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February 2014

Avalanche!

The Adirondacks has had its share of dangerous snow slides—just last year a Quebec woman was buried up to her neck on Mount Colden. What you should know before hitting the backcountry slopes

Angel Slides photograph by Drew Haas

Bob Olsen, an outdoorsman with a lean frame and forthright manner, has skied the backcountry of the Northeast on and off for 40 years. But at 63, he wants to step things up a bit. From his home in Charlotte, Vermont, he can look out across Lake Champlain and see one of a dozen new Adirondack slides that were created by Tropical Storm Irene. “It’s gleaming in the sun right now,” he said of the new terrain on Dix Mountain he is eager to take on. “In the Adirondacks, the runs are larger and the slides are bigger. You don’t deal with crowds and you get first tracks. Powder is just special.”

Of course, the very elements that make wilderness skiing special also make it risky. So on a still, cold day in early March, Olsen was tucked into a folding chair during the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival, learning about the so-called Avalanche Triangle. Chuck Boyd, a climbing guide, ski patroller and avalanche educator, was giving an introductory class on avalanche awareness at the Mountaineer, a retail mecca for outdoor equipment in Keene Valley. Olsen and the other students—expert skiers all—listened as Boyd explained that, in an avalanche, the terrain is the “foundation,” the weather the “architect” and the snowpack the “blueprint.” There were other technical terms: crown face and flanks, slab configuration and convex rollovers, bonding ability and graupel.

But the message was starkly simple. “The minute you duck under the rope,” said Boyd, referring to the boundary that separates official ski areas from the backcountry, “it’s a whole different ball game. You need the tools and you need the skills. Basically, you have 15 minutes.” That’s the avalanche grace period, in which more than 90 percent of victims are still alive, assuming they have not succumbed to blunt trauma. After that, things quickly deteriorate as the snow turns to ice, enveloping victims in a sort of frozen cocoon that makes both breathing and rescue more elusive.

By many accounts, backcountry skiing in the Adirondacks has never been more popular. Local lore dates the quest for untrammeled terrain to the late 1800s, with the arrival of John Booth. He traveled from Ottawa to visit his daughter in Sar­anac Lake and remembered to pack his skis. For several decades the call of the backcountry gathered steam, as new trails were cut in the High Peaks region. Then Whiteface Mountain, with its convenient ski lifts, opened in 1958, dampening some of the enthusiasm for wilderness skiing, at least until a group of fearless skiers made it sexy again in the 1970s, with their aptly named club—“Ski to Die” (see February 2008).

In the past decade or so, the thrill of extreme sports of all kinds and the search for a more authentic wilderness experience have again nudged people onto snow-covered slides and glades. And advances in equipment, especially improvements in skis, boots and bindings, have made forays into the backcountry more manageable. “That’s one of the reasons why backcountry skiing, not just in the Adirondacks, but in general, has taken off,” said Drew Haas, the Mountaineer’s head ski technician and author of Adirondack Slide Guide: An Aerial View of the High Peaks Region.

Adirondack peaks are certainly not as prone to avalanches as the wide-open expanses of the West. “The trees help hold things together,” Boyd said. But avalanches do happen here, and weather conditions can make them especially hazardous. It is not uncommon, for example, for there to be a prolonged period of dry, cold weather, in which the snowpack’s surface glazes over. Then comes a huge snowfall. “If you put a lot of snow on an icy surface, it’s not going to bond very well,” he said. Add to that the fact that many of the most popular slides, including Angel Slides on Wright Peak, are at optimal avalanche angles—right around 38 degrees. “That’s the magic number,” Boyd said. “If you shovel a pile of dirt into a mound, that pile will only go so high before it starts sliding down. If you put an inclinometer”—a tool to measure slope angles—“on that pile, the number is between 34 and 38 degrees.”

