To be clear: I’m not trying to avoid avalanches on a snowmobile, because taking a snowmobile out in dangerous snow conditions on avalanche terrain is just plain stupid. No, I’m trying to avoid the snowmobiles altogether, as well as avalanches.
Before you scream, “Hypocrite! You own your own personal snowmobiling helmet!”, let me clarify. I love the smell of 2-stroke in the morning. However, when your goal is a peaceful, quiet tour with great scenery, it helps to avoid the ‘whah-WHAH’ of snow machines. And if there’s one place sled necks like to go, it’s Togwotee Pass (pronounced toe-go-tee). Which also happens to be on my way home from Jackson.
As you can see in photo above, Pinnacle Butte (pronounced “be-YOOT”) is a gorgeous fortress of breccia cliffs, peaks, and spires in the far southern region of the Absorka Mountains. We parked at the Deception Creek Cross Country trail, but as we wanted to be in the trees, we headed across the highway from the official trails and up towards Pinnacle.
We had our backcountry ski setup with no intentions of making actual turns, which was a good thing. The snowpack was so unstable that the “whomp” of settling snow was a constant on near flat terrain. To a seasoned backcountry skier, this is a very spooky sound. It is not unlike the thump from an actual bass drum compressed into a terrifying second. To explain what causes the sound (and avalanches), I’ll launch into a horrifyingly simple overview of snow science.
Snow falls in many, many forms which is why 12″ of new snow can be slushy gloop on the Pacific coast and a dry, fine powder in Utah. And of course, the snow may fall in many different forms in the exact same place depending on the air temperature and humidity. So maybe you get a wet, heavy snow in November followed by fluff in December. This would be a good snowpack, since the heavy stuff is on the bottom. But what about when the scenario is reversed? This is what skiers mean when they say that the snow is “upside down”. The heavy stuff is on top of fluff, or worse yet on top of a rain-crusted icy layer. In this scenario, picture a few feet of fluff falling on the side of steep, ice-covered slope. The fluff is going to slide down, right? But maybe it doesn’t slide down right away; it may stick just a little bit until somebody or something weights a certain spot on that slope- and the fluff is released.
Anyone who has experienced an avalanche burial (thankfully, I know this second-hand) will tell you that fluffy snow ceases to feel like fluff in an avalanche. In fact, the process is very un-fluffy. Skis, packs, and even clothes are ripped from the skier as a concrete sludge tumbles the body in a hyper-active spin cycle. If conscious, the skier tries to swim up in attempt to be towards the top of the pile when everything stops moving. This assumes the skier knows which way is up. Skiers have reported been partially buried up to their chest and if their hands aren’t free when the pile stops moving, they feel as if they have been cemented in concrete and must depend on their friends to dig them out. This is why you don’t ski alone, and also why you MUST wear a transceiver, carry a shovel and probe (a big expandable stick to find the body) and know how to use them to travel in avalanche terrain. Going without any of these four items (the knowledge to use the tools and evaluate terrain being a crucial item) is Russian roulette.
And this is why we weren’t making turns. The snow pack was so unstable that it didn’t even need the gradient to settle onto itself. There is little question that had we ventured onto the prime avalanche angles, we would have caused an avalanche. And the prime angles are 25° to 45°, which is the same angle as blue and black slopes at a ski area – in other words, the fun stuff. If you absolutely have to get out in dangerous snow conditions, take a cue from us and go for a cross-country tour. It’s great for the dogs, too.
Find an avalanche class by clicking here.
Holiday-detox-of-the-day: 7-day Portion Control Challenge from Vegetarian Times. I would make some substitutes for additional protein of the meat variety but they make it easy with shopping lists and recipes.