Apr 6 2014

Not every powder tale has a happy ending

photo (10)

Back in the mountains again

I haven’t written much, in fact nothing at all, about this season’s snowboarding. Part of this is due to a certain amount of repetition, I mean how many powder shots from Wolf Creek can one person post. On the other hand, on this year’s trip to BC, while we didn’t have any fresh powder tracks to capture there were so many spectacular scenery shots that I didn’t know where to start. The rest of the season found me mostly skiing alone and more concerned with getting first turns than capturing any of it for posterity. Last week, found me traveling to Alaska for our annual trip and with the cameras rolling I certainly got much more than I bargained for.

At the busy Valdez airport

At the busy Valdez airport

This year we decide to head to Valdez Alaska home of the legendary Chugach Range. My three previous trips had been to Haines, Alaska where we had had variable conditions but always a great time. Our group had been culled from people I had met on previous adventures and was the same one I had skied with earlier in the season in BC. David, an incredibly strong snowboarder and all around recreational athlete who I had met on my first heli trip 12 years ago, Kevin, who I met while skiing out of bounds at Keystone and subsequently discovered that we lived less than a half mile away from each other and had kids the same age, and Aaron who I met in Haines two years prior and whose love for the Chugach Range might be the greatest snow passion I have ever seen. All are experienced and strong skiers/boarders whose love of powder and adventure made for strong bonds and quick yeses when an opportunity to go heliskiing presented itself.

My partners in crime

My partners in crime

The first two days of the trip had been nothing to write home about. We thought our timing would be perfect – Valdez had received several feet of snow the preceding weeks and was now under the influence of a massive high pressure system (in other words, nothing but blue skies). However, there had been a big wind event at the end of the storm which had compressed the powder to varying degrees depending upon location. On day one we found some nice if not particularly deep snow but since we were the third group in the lineup we ended up skiing a lot of leftovers and working around the preferred fall lines. On day two we hit almost nothing but severely wind packed snow so got off the mountain as soon as we could to save our heli time.

More tracks than usual but still loads of fun

More tracks than usual but still loads of fun

This is not to say that we weren’t having a damn good time anyway. The operation we were skiing with Black Ops Valdez had it’s own lodge so instead of our usual Alaska routine of staying in dilapidated houses or funky trailers eating lots of PB&J sandwiches we were in a beautiful lodge overlooking Robe Lake and eating delicious multi course meals. The Black Ops crew is a relatively small but experienced group that offers a wide variety of snow activities and was gearing up for Tailgate Alaska, an annual huge celebration that happens at Thompson Pass every year.

The lovely Robe Lake Lodge

The lovely Robe Lake Lodge

The guide assigned to our heli group was particularly noteworthy – Adrian Ballinger – a world class mountain climber who has summited Everest 6 times and works in Valdez in his offseason. Dinner time involved many a fascinating story about adventures of all those around the table – this is traditionally one of the best aspects of one of these trips – swapping tales with kindred spirits around the table while enjoying local food and drink. So regardless of the snow conditions we were very much enjoying ourselves and our new surroundings.

Landing some intentional air

Landing some intentional air

On day three things started to come together as they only can in Alaska. There were only two groups in the field and we immediately found nice snow on steep pitches which is what Alaska is all about. We took turns barreling down untouched slopes and trading off the camera so we could all have pictures to remember it by. After about 6 runs the other group decided to call it a day so we added their guide to our group and headed off for some more runs.

Moments before it all went bad

Moments before it all went bad

We then landed on what appeared to be a typical ridgetop and watched the heli fly off. I was sitting by my gear contemplating my next step when everything changed in a second. I don’t remember hearing any sound but all of a sudden I felt myself falling through space surrounded by snow. The cornice on which we had been sitting had split in half and I was unfortunately on the half that was now careening down the mountain. My first thought was calmly, “this is how you die in Alaska – I am about to be buried in an avalanche.” I was now cartwheeling down the mountain, periodically bouncing off the snow all the while seeing nothing but snow – kind of like being in a washing machine. My mind then shifted into the instructions I had heard in so many avy briefings – swim as hard as you can to stay on top of the surface and try to create an air pocket in front of your mouth if you’re buried. I was just getting my hand in front of my mouth and was reaching upward with my other arm when suddenly we came to a stop.

View from above

At the end of our ride as seen from above

Remarkably we were all on top of the snow. Because the snow was not that deep the minor avalanches that the cornice triggered were relatively shallow. And because we had not been sitting on top of a couloir or any other kind of terrain trap, the debris had a chance to disperse laterally instead of piling on top of us. We had however, tumbled around 1000 feet powered by a chunk of cornice that they later estimated to being 8 feet deep by 20 feet wide.

