Until last week, Associate Editor Lucy Higgins and I had never traveled in the backcountry on a high avalanche danger day. It was not something I wanted to check off my bucket list, and neither of us dared to self-guide during conditions like those seen last Tuesday in Crested Butte, Colorado. But on that day, as part of a Dynafit press trip, Lucy and I were scheduled to head into the surrounding backcountry with Donny Roth of Irwin Guides.
A storm had rolled through the area Sunday, Jan. 31 leaving almost three feet of new snow, with 6 inches falling Monday night, Feb 1. This heavy accumulation led the Crested Butte Avalanche Center forecast to read high for all areas above, near and below treeline. Multiple persistent weak layers existed in the snowpack, including the depth hoar layer from early in the season and a more recent storm slab. Natural avalanches were likely on all aspects.
“Give our exhausted snowpack time to catch its breath and avoid avalanche terrain today,” read the forecast on Tuesday morning. “This includes lower angle slopes below steeper slopes, where you might be able to remotely trigger a large slab avalanche above you or get hit by the lingering threat of a natural release.”
The night before we were scheduled to tour, we had chatted about approaching Roth with our concerns and went into our Tuesday morning debriefing with plans to bail. But with a solid strategy in motion to ski only low-angle slopes and with Roth’s detailed local knowledge, guiding proficiency and terrain management, we ended up feeling comfortable enough to ski. Here is a breakdown of our day.
The Morning Debriefing
Louise: Going into the meeting that morning I was planning to bail, because I personally would not have felt comfortable self-guiding on a day like that. If it had been just me and some buddies, I would have talked everyone into brunch and a nap. But when we actually sat down to discuss the plan for the day, I was struck by the sense that Donny’s plan not to ski near anything remotely close to 32 degrees was sound. If this remained true, I was OK with going out. I was not familiar with the terrain, but he seemed confident that he had a route that fit this description, and he pointed out the area that was visible from the hostel where we were sitting. Donny explained that we would play everything by ear and that the day would remain an open discussion about terrain management for everyone involved.
Lucy: Our original plan from the night before was to ski in a very low-angle zone with experienced guides and in two, smaller groups. But there were still factors about the plan that made me uncomfortable: the unstable snowpack, my unfamiliarity with the terrain and new ski partners, regardless of their skill level. We were also there on a work trip, and I was warding off a (self-induced) pressure to make the most of it. But after listening to Donny’s detailed, flexible plan of the day and his strategies for terrain management—and actually viewing where we would be touring—I felt confident enough to head out for the day.
In the Backcountry
Louise: Low-angle powder was the game plan for the day. Our skinner wound its way through birch trees and up into more coniferous forest above Crested Butte. On our ascent, we stuck to gradual gains in elevation, meandering on plateaus for quite some time. There were a few steeper pitches we had to climb, but nothing over 32 degrees. And nothing under any area or features that posed hangfire potential—as Donny had assured us. This meant that descending was a bit slow. With the new snow accumulation it was hard to get up speed at first to make real turns, but we were able to use the skintrack to get going and then make some nice noodle turns. I am short, so I even got some face shots.
Lucy: It wasn’t the fastest, steepest day, and that’s a good thing. We stuck with our plan to skin and ski low-angle slopes, and the three feet of fresh snow combined with cold temperatures made for a floaty, mellow day. While I knew our intent was to stick to 32 degrees or less, I was worried about passing under steeper terrain. This proved not to be an issue, thanks to Donny’s choice in uphill and downhill routes. Speaking of the descent, when it was eventually time to return back to the parking lot, we convened on a ridge with the car in sight, and took turns skiing one by one down the ridgeline, careful to follow Donny’s guidance on staying to the right of his tracks. In doing so, we avoided steeper slopes to the left and right that had also received quite a bit of sun. That moment was indicative of the day at large; a heavy focus on discussion, terrain management and safety.
Back at the Hostel
Louise: There have been times when I have skied moderate and low avalanche danger conditions where I have felt far more concerned than I did that day. Every decision Donny made was shared with the group. We skied one at a time, picked sheltered stopping zones and followed the normal backcountry etiquette. But in all honesty, the meadow skipping was really what kept us safe. We adjusted our objectives for the day and that was the take home message for me. A good day in the backcountry is a safe day in the backcountry, whether you are skiing extreme couloirs or pasture.
Lucy: The easiest way to avoid avalanches on a high avy day is to simply not go touring. But that’s not always an option, whether you’re departing home from a hut trip, on a longer trek or for any other number of situations that can spontaneously arise in the backcountry. And not touring doesn’t always have to be the option if terrain is managed practically and with as little hubris as possible. Thanks to a proficient guiding team from Irwin Guides and by sticking to safe, sheltered regions and being flexible with our objectives, we were able to venture into the backcountry safely, emerging unharmed. And at the end of the day, a low-angle powder day is still a powder day.
To find out more about Irwin Guides, visit irwinguides.com.