Friday, January 29, 2010

A Sobering Week

So Wednesday presents a difficult day in the Wasatch when you remember the frailty of human life and the consequences of your life decisions. Let there be no doubt, Back Country Skiing is dangerous and should be taken very, very seriously. For those of you that read this and other such blogs, I'm sure you will hear this re-sound throughout the community.

This Wednesday Ricardo Presnell - 51 was enjoying a beautiful day of skiing in the Solitude back country in the meadow chutes. Ricardo was caught and carried by a large hard-slab slide that ran almost full track through rocks, shrubs, and aspens on a Easterly aspect, convex glade ranging from 35-39 degrees as measured by the Utah Avalanche Forecasters. From Bruce Tremper's photo's taken across the canyon the slope looks very benign, even low angle.

That same day one of my ski partners and I where ascending the ridge between Willow and USA bowl and I specifically remember looking over to the meadows and commenting "Why haven't we been skiing their yet?" As always we where speaking in sarcasm because the meadows in a great place to ski based on effecient use of your time. Its a short hike with good skiing in lower angle terrain that has a selection of meadows and tree runs with excellent access. This year we tend to be following the theory of 'skin a lot, ski a little.' So of course the meadows wouldn't be on our list. At this point I don't think the slide had happened yet and shortly after the clouds rolled in and we no longer had a view of much except what we where on. We continued to ski the day without incident skiing primarily West and South West aspects ranging mostly in less than 35 degree angles. On the way in we observed a steeper wind loaded South South West section on the ridge that had slid as you can see from the photo.

Its really pretty amazing the lack of stabilization in the snow pack after waiting so long from the last storm. During a normal season it would be unheard of to have a considerable rating and be worried about drastic hard slabs 4 -5 days after a storm. The Wasatch has a unique blend of dryness, moister, and moderate temperatures that help our snow pack consolidate at a rapid rate yet they don't tend to rot as rapidly as you would see with a colder, or more continental snowpack. The issue this year is not a change in temperature, but a change in rate of snow accumulation. Anytime you get snow fall rates approaching 1 inch per hour or greater the red flags should start coming out, not only that when you increase the total snowpack depth at a large rate, say more than a 10% total increase, all of the sudden things get really dicey, dicey not just in the new snow, but the ability of the old snow (or the hard slab) to support the new weight. Think of it like a rubber band: As you add snow you stretch the rubber band, the faster you add snow the quicker you stretch it, an as the % of the previous total increases, the rubber band stretches also. So we reached a point where the snow pack depth had increased OVER 300% in 48 hours (not even counting the wind loading). and you have a rubber band that is completely spent. You can see evidence of it snapping ALL over in the big, dangerous paths like the west ridge of desolation and Murdock basin that the entire season snow pack came out at once in a deadly, and very destructive slide. At least on of them was triggered from the flat (yes, that is correct) ridge line above. A few things to always keep in your mind with the hard slabs is

1.)if they break the conciquences are really bad.
2.)they can break above you (this is why you don't ski cut a hard slab)
3.) They can be triggered from a higher angle secion (say 35 degrees or higher) and pull out snow on much, much lower angles, even flat surfaces that have bonded with the slab.
4.) Also with hard slabs its not always the first person who triggers the slide, So a slope with tracks can still break loose. Think of the Canyon's ski resort accident recently that broke after dozens of descents and a long history of skier compaction. If you look at the meadow's slide you can see that most of the lines had been skied multiple times already for a day or two. I wouldn't doubt that Ricardo's slope had been skied before.

If you recall a few years back to little water peak, a slide was triggered on a roll over that just broke the 35 degree mark yet pulled the lower angle snow around it with it in the 32-34 zone.

