Sunday, January 31, 2016

2016 Avalanche musings (2 of 2)

After some thought, I decided to re-tool this installment of avalanche musings to best address some misconceptions that I have worked through over the years, especially since many are contributing to the current spate of avalanche fatalities and close calls.  When I began backcountry skiing, I was conservative, however I had several major misconceptions about avalanches.  In this last installment of avalanche musings, I will run through a few of my misconceptions in the hopes that others can shortcut them.
  • Misconception #1:  It is OK to assume some risk all of the time
Over the years, most of us have skied a lot of slopes that we thought would "probably" be OK, but weren’t really sure.   Similarly, I bet if you asked most skiers who just got away with skiing a big line with marginal stability, they would give a fairly detailed explanation of why the avalanche danger was high, BUT the temperature was just cool enough, or the slope was just protected enough, or they dug a pit, so it was safe.  As it turns out, this is not really an acceptable approach, and in my opinion, a lot of backcountry skiers push it a little too hard most of the time.   Eleven (1/31 update - I think the January total is up to 16) of them died this month.  Assuming the goal is to never get caught in a big slide over the course of a life time, one must be assuming something very close to zero risk of getting caught on any given day or run.  It is easy to loose perspective, especially when you see other tracks, or are on a familiar slope.  
My bold track on Divide peak with High avalanche danger in 2008.
Routefinding and assessment were meticulous, but in retrospect, 
this was too much risk to assume on a daily basis.

I have found a few big picture reality checks helpful to keep the risk level acceptably low.   First, I try to ski slopes where I anticipate feeling like I made a good decision afterward, not that I just got away with it.  Second, experienced skiers usually have a pretty good idea when stability on any given slope is suspect, so I consider it a red flag If I find myself micro-analyzing a slope, or doing a lot of hemming and hawing.  Some debate happens all of the time and when it does, I will first try to step back and do a big picture check to make sure my line of choice is in the realm of close to zero chance of a dangerous avalanche.  
  • Misconception #2:  Avalanches require a textbook slab and weak layer
After hearing over and over that avalanches are caused by a slab failing on a weak layer, I spent several years skiing sketchy snow, thinking that since there was not a textbook avalanche setup, that I would be OK.  As it turns out, while the ingredients have to align, it can be difficult to know exactly when the snowpack is in perfect is in alignment, and avalanches happen all the time that seem obvious in retrospect, but surprising when they are triggered.  Storm slabs do not have to be a perfect consistency to propogate,  pretty much any old snow surface can act as a weak layer, some weak layers are more reactive and persistent than others, and shear quality in pit tests might not translate well to the slope one is skiing, and with deep instabilities.
I started up this slope near Cliff lake and the snow just felt weird.
Pit results were actually pretty good, but the dense new slab just didn't feel right, so I bailed.
Never mind the fact that I had approached for four hours in near zero temperatures.
Textbook avalanche setup? Nope. Am I glad I turned around? Absolutely.
Did I come back another day and ski it with good stability? Yup.