In a 2011 study of Adirondack avalanches, snow-science enthusiast Richard E. Tucker identified two dozen, dating to 1929 when Lake Placid Club skiers witnessed an avalanche on Mount Colden. There were many more, of course, that went unrecorded. Only one known avalanche resulted in death. On February 19, 2000, Toma Vracarich, 27, was killed when a shelf of snow, 100 yards wide, broke loose and tore down Angel Slides, on the northeast slope of Wright Peak. The slides were only a few months old and, like most, were the result of a storm event, in their case Tropical Storm Floyd. Vracarich was skiing with several others, including a member of the “Ski to Die” club, Ron Konowitz, and his then-wife, Lauren. Ron Konowitz was spared, but Lauren suffered multiple fractures, internal injuries and hypothermia.

The tragedy was a wake-up call to the growing community of Adirondack backcountry skiers. Since then, interest in avalanche education has spread, along with the use of critical pieces of safety equipment, namely beacons, probes and shovels. There are also special kits that allow skiers to examine the snow for avalanche potential.

If that sounds overwhelming, wannabe backcountry skiers can leave the worrying to the professionals. At Whiteface Mountain, there is a 35-acre area called the Slides that offers a swath of (relatively) anxiety-free backcountry skiing. Originally, there were five slides, but a storm that blew through right before Tropical Storm Irene pushed the total to seven. “It gives you a taste of what slide skiing is like, with lift service,” said Mike LeBlanc, the operations manager at Whiteface who is responsible for monitoring the Slides. “The terrain is completely natural. We don’t cut trails. It’s exactly what you’d find in the backcountry of the Adirondacks.”

The one downside: it’s not open very often. Some years, LeBlanc waits until late February or even March, when the snowpack is sufficient, to give the green light to the Slides. At the same time, the bar for safety is reassuringly high. Ski patrollers dig test pits at least once a week at different elevations to examine the density of the snow and to study how the layers bond together. The patrollers also measure the temperature of the snow every 10 centimeters to detect a “drastic difference” in degrees, which can be a red flag. And they isolate a column of snow for a “compression test,” tapping with a shovel to see how much force is required for a layer to fail. “It’s a piece of the puzzle,” said LeBlanc of the compression test. “You can’t project that over the entire slope, but it’s useful information.”

Depending on conditions, Whiteface might open the Slides only to those skiers with beacons, probes, shovels and partners. “The snow may not be 100 percent stable, but we feel it’s stable enough for people who have some education and proper equipment,” he explained.

In the Adirondacks, Haas estimates that between half and three-quarters of backcountry skiers who venture into avalanche territory carry such equipment. Most important are digital beacons, which transmit and receive signals. (“The beacons went from analog to digital so they are a lot more user-friendly,” he said, adding that sales have mushroomed in the past five years.) In the event of an avalanche, the skiers-turned-rescuers switch their beacons over to receive signals, allowing them to quickly home in on buried victims. Collapsible probes are used to prod in the vicinity of the strongest signals to locate submerged victims. The shovel, also collapsible, is indispensable for digging them out, especially since the snow in an avalanche rapidly turns dense and heavy.

Another item that can save lives is an avalanche airbag, which inflates with the pull of a cord. The Mountaineer has special-ordered a few airbags for customers heading out West. Ranging from $700 to $1,000, an airbag costs more than the other three pieces of equipment combined. In a 2012 avalanche that killed three people skiing out of bounds at Stevens Pass in Washington State, one woman survived because she was wearing such an airbag, nicknamed the “Hand of God.” The airbags are not popular in the Adirondacks, however, and not only because of the expense and added weight (about eight pounds). “If you get caught in a slide, you are worried about burial, for sure, but I’d be as much concerned about what you will be dragged over and into—the trauma,” Haas said. “The best way to survive an avalanche is to not get into an avalanche. The airbag, and even the beacon, can lead to complacency.”

