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The Stellar- Season 1, Coms 3


Greetings Shredders,​​

With a slow down in storm events early in the new year, the wind has proved the primary antagonist in the story of the mountains this Janubreezy. For those who’ve braved the stout wind chills lately, the skiing in more sheltered locations near treeline continues to be fantastic. And with a weather maker set to refresh our pack the end of this week, I have a dream we’ll all be sharing the goods this holiday weekend.


As of Wednesday Jan 15th, 2020, the North and South San Juan Mountains are holding at 3,2,1 Avalanche Danger; Considerable above treeline, Moderate Near treeline, Low below treeline.

Our primary avalanche problem in the San Juans continues to be wind slab concerns on NW through NE through SE aspects, ATL. Anyone who’s laid eyes on the alpine lately, easily sees what a scoured, welded and cross loaded mess above tree line has become. Yes, pockets of blown in snow exist- but these are the very gullies and features forecasters continue to warn us about.

Be extra cautious when stepping up to any line ATL and assume all features and starting zones are wind loaded. Although the avalanche danger is slowly easing, riders still can trigger an avalanche on steep, previously wind-drifted slopes. Look for “firm, supportable snow that sounds “drummy” and hollow or where your barley making an impression in the snow surface means weaker and collapsible layers most likely lurk underneath.” And as always, heads up for sympathetic action; for examples, slides which break on a variety of weak layers in the upper snowpack which then “step down” into older, weak snow producing a much larger slide

And it wouldn’t be the San Juans without a PWL to worry about. We continue to weather a secondary, persistent slab problem on slopes East thru Southeast thru South. Southern aspects have produced the most avalanches in the last week and also harbor the most complex snow structure. On those slopes, a series of crust/facet combos as well as lingering depth hoar remain along with an overall shallower snowpack.

“On Tuesday, a rider in the North San Juan zone triggered an avalanche near treeline on a southeast-facing slope. The slide most likely failed on a faceted crust and is bulls-eye information that our Persistent Slab avalanche problem may be coming back into play in the near treeline band. Therefore, we expanded our PSa problem and added near treeline to the distribution. This problem could linger for some time.”

011520 Chris Bilbrey, CAIC forecaster for the SJs


In each release of the Stellar, we try to provide FOSJ members tips, tricks and techniques via the Fresh Thoughts section of this newsletter. Kudos to FOSJ member Ashley C for providing us with a great topic for consideration this week: “How do you create an Avalanche Danger Rating, select terrain and trip plan when you’re off-grid, living and skiing out of a backcountry hut without internet/front country resources?

Tis’ the season for hut trips and this query couldn’t have been posed at a better time. However, the skills and experience it takes to become your own backcountry forecaster requires years to cultivate and it’s an impossibility to try and summarize that pedigree here. But, there are some strategic actions and tools you can use when you drop off the radar and live for the week in a shack, off-piste.

First, just like when you’re in the frontcountry, you need to follow the story playing out in the mountains each and every day. With no access to remote telemetry sites, you must have fidelity to running morning and evening weather observations at your specific location. Tracking wind, temps, precip, solar, settlement, etc. allows us to draft our own narrative and document the trends we see playing out over time. Conducting in-field observations allows us the opportunity to gauge how rapidly the backcountry is changing. And as we’ve spoken about in past newsletter, nothing that happens quickly in the natural world is ever good.

So your groups’ eyes are open, your weather and terrain obs are happening. The team went into the backcountry with a current CAIC bulletin and danger rating but you remain unclear on whether the danger is improving, deteriorating or remaining unchanged. So you decide to employ two really effective tools: ALPTRUTH & UNCERTAINTY

ALPTRUTH- Use this acronym like a scorecard when you’re disconnected from other resources. If you record a “3” or higher, it’s time to adjust your danger rating. Remember, the answer to any stability or safety question is always going to be more moderate and more conservative terrain selection. When ALPTRUTH highlights conditions that are threatening, take note and adjust the group’s Uncertainity slider.


This second, analog tool comes from AIARE. It’s a great matrix in which to input current obs and integrate ALPTRUTH scores. Identify the group’s current level of confidence and position that status on the left side of the template. Depending on where you plug yourselves in, you may strategize to keep it simple, limit your exposure or step it out and go big!

When your away from the guidance of avy bulletins and the counsel of the internet, you must become your own backcountry forecaster. Combing your real time obs with decision making tools like ALPTRUTH and the UNCERTAINTY matrix are a sure way to make better decisions and choices….no batteries required.


And speaking of HUT TRIPS, were super stoked for the upcoming Mountain Mentor Course exclusively facilitated for FOSJ members. In addition to learning more about the tools and techniques mentioned above, you’ll learn new skills, refine current abilities and pick up pro hacks for planning and executing your own, off-the-grid adventure. Participants will develop individualized learning plans that will identify areas for their personal development and provide our faculty with a clear vision of what students’ goals and objectives are. We look forward to you joining us for this magical trip as we laugh and learn together. You’ll gain valuable experience and enjoy a yurt stay high atop Red Mountain Pass in private facilities.

Learn more about this upcoming course in the most recent Friends of San Juans Newsletter.

Mother nature is poised for a refresh and we’re eager to take it.

Wax side down, hairy side up and keep it stellar friends!


The Stellar is a collaboration between Silverton Avalanche School and the Friends of the San Juans. These periodic communications are designed to be an educational resource for FOSJ members and are not intended to supplant avalanche bulletins, danger ratings and one’s own personal responsibility for backcountry travel choices and decision making. Silverton Avalanche School encourages all of FOSJ’s members to join us for additional snow and safety trainings. Learn More at or Contact Us at

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