Friday, August 10, 2012

MRA, Helping to Save Skiing!

The Mountain Riders Alliance is gaining momentum. What? Who? Well, they are the guys who are trying to bring skiing back into the hands of skiers and away from the corporate money mongers who have largely made the sport less accessible for the masses while trying to make billions from the sale of McMansions and a generally McShitty skiing experience!

If you are in the know, and as a passionate skier reading this blog I know that you are, the idea of skiing powder excites you, the idea of skiing something steep may fill your dreams, and the thought of letting your kids roam about with reckless and carefree abandon in an environment you likely found on the slopes  20,30, or 40+ years ago seems like the only logical way.

Mountain Riders Alliance, or MRA, is trying to open, develop and promote skiing areas where the sale of real estate is a non-factor in the cost of your lift ticket, where you can ski where you feel you can ski, and where you can know the person beside you has the same ideals for the direction of the sport. Ski "resorts" have bastardized the sport, MRA is taking it back for the people who love it most. COMMUNITY BASED SKIING, whoever would have thought?!!!

MRA has several projects on the radar with the two most active projects Manitoba Mountain, Alaska and Mt. Abram, Maine the focus of the most attention at current. Check MRA out here: MRA for life!

MRA is in the process of raising money, if you feel that you share similar ideals and want to make a difference for our sport please consider a donation here: support MRA It doesn't have to be much if you don't have a lot to give, and in fact it is a great way to get some sweet merchandise to look good and promote the cause in the process.

MRA is the future of skiing, if you haven't heard of it.. well you sure as hell have now. Check out their site in detail and at the very least feel good about yourself if you share similar values with the sport of skiing, the environment and raising a community that encourages skiing with an open mind where everyone can enjoy it if they please.

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Friday, March 23, 2012

Sobering. Death in the Mountains and Me

Each tragedy that occurs in the mountains seems more personal to me the longer I’m around. The longer I live by the mountains; the more people I meet, the more experiences I have and the greater the chance of tragedy hitting home.

Every moment, people make decisions that may determine their fate. Some decisions are obviously poor, while others are more subtle, but all have consequence of some degree. Over the years I have dug out a handful of petrified people out of the snow; those who died in avalanches. None of them were people who I immediately knew though; they were just bodies, each with a story forever then on attached to the tragedy. Each scene was visually horrifying but since I personally knew none of them I lacked an emotional connection; each scene was somewhat surreal.  Last year, however, that all changed but I was not there to see the accidents first hand.

Not only is it hard to deal with the death of those you know, it is that much harder when friends die doing the things that you do yourself, by decisions that you may have easily made yourself. When the people you look up to the most fall, it is hard to rationalize your own existence by the decisions you have made that leave you alive today. You will never know how many of those decisions were left to luck, and that is the problem with learning from experience.

Each accident leaves something to be learned, or at the very least speculated upon to what went wrong. In some situations when negotiating the mountains lady luck is all you have. We try our hardest to minimize risk but never know when we are truly just skating by. Conditions in the mountains are always tangible and we as humans are only as good as the knowledge and discipline we have and choose to use.

My first personal connection to death in the mountains was nearly a year ago with the passing of my friend and colleague Kip Garre. More recently, Steve Romeo, an acquaintance from a ski trip to Antarctica (easily one of my most memorable skiing experiences) has now passed. It is all quite difficult to process really. Kip and Steve were both motivated like the super human and carried the idea of motion in the mountains on skis, a concept which I have based my life around, more than anyone else I have known. Kip and Steve defined the sport of ski mountaineering. Both Kip and Steve died with their touring partners (Allison Kreutzen with Kip, and Chris Onufer with Steve).  Both accidents occurred while on ascent in steep, high elevation terrain. Kip passed in the Sierra and Steve most recently in the Tetons.

In the years to come I can only hope that death in the mountains stays at arm’s length to me, but with the constant passage of time the reality of the situation is likely to be the opposite.

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Friday, February 10, 2012

A Conflict of Interest

There is no way around the fact that the backcountry is a place of growing interest for winter recreation enthusiasts. From skiers and snowboarders to snowmobilers and heli-skiers it seems everyone has their own idea of a good time. It has become easy, however, for user groups to step on the toes of others resulting in some, often heated, discussions of who is right and wrong and why. The Wasatch Range is no exception to this.

So why are issues of use a seemingly recent problem? The answer lays mostly in the great increases in technology of the gear which makes it all possible. Snowmobiles are lighter and faster, ski touring gear is more functional, ski areas have expanded and helicopters are still there to fly around and drop off skiers. Before ski areas started to operate, few people skied. When heli skiing started few people hiked for their turns and today almost anyone can access remote terrain on a snowmobile. Today, thousands hike for their turns and ski areas, heli skiers and snowmobilers take the brunt of the heat for getting in the way. So who is right and who is wrong? There must be a middle ground somewhere.