The cornice that broke

The cornice that broke

When everything stopped moving I found myself laying face down on top of the snow. I still could not move which lead me to hope that my body was merely buried. However as soon as I tried to dig myself out I realized that there was something seriously wrong with my left leg and that not being able to move was a function of the bottom of my leg now being barely attached to the top. As subsequent doctor visits would confirm I had torn all four ligaments in my knee along with numerous other tendons and meniscus and dislocated my kneecap.

 At first this was not all that painful and what I heard next was the sound of our guide Adrian moaning. As he told me later, he is not much a moaner but had sustained a concussion and wasn’t entirely sure of what had happened and asked both Aaron who had fallen with us and the heli pilot to keep an eye on him. I had assumed we had all fallen but quickly discovered it was just the three of us and while Aaron and Adrian both had rib injuries, I was the only one who could not move under my own power. Adrian worked his way over to me and immediately saw from the position of my leg that at best I had a broken leg as my foot was facing in the wrong direction. Aaron soon followed and kept telling me to hang in there while the pain kicked in and I began to realize just how messed up my leg was.

Aaron talking me through it

Aaron talking me through it

Of course, my usual glass half full attitude immediately kicked into gear and rather than celebrate the fact that I was still alive and apparently not paralyzed, I was furious at the gods for tearing up my knee and sending me once again down that long road to recovery. From there it was one long, painful slog to the helicopter, to the base, to the bus, to the hospital where they got my pants off and I could see the misshapen balloon where my knee used to be. At that point my kneecap was still way off to the side so after a quick shot of morphine they moved it back to where it more rightly belonged and now had plenty of time to calmly consider what had just happened.

I guess I had always thought it was an all or nothing proposition. Either I’d be the statistically unlucky person who got caught in an avalanche and died in which case it would not be a problem for me – just my friends and family (admittedly a very selfish proposition) or I would be in the vast majority who heliski in Alaska and come home with great tales of big mountains and deep powder. I had done three heli trips to Alaska before and while had seen numerous slides and heard about plenty of accidents I was in the usual denial of a recreational heli skier – that the heli ops are always going to err on the side of caution as killing your customers is very bad for business. Perhaps I should have paid more attention to the fact that my guide from the first season I was in Alaska had subsequently died in an avalanche the next season but we had heard rumors that it was a guest’s fault for pushing limits so that wouldn’t happen to our well behaved group. Or perhaps I was thinking the odds were in our favor when we heard about the numerous accidents that had happened recently included a guide death in Haines – surely this would make everyone more cautious and the snow had had a lot more time to settle.

The slide path

The slide path

And yet our accident had nothing to do with avalanche conditions or pushing our luck on the steeps. After all a very heavy helicopter had just landed on the ridge which collapsed and you can see from the photos that we were not close to the edge. As a group we had been in many, many potentially more hazardous landings spots – this one did not set off any internal alarms for any of us and at the time we had a guide with us who had 20 plus years guiding in the area and was a local legend as well as our own guide who was used to taking people to the summit of the highest mountains in the world – this was no hot shot – johnny come lately crew.

The thing is that random unexpected stuff does happen in the mountains and if you happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time the consequences are likely to be very high. All of us that were involved in the accident were sure things were going to turn out much worse while it was happening. When I look at the pictures and show them to other folks almost everyone’s immediate response it that I’m lucky to be alive. And yes, it is very hard for me to reconcile the word “lucky” with the conversation I had with the first doc who saw my knee and said that the damage was “catastrophic”, as “bad as it could be” and that “my knee would haunt me for the rest of my life” – no sugar coating for him. I’m also a tad bitter that the fall was no fault of mine other than making the decision to go snowboard Alaska. But this is how it works in the big mountains – you don’t have to personally screw up in order to end up in serious trouble – I decided to spin the wheel of fate by being there in the first place.

The Heli to the rescue

The Heli to the rescue

The good news regarding my knee is that I did not sustain any arterial damage and that I live only two hours away from the Steadman Clinic in Vail, Colorado where one of the best knee doctors in the world resides. This is where I will be spending the next to last week of the ski season (while celebrating my 55th birthday) instead of on the nearby slopes I know so well. While I am certainly nervous about the operation, at least I’m confident that if anyone can fix me up, these guys can do it.

In a quieter moment

In a quieter moment

So what have I learned from this experience? That when I was falling there was no panic just a resignation that this was it? That a matter of inches can make all the difference in the world (David who was sitting right next to me on the snow ended up with one leg hanging over the new lip but did not fall)? That “lucky” is a very relative term? It’s certainly reinforced a belief that I’ve long had – that you never know what’s going to happen and your life can change in a second and there’s no going back once it does. But oddly enough it has been that thought which has driven me to go explore big hills and chase my dreams whenever I had the opportunity – it’s just that when I was considering the “you never knows” they were usually in the context of random disease or car accidents, not an avalanche or cornice failure.