As always, since the snow tapered off, the snow has slowly been stabilizing, unfortunately its happening very, very slowly. Much slower than we are used too. It's always good to take a step back and think about your mortality during these times and re-evaluate your decision making. I like to go back to Bruce's analytical view. (Staying alive in avalanche terrain, Bruce Tremper pg 20)
1. You travel in avalnahce terrain 100 days per year.
2. You cross 10 avalancehe slopes per day.
3. The snow is stable enough to cross on 95 % of the slopes
4. For every avalanceh you accidentally trigger, you get caught every third time and kille d every tenth time.
Based on those constants if you made good choices 99% of the time then your life expectancy in the mountains would be 2 months. Yes, thats what he said, 2 months. So I would like to turn down the constants and change the travel days to a more reasonable number of 50 days of skiing/traveling in the back country per year. So with that change it would equate to 4 months life expectancy. If your a weekend worrier, and say you only get out 25 times per year, then that brings your life expectancy up to 8 months. Still, one ski season. So you get the point, your odd's of dying with the above constants, making 99% good decisions, are that you will die in the first season of back country skiing... I'll say that again --If you make the right choice 99% of the time in the back country, odds are you will die in the first year.--

Now this doesn't account for proper recover with a beacon, an avalung, or baloon pack. All of these things will increase your risk of survival if used properly. That being said, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30% of those caught in an avalanche are killed by trauma, and in this case, a beacon recovery or an avalung, or a ballon pack wont help you. The goal then is to not get caught in a slide, ever. On the positive side, if your decision making is correct 99.99% of the time, then you have an estimated life expectancy of 100 years, skiing 100 days a year, 200 years skiing 50 days a year, and finally 400 years skiing 25 days a year. That sounds a little better.

In conclusion, know how to read the terrain, the snow, be skilled with your beacon, spend the 200 on the Avalung, dig pits, do rutschblock tests, dig handpits, read the avalanche forcast, and listen to what people are saying, especially your peers. If someone is nervous, then listen. If your not comfortable with your assesment skills then wait for the rose to turn green, or ski at the resort.

Please check out the full accident report at:
and more photos at:

Recommended reading:

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Outdoor Retailer Show

So, I know I've been ranting a lot lately so I will keep it short but I'm starting to be disturbed by this Outdoor Retailer show. Yesterday we went to Sling Shot to ski some quick powder turns and we ran into, no kidding here, over 30 people! Really, is that possible? On a Tuesday? So 2 of my favorate lines from my limited interaction with the hoards, was "... this is my Job [to ski]" and "We put in that skin track (like 3 times until I finally responded)." So first of all, if its your job to ski I see two possible options: Your a guide, or your a pro. Option two is obviously not correct because professionals are just that, professiona (at least the backcoutry kind), and the last thing they would tell you is they are pro's. In my limited and jaded experience some of the only people that seem to insist on telling me what they do are guides. So if you are one, DON"T TELL ME! Chances are I already know from your heightened level of Noise your producing and constant search for recognition. The other thing I'd like to tell you, the guide, is that you might think it, but none of us (at least that are semi-skilled at the task at hand) want to be you. Really, we actually don't want to Shepard rich people, or incompetent people who can't learn the skills on their own. In fact, we usually don't want to be within ear-shot of you! So, make a difference in the world, don't be that guy/girl. On a positive note, I have one friend who IS a guide, and I really like him, but the best part--you'd never know he was a guide.

And for the 'We put the skin track in,' with our gang of 8; I don't really care. In fact maybe instead of spending all your time making yourself the coolest you should learn to properly farm the good powder (just like everyone else is doing) instead of center punching it with your trabs, that you aren't any faster on then the rest of us. Oh and if your going to the Wasatch backcountry and you have more than say 3 or 4 friends (We've concluded 3 is the best number) would you please go to Colorado? I hear Crested Butte is way cooler, and the skiers are way more hardcore.

One more rant, thats it then I'm done.

So how about this 'O. R.' Show (cool talk for Outdoor Retailer) Could you also go to Crested Butte or like Vail or something? The people that show up on our one good powder day of the year that really don't ski, they just sell stuff, are killiing me! Seriously, I think I lose a few extra days of life ever time I see a gang of you trundling through our precious powder! And, for all that is Holy, stop making excuses for yourselves! I don't care what your doing, even if it is testing some tech new gadget in the 'real world.' The Wasatch is SO small (Tremper, Bruce. Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain) we don't have room for you too! There are better places for you to ski, like the resort! So, please, will someone move the OR show to somewhere else?

You know, I really give the Wizard of the Wasatch a hard time for being so cruel, but I am starting to see clearly through his eyes this last week or so. I really wish he would pop out of the tree's like in the old days except with hat's saying 'O.R. Free Wasatch.' Maybe even yelling and screaming... I'd buy you a six pack for it!