In my opinion untracked snow on public land is a commodity and each user group is entitled a portion of it proportional to the size of the user group. Snowmobiles consume snow rapidly so they deserve less time to operate or access to areas that are limited in size. Heli skiers should follow a similar protocol. Ski tourers shouldn’t be punished because of the fact they consume snow more slowly. Most Utah public land areas outside of Mill Creek and the Cottonwood Canyons are a virtual free-for-all for snowmobilers, altering other user group’s experience and having a disruptive toll of some maximal level on the wildlife.

In the Cottonwood Canyons around Salt Lake City snowmobiling and dogs are prohibited on public lands due to these areas being within the city water-shed. Ski areas are permitted to operate in these areas however, as well as helicopters, thousands of motor vehicles and of course people are allowed to be there. Some regulations are likely for the best as these areas have really become busy with people, but the question still remains where we should draw the line and what is prohibited for watershed reasons and what is, in all reality, prohibited for preserving the user experience.

On private lands, land owners should ideally be able to do what they want and use snow as they please. A problem arises though when private and public lands are close to one another, where boundaries are vague and where access to private areas may involve the use of public ones, as is the case in Cardiff Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon. In Cardiff, as in many areas of the Mountain-West, public lands surround private stakes, many due to the fact that they were originally used for mining purposes. Cardiff, being the virtual epicenter for ski touring in Utah, has been the site of years of heated debate over motorized use in an otherwise hiking only area… besides heli skiing. Sound confusing? That’s because it is confusing! Add a land owner or two who likes snowmobiling as a form of recreation, thousands of the ski touring public crossing their private land, and groups of heli skiers lapping around over-head and you have a complete fuck-scene!

What are your thoughts?

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Saturday, January 28, 2012

Avoiding Avalanches in a known to be Dangerous Snowpack

It was a matter of time before backcountry conditions became vastly unstable here in Utah. Weak snow formed over a several week period and then the snow came in on top leaving a slab; a perfect recipe for an avalanche.

So when conditions are dangerous, as the last several days have proven to be with dozens of large avalanches and a fatality today in Big Cottonwood, how do we avoid getting caught?

At a certain point snow analysis goes out the window. When it is known that it is lethal in the backcountry it is more valuable to spend time with a slope meter and a map in your hands than it is spending that time digging pits. When we know that slopes are dangerous the only things that you are going to find by digging pits is what you already know or conflicting information, which may lead you to believe that slopes perhaps are safer than they actually are.

When it is as dangerous as it is out there at the moment you need to be certain that you are in terrain that is mellow or you will likely die! Stay in terrain that you know is mellow,  you need to be certain it is. Stay out of complex terrain where small navigational errors or other mis-judgements will bite you in the ass!

When everything is telling you that it is very dangerous out, think and don't be an idiot alpha. On that note, be careful what other group members influence you to do. Use your own brain!

Lets look at the avalanche off of west Kessler today:
UAC Kessler preliminary report here

I normally try to avoid passing judgement related to avalanche accidents but this is so far out there I feel somewhat obligated to break down the massive red flags that were evident here. It was a big, steep slope, one that funnels debris when it slides. It was slope above a cliff band, with lethal avalanche hazard present and dozens of other recent avalanches reported in the area. This accident happened in complex terrain... all of Kessler is complex in fact. Hello!?
With the known avalanche hazard this is was no place for a ski tour unless everything affecting the slopes route you would be on had already slid and slid recently.

Things the group did well: one person died, not everyone in the group.

The bottom line:
With deeply buried instabilities; just because avalanches are less frequent after a storm cycle ends it does not mean that you cannot trigger them. The difference is often only whether the slope will avalanche naturally or whether it will wait for you to trigger it (difference between High and Considerable Hazard). Think about that a bit.

With a deeply buried persistent weakness in the snowpack as there is at the moment, slopes usually get a bit more stubborn to slide over time but this isn't to say that they aren't going to still slide though. During a storm avalanches may be easily triggered or are even releasing naturally. In the days just after, slides may not be going naturally anymore but are still easily triggered; maybe even by just being near slopes, walking on ridge tops, etc. you may cause slope to slide. As days turn to weeks, slopes commonly hang on a bit more, even when the structure of the snow is still compromised beneath, often resulting in a mixed bag of user feedback (this is when most accidents happen). These are the sort of conditions where a slope test may not lead you to believe there is still a dramatic instability. Ten tracks may be on a slope and then all wash away in a slide as the eleventh skier gets smoked. If the snow structure is prime for it, all that is necessary is to find the right spot on the slope for it to fail. With a deep instability this often translates to finding a thinner portion of the slab above, where the weaknesses beneath can more easily be affected (this is the same reason why these sort of avalanches commonly break down slope, away from ridge-lines a little ways where thicker wind deposited pillows may allowing a skier a few misleading turns before breaking away).

For more information about common early season snowpack weakness and avoiding slides relating to such see my prior post: Avoiding Early Season Avalanches

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