Route Finder: A skier’s sublime struggle with shoulder season, aka Rocky Mountain autumn
September 8, 2016
The nights are getting cooler and the first snows have fallen. There is a change in the air — the county smells differently than just a few weeks ago. We're still getting some warm days as of late, but with the arrival of the new season's gear guides the stoke level is ramping up. What will winter bring this year? Hopefully powder bliss is just around the corner.
Fall is hard for me to truly enjoy. It's the most aesthetic of our seasons: the flittering aspen's golden shimmer offers a stark contrast to the greens of Engelmanns and lodgepoles and the reds of alpine soil rich in iron oxide. But, coat the mountains with a frosting of early season snow and it's hard not to long for what's to come. Some say fall is the end of the cycle of life that summer sustains. I feel it's the beginning of what sustains me: a re-emergence of the snowy life. Hopefully it comes sooner than later.
Of winter to come
It's funny, though: With all the new season's ski movie trailers now out, I can't help thinking about the trouble some people might get into this winter. The stoke is running high, and I hope people remember that most of the images fueling that stoke were taken in places with better snowpack than ours. Most were taken in the spring, and teams of guides looked after the athletes. There might have been helicopters involved that could whisk injured athletes to the hospital minutes after their mistakes.
This is very different than the experience you will find in the Colorado backcountry, and making responsible choices in the hills is really your only option if you want to make it home. Rescue for your group will be a matter of hours, not minutes. Remember: life isn't a ski movie.
Of winters past
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I think back to last winter and eight days in January when all hell seemed to break loose in the mountains — too many people died throughout the West. I think back to friends who made some poor decisions in the hills, and then about the friends who are no longer with us who made poor decisions. They are remembered in this time of rebirth: If the mountains are my church, then it must also be a place of reverence and memorial. Autumn provides the pause for a moment of silence before the fun resumes.
Does August snow matter?
A few weeks ago, when the first snow arrived, I posted some photos on social media with a comment about my hope that it melt away as to not mess with our snowpack. The photos and comment generated some animated discussion about the relevance of snow in August.
This isn't the place for a technical discussion of how early snow affects the snowpack — an avalanche course is a great place to discuss such issues. (It's also a good investment in your winter knowledge.) However, at the root of the discussion was the underlying human factor. Presumptions based on season, month or location can all lead to poor results. When the stoke level is high, we might make choices that are goal based instead of evidence based.
I hope people dial it back a notch in the early season this time around. A progression-based approach to realizing your dreams of deep, endless powder is so much more effective — ramping it up to spring's big-mountain season delivers the results. Before then, a winter full of powder turns builds the strength needed to get it done.
Hopefully by the time big-mountain season is here and the Colorado mountains are ready to be ripped like a ski movie, your stoke level is still high and you're not just jonesing for summer. Until then, here's to the start of another ski season — it's so close you can almost taste it.
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