Dec 062010

Back country skiing, sluff slide.

Once I get the first taste of Winter, I could care less about my mountain bike, fly rod, or climbing shoes. When I see the hippy-trippy swirling colors light up satellite images on NOAA website revealing approaching storms, my toes start tapping like Captain Phil. As the snow flakes start to fly from the sky, I’m chompin’ at the bit.

Our local front-country tours have just received enough snow to ride and about a week ago I went out with three guys, one of which I regularly head into the backcountry with, to ski near Titus Lake. It was a storm day with snow accumulating and gusty winds transporting it all around. As we climbed up Titus Ridge and the slopes that dropped down to the East increased their pitch, our movements triggered shooting cracks and remotely set off 3-4 storm snow avalanches that ran a 100-150′. Pit tests revealed facets on the ground and below a 2′ cohesive slab with stability tests in that vague range where the snow is either gonna hold your weight and turns and you’ll be rewarded with mad powdah, or, it’ll rip and it’s instantly your turn to take a slide (hopefully not) for life.

As our group of four neared the end of our ascent, I had seen enough red flags and decided to heed their warnings by finding a lower angle slope to ride. The other three, however, felt safe considering the conditions, and decided to drop down a run which, ultimately, I refused to ski.

So, I turned and skied the ridge back the way we had come and they dropped into what looked like a great powder run and we all made it back to the trailhead without incident. I was torn on whether to post this little story or not, thinking it would pass me off as overly cautious or the other three as overly ambitions. In the end, I think it’s what my wife would call a “teachable moment” regarding backcountry skiing, namely, how important it is to go out with people who have a similar mindset to your own regarding risk and to establish an agreement for the group, before you leave the car, in the event that one or more members decide they are not comfortable and wish to ski something other than the original plan.

Four days later, I returned to the same area on a mellower storm day and found the surface snow non-reactive, stability tests a bit better, and the day revealed fewer red flags with great turns. The opening photo is from the day I turned around and the video below is from the more recent day of skiing.

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