Thursday, February 14, 2019

Unshackled Terrain

I completed another step towards taking in all that this great state of Colorado has to offer. I completed AIARE Level 1 avalanche training. It almost didn't happen. I was originally signed up with San Juan Mountain Guides in January. Then a tragic accident happened during an advanced avalanche training class where a student died in an avalanche. As an indirect result, my class, which was scheduled right after the accident happened was cancelled.

SJMG offered me a hut-based course for same price later in season, but I feared going three days with little to no sleep. A crowded hut is not my idea of a good night's rest. As popular as the hut based training camps are, I just couldn't do it. Silverton Avalanche School, one of the oldest if not the oldest in the country, still had a non-hut based course available in February. It is based out of Silverton, so that meant an hour drive each way each day, which is fine when roads are good. The passes close regularly in winter, so it would be luck of the draw. It turned out to be a fabulous weekend.

We had five students and a fantastic instructor, "Ack." I think the next oldest student was half my age, the youngest still in high school. A great group that meshed well. Two were accomplished skiers, the rest of us various levels of noobs in powder.

The first day we learned how to use our rescue gear. We got to practice finding buried transceivers, probing, and digging. Digging in several feet of powder like someone's life depended on it at 10,000ft will have you gasping in no time! Day 2 focused on human factors, like where a bunch of dudes go out into sketchy terrain and nobody wants to be "that guy" to say this is stupid. So many have died when nobody spoke up. Our instructor has a saying "Ego is not your Amigo" when going out into avalanche terrain. That afternoon we went out to Red Mountain Pass with 6+ft snow pack to practice safe route finding and dig a snow pit to assess stability. The snow pack this year has been a disaster. Many unstable layers, especially near the ground, which when released, sends the entire season's snow pack down the slope. Day three we put everything together into planning and executing a tour. Instructor Ack turned it over to us, to plan a safe route at Red Mountain Pass using weather forecast, Avalanche conditions and CalTopo route planning. Conditions and plan are recorded in the "Blue Book." Post tour, observations are recorded. We spent most of the day above treeline. It was sublime.

The training was an eye opener. You may think you know some things, but there will be big gaps in knowledge. Level 1 is the first step. From here, there are recreational and professional tracks. I will probably take Level 2, but not right away. You are expected to have many backcountry days before taking Level 2 and be a proficient skier. I also need to take a two day wilderness first aid course and it wouldn't hurt to take a dedicated rescue course too. These are all essential tools when heading out into the back country, especially when leading others.

I've been to Wolf Creek front-side around 10 times now to skin. I've hit some powder days there. Still not the full experience I seek when heading outdoors. A week ago I bought afternoon lift pass after skinning a couple laps. Must've done 20 lift runs. Was amazed at how, in a few short hours, my ability to ski ungroomed terrain improved. I regularly do strenuously aerobic workouts in frostbite conditions but never have problems. Not until this lift day at Wolf Creek. It was sub-zero at summit with 30-below windchills. When the lift does all the work for you, you don't produce copious excess heat. I didn't know it at the time, but I got frost bite in four fingers and the tip of my nose.A week later, my finger tips are still numb and painful. They are not turning black though, so only level 1 frost bite. My nose lost some skin on the tip though. I guess that's my punishment for not earning my afternoon turns!

When I mountain bike through the San Juan mountains, I'm constrained to a trail. There are many trails to chose from, so many I haven't hit yet, but you are still confined to essentially a one-dimensional space. It's generally not cool to ride off-trail on alpine vegetation. This is where BC skiing comes in. The delicate terrain is blanketed under many feet of snow. You now can go ANYWHERE. It opens another whole level of creativity to explore. It comes with considerably more responsibility too. There is a dimension of consequences of poor decision making that does not exist mountain biking, or even for much of hiking. Perfect skiing terrain is also perfect avalanche terrain.

We are getting a real winter this season. I'd be screwed right now if I wasn't into snow sports. When there is too much snow to bike, too much new snow to effectively skate ski, there will be perfect snow for BC skiing. The mountains are draped with a white canvas. Your skis or split board are your artist's brush. What will you paint on the landscape today?

Day 1: Ack getting ready to show us how transceivers follow field lines. Town of Silverton in background.

Day 2: Test pit in 2 meters of snow pack. Took shit-ton of effort to dig that out!

Day 3: Heading up CR14 from Red Mountain Pass. One at a time, some potential avy terrain to left.

Day 3: group above treeline heading up to ridge between Red Mountain #3 and McMillan Peak.

Day 3: The Putney Pipe, our initial descent from 12,300ft. Exposed areas above tree line were wind hammered but not in the pipe. Telluride is just over ridge in distance.

Day 3: Ack popping out of the Casa Glade, fine powder near tree line

Day 3: Looking back at the ridge we came down from Carbon Hill, the Putney Pipe just left of center.

Day 3: Our group's tracks coming off summit of Carbon Hill

Day 3: Lorrea finishing descent on Carbon Hill