At Frisco talk, Colorado Mountain School expert recounts remotely triggering an avalanche on Mt. Arkansas
At Colorado Mountain School’s Avalanche Awareness Clinic at Epic Mountain Gear in Frisco last week, Jason Maurer’s main goal was for the more than 100 people in attendance to leave with more of an ability to, essentially, put avalanche goggles on.
“To have a view of the terrain when we look at a mountain landscape,” Maurer said.
Maurer, a full-time ski, rock and alpine guide at Colorado Mountain School in Boulder, brought 15 years of backcountry avalanche assessment experience with him to the presentation. Trained by the American Mountain Guides Association to “manage” avalanches, Maurer relayed how currently throughout Colorado persistent slab avalanches are particularly troublesome for backcountry skiers and recreators.
A persistent slab avalanche typically occurs when the bond between a weak underlying layer breaks with a slab in the middle to upper snowpack.
“That’s what we’ve got going on right now,” Maurer said. “We’ve got really shallow snowpack. Got a storm or two in October, it got really warm, all of that snow rotted out … and then we get this huge storm recently that dropped up to two feet — that’s too much weight for these, like, shallow airy, sugary snow grains to exist. And we start hearing ‘woomph’ — collapsing underneath us, shooting cracks. That’s a sign.”
As part of his presentation — during which he described such avalanche variables as trigger points, terrain traps and wind-loading — Maurer recounted a backcountry experience from a few days prior. It occurred in early November, when he used his years of expertise and training to remotely trigger an avalanche on a northwest-facing slope at about 12,500 feet off of the 13,795-foot Mount Arkansas near Fremont Pass.
For those in attendance, Maurer’s recent backcountry avalanche experience put into the proper context the very real danger that currently exists in the Colorado backcountry with all of this early season snowfall and variable weather. Maurer used his Mount Arkansas story as a way to get across to those in attendance that their backcountry recreating right now should be based around easing into the season and conditions, airing on the side of caution and safety always.
“It’s just part of the game out here in Colorado,” Maurer said. “I’m going to be serious with ya, you gotta be easing into terrain right now. We were easing into this slope familiar to us, we ski there a lot.”
Maurer described the day as one where he and another very experienced backcountry skier carefully tested out familiar territory before they noticed red flags for potential avalanche danger such as variable depth in snowpack and shooting cracks through the snow.
“The snow is actually really sketchy right now because it’s shallow,” Maurer said. “Anywhere from, I measured 60 centimeters up on Arkansas in some zones and then … my whole 270-centimeter probe went into the snow on the leeward side of a ridge — didn’t even hit the ground.”
As a former member of the U.S. Marine Corps., Maurer described avalanche trigger points as “buried landmines in the terrain.” He noted such natural features as solo or sparsely-located trees and shallow buried rocks as potential trigger points, especially this early in the season.
“All it takes is for you to ski over this right sweet spot and that’s where you are going to initiate this avalanche,” Maurer said. “Right where it’s weakest, right now where it’s tapered off and more shallow.”
Maurer described the day on Arkansas as one where he and his friend initially considered skiing the terrain he eventually deemed too dangerous.
“Did we have plans to possible ski this?” Maurer said. “Yes, until we got a view of it from above, looking down. … That was heavily wind-loaded. I had a bad feeling about it. I had seen stuff like that before. You got to reel your friends in sometimes. My friend is very experienced as well. In a group of two, it’s kind of harder to succumb to that peer pressure.”
“You gotta be aware of that,” Maurer continued, “the human factors to avalanche accidents, there is a human factor involved in every one of them.”
After he and his partner deemed the area as having particularly weird striations in its snowpack, suggesting wind-loading likely occurred over steep, convex terrain, Maurer then explored more shallow, less dangerous terrain nearby, well under the 37-39 degree slope-angle prime for avalanches. He was explicit in telling the crowd that he was only able to do this due to his experience. That said, he was successful in triggering a shooting crack that remotely-triggered an avalanche. As a result, it verified Maurer’s hypothesis that the snowpack was unsafe to ski.
“So I started way above,” Maurer said, “and ski-cut well above the (avalanche) start zone, because I knew the avalanche problem we had was persistent and sketchy. So I knew the slope I was on was under 25-degrees. After my ski cut, nothing went, so I jumped around in the snowpack and had a shooting crack. That shooting crack moved and propagated. It was pretty amazing, it was slow motion, and that moved right left of me, went right across. There was a big piece of snow that didn’t go anywhere, until it pushed this snow into that snow and then it all kind of coagulated together and released. And it broke to the ground. That’s from years of ski cutting slopes and years of avalanches I’ve been involved with, or seen, or triggered myself.
“But if I was less experienced or hadn’t seen this stuff in the past,” Maurer added, “and skied this, it would not have turned out well.”
Maurer continued to say how important he feels it is here in places like Summit County to have community members routinely report avalanches they’ve triggered either purposely or on accident.
“I feel this year more than any other,” he said, “there’s been a lot of good sharing of people triggering avalanches and putting it on the (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) website. It happens out there. And, personally, I don’t ski early season. October scares me. And this is my first weekend I skied. I’m still in climbing mode. And never in my years have I triggered an avalanche on day two in the backcountry. So, did I feel a little shame? Maybe. But, it’s kind of like, I wasn’t going to ski it. I wanted to see what the slope was going to do.
“Personally,” Maurer added, “I thought our terrain choice was off. We shouldn’t have been skiing that, and we didn’t ski it.”
Colorado Mountain School encourages readers to understand that a clinic like Maurer’s at Epic Mountain Gear is no substitute for formal avalanche training. As such, they recommend every winter backcountry traveler take at least an AIARE Level 1 course. For more information, you can go to Colorado Mountain School’s avalanche training site, or you can find out about future courses being offered by going to the AIARE course finder page.
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