Waiting for the ‘whumpf’ | VailDaily.com

Waiting for the ‘whumpf’

J.K. Perry
J.K. Perry/Vail DailyJay Paonessa digs a trench in the snow near Peter Estin Hut to determine the stability of the snowpack and possibility for sliding.

The telltale “whumpf” and vibration of a weak layer of snow collapsing below my feet rocketed my heart past a beat. Laurie Maciag, in front of me, stopped on her telemark skis, knees bent from the jolt, a look of panic on her face.Now I’m giving this avalanche stuff serious thought.Our group of 13 stopped as I yelled up to our guides Scott Messina and Ron Rash.”We got a ‘whumpf.’ “”Great,” Messina yelled back.Huh? Didn’t he tell us this is a sign of an avalanche.

Messina motioned for us to gather round him. His face showed zero concern. He said the snow collapsing beneath our feet didn’t slide because the slope was too flat. Still, the collapse was a quick and sober introduction to avalanches.The group trekked to Peter Estin Hut above Eagle to learn what makes avalanches tick and how to stay alive in avalanche terrain. The beginner-level course is taught by the 10th Mountain Hut Association, which manages its namesake huts in the backcountry.We met on a brutally cold morning – the kind that stings – in front of City Market in Eagle. Greetings and pleasantries exchanged, my toes froze as Rash and Messina asked how much time we planned to spend in avalanche terrain – none, a little or a lot.Most chose the second option; not quite sure, I agreed.Nausea sets in

The trip began near Sylvan Lake with a grueling 4.5-mile hike on skins up to the hut at 11,200 feet. With a 40-pound pack, I set out feeling good, if not a little shaky underneath the added weight.Along the way, Messina told us to take out our “skiing eyeballs” and put in our “avalanche eyeballs” because there were some slopes along the way capable of sliding.About a mile in, we stopped at the trailhead to Fulford Cave near a small pond to hydrate and reenergize with a bit of food. Messina pointed to a saddle in the mountains to our south where the hut said – looked like quite a hike for this flatlander.In the trees rising up to the saddle, the weight of the splitboard and snowboard bindings I was in began to tear at my hip muscles. Telemarking was totally foreign. Each steep grade tested my endurance. Initially I kept up with the lead group, sweating profusely and sure to freeze if I were to get hurt. After several stops to catch my breath, I’d fallen behind.Mark Burggraff, another flatlander from Sioux Falls, S.D., struggled at the back with the heightened elevation, but he pushed on. The way I felt, I knew he was doing much worse.My skis fell into line in front of Doreen Takeda. I battled to keep my skis moving up the 2-foot wide trail. Takeda and I encouraged each other to keep pushing on.

I began to wonder how much further the hut was and if this test of endurance was a wise choice. Coming through a slight clearing, nausea set in. I tried to enjoy the peaceful setting, the only sound my breath. Rash said the hut was close. A final long steady climb uncovered the hut behind a stand of large pines.’Meat grinder’Despite my exhausted stupor, I examined the hut. The surroundings were surprising – a full kitchen, welcoming mattresses complete with pillows, picnic tables and a wood stove that would soon soothe our cold, aching bodies.Gear was stowed and fires stoked. The group began boiling pasta for dinner, which turned out to be filling and delicious. Settled in, the group huddled on the picnic benches for an avalanche introduction from Messina and Rash. The most common avalanche in Colorado begins with the slab – a cohesive layer of snow. Slabs fracture and slide down the slope when triggered, often by a human. Unlike the movies, noise rarely triggers an avalanche.The slab is most likely to slide on top of a weak layer of snow with little or no bond to the slab. Sliding downhill, the slab breaks into large chunks and becomes a “meat grinder,” Messina said.

“It catches people off guard how powerful an avalanche can be,” he said.The two guides preached observing “terrain,” of which the slope angle’s is the most critical piece of information. Avalanches usually occur on 30- to 45-degree slopes, with 38 degrees being most common.Other important factors include weather – precipitation, temperature and wind – and snowpack. The next morning’s lesson was to dig snow pits to look at the snowpack more closely.That’s when the “whumpf” came. Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or jkperry@vaildaily.com. Vail, Colorado

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