Along the same lines, I often ran with the assumption that deeper weak layers were less likely to slide than recent storm snow, and as long as the the underlying snow "feels solid", slopes where the new snow danger could be managed were also safe to ski with deep instabilities.  Unfortunately, while triggering a deep instability is often unlikely, the consequences are typically unacceptable, and it is not uncommon for trigger points to exist, except they are in cafeteria tray sized points sprinkled seemingly randomly throughout the mountains.  Pits are quite helpful in determining the depth and structure of deep instabilities, but I would never a use single pit result to justify skiing a slope. The only really good way I have found to deal with deep instabilities is to gather all of the information possible over the course of a season (nature of weak layer, avy forecast discussion, cracking/collapsing, natural and human triggered avalanches, recent snow load and temperature, pits) and keep a wide margin of safety.  This is especially important right now for skiers in more continental snowpacks (i.e. Bozeman and Jackson) with a low risk, high consequence deep instability scenario.  Chances are, experienced skiers in continental snowpacks spent the entire month of January not pushing, except in very isolated cases.
  • Misconception #3 Moderate danger is Low danger
In the past, when the avy danger dropped to Moderate, I would pretty much grab my skis, beeline for something big and steep, and ski it unless a red flag presented itself.  It took a surprisingly long time to really accept that the Moderate rating spans everything from touchy to green light conditions, which is a huge range, and is without a doubt the hardest rating level to make good decisions.  The snow usually feels stable, and big stuff can often be skied perfectly safely.  
Moderate avalanche danger.  We were not confident enough to push into
the steeper starting zones, but skied the lower 2,000 feet of boot top powder with confidence.
When the avalanche danger is Moderate, I have found it especially useful to have a hypothesis going into the day and test it against what I find out there.  My initial guess can range from skepticism (e.g. Moderate, really, I would have guessed Considerable) to something in the middle (e.g. I bet we can go ski the Mega Death slide path today if the top isn’t too wind loaded, let’s go have a look since we can always lap the Minor Death trees instead) to anticipating stable conditions but keeping an eye out for surprises.  Experience and judgement will help a lot in selecting a good initial objective and sussing things out once you get out there. 
Also Moderate danger.  Hanging it out all alone on the
East face of Owen and feeling good about stability. Tetons.
  • Misconception #4: I will be able to handle an avalanche if I get caught
We watch skiers survive avalanches all the time in ski videos.  Similarly, it is common to imagine that in the event of an avalanche, you will do everything right and find a way to ski off the slab or grab a tree, or your partners will not get caught, locate you quickly, dig you out and you will be OK.  
I watched this avalanche splinter and rage through the trees below.
It was humbling to ski next to this debris, thinking about unsurvivable
a ride would have been. Mission Creek, Northern Absorka, Montana
The reality for most of us who have been in even small avalanche is that avalanches are very powerful, and you loose all control almost immediately.  Unless one is able to get off the slab almost immediately, chances are that within a few seconds you will be off your feet, rocketing down the hill really really fast, completely out of control.  You will also have no idea if your partners are caught, or are going to be able to dig you out.  You can not afford to ever be caught in a big avalanche.  
  • Misconception #5:  Avalanches happen to other people
I used to look at statistics and think that getting killed in an avalanche only happened to other people who did stupid things or were unlucky.  Unfortunately, that is simply not the case.  As it turns out, unless one develops a consistent pattern of safe decision making, close calls are likely, and over the course of a lifetime, the threat of being involved in a large avalanche is substantial.  This does not hit home for most people until someone they know dies in the mountains. 
Miss you, Chris.
I remember the phone call in the middle of a work day in June. Chris was missing on Lolo peak.  I walked straight out of the office, grabbed my ski stuff, met a few close friends at the trailhead, and headed out in the middle of a storm to find him.  Tears still well up when I remember skiing down the north side of the peak and seeing two orange ski boots sticking out of the snow.  The hours spent by his side waiting for a helicopter to retrieve his body changed me forever.  Chris lived a fiercely independent life and took risk all the time, but he did not take a lot of risk the day he was killed.  I still struggle with a seeming unshakable conviction that he should not be dead.  But he is.  I no longer assume that I will probably be OK.

Final thoughts
2016 has not been an unusually dangerous year.  Scary deep instabilities on the mend in continental snowpacks, no major deep structural issues but a few weird issues here in Missoula, fire hose of precip in the Flathead, etc.  Pretty much normal.  Within a few weeks, many of us will forget this round of fatalities just like we have in the past, and continue to push.  That will be the time to really keep our guard up.  And for those of us who thrive on skiing big, steep and beautiful mountains, remember there are a lot of days when stability is good.  And there is a lifetime to come back and do it another day.  Be patient, conservative and consistent, and when conditions align, dream big, set an alarm for some ungodly early hour, and go have an adventure.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

2016 Avalanche musings (1 of 2)

I was going to skip the annual avalanche blog post, but multiple avalanche fatalities, coupled with many close calls compelled me to type up a few thoughts into a little two part series.  In this post, I will focus on a few specific factors (snow stability/uncertainty, terrain, and social factors).  In the second, I will present two recent decision making scenarios and how I handled them.  Of course these come with the caveat that I am not an avalanche professional, just a skier who has thought a lot about risk and wants to live to a ripe old age running around in the mountains.

