Here’s a view of Ouray early on Wednesday morning. Be sure to click on the photo to go to the page where you can view this larger!
On Tuesday it was absolutely dumping snow around here, and with a nearly full moon and a forecast of clearing skies overnight I was up half the night thinking about where I should go for a sunrise shoot. Well, I ended up just going to the “Switzerland of America” overlook, just a minute drive up the road from my house. I’ve shot photos here many times before (as have millions of tourists), but this time I wanted to capture a more panoramic winter view of the valley. This here is a panoramic stitch of 6 vertical overlapping frames shot with a 24mm wideangle lens. That should give you a sense of the grand scale of the landscape here!
The snowplow drivers were in full attack mode since about 2:00 in the morning, and I thought about how it would have made for a cool time lapse video to see them zipping up and down all the streets. But I don’t have the patience for shooting time lapses, so I’ll leave that to somebody else…
After shooting the sunrise, I went back home for another couple hours of sleep, drove a little ways up the road for a lap on the splitboard, got a bit of work done, watched the sunset over Ridgway with Claudia and a thermos of gluwein, and enjoyed excellent pizza and beer at the Colorado Boy Brewery. What a day! I love it here…
For all my bitching and moaning about the lack of snow earlier this season, I must say that the snow has been pretty much fantastic around the San Juans this February! The last series of storms dumped another 1-3 feet of powder around here, and I’ve been doing my best to get after it. Here’s some more shots from the last three days of frolicking in the powder (while staying wary of the lurking snowpack instabilities, of course).
The article hits home for me, not just because I’m an avid backcountry splitboarder concerned about avalanches, but also because I spent the entire 2001-02 winter season working/bumming at Stevens Pass and have ridden the Tunnel Creek terrain many times. This article delves into the story in a much deeper fashion than the usual avalanche accident reports, providing background of the circumstances, the conditions, and most importantly of the people involved. The website also provides thorough multimedia integration to tell the whole story as clearly as possible. It was a truly tragic day, and the article is well worth a read for anyone who ventures into the winter backcountry.
One aspect of backcountry travel that the article hits on is the concept of group dynamics and how that can affect backcountry safety. A while back I read a very interesting and surprising report about this: Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents, by Ian McCammon. “Heuristic traps” basically means poor decision making due to unconscious social reasons. The study is based on statistics compiled by the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) from 622 avalanche accidents over 30 years. Here are the key points from the study to consider every time you head out into the backcountry snow:
• The safest group sizes tend to be 2-5 people, with 4 being the safest. Groups of 6-10 are just as hazardous as 1.
• For all levels of training, everyone tends to be slightly safer in unfamiliar terrain. Groups with advanced avy knowledge stand out as being the clearly the safest in unfamiliar terrain, and actually the least safe in familiar terrain!
• The mere presence of people outside the victims’ group correlated with a significant increase in exposure to avalanche hazard. Again, especially so with advanced-trained groups.
The group involved in the Tunnel Creek accident hit all three checkboxes: a large group of experienced skiers in familiar terrain with presence of outsiders (the place is a very short hike from the ski resort). The power of these heuristic traps is evidenced in the NYT article by some of of those involved who said that they had doubts and misgivings at the top, but didn’t say anything (because of the social influences of being in a big group).
“Traditional avalanche education places a heavy emphasis on terrain, snowpack and weather factors. While there’s no doubt that this knowledge can lead to better decisions, it is disturbing that the victims in this study that were most influenced by heuristic traps were those with the most avalanche training.” ~ McCammon
Tragedies like the Tunnel Creek accident underscore the importance of keeping a conscious attention to not only the snowpack behavior, but our group and personal behavior as well in order to maintain objective and rational decision making in potentially dangerous circumstances.
I’ve been happy to be out riding powder the last four days here in the San Juans – with a full-on powder day at Telluride ski resort on Sunday, followed by three superb days of splitboarding up on the pass.
The skier above is Dan, a local Ouray ice farmer. All the rest of the photos below are Jake, who timed his trip from Vermont perfectly!
Below are a bunch of pictures from the last three days in the backcountry.
Last week a series of storms dumped a much-needed 2-4 feet of snow in the San Juans! On Monday we enjoyed a day of knee-to-waist-deep snow at Durango Mountain ski area. On Thursday the storm broke and Claudia and I went up to the pass for a couple laps under the gorgeous bluebird sky.
Unfortunately the avy danger is still so bad that we can’t really do much with all that fresh powder… We’re still sticking to the low angle safer stuff for now.