Justin & the lousy layer: 10-year-old gets avalanche lessons from the experts
Ryan Summerlin February 25, 2012
Justin Fay face-planted in a snowbank at the Mohawk and Crystal Lakes trailhead south of Breckenridge. He slipped while trying to figure out his alpine touring ski setup and fell, giggling, into the pile of snow. His vacation tutor, Carla Cammarata, walked back to the car with a smile, leaving Fay to learn the equipment after some instruction. Fay was getting ready for a one-on-one outing with Colorado Avalanche Information Center forecaster Scott Toepfer, in which they’d spend the morning hiking into the quiet backcountry and learning some snowpack science and the skills behind safe backcountry travel. Fay, his parents, and Cammarata were all along for the tour.Toepfer volunteered for the outing because he’ll do anything to get outdoors. But he’s also passionate about passing his knowledge on to children, like 10-year-old Fay. “I believe it’s really important when you live in mountain communities to teach kids about avalanches,” Toepfer said. “In the midwest, you’d teach them about tornadoes. In California, you’d teach them about earthquakes and tidal waves.” Although Fay isn’t a mountain kid. He comes to Breckenridge for six weeks each winter from Naperville, Ill., near Chicago. Because he’s still in school, his parents hire Cammarata, owner of Sage Tutoring, to be his teacher while he’s away. This year, Cammarata was tasked with doing a unit on weather. As she brainstormed how to make the lesson meaningful for Fay, she decided she wanted to explore, in a hands-on way, how weather can affect natural disaster. She tracked down some experts in the field and was surprised to find them more than willing to take some time to teach Fay one-on-one. In addition to Toepfer, who also took Fay to his Boulder National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association office, local backcountry guide and avalanche instructor David Dellamora studied weather and temperature transitions with Fay. “It was great to see how enthusiastic Scott and David were,” Cammarata said.
Fay took particular interest in getting out into the forest during winter. “It was a really good way to get out of reality (at Francie’s Cabin),” he said. “There’s no ski lifts, there’s no other people except the people in the cabin and the mountain.” Intrigued, he spoke of the only electricity being lights, powered by solar panels, and the only entertainment being your fellow companions, some games and a few decks of cards. “It was so peaceful out there,” Fay said. “I met some people up there and they were playing a really fun game.” Adding the avalanche component to the mix was also helpful, said Fay, who’s planning to take his new knowledge and continue to learn how to take advantage of the serenity he found “way on the left side of the Breckenridge ski map, off the map actually.” Toepfer pointed out avalanche paths as they climbed 3,000 feet in roughly 2 miles. Fay said he noticed that, generally, the top of the path was wider than the bottom, where it would narrow down as the speed slowed. “An avalanche can pull 343-year-old trees out of the ground,” Fay said, tapping into knowledge he gleaned from his day with Dellamora. He also spouted off some facts he learned from Toepfer, like the basic natural environment items needed to create an avalanche. The acronymn is SSLAB, he said. There’s slope – whether it’s a 30-degree angle or higher. There’s slab – whether there’s packed snow on top of a weaker layer. There’s the lousy layer – the faceted snow between layers. And there’s the base layer, which is often lousy in Colorado. Fay also learned some avalanche triggers, such as weather and wind, wildlife and human travel. With Dellamora, he studied how temperatures change drastically according to elevation. They measured the temperature at Keystone, at Arapahoe Basin and at the Loveland Pass summit. During their ascent, they chatted about what can happen in an avalanche: death from aspiration (breathing the same breath), tearing your ACL, hitting a tree, and more. They also chatted about how a cloud’s shape can indicate winds that may affect avalanche danger. “I didn’t expect to do all this stuff for the weather program,” Fay said. “I learned a lot about avalanches. It was really nice to learn instead of just condensation. I got to learn about something I liked, like snow.”
Toepfer said he picked up on Fay’s love of snow quickly. “It was a chance for me to work with a kid who’s really into the snow, seems pretty sharp and is interested in ski mountaineering,” he said. “It was a good opportunity to work with him to see what he liked and enjoyed and is intrigued by.” He said he can take some of those lessons back to the elementary and middle school classrooms in mountain communities across the state, where the Colorado Avalanche Information Center has a presence. For instance, the fifth and seventh grade classes in Summit School District give representatives of the agency a chance to talk about what makes an avalanche forecaster (education, writing skills and the desire to be outside). They bring in local ski patrol to talk about the difference between a ski area boundary and trail closure, and then tie in some pieces about the snowpack, weather and terrain – and how they can come together to create an avalanche situation. Toepfer said students are also exposed to rescue gear and how it can help in an avalanche situation. “We’re lucky this program in Summit County started so long ago,” he said, referring to the efforts of his former colleague, Nick Logan’s, to get it in place several decades ago.”I can’t think of much more important to teach kids in Summit County in our school system,” Toepfer said. “It’s even more relevant this year than in years past with the incidents.” He said it ties in because children hear avalanche bombs echoing off mountainsides throughout winter, but they often have no exposure to what’s actually happening out there. “It’s interesting to them because it’s a cool thing that happens in their backyard,” Toepfer said, adding that he’s keen to get some knowledge into kids’ minds because of peer pressure.