How confident are you about snow stability?
It is really important to recognize the level of uncertainty associated with the snow stability side of avalanche assessment.  I see a lot of folks who read the avy forecast, dig a pit, spend a lot of time discussing snow and weather minutia, and draw the exact wrong conclusion.  Why? Because it takes A LOT of time in the backcountry to really understand snow and even know which questions to ask.  Think 300 days at least moving in avalanche terrain and making tricky calls.  An introductory avalanche course helps jump start process, but it only gets you about 5% of the way there.  And remember, avalanche forecasts are often inaccurate, and it is unwise to pin your life on them.
Snow assessment gone wrong.  A group of younger skiers were digging a pit at this spot when their buddies triggered the slide above them (summit knob at Gash).  I don't know what they were finding in the pit, but it didn't translate to smart decision making.  I was not impressed.
With time, backcounry skiers should expend the mental energy required to really understand snow. Be able to answer questions like: what is the biggest avalanche threat on that slope?  Am I sure it is just the new snow, and not a more consequential deep instability?  Given the snowpack, what would an avalanche look like on this slope.  How far would it propogate?  How far would it run?  Could a small slide step down to a more deeply buried week layer?  I heard some collapsing on the approach.  Which layer was collapsing?  If the same thing happened on the slope I am thinking of skiing, would it avalanche? It has been warm in the valley, has it been warm enough in the mountains for the new snow to bond?  It is raining.  Is that a problem?  (in addition to the fact that skiing in the rain does kind of suck…) The weak layer is an ice crust.  How is that different than if the weak layer is a thick layer of facets?  I dug a pit and got high test scores but clean shears, what does that mean?  Is the snowpack on the slope I am skiing different than in the pit? If so, what does that mean?  Am I sure?  Does this slope have a thin/weak snowpack?  If so, is that a problem?  Has it snowed enough in the last storm to activate deep week layers?  And on and on and on. 

I find it useful to remember that you or someone in your party should be able to explain why what you are skiing is safe. If you aren't sure about snow stability, that is OK as long as you limit avalanche exposure accordingly. 

Where I am at with snow assessment: With years of experience, both good and bad, I am confident in a lot of my on-the-fly assessment skills, but fully recognize that they are not sharp enough to make cutting edge decisions.  I have not taken an Avy 2, and don’t have a firm grasp on a lot of the finer points of snow science.  My pit assessments are merely adequate to identify major weak layers deeper in the snowpack, and I rely heavily on whether or not a weak layer propagates a fracture in an ECT.  I am also bad at assessing "stabilish" fresh soft slabs when they they have stabilized enough that shooting cracks and propagation with ski cuts have stopped, but they could still slide in the right spot. Which is fine - I just try to avoid them. 

Not sure about snow stability? Use Terrain
It is easy to stay safe in the backcountry without doing much snow stability assessment by paying close attention to terrain. In contrast to snow stability, terrain is visible, and the concepts are fairly basic.  With a rudimentary understanding of everything terrain (slope angle (be able to eyeball to within 3 degrees), wind direction, aspect, position on the slope, tree density, sign of past avalanches, etc) you can identify slide paths, gauge how consequential an avalanche would be, and avoid avalanche slopes altogether on high hazard days.  No snow assessment required other than a basic awareness that “things are touchy today”.  Just remember, you have to be consistent and conservative with terrain choices, but within those constraints, you can do a lot out in the mountains.  This is an essential skill for solo skiers.  This is also how many experienced skiers safely ski day in and day out without ever digging a pit.
Considerable avalanche danger. Utilizing windswept ridgelines to confidently ski
steep peaks in the heart of Yellowstone.  This photo was taken during my first few years
of backcountry skiing.  I still had a lot of misconceptions about snow assessment, but was
extremely diligent about managing terrain and never had a close call.  Photo: Kyle Story
Where I am at with terrain choice: Having spent countless days in the mountains by myself with no one to dig me out, I have spent a lot of time micro analyzing terrain and am comfortable assessing on the fly.  I spent the first three years or so being very conservative with terrain when stability was at all in question. I still skied a lot of steep stuff, but waited until I knew it was welded. Where I still occasionally fall short is consistency.  Most of the close calls I have had are when I knew stability was suspect, but I skied an avalanche slope anyway on the edges, thinking it was manageable. I am getting much better in my old age, and when the avalanche danger is stout Moderate or higher, I am usually either on slopes that will not slide, or am skiing small terrain with a (hopefully) sharp sense of what is actually manageable. And as a rule, I don’t ski many steep and exposed lines with more than a few inches of powder, except in the spring when the underlying snowpack is welded.  And I’m OK with that.