Ok so finally to the important stuff. Great day of snow, but pretty dicey. We skied some Northerly aspects with an average angle of less than 35 degrees, It seems the snow has settled reasonable right side up in most places unless it got sun, then we notices some sun crust about 4-6 inches down that could be rock hard or breakable with depth hoar (or maybe facets) beneath. The thickness of the crust is (of course) directly related to the amount and angle of Sun recieved. I dug one pit on a steeper (33ish degree) Northerly aspect and did a Rouch Block Test( Or however its spelled) that came out absolutely stable, no propagation, and now good fast bed layers. Then I preceeded to ski cut a few different sections of the slope and was able to free a substancial soft slab on a roll over. ( We didn't stick around to measure but just looking at it, it seemed to be a localized win loading over a convex section of slope with some rocks for the bed layer. The crown height I would estimate at about 20 inches or more and down to the ground initially running maybe 60' by 30'. The moral of the story is that Snow testing DOESN'T represent the entire aspect but changes dramatically in the local area. Key factors are steepest slope angle, wind loading, bed surface, previous history, and anchors. You should have read this before in the Avalanche forcast already. As always a good reminder to stay on your toes, ski cut (unless its a hard slab), dig pits, look behind you, don't 'gang ski', and listen to your gut when it tells you something's wrong.

For all of you who I have offended, I apologize profusely. I am but another selfish, uncaring, uneducated, ignorant, self-absorbed, ranting, blogger. Please disregard everything above as banter and ranting.

Monday, January 18, 2010

What a bunch of Pussy's

So I ran into a guy named Dan, who has been working on his Ph.D. in Atmospheric Science, or to the laymen like me, Meteorology. Two things that I learned from Dan where: 1.)the difference between la nina and el nino. I've listed them below:

la niña- [nee’-nyah]noun
1. Pupil of the eye. (f)
2. Little girl, a female child. (f)
3. Tart, whore (prostituta). (f)
4. Miss, mistress. (Ante Meridian & Latin American) (m)

niño [nee’-nyo]noun
1. Child, infant. (m)
2. Person of litle experience or prudence. (m)
3. Master, sir. (Ante Meridian & Latin American) (m)
4. (Cono Sur) undesirable. (m)

Why do we care?

Well we don't really, except that I realized that as Dan was talking about it, the only difference was the gender! (Yes, most of you already know I'm a little slow). What I find additionally amusing is definition 3 for la nina... yes I think that directly related to a snow year under la nina very well, where as definition 4 for el nino also directly related to what we are experiencing this year in the Wasatch.
Most Wasatch Powder snobs have been fussing for some time about the rediculously low snow totals. But seriously have we not reached a 100inch base yet? Is it mid January? I understand really I do, but as Dan so elequantly pointed out, it's been time for a el nino for a long time, and finally its here. So what are you doing to deal with it? Yes, if your a really tourer, you would still be piling up the days, just maybe getting creative. One of my best thoughts is to skin up, enjoy a good lunch, then strap your ski's to your back and hike down. Today we tried what was probably my most common thought while skiing and its really simple, running. I mean why not really? bullet proof crust that's only a few feet deep. So we went down to the local store and picked up some yak traction devices. Then we proceeded to drive to a unmentioned trail in Utah county where no one skis.

( We ran/slid/post holed/walked for a good 3 hours round trip to do a small, small, run, that had a rediculous rate of accent, I wish I could tell you but I'm not sure exactly. The random number I came up in my head with some simple math was something like 2000ft per mile. My calves would agree with that number, but as always, its probably exagurated.
So all in all we had a great time, and where able to ascend to an incredibly high level due to the low snow cover, and bullet proof crust. When we could go any farther because of cold, trail breaking (in running shoes and shorts--ya didin't think I'd ever be doing that!).
We turned around somewhere a few hundred feet above the second hammagog, and started returning to where we started. After a good distance when we had stabilized at a good pace, I thought to my self, this is easy, why where we breathing so hard and going so slow? (as we look a few thousand feet down to my tiny truck). So I blurted out 'Man, what a bunch of Pussy's!" So there you have it, an excellent winter experience, no ski's, no snow pants, just a cheap pair of yak traks.