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Avalanche Safety at the Colorado Huts

Even the Small Ones Can Kill You

By Louis Dawson

After more than one close call with snow avalanches, I'm blessed to be alive. If anything, my peccadilloes have taught me one thing: In Colorado, winter backcountry skiing can be a battle of wits bordering on jihad fanaticism. An example:

Sitting in the Betty Bear hut on Colorado's 10th Mountain Trail, we look south at an inviting ski slope. It's a little thing, perhaps 300 feet of vertical, steep enough to avalanche, but not an obvious slide path: no obvious demarcation such as the classic swaths you see cut into mountain sides worldwide.

There are a few signs, however. First is the shape and exposure of the slope, a leeward convex bulge, devoid of trees, wind-loaded with a pregnant belly of snow. The conifers at the base of the slope are not obvious avalanche trees with heavily stripped branches and scarred bark, but to the trained eye they tell a story of abuse. What I see is enough -- with years of experience (including plentiful mistakes) my avalanche eyes are tuned, and the slope looks like something to avoid.

Nonetheless, I need to reach the top of the pitch to take photos of the hut. So we climb a conservative line to the left, on lower angled ground with denser trees. About half way up we realize the snow is in bad shape, breakable crust and worse, so my companion Andrew Meeker leaves his stashed below the last pitch of windpack and boots the rest of the way.

Just after we top out, the proverbial WHUMP echos through the forest as the snowpack does a massive settlement, birthing a hard slab avalanche just twenty feet below us. We watch in stunned silence as the slab liquefies, then piles up in a deep plug at the bottom of the slope -- a killer for sure if we'd been in it.

Avalanche south of Betty Bear Hut.

How was our route finding? Our up-track was still intact except for one small section. Where Andrew had dropped his planks, the slide had washed over our line by just a few feet and carried his skis away (Andrew was not a happy camper...).

Our score? If the slide had triggered while Andrew was messing with his skis, he might have been swept away -- but then again, if he'd had the presence of mind to take two steps to the left when the slide triggered, he would have been totally safe. I couldn't help but note that my own tracks were 100% safe. Experience or luck? I'm not sure. I'd give us a "C" for route finding and a "B" for judgment.

Most importantly, note that it was the difference of mere feet that made for one totally safe route, and another that risked death. This validates what I call "micro route finding," an avalanche safety skill I believe is significantly more important than snow science, and much harder to learn. It's the art of using subtle terrain variations to avoid small, but nonetheless deadly slides. You can not gain this skill from books or classes. You learn it by being outside, observing the world around you through a lens of fear and conservatism, perhaps while following a mentor who has the knack. And all the while, you've got to remember how easily human error enters in -- that's the lesson I learned from this skirmish in the avalanche jihad.

(The Forest Service avalanche advisory for the day of our adventure was "low/moderate," but a sudden warming trend pegged the danger way past that. One of Andrew's skis was lost till he retrieved it that summer. We didn't need a trip to the underwear store, but Andrew's eyes stayed wide for a few days, and I returned home humbled, resolving to do better. If anything, this is a good example of how Colorado can build good mountaineers -- it's not a forgiving environment -- mistakes are costly -- if you survive you learn...)

A few tips for micro route-finding and behavior on a tender snowpack

  • First, know that most 10th Mountain designated route had little or no avalanche danger. BUT, routes accessed from the huts may have everything from small slide paths to gigantic avalanche chutes of world-classs porportions. Thus, if you choose to travel in such terrain, heed the following:
  • Look for a route that chains lower angled terrain with islands of safety, so you never set foot on steeper terrain.
  • Load a slope with as few people as possible. Keep your party spread out, and travel in small groups.
  • Use vegetation to read the slope, but don't depend on sparse trees to anchor a tender slab. If conditions are touchy, only trees tight enough to make you cuss will anchor the snow.
  • Avoid wind loaded "pillows" and convex starting zones.
  • If you're route exposes you to danger, pick a line that minimizes the consequences of an avalanche (e.g., getting swept into a gully is worse than tumbling into a fanned out debris pile).
  • Consider subtle variations of slope aspect. In Colorado, just a slight tilt to the west or east, rather than dead northerly, can make a route much safer.
  • Learn the subtleties of wind loading (in other words, throw away the books, forget expensive and time consuming advanced certifications, just go to the backcountry and look/listen/feel.)
  • If traveling in a valley during a time of high avalanche danger, remember that large slides can pound the valley floor. These events are usually unsurvivable. Use your imagination as you pick a route, and choose a line that avoids your horror fantasy.
  • It bears repeating: Use ridges to reach summits. If the signs of avalanche danger are in the red zone, ski back down your ridge route (use all that skill and expensive gear you've acquired to make tight and precise turns on a narrow ridgeline track).
  • Avoid falling and wallowing on avalanche slopes. If you can't ski without falling, improve your gear or technique, or dial back your expectations.
  • On the way up, avoid post-holing and trenching. Use over-snow equipment such as skis, a split snowboard, or large snowshoes that don't punch a deep track. While snowshoes may work well on a track previously broken by a skier, most smaller 'shoes will cause you to wallow in virgin winter snow. If you're serious about winter backcountry snowboarding in Colorado, get a splitboard.
  • As I mentioned in the article above, travel with a mentor, stay behind them, and think about the moves and choices they make.
  • Every backcountry winter traveler should have some level of avalanche safety education. More, consider hiring a guide if you're inexperienced and still choose to travel in avalanche terrain. Please see our FAQ for guide service suggestions.
  • Above all, in a bad Colorado snowpack, be cautious and conservative to the point of absurdity.
 
 
 
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Please note: The information in this website is based on the experience and research of the site owners and their sources, may not be accurate due to human error or source errors, and might not be perceived as accurate by other persons. Therefore, extreme care should be taken when following any of the backcountry skiing 10th Mountain Huts, Summit Huts and Braun Huts routes described in this website. This website is not intended to be instructional but rather is a guide for backcountry users who already have the requisite training, experience, and knowledge for the activities they choose. An advanced level of expertise and physical conditioning is necessary for even the "easiest" of the routes and activities described herein. Proper clothing and equipment is essential. Failure to have the necessary knowledge, equipment, and conditioning will subject you to physical danger, injury, or death. Some backcountry skiing routes for 10th Mountain Huts, Summit Huts and Braun Huts have changed and others will change; avalanche hazards may have expanded or new hazards may have formed since this website's publication.

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