An few thoughts on decision making and the human factor
A lot of recent avalanche focus has been on decision making and human/social/pysological factors. I will save a longer rant for another day, but this stuff is very important, especially in groups.  I strongly encourage everyone to spend some time with Powder Magazine's two part series.  Here and Here.  
I triggered this avalanche while traibreaking.  There was a foot of new snow with wind.
I knew the slope was marginal, but went for it anyway.
Human factors include: Group of guys, familiar slope, ego, haste.  Stupid Stupid Stupid.
(This was several years ago. I think I have gotten smarter since then).
As an introvert, a lot of the social factor stuff for me is about communicating well, but a lot is centered around making consistent choices no matter what the weather/avalanche danger/group size/need to impress that rad, smart skier girl is. For example, are you touring with a bunch of hard charging dudes?  Be aware that any avalanche conversations are probably going to be minimized.  Either look out for yourself, or be the one who initiates an avalanche conversation (both approaches work). Skiing sidecountry?  Be aware that many/most of the people out there do not know what they are doing, and are probably pushing the avalanche envelope.  Skiing with someone less experienced, or quiet (like myself)?  Be aware that they might not speak up, and that you need to either trust their experience, or ask them what they are thinking about stability, and be able to explain what you are thinking.  Just out for an easy spin and not going to push it today? Keep your eyes peeled.  The mountains don't care that you think you are taking it easy.  The key is consistency.

And remember, there are days when snow quality and stability are great.  When this happens you can go big.
Steep, stable powder and 3.000 foot runs.  Solo.  As good as it gets in the Bitterroot.
Stay tuned for part two.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Just another "Beyond Gash" tour

When Kyle invited me along on a Sky Pilot tour, I asked if we could head north instead of south from the top of Gash point, taking advantage of good low elevation snow and upping the adventure quotient several notches.  Everyone was in, and we were skinning from the car at first light, less than 24 hours later.
Gash view out to Hidden lake peak, visible on the left, and the south couloir on Glenn lake point.
After attempting and failing to push out a stuck car (there is too much snow to drive to the lower Gash trailhead), we motored up to near the top of Gash point proper and skied the speed chute on our way into Sweathouse.  Everyone was on board with checking out the Mystery chutes, so we made the devious climb to the top.  We found some surprising fresh wind slabs along the way, but felt comfortable proceeding after a group discussion and slightly modifying the ski line into the chute. The Mystery chute was about as good as I could have hoped for, with nice settled powder in the gut of the chute, and just enough snow in the apron to make the whole line ski well.  After a bit of brush bashing, we crossed Sweathouse creek, slapped on skins, and made a short climb to the sun for a lunch break.
Kyle breaking trail in front of the Sweathouse spires.
Even though snow quality was bound to be poor, Kyle was still fired up about climbing Hidden Lake peak, and I love pushing deep into the wilderness, so we swapped trailbreaking leads up the 2,500 South face. Minot hung in there, and we were soon at the point of highest snow just below the summit.  The skiing down the south face was poor, but it was a good re-introduction to sub optimal conditions, and we were soon back at the creek preparing for the long climb back to the top of Gash point.  The climb out took longer than expected.  We had some skin failures, and ended up not topping out until dark.  Fortunately everyone made it intact, and we stuck close together on the ski out to the car, since any error would turn a marginal situation into a dangerous one very quickly.
Minot climbing in front of the Mystery chutes. We skied the central line from the high point.

Thumbs up.  Kyle approaching our high point on Hidden lake peak.
Sunset on the climb out of Gash, bracing for a ski out by headlamp.

