“The series of storm events since [the] first part of February has made for one of the most intense 6 weeks of snow accumulation we have ever experienced. This has set up the high country for historic avalanches- 300-year event avalanches!”
-Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, Silverton, CO.
We’ve taken it on the chin a fair bit this season and this past week was no exception.
After experiencing one of the largest and most destructive natural avalanche cycles ever recorded in the San Juan Mountains, it was time to return to the backcountry. In keeping with this season’s theme of challenge and hardship, that wasn’t going to be easy. But in the end, victory was mine.
With Red Mt Pass still closed and a hut trip canceled, I used the opportunity to take my first weekend off since Christmas. So I went skiing. And it was amazing and my time away from teaching and guiding and surviving was refreshing. No stress of keeping others alive. Just some soul turns with a cutie. By the 8th of March we had already exceeded average monthly precip and by Sunday, the pressure of the upcoming week shut my personal bliss down really quick.
First problem was a scheduled OPUS hut trip. I had hinted at my concern with this upcoming adventure in my last entry- I don’t like heading in there when conditions are marginal. With avalanche danger bouncing between Considerable and High, and another huge weather event on the way, I advocated for a change of plans- This tedious adventure in logistics, re-calculating and rebooking can be summed up like this:
My guests made this reservations months ago from a foreign country. But now we can’t get up on RMP or into the hut from the Silverton or Ouray side. The Ophir approach is also not a safe or logistically prudent option. If I did somehow make it in there safely with these guests, our options for skiing would be very limited. We’d do a lot of hut sitting and wish meal portions were larger and the hutkeeper was nicer. Because we all know the OPUS guardian is an ass who doesn’t want to work with people on re-scheduling or refunds. He also routinely taunts guides who feel that the safety of their clients supersedes his desire for us to get out there and get after it….Fuck all of that!
So, I readjust. I handed the clients off to a Ouray based guide, they skied Weehawken and Telluride, I remained grounded to the south, the hut owner kept their money and sent menacing emails to my employer- good times. But at least the stress of the OPUS was now off my shoulders.
Winter Storm #20 was an absolute bruiser. Another warm and wet wallop packing high winds and leaving a heavy load. With almost 20+ inches left up on RMP and lots of transport, the snowpack conditions were once again primed for slides. And slide it did.
Still stuck in Durango, I strategically timed my trip back to my winter home in Baker’s Park between road and pass closures. Upon hitting town on Wednesday, it was clear that Silverton has run out of room for all this snow. After an exhaustive effort digging out parking and the front walk, it was time for a field trip out CR 2- Boulder Gulch had slid the afternoon prior and just that morning, a path which no one has ever seen go, obliterated the road across from the industrial park. I named the path “The Venture Slide” in my CAIC obs.
In hindsight, the madness to the northeast of town pales in comparison to what was happening in the Cement Creek drainage. Huge slides barreled down Minnesota Gulch and Fairview Gulch obliterating CR 110. The crown face above the Blackjack ski zone in lower prospect looks to be about 30feet +. And the hits just keep on coming.
But the true test of the week was yet to come.
After running an in-town rescue course on Thursday, it was time for Silverton Avalanche School’s first Level Two course since the tragic events of January 5th. I can only speak for myself, but I know my colleagues felt similar- the weight and pressure of moving forward with this course was immense.
Our last Level Two was the Senator Beck accident. I still am struggling with shaking off that fateful weekend. As a staff, we’ve talked much about the consequential nature of our work. More than once our considerations post-accident have flirted with calling future programs off, curtailing our work and canceling this specific course. But in the end, the work we do saves lives. It was important to move forward and have a strong showing on this next Level Two - but leading up to the experience, the deck was once again stacked against us- epic snowfall, high danger, historic avalanche cycles, road closures, no chance at using Red Mountain Pass. To say that I didn’t feel set up for success was an understatement.
The school canceled the hut trip portion of the training and changed the L2 to an intown-based course. SAS gave students the chance to re-schedule or cancel their enrollment. Just getting to Silverton, with roads closed to the South and the North would be a test. In the end, seven students committed to the experience and made the journey here.
There’s much work that’s gone into shaping the itinerary and curriculum of the new Level Two Rec Training. There’s been challenges getting this course right and with the tragic events of January as the base for this March course, no one would have blamed us for calling it off- Leading into the event, Mother Nature almost made that decision for us.
But we persevered. We pulled it off- and sitting here Monday morning, thinking about the experience, I am filled with great joy and relief. It was undoubtedly one of the best avalanche training courses I’ve taught. It shouldn’t have been. There were so many reasons to doubt and dread this experience. Leading up to Friday, it just felt like we couldn’t catch a break.
But once again life provides me with evidence that to endure in the face of overwhelming odds is one of the greatest gifts we receive as humans. We took this weekend on and in the end, I couldn’t help but choke up a bit in our final debrief. We had moved forward in the face of tragedy, challenge and a large dose of the unknown. And we had emerged on the other side victorious. I appreciate the students, my co-instructor, my safety officer and all of you who made this Level Two one of the best ever.
After losing much this winter.
After contemplating another defeat.
Here we are on the other side of this test.
And we are winning.