So while it may be too early to say whether it was all worth it (though I don’t see how it couldn’t be given the amazing times I’ve had in the mountains) – it is most certainly too late to do anything about it other than buck up and make the best of it. And one thing that I’ve learned for sure is that a lot of people care about me which is one thing to know in the abstract and quite another to experience first hand. All my friends and family have been incredibly helpful and Benita (the daughter of a nurse) has been a godsend without whom I would have not gotten through the first week. I am not one who finds it easy to ask others for help – I’ve always prided myself on self sufficiency but this is not something I can get through alone nor would I want to even if I could. So thank you all for your support now and in the future and hopefully this will not be the last post from the gluten free snowboarder…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Mar 2 2010

The third time’s the charm – Berthoud Pass strikes again

Lifts? We don't need no stinking lifts...knee deep in the 80's at Berthoud Pass, Colorado

There were a lot of surprised front range skiers and snowboarders yesterday because despite all the weather reports calling for a few inches tops, Monday mornings ski totals included 11″ at Loveland and 16″ at Winter Park. According to the CAIC’s morning avalanche report, Berthoud Pass received 5″ in one hour Sunday night and 12″ in three – that’s some serious snow coming down which no one anticipated. I, unfortunately, did not discover this until it was too late to get to either resort but knowing there would be plenty left at Berthoud on Tuesday helped ease the pain.

First one to the road wins - looking down the 90's, Berthoud Pass

Because of all the new snow, the CAIC  issued a avalanche warning for Monday which means natural and human triggered slides slides are likely – not the kind of day I want to be out on the pass. By Tuesday, they had lowered it to considerable which in layman terms means you can go out there but be really, really careful. Thus on the ride up I was very surprised to see tracks way out in Floral Park which is not only steep and exposed but it also has heating/freezing issues as it is southern facing. We immediately decided to pass on that and later talked to a very shaken snowboarder in the parking lot who got caught in a slide out there and was lucky to escape with only some ripped pants and some very bad memories.

The crappy view on the way up to Hell's Half Acre, Berthoud Pass

We decide to opt for the Hanging Meadow in Hell’s Half Acre which is lower angled and treed thus making for a less risky proposition. The snow was beautiful – deep and relatively light, making for some fabulous riding. While there had been plenty of visitors before us, there were still huge swaths of untracked which we took immediate advantage of hooting and hollering down to the road. We got a ride as soon as we hit the road and got dropped off at the ditch trail so we could do some Current Creek runs.

Frank enjoying the fruits of his labor on Vigilante, Berthoud Pass

The nice thing about the ditch trail is that after the tough hike up to Hell’s, the walk out to the Current Creek runs is quite leisurely and the rewards still plentiful. We started with a 90’s, which is pretty much a straight shot to the road with the top full of sweet deep untracked and the bottom still super soft if no longer pristine. It was so good that we immediately did another but this time moved over to the 80’s which had yet to be explored. I started getting flashbacks to the days when Berthoud had lifts and this was one of my favorite late day runs. There are some large rocks that sit atop the run (see first photo in this post) and although I passed for the most part today because of some avy concerns, I could see that the snow cover was getting to the point where some big fun could be had soon.

Not bad for 2:30 in the afternoon - Vigilante, Berthoud Pass

After a quick snack in the parking lot, it was back to the Hanging Meadow followed by another Current Creek. Both were fabulous and could have easily provided several more powder laden runs had we the time. As it was we felt blessed to have been out there at all – did I mention it was a warm, windless, bluebird day and even though the parking lot was full in the morning, by mid afternoon it was back to just a few happy campers. This was my third trip to Berthoud in the last month and each one has been better than the last so while I don’t see how it could get any better, I’m looking forward to trying to prove myself wrong…


Jan 30 2010

Berthoud Pass = Backcountry Fun

Looking for love at 11,300'

Berthoud Pass has long been a favorite of front range backcountry skiers and for good reason. Steep, deep, easily accessible terrain with the added bonus of extra vertical if you don’t mind hitchhiking back up the pass. Site of the first ski area in Colorado (1937), the pass has a long and storied history of providing fabulous turns to its’ followers. You can count me as one of them as when the area reopened in the late 90’s after being closed for 6 years I spent many a powder filled day exploring the four quadrants of Berthoud Pass that have been created by the intersection of Highway 40 and the Continental Divide. After the latest in a series of financial problems closed the ski area for good in 2002 (the lifts stopped running at the end of the 2000-2001 season – there was cat skiing for a season or two) – Forest Service requirements forced the removal of the lifts in 2003. This was both a good and bad thing – it was one hell of a ski area, but the fantastic skiing didn’t go away, it just now requires more effort to experience it. (For more info on it’s fascinating and troubled history check out this article on Berthoud Pass skiing in Cyberwest magazine).