 We returned to the car tired and cold.  And fired up for another big day in the mountains, since conditions are so good at the moment.  Of note, there has been wind over the past day or two, and avalanche danger was Moderate (not Low) today on wind loaded slopes.  We didn't trigger anything, but had to devote more thought and discussion to snow safety than I had anticipated going into the day.  A good reminder to keep your eyes peeled out there. For stats, right around 10,000 vertical feet done in 12 hours car to car.
Approximate route.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Canada. Mount Brennan. Powder

After a day of tiptoeing around deep instabilities at home, Leah and I headed north on a quick trip to Nelson, BC in search of deep, stable powder.  We found both in abundance. 
Powder high on Mt. Brennan.
Kootenai Pass
We spent the first day exploring the Wolf ridge area near Kootenai Pass.  By starting below the pass, we were able to spend the day without crossing ski tracks on any of the descents. Although we lost some time at the beginning of the day getting our bearings, we were able to squeeze three excellent long powder runs into a moderate day.  The highlight was skiing a wild dike off Wolf ridge.  
We skied the ramp between cliffs in the center of the photo.
Or maybe it was the 2,000 foot powder return to the car at sunset.  
Powder at sunset.  Time to head home.
Or maybe it was just running around in the mountains, assessing stability on the fly, and piecing it altogether - I love that game.  In any case we returned to the car after dark, cold but excited after a great day.
First run of the trip near Wolf peak.
Leah skinning in front of Wolf peak.
Dropping into the unknown off the back side of Wolf ridge.
Mount Brennan
The main objective for our trip was the spectacular moderate south face of Mount Brennan, which drops 6,000 feet from the summit to the car.  We were thwarted by avalanche danger several years ago, so it was nice to return and get it done.  
Leah arrives at the summit of Mt. Brennan!
We were surprised to share the mountain with nine other skiers.  In addition to heli skiers the previous day which included a heli drop on the summit.  We took a modified line off the summit, and were treated to first tracks down the entire upper mountain.  Aside from a little tempo effort to burn off some extra energy, we kept it relaxed and had a great day skiing powder in the mountains. 
Above the undercast on the upper peak.
Leah skiing off the summit of Mt. Brennan.
Still skiing.
Skiing above the undercast on the upper mountain. 
I like skiing.  Still 3,000 feet to go to the car.
Icy sunset on Brennan.  The ski run takes a low angle ice field on the other side of the visible ridge. 
Note:  There is a lot more to do on Brennan, especially if one can put in honest 10k days.

Whitewater sidecountry
We took a spin on the Whaleback near Whitewater resort before driving home for New Year’s festivities.  This is a popular side country area, but the run was great, and snow ghosts along the skin track made for a memorable climb.
Another day, another assembly of snow ghotsts.
Climbing the Whaleback before heading stateside for New Year festivities.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Early season skiing, 2016

I was elated to return from Minnesota to primo ski conditions.  It was great to jump right back into skiing, and although none of the first dozen or so ski days have been particularily long or adventurous, the skiing has been great.  Here are a few photos:

Brace sticking to his tele roots at Stonewall on our first day
back in Montana. Scapegoat.
Leah skiing into the sunset at Stonewall. Scapegoat.
Andrew and Jeffrey moving on Little St. Joe during a long afternoon tour.
First climb of the "normal" full Lappi lake tour with deep powder
and a big crew a few days before Christmas. Bitterroot.
First turns during an afternoon spin on the Pinball Wizard gully.
It could use more snow, but there is enough. Bitterroot.
Enamored of crisp winter light on New Year day.  Bitterroot.
Wild spot. Kyle in front of the Sweathouse spires. Bitterroot.
Nick working the steeps.  Wisherd ridge.  Rattlesnake.
Looking into the abyss off Gem lake point.
Ben/Leah:  "I think we might die if we try to ski that".
Brian: "You could be right."
We bailed.
Consolation run on Gem lake point.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Minneapolis Diaries

I spent most of November and December in Minneapolis.  Although many of the highlights revolved around time with Leah, eating all manner of excellent food, and enjoying the remarkably livable city, I was able to get some quality outdoor time in.

Note: Since being home in Montana, there has been a lot of great skiing.  More to come soon.

