Feb 19, 2021 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Abby Mercier | Photos by Isaac Yee
The backcountry has drawn skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers for generations; its beauty and the opportunity to escape into the wilderness for a day is hard to beat. The pandemic has only increased interest in both resort and backcountry recreation, and thus has driven more people to flock to the more remote, untouched lines of the backcountry.
This poses an interesting and possibly dangerous dynamic. The snowpack — and therefore, the avalanche danger — is at an all-time high: The Executive Director at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) recently stated, “The snowpack is exceptionally weak and we haven’t seen it this bad since 2012.”
Tragically, the CAIC has reported 13 avalanche deaths thus far in the 2020-21 season.
To gain some insight into the backcountry experience this season, I interviewed three current Colorado College students: Rowan Kinney ’23, Dane Andersen ’23, and Zach Klingner ’22.
I would like to note that their experiences are certainly not reflective of everyone in the backcountry community. Additionally, these are their perspectives; any formal advice should be taken from professionals and snow science experts at institutions like the CAIC.
This season, Kinney and Andersen have mostly been skiing together at Red Mountain Pass, near Durango, Colo. Kinney, who has been backcountry skiing for the last 1.5 to 2 years, has put in 40 days, while Andersen has skied in the backcountry for about 20 days this season.
Klingner mostly skis in the Front Range zone, specifically near Cameron Pass. Klingner has been split boarding in the backcountry for six years and has put in about 15 days this season.
When I asked each individual about their risk mitigation strategies, they all said the same: “I make a habit of checking the avalanche forecast (on the CAIC), reports, and the weather forecasts every morning.”
Kinney and Andersen mentioned they check five separate weather forecasts to verify their information. Klingner checks the reports for Cameron Pass every morning during season — even if he’s not planning on skiing any time soon.
As Kinney put it, “The quintessential Colorado snow-pack problem is facets.” Facets are small, crystallized snow structures — think sand-like texture — that are incapable of packing together. These facets give what’s commonly known as a “weak layer.”
The faceting occurs annually in Colorado, but this year its effects are paramount. The year started off with a relatively large snowstorm in November, followed by a long dry spell in December, and then more snow. This cycle has persisted and is expected to continue well into the spring.
The cycle of snow and drought has caused heavy layers of snow to pile up on the weak layers of facets; thus, if a trigger occurs, the heavy snow layer will slide right off the faceted layer and you have yourself an avalanche.
When an avalanche occurs, the snow heats up; when the snow settles, it is so compact that it adopts a texture and weight similar to concrete.
Four people were caught (three were killed) in an avalanche on Feb. 1, 2021 near Ophir Pass. The skiers were experienced, in their 40s, and had grown up in the area; needless to say, this tragedy was one of many that has rocked the backcountry community this season.
This slide occurred near the area where Kinney and Andersen ski, and they were able to learn from some of the ski patrollers who were a part of digging out the skiers.
Andersen explained that the ski patrol he met had broken eight shovels trying to dig through the snow; eventually, snowcats were necessary to break through the heavy layers.
I asked all three students to explain how to avoid landing in an avalanche. Kinney and Andersen said, “Avoid terrain traps such as gulleys or areas where the snow can pile up and make the burial deeper.” Klingner suggested knowing the terrain well before you enter it: “I always have a line I expect to be safe and have a backup plan that I know poses no risk.”
Most notably, Kinney, Andersen, and Klingner resoundingly suggested, “Just don’t ski in avalanche terrain.”
Avalanche terrain begins on slopes that have an angle steeper than 30 degrees. So, skiing in the trees (snow is less likely to slide in the trees) on an angle greater than 30 degrees can offer skiers a safer opportunity to enjoy fresh snow.
Klingner discussed his approach of playing it safe: “In past years, I may have felt comfortable skiing under a slope if conditions are right, but this year, I give any slope an extra 10 to 15 feet of grace — I’m not going to mess with something that has even the smallest chance of being in a slide path.”
In concluding our interviews, I asked each skier about any advice to those who are looking to get into the backcountry this year or in the future.
All three guys suggested attaining your American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education 1 class (AIARE 1), if you have the resources to do so. The Outdoor Education Center offers Ritt Kellogg Grants that can be used to fund this training.
Kinney, Andersen, and Klingner emphasized the importance of having safe partners; this includes people who communicate well under pressure, have knowledge and experience in the backcountry, and have similar risk tolerance levels.
As Kinney put it, “I want to ski with people who have similar goals for the day and plan on skiing similar objectives; I don’t want anyone to feel dragged into something they’re uncomfortable doing.”
Ultimately, the avalanche danger is high this season, and as Klingner stated, “Your intuition and sense of danger in past years might not be applicable this year.”
Andersen sums up the sentiments well: “Sometimes it feels a bit fantastical, one minute you’re skiing powder and the next moment it’s too late and you’re buried. There is no in between line.”