Schussing off to Buffalo Cabin
June 5, 2003
At the intersection in Silverthorne between Wendy’s and 7-Eleven, go west, continuing on Ryan Gulch Road for about four miles. On the right, just before the road loops around, is the trailhead to Willow Creek, Buffalo Cabin and other points. This same complex of trails can also be reached form the top of the Mesa Cortina subdivision, which is adjacent to and north of Wildernest. They are connected at Twenty Grand Road. On the trail (No. 31), it’s not quite one-half mile to the intersection of trails. It’s another half mile on the left fork to Buffalo Cabin, or another half mile straight ahead to the brink of Willow Creek Valley.
Elevation gain: Insignificant – a few hundred feet. Distance: 3 miles, tops. Avalanche danger: None, although there is if proceeding above Buffalo Cabin or down into Willow Creek. Difficulty: 2 on a scale of 10. This isn’t much harder than the bike path. Editor’s note: This is one in a continuing series of articles about local trails in winter.
SUMMIT COUNTY – Our trip to Buffalo Cabin had been pleasant, even delightful. It’s a destination within reach of any snowshoer and most skiers. The trail is short and moderate, with just a hint of surprise. The trail starts atop Ryan Gulch Road, in the Wildernest project west of Silverthorne. Sheltered from the sun by a forest of lodgepole pine, the snow there remains soft even into March. Uphill, it’s steep enough to extract sweat, but not too steep. Descending the trail, it’s mild enough that my companion, a relatively inexperienced skier, found the descent more fun than fearful.
Back at the crossroads in the trails, we had decided to explore the trail going to Willow Creek, which in summer often is used by hikers going to Red Buffalo Pass.
Along the way I thought about snow and avalanches. Winter that year started early, and by Thanksgiving it was already high along the shoulders of roads. In the backcountry, the snowpack was stable. Steady storms, every three or four days, create snow stability. In Colorado, our storms are so steady. When the storms stop, something important to backcountry travelers occurs. Below the snow, the ground remains just a hair above freezing. Above the snow, temperatures nightly plunge to zero.The difference is like that between the salad compartment of your refrigerator and the freezer. But the segregation of temperatures isn’t so tidy. This is a Cold War, but instead of East vs. West or capitalism vs. communism, here the struggle is about temperature. As heat from the ground works out, molecule by molecule, the frigid air works in, molecule by molecule. Spy vs. Spy, Cold War-style. Neither side wins in the short term. The star-shaped flakes that give fresh snow its loft are shorn of sharp edges. Snow also falls in the shape of cylinders. These cylinders are similarly transformed. As the heat flows from the earth, and the cold penetrates from the sky, we end up with compromise – little balls of ice. Marbles, really. Can you imagine trying to walk on marbles?
There is no stability. They roll downhill easily. Instead of marbles, think of snow. Sugar snow has no cohesion. It therefore cannot provide a foundation. That has been the case most of this winter. Leave a trail, and you’ll sink to your knees. Similarly, on steep slopes, the snow layers have no cohesion. Put weight on it – a skier, a snowmobile, or fresh snow – and the tension can break. Because of that fact, the No. 1 rule of avalanche safety (in my book) is that the highest level of danger exists in a snowpack in the first 24 hours after a storm.
Rule No. 2: Most people who die in avalanches do so in areas or times of “moderate” risk.
Rule No. 3: You don’t need huge hillsides of snow to get you. Little ones will do the trick just as easily. Skiing from the Buffalo Cabin turnoff, the trip had been easy. Now, looking into the shadows of the mountain’s north slope, I wondered whether even I wanted to continue. Ahead, there were more tracks. I thought back to the common rule of thumb when scoping out restaurants in a new town. “Their parking lot is full, so it must be a pretty good place,” we tell one another. That logic has caused occasional need for Rolaids, but mostly it works. I’m less sure it works for evaluating avalanche terrain. The annals of avalanche lore are rife with stories of all hell breaking lose when the second or third or fourth skier began crossing.
The annals of avalanches also tell us that avalanche deaths often have occurred under just a few inches of snow. It’s the same thing. We continued the check list. We were still among trees. That reduces the risk, but does not eliminate it. A better guide is the gradient of the slope. Few avalanches occur in the Rocky Mountains on slopes of less than 25 degrees. The danger escalates on slopes more than 30 degrees. Even then, the danger moderates during spring consolidation.
Ahead of us, the trail went through an area where an avalanche had stripped the trees some years before.This particular time, I turned back. My companion had no stomach for this much adventure, and I didn’t see enough skiing to press the point. Turning around, we were back at the trailhead within an hour. All told, leaving at noon, we had skied to Buffalo Cabin and then to the start of the Willow Creek Valley, and we still had hours of sunlight. This is skiing as easy as it gets, and despite my ruminations about avalanches, also as safe as it gets. Go no farther than I went and you’d be lucky to coax a a snowslide off the side of a rock