Tropical Storm Irene carved out at least 10 new slides, almost all in the High Peaks, and expanded or altered 15 to 20 existing slides. In the latest edition of his book, Haas includes photographs of 91 slides, up from 72 in the first edition, published in 2006. The new and reconfigured slides, with names like Couloir and Back in the Saddle, have been written up in ski magazines, attracting the attention of skiers throughout the Northeast and beyond. (Last February, a Montreal couple was climbing the Trap Dike at Mount Colden when they were caught in a small avalanche; the woman was buried up to her neck, but es­caped injury.) The slides have also piqued the interest of longtime Adirondack skiers like D. J. O’Neil, of Lake Placid. “Untracked powder is just phenomenal,” he said during a break in the daylong avalanche-awareness class last winter. “It’s a rush.”

Boyd agrees that avoidance is the best strategy. He drills his students on the many variables that can create a ripe avalanche environment: more than an inch of snowfall per hour, wind speeds in excess of 15 miles an hour, snow that runs through your fingers like sugar, east-facing slopes, risky inclines. He also urges skiers to avoid the temptation of a virgin bowl of snow at their skis. “If the recipe is correct,” he said, “it can happen anywhere. You’ve got to be flexible. Always be ready to change your plans. It doesn’t mean you can’t go skiing.”

In his Level 1 avalanche class, he covers various tests backcountry skiers can perform to determine the stability of the snowpack. In a version of the tests conducted at Whiteface, Boyd instructs students on digging a snow pit about five feet deep, ideally in an area free of trees, rocks or previous compaction. “You want to look for that weak layer,” he said. There are several ways to investigate a snow pit, some more complicated than others. In addition to the compression test, skiers can perform the shovel shear test, stuffblock test and Rutschblock test; all are covered in detail in advanced ava­lanche classes.

Some may find such technical skills cumbersome and complicated. But they fascinate Olsen, of Vermont, who hews to a do-it-yourself approach to backcountry skiing. It is a mind-set in which becoming well-versed in avalanche signs—from slope aspects to wind speeds to temperature trends—can be as rewarding, in its way, as whooshing down a shimmering white slide. “It’s what they call a ‘mountain sense,’” he said. “I have that at a certain level, but some of it is rusty because I haven’t spent much time in avalanche terrain. As I dip my toe into that, I want to have some tools to guide me.”

This year’s Adirondack International Mountaineering Festival happened January 18–20; the Adirondack Backcountry Ski Festival is March 1–2. Both events, sponsored by the Mountaineer, in Keene Valley, offer avalanche-awareness classes. Learn more at (518) 576-2281 or www.mountaineer.com.

Warning signs that a slope is vulnerable to an avalanche or that an avalanche is underway:
1. Snow falling at a rate of an inch or more per hour, which gives the snowpack less time to adjust.

2. Wind speeds of 15 miles per hour or more, which transport snow.

3. Slope angle between 35 and 45 degrees, with 38 degrees being the “magic number,” according to avalanche educator Chuck Boyd.

4. Dry, loose snow beneath a cohesive layer of snow.

5. Sudden change in temperature, such as cold weather turning warmer.

6. Signs of previous avalanche activity, such as trees without branches at the base of a slope.

7. Shooting cracks in front of your skis.

8. Hollow or whumping sounds.

Must-have equipment for skiers in avalanche-prone terrain:
A digital beacon, also called a transceiver, is set to send signals while skiing. In the case of an avalanche, the rescuers switch their beacons to receive the signal of someone buried under the
snow. Beacons, which have become lighter and more user-friendly in recent years, range in price from $200 to $450.

An inclinometer measures the slope angle.

A probe is a collapsible pole, which allows rescuers to locate a skier hidden beneath the snow.

A shovel, also collapsible, is essential for digging a victim out. Rescuers often take turns since the snow in an avalanche can become hardened into dense, heavy chunks.

Other useful equipment:
An airbag, which inflates with the pull of a cord, keeps victims close to the surface during an avalanche.
The AvaLung, by Black Diamond, is a mouthpiece that filters the CO² from one’s breath, allowing victims to survive longer under the snow.

A snow-study kit includes a snow saw, slope meter, thermometer and other tools.

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