Highland Bowl, yesterday. During the hike, Big Storm’s fingers crept into every pore of your clothing like a thousand zombies prying your flesh. At the top, one guy had a patch of frostbite on his cheek the size of a playing card. Big Storm was obviously loading leeward slopes fast, this enhanced by cross loading. Visibility was nill. So even though a gate was open to a big line, we opted for more manageable terrain in the woods, where visibility was better and wind wasn’t changing conditions by the second.
Word this Friday is we all should remember that ski patrollers do fantastic work, but they’re dealing with a somewhat unpredictable and fickle problem when they attempt to make all inbounds terrain safe from snow slides. This is especially true of the “double black” runs that many resorts now go the extra nine yards to supply. Recent inbounds avalanche accidents at Snowbird and Squaw bring the point home.
In other words, while your double black terrain might be “4 nines” safe due to avalanche control, it’ll never be 100 percent. To me, that means it could be wise to do a couple of things when you’re skiing the “inbounds outtabounds.”
1. First, skiers should keep their avalanche eyes open even when they’re on the peaceful side of the rope. Know your basic avalanche skills, and how to recognize if avalanche control has gotten away from the ski patrol. More, perhaps you’re pushing the limits of what’s “open,” and will need to apply total backcountry procedures even though you’re near or technically “in” the resort.
2. Wear a transmitting avalanche beacon at all times, and consider an Avalung as this device is the ticket for snow immersion emergencies such as being stuck in a tree well (as common as avalanches when it comes to in-bounds accidents), as well as being a possible life saver in an avalanche.
3. Use a low key buddy system. If things are gnarly, perhaps keep each other in sight at all times. Or just have a few pre-aranged meeting places. “Talkabout” radios can make this easy.
4. Know your communication options. Does that patrol have dispatch number? Does your cell phone work where you’ll be skiing? Is the number in your contacts?
5. If you’re storm skiing, be aware that rope lines can be blown around or even sag and get covered by snow before patrollers can fix. Thus, stay aware of the general lay of nearby ropes so you don’t ski into a closed area by mistake.
Basic stuff. But perhaps worth a PSA?
We’re outta here for a long Christmas weekend break — perhaps just a few days of slackcountry, but maybe we’ll make it to a hut.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.