White Bear 10-mile race
I arrived on Halloween, and during a walk around town in the afternoon, discovered there was a 10 mile road race the following day.  By scaling Halloween evening drinking back a few notches, I showed up feeling surprisingly spry.  My goal was to split as close to 6 minute miles as possible, and after a 6:15 first mile, I pushed the pace just a touch, moving ahead of a large chase pack (the leader ran off the front from the start).  I hung on for the rest of the race, running just over 6 minute miles.  The leader was way out of sight, and the third place runner was just out of sight arrears, so I just pushed at a hard but sustainable-barring-a-surprise-meltdown pace to the finish second in 1 01.08.  I ran about as hard as I could have, and it was great fun, and a good introduction to Minnesota.

State park exploration
Leah and I got out of town almost every weekend to explore a few of many state parks within day driving distance of Minneapolis.  The most memorable days were a long afternoon looping around the Murphy-Hanrehan park, and a return to Afton for a spin on the 25 K course.  We also spent a day climbing at Red Wing, but I can't really climb anything harder than 5.9 any more, and it was quite humbling.

Afton trail running
This state park is close to town, about as hilly as one can find, and the trail network is fantastic.  There is a long-standing annual ultra race which takes a nice logical double 25K loop, and I spend two days on the course, slugging out the full 50K.  The first time, I ran it at a sub-race pace but ran all the hills, in a sort of a low quality hill repeat workout.  I completed the double loop in just under 5.30.  I was super tired at the end, and had a first ever complete core stabilizer meltdown.  The second time, I stuck to a more consistent strategy, walking and running the uphills just over the aerobic threshold, and running everything else at a hard aerobic effort.  Except the last 20 minutes, which I pushed at a hard effort in an attempt at even first and second half splits. At 4.44, It was my fastest ever 50 K, which was an encouraging bookend to about six weeks of consistent quality training.
Nice rolling trails at Afton.
The Wolfe training experiment
Renowned runner and all around great guy Mike Wolfe put together a "training experiment" plan to prepare for randonee racing.  There were many crusher days doing strength work in the gym, quality hill repeats and tempo runs, and easy cruiser adventures, which provided a nice way to explore the city on foot.  In the spirit of full disclosure, I struggled much of the time with minor lower calf strains (attributable largely to pavement running coupled with high training volume) and a low level but persistent cold.  But I was able to get all of the hard strength and aerobic work in and about 75% of the speed work (I skipped two speed workouts in an effort to not exacerbate my cold).  I don't know if I am stronger than in past years, but I certainly have not lost fitness during my stay, and have learned a lot about structuring a training plan, and how to be more effective with quality speed and strength work. Highly recommended.

Grand Rounds attempt
I tried to run the exterior of the Grand rounds, a paved trail system which makes a 30ish mile loop around downtown Minneapolis and the town portion of the Mississippi.  I ended up going down in flames around mile 25, beat and way behind schedule.  Leah was nice enough to come rescue me.  My legs were destroyed for a few days afterward. Not a long distance road runner yet, I guess.  It would be more fun to do this on a bike.

Superior Lake trail
We spent a surprisingly dry early December weekend running and hiking along the Superior trail. In two short days, we covered well over twenty miles of the trail.  It was surprisingly slow and boggy in places, but overall the trail is striking, steep, and remarkably wild.

Born to Run 5 mile race
The day after Thanksgiving, I ran the Born to Run 5 mile race in New Jersey.  Despite being pretty blasted from back to back intervals and hard leg strength work courtesy of the Wolfe training experiment (see above), I gave it a hard go.  In retrospect, I went out a little too hard, as my splits slowed about 20 sec/mile over the course of the race, but I generally moved up in the field, and finished quite thrashed in 28.10 and seventh place.  Leah ran a good race as well, splitting low-7 minute miles and finishing strong.
Givin 'er at the start of the Born to Run 5-mile race.

Creative commuting
We have a nice bike friendly 4-mile commute, and I was able to bike to work most days.  With a flexible schedule, the commute became more and more adventurous the longer I spent in the city.  In addition to run commuting quite a bit, I spent several mornings doing 15-20 mile loops on the way to the office.  The most memorable commutes were a loop around lakes Johanna and Josephine, a big 20-mile loop along the Mississippi south from campus, and a run to work when it was raining so hard that I arrived at the office with my rain coat, running coat, and shirt all completely soaked through.