Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Backcountry Etiquette

By Zach Guy - CBAC Director

Backcountry recreation is a rapidly growing industry in the West, and equally rampant in our little valley. As the mountain regions around the U.S. becoming increasingly busy during the winter, there have also been an increase in close calls and conflicts between user groups pertaining to avalanche safety.

Several years ago, on an easily accessible peak near Teton Pass, a backcountry skier triggered a huge slab avalanche, upwards of 8 feet deep.  The slide ran thousands of feet, plowing along a drainage that is a popular access and egress point for relatively safe tree skiing.  Debris piles were monstrous, and the resulting public outcry was equally monstrous.  You can read more about the Taylor Mountain slide here. Similar issues have arisen in the Wasatch, some of the passes around Colorado, and more.  As the backcountry becomes more crowded, our need for responsible etiquette increases.  In most cases, it is to protect our fellow backcountry enthusiasts.  But in some cases, we are jeopardizing the safety of the general public who is unknowingly walking or driving their car beneath the avalanche path that you are skiing or riding.  

The slide on Taylor Mountain near Teton Pass. The skier was conducting an intentional ski cut, but the slide went much larger than expected.  Photo courtesy of TetonAT.com
Debris piles were 10-12 feet deep in the Coal Creek drainage, a launching and exit point for many backcountry skiers looking to get into relatively safe terrain.  Photo courtesy of TetonAT.com.

At the CBAC, we have been hearing feedback that our community needs a reminder about backcountry etiquette.  Even our small town has issues with over-crowding in the backcountry.  Observers have noted multiple instances where groups of skiers descended upon another group climbing the same avalanche path.  I've always been impressed with the attitude and etiquette of backcountry users in this community. We share observations of snowpack and avalanches, we look out for each other's interests while on slope, and we don't seem to hold the territorial or secretive attitudes that many ski towns around the U.S. have.  That's one reason why I've chosen to live here.  Lets not lose that consideration for our community in the backcountry as more people migrate to this great backcountry destination.

So what does backcountry etiquette mean?  Simply put, be aware of your actions and their consequences in the backcountry, because they don't solely affect you.  If you trigger an avalanche, will it affect someone down slope of you?  Communicate with people you encounter on your tours; discuss your routes and how you can avoid crossing above or below each other.  A few days ago, I found myself on top of the Anthracites on a powder day with over a dozen powder-starved locals eager to drop in.  All of the groups did a great job of communicating and divying up the terrain so that we didn't all get bunched up on one avalanche path.  If you see a group climbing up your intended descent route, wait for them or choose another route. Its simply not worth putting them in the line of fire.  Cornice drops and ski cuts can be a great slope test, but are you absolutely sure that no one will be affected below you? Think about the size and possible extent of an avalanche that you could trigger.  Under some conditions, a slide on Red Lady Bowl or above Peanut Lake Road or on Snodgrass could run across roadways of innocent commuters.  And just as importantly, if you get injured or killed in a slide, the impacts reach far beyond just you. You have family members, friends, and community members that will be deeply impacted.

This is a natural avalanche that crossed Peanut Lake Road and the nordic track 2 winters ago.

Winter is just underway here in the Crested Butte area as our shallow and weak snowpack is starting to get buried.  We will undoubtedly see dangerous avalanche conditions developing once we see some big storms.  Lets kick winter off right. Consider your safety and the safety of others by bringing an improved sense of backcountry etiquette to the Elk Mountains.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Absurduary: A look at our warm and dry start to 2015.

CBAC Forecaster Zach Guy.  
February 12, 2015

In the past few weeks, I’ve seen streams emerge from high elevation basins, sunny slopes melt back to complete dirt, and a migration of locals towards the desert for mountain biking or sun bathing.  I’ve only lived in Crested Butte for four years, but this pattern seems so absurd for a high Rockies mountain town at 9,000 feet in elevation, that I dug into some historical weather to see how unusual this weather has been.

Since the New Year, we’ve been plagued by both snowfall drought and unseasonably warm temperatures.  The temperatures have been the greatest anomaly this winter.  billy barr in nearby Gothic has an exceptional record of temperatures and snowfall dating back to 1974 (www.gothicwx.org).  As of Friday, February 12th, 17 out of our 43 days this year have seen record-breaking high temperatures.  There have only been two days in February that didn’t break a temperature record, and we are currently going on 8 days in a row of record high temps. I expect the next two days will break records too.  On February 6th, the temperature hit 52 degrees F, which was a full month earlier than we’ve ever seen temps reach into the 50’s.  I think my brother in Florida is having a colder winter right now.

Looking towards Red Lady Bowl and some dirt slopes down lower.  Last year on this date, I dug a pit on a similar slope as that dirt slope in the foreground and found a 2 meter deep snowpack.

Snowfall droughts this time of year aren't quite as unusual as the temperatures we've seen.  I looked at both Gothic snowfall and records from the town of Crested Butte, which date back to 1962.  (http://www.crestedbutte-co.gov)  In Crested Butte, where the average snowfall in January is 41.6”, we got 10.6” of snow last month.  There have only been four other January’s that saw less snowfall in the past 52 years.    February is off to a rough start as well, with only a few inches.  If it makes you feel any better, the winter of ’76-’77 only saw a total of 3” of snow from December through February in Crested Butte.  Too bad they didn't have fat bikes back then. Gothic has fared marginally better on snowfall.  They saw 27” in January, which is 41% of average and the 8th lowest January on record.  Gothic picked up 6” in February, which is on pace to come up at 21% of the 70” average for February. Thanks to a healthy November and December, Schofield Pass SNOTEL is sitting at 67% of mean (3rd lowest snowpack in its 30 year record), and the Mt. Crested Butte SNOTEL is at 80% of its mean.

As someone who loves the winter, I can’t help but feel gloomy over the past couple months.  However, models keep hinting at a pattern change coming later this month or in March, for the warm and dry high pressure ridge to shift west and put us back into the storm track.  We’ll see...  And also worth noting, the horrible snow year of ’76 to ’77, which was the lowest on record at 61” in Crested Butte, was followed the next winter by the highest snowfall on record, at 381”.  I’ll stick around next winter to see what happens!

Looking towards Mt. Crested Butte.  Looks more like late April than early February.