the surface snow. It is sort of a best of both worlds snowpack, but really it’s just a maritime snowpack on steroids.

The terrain is limitless, just as the legend states and the snow is what makes riding it possible. Supportable denser powder underneath, blower on top = often no speed limit for a rider. Five star.

Let the discussion begin!

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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Go Pro? If you are lucky.

For years I have favored the Contour HD POV cameras; mostly due to their lower, less obtrusive profile (particularly when laid flat on the top of a helmet). Lets be honest, the video quality with the Go Pros is as good as any POV but they look super hokey and can get in the way a bit more than the competition.  I'm not saying that a Contour POV wouldn't get in the way also, but the following scenario just seems a lot less likely with one. Yes, this guy is getting after it pretty seriously doing some arco on a speed wing and does mess up, but the fact remains that things might have been a little more in his favor if it wasn't for that THING sticking off of his head several inches! I have always wondered about this senario and well, lookey here.

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Monday, November 14, 2011

Avoiding Early Season Avalanches

Nearly every winter season the story is the same; avalanche burials with often fatal consequence. I suppose it is somewhat late to be writing this now considering that it was just yesterday that a skier died in a slide in Little Cottonwood canyon, but I feel compelled to try and help shed some light on why this phenomenon is so common in an attempt to help others make better decisions in the backcountry.
A few common contributing factors why the early season can be so troublesome for human involved slides are as follows:

1) Weak Snow: During the early season snow can become very weak (hard to make a snowball with) due to the often thin cover on the ground and cool temperatures. When this snow is then snowed over again, the new snow on top can act as a slab which can fail and cause an avalanche either naturally or with the added weight of a skier. In the early season the preservation of weak snow is most common in shaded higher elevation areas; in Utah it is often most prevalant on northerly slopes above 9000’(though it can be problematic on all aspects, particularly at high elevations). The development of weak snow (faceted snow) becomes less likely the deeper the amount of snow on the ground becomes (with some exceptions) and the warmer the temperatures.

2) Scarcity: In the early season it is often very difficult to ski at all in areas where the snow isn’t the deepest. The deepest snow is often found in the same areas where preserved weak snow is found too, so the most skiing takes place in areas where the snowpack is at its weakest. Sometimes this phenomenon can last for several weeks or even through the winter in a cold and dry year; good quality skiing in the high northerly terrain and nearly impossible skiing through shrubs and rocks in all but those areas. All the skiers, snowboarders and other users want to use the same terrain and there simply is less real estate for the masses to use causing areas to get very tracked up at times. Inevitably people start entering steeper and more avalanche prone terrain the more tracked up an area becomes. Peoples comfort zones expand when they have no other reasonable options for getting pristine snow; regardless of the avalanche hazard.

3) Frenzy: At the start of the ski season people want the goods and they want it bad! Thinking becomes secondary to getting; people have been waiting all summer. Images of skiing epic powder crowd the brain often well before any desires to stop think and behave including remembering to bring and practice with the requisite backcountry avalanche safety gear. People are crazed for powder.

A word of advice: Take it slow and easy in the early season and show a bit of prudency and skepticism when evaluating ski terrain. Freshen up on avi safety skills, use the gear and act cautiously; this goes for the backcountry and inbounds. If you are skiing in steep terrain early in the season it is likely that it is in an area where there has been some weak snow present at one time or another. Deeply buried, faceted weak snow in this context can be very tricky to manage even for ski area patrols with explosives, at times resulting in falsely positive indications of stability (Bombs go off, nothing slides but it still may not be safe).This was the case twice in the last five years at Utah ski areas alone including inbounds slides at Snowbird and the Canyons resorts which both resulted in fatalities in OPEN ski terrain. If terrain is being opened for the first time of the season use EXTRA caution. Remember when the snowpack is thin, if it slides there is a higher likelihood of being battered by rocks too.

Moreover, use some common sense and live to ski another day!

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Jamie Pierre Dies in Little Cottonwood Canyon Avalanche

Yesterday, Nov. 13 2011 an avalanche claimed the life of Jamie Pierre, a well known facet of the pro film skier community. According to the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center, the accident occurred in the South Chute area within the yet to open for the season Snowbird ski area. Pierre was dragged through rocks and partially buried, as reported by his skiing partner to the UAFC.

I refuse to speculate my opinion on the accident as I was not there and there are limitless possibilities of what and why decisions led to this fatal mistake. All I can say is that I am saddened by the accident and feel for those who were close to them. Jamie was well known world wide for his antics of "going big" and died virtually in his backyard, an area he had undoubtedly skied more than anywhere else.

Jamie pushed the sport of skiing a great deal for longer than a decade and gave the Wasatch a huge amount of exposure. He was the first person to clear the storried 90' Pyramid Gap, the 165' east facing cliff in Wolverine Cirque and the infamous 255' cliff outside of Grand Targhee, WY (largest intentional cliff drop world record) among  dozens of other feats. Jamie changed the idea of what was possible and is truly now a man of legend

Photos of the Avalanche were released by the Utah Avalanche Forecast Center

An article by Skiing Magazine found here: jamie-pierre-story sheds some light on the unique individual that was Jamie Pierre.