Doesn't this look inviting - Floral Park trees

Skiing Berthoud Pass is what motivated me to get my backcountry act together. While every cat and heli trip I’d done required avalanche rescue and beacon training, and in the course of producing two videos for the CAIC on those same subjects I’d picked up a few pointers, it wasn’t until I started skiing Berthoud regularly that I got my own beacon, shovel and probe. I also started paying more attention to the avalanche reports produced by the CAIC on a daily basis. Skiing the backcountry is a ton of fun but there’s no one bombing those slopes to keep them slide free and if you screw up, you’re pretty much on your own.

Frank contemplating some Floral Park freshies

On Friday’s visit, we decided to start with the Southeast quadrant better known as Floral Park. (For some good maps of the area check out this pdf of the avalanche paths of Berthoud Pass and these old Berthoud Ski Area maps). Floral Park has in my estimation the best tree skiing on Berthoud Pass but because it is south facing it gets baked by the sun so is best visited as early as possible. We hiked out as far as we could  without post holing and then started down (the farther you go the steeper it gets and of course the less tracks there are). The snow was pure sugar and as such had no base which made for some tricky skiing. However once we got a little lower and into the trees we found some beautiful stretches and ripped it up down to the road.

Notice the long and winding road - looking west from atop Hell's Half Acre

Now one of the fun and sometimes challenging aspects of skiing Berthoud is the hitchhiking required if you don’t run your own car shuttle. I have generally found it fairly easy to get a ride (and surprisingly even easier when I had my golden retriever with me although on this trip due to age issues he was consigned to guarding the car) but after the fourth empty pickup truck has passed you by you can start to take it a little personally. The people who do pick you up tend to be ski enthusiasts or those curious as to what exactly you’re doing standing by the side of the highway with your snowboard and dog. Either way, it’s a great way to make new friends and scout the terrain you want to do next.

Hell's Half Acre as seen from the pickup spot

The next stop on our tour was my personal Berthoud favorite, Hell’s Half Acre in the northeast quadrant. This area is a great combination of  avalanche chutes, steep glades and sweet trees not to mention the incredibly scenic hike involved in getting there. I find these to be the most consistently powder filled runs and because it requires quite a bit of work to get there, rarely tracked out. We headed out to my favorite chute, got some great turns above it, but played it conservatively at the bottom as the snow pack was definitely touchy and the reason you often see a beautiful untracked chute is because it’s an avalanche waiting to happen. Still a great run and well worth the effort as always.

Ye Olde Ditch Trail

If the Gods are with you and things are going smoothly on the tour you can often luck out and convince your ride to drop you off across from a ditch trail on the way back up the road. We’re now talking about the northwest quadrant which has the most skiable terrain and widest variety of options. To access all that, you need to hike up to where the old lift terminated, but you can save a lot of legs by limiting your options and giving up some vertical and taking a shortcut to the runs known as the 90’s and Rock Garden. This is the route we choose to take and because it is easier to get to found the most tracks we had seen all day. I was however, able to wander into some nearby trees lower down and was rewarded with a very nice untracked run to the bottom which I had to pay for with some post holing back to the highway but definitely a worthwhile trade off.

Sure is pretty up here - iew form above of Hell's Half Acre - Berthoud Pass

Sure is pretty up here - looking SW from the top of Hell's Half Acre - Berthoud Pass

After that run we decided to call it a day as we had responsibilities awaiting us back in the real world. Now for a lot of folks that would sound like a lot of time and effort for only three runs but for those of us who do this regularly, we know that one of the best parts is often the getting there. I don’t know if it’s the oxygen deprivation from the altitude, the endorphins buzz from the hiking or the great tunes playing in my ears (today Truckin’ from Europe 72) but I rarely feel as simply joyous as I do when climbing up those hills. I’m not a big John Denver fan, but when I stand on top of Berthoud Pass after a hike, I’ve certainly got that Rocky Mountain High…


Nov 9 2009

Backcountry Blues

Early season avalanche near Copper Mountain

Early season avalanche near Copper Mountain

Unfortunately, it’s never too early to get caught in a avalanche. A couple of ambitious teens hiked to 13,000′ on Bartlett Peak near Copper Mountain to get some early season turns and set off a major slide. One kid suffered a broken leg but it could have been much worse. For the full Channel 4 story and video go here. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center says there were 8 incidents reported to them in October with 10 people being caught. Be careful out there…