A website dedicated to the blissful pursuit of the backcountry experience, wherever mountains rise,

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Sad News from Telluride

It's been said before.  In every avalanche education class I've ever attended, the sober warning goes something like this: simply by virtue of attending this course, at some point in the future, someone you know, a friend, a colleague, a ski partner, will die in an avalanche.  Well, it's happened.  But I can't say it happened to me.  It happened to Nathanael Soules, a longtime Telluride local, husband, father, snowboarder, skateboarder, hockey player, real estate professional, TellSki manager, my friend and former co-worker.  Nate died Monday in an avalanche while snowboarding in the sidecountry terrain of Bear Creek, just outside the Telluride resort boundary.  He was 38.  He was in a natural slide path known as Contention, when a large slab fractured above him and carried him 900' to his death.  It is an area well known to me; it happens to be one of my favorite couloirs in North America, but it will never hold the same ephemeral meaning for me again.  A narrow, steep, and jagged slice of geologic heaven that once delivered regular doses of backcountry bliss will now be permanently scarred by the thought of today's tragic news.  I've ridden that couloir many times, always alone, too eager and too selfish to share its location with others, even my friends.  Apparently Nate had similar notions, as he too was riding alone, albeit on a day with significant avy danger.  I didn't know Nate very long or very well, but I knew him as a kind, intelligent, and thoughtful man, one whom I thought would make a good friend if I could ever make the move to Telluride permanent.  I will never know that possibility.  Once, after working an event together, I asked Nate to join me on a dangerous route I had planned for the afternoon outside of the resort.  He declined, saying "I don't ride big lines like that anymore," and explained that once you have a wife and kid, your risk tolerance changes.  At the time, I thought I understood, and I envied his self control.  I know now that family is not the only thing that can change your perspective.

Avalanche Kills Sidecountry Snowboarder in Contention

Snowboarder Dies in Telluride While Wearing ABS and Avalung


Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Best Ski Towns in the World

Check out this article written by my friend Aaron Teasdale for National Geographic Adventure magazine:


In my never-ending quest to find the perfect place to live, I decided to check out the happiest place in America, San Luis Obispo, CA.  With hiking and biking trails all over town, the beautiful Pacific Ocean just a few minutes away, an estuary and a deepwater harbor before that, and a quiet, quaint, and pedestrian friendly downtown, this place comes pretty close.  But unless you like cold water, and you are either independently wealthy (jobs are scarce and real estate is expensive), or a college student looking to have a good time, keep searching.  Trip tip: take a break from all the nearby outdoor activity at one of the coolest coffee shops in the country, Kreuzberg, on Higuera street.  NPR article/story on finding happiness

Friday, February 3, 2012

AMGA Ski Guide Course

In the Wasatch, near Salt Lake City and Logan, Utah

In the last week of January, 2012, I participated in the American Mountain Guide Association's Ski Guide Course as precedent to a Ski Mountaineering guide certification.  It is the first of a series of four grueling multi-day courses in which you are tested and scrutinized in the field and in the classroom by a team of supremely gifted and highly qualified instructors for ten hours a day with little thought given to a proper lunch or snack break.  In this case, I was tortured and tested for 12 days straight, mostly in the backcountry terrain of Big Cottonwood and Little Cottonwood canyons just outside Salt Lake City, Utah. Not only did I have to contend with a nagging knee injury and poor stamina throughout the course (and a lack of confidence in the midst of an accomplished group of skiers and climbers), but also the worst snowpack in Utah in recent memory.  On our second day, we were treated to a stability analysis by a local avalanche forecaster, Drew Hardesty, who works under Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, and one of the world's preeminent snow scientists.  Drew shared with us his intimate knowledge of the region's snowpack, which consisted of several dense layers of heavily loaded slabs, recently deposited by a powerful storm, sitting on a full 70cm layer of faceted snow (or "total shit" as he would put it), the worst he had ever seen.  Not the kind of information you want to hear at the outset of a program which would require us to spend the majority of our waking hours travelling over the surface of this very snowpack.  He accurately predicted a period of heavy avalanche activity and almost certain fatalities in the days ahead.  Indeed, several skiers and snowboarders were caught over the next few days, most narrowly escaping serious injury and death.  The one exception was a single snowboarder, caught and fatally wounded in a massive slide in a canyon adjacent to ours on the fourth day of class.

The imminent danger that was hanging over us magnified the importance of the skills being taught in our class, which focused primarily on leading and protecting clients in the backcountry, while practicing good decision-making and minimizing risk whenever possible.  We studied weather and terrain, snow stability and hazard evaluation, track setting and backcountry navigation, rapelling and belaying, raising and lowering, short roping and short pitching, rescue sled and emergency snow shelter construction. The group consisted of a variety of students, each with different backgrounds, strengths and weaknesses, which we would use to our collective advantage.  Several were expert skiers or heli guides; some were serious alpinists or rock climbers; others were guides or instructors themselves, and a few were, like myself, just hard-core recreationalists.  At least one (my housemate) had summited Everest.  Another skiied regularly with some of the most famous skiers in the world, and had played a part in one of my favorite ski documentaries.  Others were involved in projects that defied imagination, including one who was intent on climbing all 50 of North America's most dangerous routes, an elusive goal and one which has apparently never been completed (he is currently on climb #37). Yes, this was the company I was keeping, whom I would lead on tours and sleep on the floor of backcountry yurts with...intimidating to say the least.  Still, I perservered, and managed to complete the course to the satisfaction of my instructors, with only a few minor failings, which will have to be made up at some future date.  I don't know yet if I have it in me to be a mountaineering guide, or if there is even a job out there for me somewhere after my training.  But, at a minimum, if the wide range of backcountry skills I learned in the process helps to keep me alive in my future exploits, it was time (and money) well spent.