Playing in the Powder

Scott Kennett, skiing, San Juan Mountains, Colorado
Scott Kennett doing what he does.

The snow keeps coming here in Colorado! I’ve been getting after it lately, splitboarding just about every chance I can get. My lack of recent posts here is simply due to a lack of good photos to share; we’ve mostly been skiing in the trees where the avalanche danger isn’t so severe. On tap: more snow, more riding, and perhaps even a hut trip next week! What a great winter so far…

3 Feet of Powder!

Snowy Trees, Colorado

Winter continues to produce here in southwest Colorado; the last series of snowstorms dumped another 3 feet of snow across much of the San Juans! On Friday and Saturday we scored some fantastic powder days at Wolf Creek ski area in what is becoming an annual early season pilgrimage. I could be wrong but I think that right now Wolf Creek and the San Juans have more snow than anywhere else in the country! Pretty awesome for November in Colorado. To see how much more snow there is this year so far, compare these photos to how bare it was at the same time last year!

Backcountry skiing, San Juans, Colorado

On Monday the storm broke and we enjoyed a glorious bluebird day up on the pass, where Claudia put all her recent powder training to good use. I continue to be impressed and excited about her skiing progression; she’s definitely getting the hang of skiing powder!

Happy skier, Colorado

Stoked!

The snowpack is very reactive right now so we chose mellow routes to ski yesterday. Remember, always read (and take heed of) the avalanche reports before venturing into the backcountry.

Early Season Stoke!

snowbow, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, Red Mountain Pass
San Juan Snowbow : Prints Available

As clouds of snowflakes blow by, the sun shines through creating a strange luminescent snow-rainbow effect.

This morning Jeff and I went back out to enjoy some more of the early season powder. The last few days of snowstorms dumped a good amount of new snow in the higher San Juans, and the snowpack is now noticeably deeper than last time we went out.

Skinning up a snowy ridge.

Full-on winter conditions up high, with a cold wind and poor visibility in the foggy/snowy clouds.

Mountain in the mist

Next step: bootpack up the left side of this mountain.

Upon reaching the top of our line, we waited as long as our patience could stand for the clouds to clear, but it seemed that the cloud was stuck on the mountain top. Finally we just had to go for it despite the poor visibility.

Skiing in the San Juan.
Skier: Jeff Skoloda.

Skiing in the San Juans, Colorado

The lower we went, the better the visibility and the deeper the powder! Eventually we were arching high speed carves down the open basin.

Ski, San Juan Mountains, Colorado, November

Not too shabby for the 1st of November! I hope it keeps snowing until June.

First Turns of Winter

Frosty Aspens

Last night I pulled my splitboard out of the attic in anticipation of the first turns of winter. As we drove up the pass this morning everything was covered in frosty snow… what a glorious morning! I had to pull over and take a snapshot of the frosty aspens.

Hiking Up in the Snow

The snowpack looking a bit dubious on this southern slope on the way up.

First Turns of the Winter

Fortunately the north facing slopes were filled in with powder and looking good! Here’s Jeff getting in the groove. We just did one line but damn it was satisfying! I’m hoping for a good winter this season here in the San Juans after the last two crappy ones…

More February Snow!

Skier: Jeff Skoloda

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).

Skier: Dan Chehayl

Avalanches and Heuristic Traps

night skiing, fullmoon, Stevens Pass, Washington, Cascades

Stevens Pass on a fullmoon night.

The New York Times has published an engrossing article, Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek, by John Branch documenting last year’s tragic avalanche accident at Stevens Pass in Washington state.

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.

Two More

Jake and I got out for two more skiing/splitboarding days. For me that’s been 6 out of the last 7 days on the snow! I guess Jake’s been out something like 12 days in a row… what an animal.

We’d pretty much tracked out the entire mountain we’ve been riding on previous days, so we moved to a slightly lesser known spot with north facing preserved powder.

Time for a few days off to get some work done!

February Fun

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.