Plunging into what makes avalanches tick |

Plunging into what makes avalanches tick

J.K. Perry
J.K. Perry/Vail DailyDavid Young, left, and Mark Burggraff prepare a column of snow to be tested for stability last weekend near Peter Estin Hut above Eagle.

EAGLE COUNTY – The morning dawned blustery and cold at 5 degrees , conditions too extreme to venture very far from the backcountry hut for avalanche training.”It would have been a little spooky with the shallow snow and it would have been cold,” guide Scott Messina said.Instead of venturing outside, the group of 13 huddled in the warmth of the hut over oatmeal and other breakfast foods as Messina and fellow-guide Ron Rash lectured on avalanches and how to avoid them. “When we see a slope, we want to ask is it capable of producing an avalanche,” Messina said.To determine a slope’s avalanche capability, many factors – within three broad categories of weather, terrain and snowpack – must be considered.Most important is slope angle. Avalanches usually occur on slopes between 30 and 45 degrees. Within this bracket, slopes around 38 degrees produce the most slides.In Colorado, cohesive slabs of snow are often the culprit for avalanches. A slab on top of a weak layer of snow can slide when triggered by a human or other force.

Snowpack stabilityAfter the lecture, the group suited up to witness first hand the snowpack around the hut. A “whumpf,” or collapse of a weak layer of snow, greeted us not far from the hut. The collapse, below our feet, scared some in the group. Messina said the slope was not steep enough to produce and avalanche.We trekked to a slope measuring about 33 degrees to dig some pits in the snow and examine the snowpack. We dug a sheer vertical wall in the slope and then carved a 1-foot-square column about a meter high into the wall.To test the snow’s stability, we placed the head of a shovel atop the column and tapped the shovel 10 times with our hands, then 10 raps from the forearm and finally 10 more from the shoulder.The lower the number of taps the column takes to collapse, the weaker the snowpack and the more likely the slope is to slide.The columns we dug collapsed cleanly on a plane parallel to the slope after about 33 hits on the shovel – that’s strong enough to ski.We also performed another test in which we carved a column the length of a ski, and a meter wide and a meter deep into the snow. A skier then moves onto the column. First he collapses his knees to test the column’s strength, then jumps and next jumps higher until the column collapses.Again, the number of maneuvers by the skier on the column determine the snow’s stability.Later, we performed a short search for buried avalanche beacons. The beacons are worn like “seatbelts” in case a person is buried by a slide.

My friends were buriedAnother lecture, this time on search and rescue, was in store for us the next morning.Then the 13 of us milled about on the deck of the hut, waiting as Messina and Rash buried beacons in the snow that we would have to locate and dig out. The group was split into two teams that would search separately.We planned our strategy in the hut as the first team performed the search and then reburied the beacons. Two people would search for the buried “victims” with their beacons while the rest would probe the snow with long metal rods.While the group was still strategizing, Laurie Maciag ran up to the hut yelling “My friends were buried in an avalanche.”The group quickly mobilized, strapping on skis and snowshoes to trek the 50 yards to the burial site. We tried to calm Maciag and ask her what had happened. Three people were buried, one didn’t have a beacon. After determining the site was safe from additional slides, we began our search.Two of the searchers quickly located one victim and dug the beacon out while the rest of us continued the search. I found the second victim who did not have a beacon shortly thereafter. The third victim troubled us a bit, but we finally located the beacon.It took less than 10 minutes, which is good considering a person’s chances of survival and air supply quickly diminish within the first 30 minutes.Plunging down the luge

The second most daunting part of the weekend, next to the hike up, came after lunch, packing and cleaning the hut. We had to ski and ride down the mountain carrying large, heavy packs – a feat for me in just my second season of snowboarding.I pieced my splitboard together and strapped into my bindings, poles in hand to push me along in the flats or to aid in getting up from a fall.The ride began in a glade of deep powder. I adapted quickly to the extra weight on my back and made some sweeping turns in the snow. The open glade quickly turned into a luge following the broken trail.Making quick jump turns and check my speed, I navigated the switchbacks and trees that were closely clustered at times. Despite my growing confidence, I managed to fall a few times. Mark Burggraff, my buddy for the ride down, was patient and helped me get up after the falls and pushed me through the flats.The trail brought us past the Fulford Cave trailhead I unstrapped the splitboard and switched it to trekking mode. The ride from there on out was mostly flat.The final exhausting push brought us back to the parking lot, ours cars and warm, fresh clothes. The group came together for one last time to give each other congratulations before setting out on future adventures.Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or Vail, Colorado

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