The uncanny and uncharacteristic and overtly sensitive nature of the Wasatch snowpack continues to cause problems in the backcountry. The depth hoar that was so deadly a month ago has mostly, but not entirely bridged under the weight of new snow. However, I would not go so far as to put any faith into it remaining so. Would you tickle a sleeping dragon? Nevertheless, the threat of deep slab avalanches has abated, only to give way to the highly delicate and precarious shallow soft slabs that break on buried surface hoar – a fancy term for frost that when buried, can create a slick, weak layer that can fracture spectacularly and dangerously.
The good news is that shallow soft slab avalanches tend to be more manageable, and not quite so hazardous as their deep slab cousins. But still, would you tickle a sleeping lion? In the 12 days or so since our surface hoar was buried there have been, to quote Bruce Tremper himself, “about 12 bazillion, human-triggered avalanches” including two rather significant slides in the oft-visited Scotties Bowl. Indeed, every day the UAC observation page is updated with so many new slides that the avalanches from the previous day are pushed to the second page of the list. It’s as if that web site has become some sort of twisted mutation of Twitter, a constant stream of information pushing everything below into the data hole of forgotten irrelevance. However, for anyone interested in such things, these user submitted observations are quality and informative reading. Only the actual eye-witnessing of an avalanche (hopefully one that lacks any need for a rescue) is of more value. And yet, that can be a risky proposition, and not something one with any sense of self preservation goes readily seeking.
And so, the reading becomes the next and best option.
The path of least resistance would lead one to simply stay home, rather than venture into the capricious and uncertain terrain of the mountains. But then, one could follow that path into a life of self preservative sedentarianism that leads to a more painful, more pathetic, and I believe far more tragic demise than any backcountry accident might conjure. No, I prefer the air and freedom and risk of learning and discovery and rational, responsible backcountry exploration. You may find a varied fire burning in your chest, but I ski the backcountry not only for powder shots and white room analysis, but also for the self grounding peace and quiet of the wilderness, something unequaled in other spheres – a quality and tangibility to life that speaks to a persona rooted in the Rocky Mountains. That is, I feel connected to the terrain when I realize that it demands to be understood and respected. It’s ability to take life is as real and as literal as it’s ability to affirm and give life. And in that, I find a great and lasting satisfaction.
The ongoing advice to avoid steep, thinly covered northerly aspects is as relevant today as it ever has been this season. Albeit for slightly different, but equally as dubious and problematic reasons. Which means that low angled slopes wooded with pines and evergreens and aspens remain the more prudent, if slightly less braggadocios backcountry routes. The snap dragons seem eager to remind those who venture outside of such benign areas of their flighty and irritable and impressionable nature, rising up in a shattering and spattering of cracking and collapsing snow.
Delightfully, however, those more sleepy ridgelines and glades offer ample opportunity for an elevated heart rate, and that incorporeal joy that explodes from deep within when skiing fresh snow in the wilds of the mountains.