The Snow Pro: Donny Roth talks risk, communication and guiding around the world

Knowledge is power and, in the mountains, it leads to powder. But getting there and doing it safely takes time, practice and lessons both formal and not. And this year’s Skills Guide is a platform from which to dip a toe into the off piste, the impetus to dive headlong into a backcountry education or an opportunity to refresh and rethink personal processes. Because no matter your background, there’s always more to learn. And, just like traveling through the mountains, there’s pleasure in the pursuit.

AMGA guide Donny Roth, from Crested Butte, Colo., spends his time guiding throughout the Elk Mountains during winter before heading to the Southern Hemisphere to guide on Chile’s volcanoes for the other half of the year with his company, Chile Powder Adventures. Here’s his take on risk, turing around and guiding around the world.

Donny Roth shows the ropes. [Photo] Mark Fisher

 

On Learning

A story that comes to mind is when I pushed too far when summiting Volcan Osorno one time. I had a group down in Chile, and we had a lot of success early on in the trip, but then bad weather set in as the trip was coming to an end. On the second-to-last day, we took a stab at the volcano, and about halfway up I decided the visibility and snow conditions weren’t ideal, and I had us turn around. The following day, the weather was only marginally better. We got to the same point on the mountain, and I came to the same conclusion, but the group wanted to summit, so I decided we would wait and see if there was a weather window—and the clouds actually cleared a bit to show bluebird sky. So we gave it a shot, but the weather came back in. We yo-yoed with the sucker holes up the mountain, and we summited in blue sky, but the clouds came in again and the snow refroze.

All of a sudden, everyone wanted off the mountain quickly. We started rushing, and as we were clicking in to descend, I didn’t put my binding on quite right. I thought, “I’ll just lock the toe,” but when I navigated over an ice bulge and hop-turned, my ski came off. I was on solid ice above some crevasses, and I managed to self-arrest, but my ski was gone forever. We had to put on crampons and walk 1,000 feet down the mountain. Then we all skied for another 4,000 feet in a whiteout, me with one ski on. I felt pressure to deliver, and until I had that happen, it was easy to think that my skills could overcome a lot of things.

Donny Roth leads the way up Mt. Dimond | Chugach Mountains, Alaska | Photo: Mark Fisher

On Risk

I’d like to say that I’m cautious all the time, but I am definitely more cautious when I’m guiding. It isn’t acceptable to gamble with anyone else’s life. 

On Communication

I tell my guests and friends that they have a responsibility to communicate with me. They can’t follow me blindly and turn their brains off.

On Turning Around

I want to figure out what I’m missing. There is always uncertainty in the mountains, and in lieu of an accident, you don’t get any confirmation about your suspicions. So the best question is, “If I’m wrong about stability, and it’s not safe, would we be caught in an avalanche?”

On Picking Partners

I want my partners to be curious, inquisitive and not necessarily goal oriented. And I look for people who have a similar perspective on the mountains and approach them in a way similar to mine.

On Trip Prep

Professionally, I start with looking at the weather. Then I look at the avalanche problems for the day, and I consider the other risks: hard snow, will weather make communication difficult? I try to anticipate the things that are going to bite me in the ass. After that, I consider the team and how they are feeling. And based on everything, I figure out if there are no-go zones, and I don’t break that rule—that’s why I state it or write it down before. It keeps me accountable.

On Snacks

I believe in electrolyte drinks. And for food: French toast. You take eggs and bread and a little milk, raisins, bacon and maple syrup and you mash it all up and put it in muffin tins and cook it for 15 minutes.

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