By John Briley
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, December 5, 2004
Sanders is not lecturing on vanity funerals. The burly, baby-faced Iowan (he moved to Jackson years ago) is telling us -- six skiers and two snowboarders -- to don enough layers of outerwear to encourage survival in the unlikely event that we are consumed by an avalanche.
The somber message is part of a three-day camp Jackson Hole offers to skiers and boarders seeking the skills to tour the backcountry on their own, away from lift lines, overskied slopes and controlled terrain.
Backcountry skiing and boarding, once the exclusive domain of hardy souls who accessed the wilderness from roadside trailheads, is now directly attainable from Jackson and an increasing number of other resorts nationwide: Ticket holders can ride the lifts up, scoot out-of-bounds through designated gates and traverse back to the resort after their descent. Millions of acres of backcountry also still exist on public land throughout the United States, far from established resorts.
For me, the course is the culmination of years of yearning to take my skiing into the rugged, snowy wilds beyond resorts, to play ski-mag cover boy in endless acres of powder that is mine, all mine! But, apparently, first I must acquire a few survival skills.
Avalanche knowledge is the dominant theme of the course. Sanders and his co-instructor, Laurie Shephard, a wiry, fortyish Upstate New Yorker who's lived in Jackson for 20 years, spend about 90 percent of the camp teaching us how to evaluate avalanche risk, mitigate it and respond to an avalanche emergency. The course reading material is a small book called "Snow Sense -- A Guide to Evaluating Snow Avalanche Hazard." We are expected to read sections nightly.
"Don't think you'll walk out of here knowing everything you need to know about avalanche safety," Sanders cautions us. "It's a lifelong pursuit. But hopefully you'll get a little smarter about what is and isn't safe to ski."
A sampling of the class reinforces his point. Mike Dauss, a Jackson native who has been skiing these spectacular mountains, in bounds and out, since he could walk, says, "I have a lot of friends who are careful in the backcountry and a lot who aren't, and those are the ones who need to be here. It's a good refresher."
Jason, a young lawyer from D.C. and an experienced skier who is taking the course for the second straight year, remarks, "Last year showed me what I didn't know. This time I'm hoping more will sink in." Also in the course are my friend Charlie; Kip and Dan, two snowboarding Army buddies from Texas; Kip's father-in-law, a fiftyish physician named Joe; and Brent, a thirtysomething guy from Los Angeles who skies in a powder suit and fire-flamed helmet. Skills in our group range from strong intermediate -- the minimal skill level needed for the camp -- to expert.
We head out to the living classroom, boarding the 55-person aerial tram that whisks us up 4,100 vertical feet to the top of the resort, passing over some of the most legendary lift-served terrain in the United States -- chutes, couloirs, cliffs and steep, tight glades.
But we will forgo Jackson's 2,500 in-bound acres for the more radical 3,000-plus acres of backcountry in the Bridger-Teton National Forest abutting Jackson Hole. We spill out of the tram onto the wind-packed shoulder of Rendezvous Mountain, well above the tree line at 10,450 feet, and head to the resort's southern boundary.
Periodic gates along this rope allow backcountry access to anyone who wants it. There is no patrol check, no quiz on avalanche safety, nothing at all to stop a total novice from imperiling his life and, if he triggers a slide, the lives of others. Avalanches happen frequently around Jackson Hole, but often in areas people don't ski (because they are so prone to sliding) or during cycles of severe weather when avalanche risk is extreme and few people are in the backcountry. More slides occur during periods of "high" or "extreme" avalanche risk, but more avalanche fatalities occur when risk is "moderate" -- the second-lowest risk rating -- because more people are in the backcountry.
We pause at the gate to check that our transceivers are emitting signals. The dramatic, toothy peaks of the Teton Mountains yawn skyward, draped in white and scarred (often in ridiculously unfathomable places) with ski tracks. The only things missing are lifts, restaurants and the sharp geometry of manmade runs.
On many days, from the top of the tram, one can see an ant-line of backcountry athletes filing up the ridge of Cody Peak, a huge, shadowy dome of knee-buckling steepness. We ski over a gentle knoll and through a beautiful grove of sparse pine trees. Shephard shoots ahead to set up a search-and- rescue drill.
"Look around," Sanders says. "Would you ski that?" he points up to a long, wide hill hemmed by rocks. I am stumped, probably because I was in a cowboy bar the previous night when I should have been reading "Snow Sense." Nobody else seems too confident, but Brent finally mutters, "Maybe it could slide if the sun heats it up too much?"
Sanders shrugs. "It's probably fine," he says. "Snow was light last night and the wind didn't blow it into east-facing aspects. Plus, it's probably been skied 1,000 times this year, so it's age-hardened," the same thing that happens in-bounds when so many people pass over a slope that numerous snow layers compress to form one solid layer. "But those are some of the things you need to think about. Always be thinking when you're out here."
We then get a simulated taste of an avalanche search. Shephard has hidden a pack with a live transceiver somewhere on the next hill. I follow Sanders's direction to "work from the last seen point" of the victim. "Note where you are. Do more than just blindly follow the signal."
I zigzag slowly down the hill, zeroing in on the increasingly strong signal coming from a cluster of pines. I finally find the pack. Time to rescue: about four minutes, in decidedly forgiving search conditions. For one, no slide had actually occurred, so I was hunting in downy soft powder, not the chunky, rock-hard debris characteristic of avalanches. Nor was I combating the anxiety of a real emergency.
The last thing I wanted -- on this or any other weekend -- was an actual avalanche emergency, but I also hoped the camp would get a little more electrifying, as in me screaming off of 40-foot cliffs. As I looked longingly up at the vertical rock band above us, Shephard said, "Yeah, people ski off of those. We call 'em lab rats: If they land and the slope doesn't slide, we know it's safe to ski."
Despite the morbid motif of the camp, avalanche risk can be mitigated rather effectively with a reasonable amount of safety intelligence. In fact, neither Sanders nor Shephard, in their collective decades of backcountry skiing, had ever been caught in an avalanche or had to rescue others from one. Avalanche fatalities in the United States -- for all winter activities, including snowmobiling, climbing and snowshoeing -- have averaged just over 25 deaths a year since 1990, according to the U.S. Forest Service's National Avalanche Center. Like a driver's ed course that relentlessly emphasizes safety over driving style, the Jackson camp seeks to front-load students with avalanche awareness, figuring that we already know how to have fun on the snow-covered hills.
Most of us get this one right: Cross one at a time, moving as quickly as possible. Snow is elastic, Shephard explains. It flexes when a skier or snowboarder passes over it and then needs time to flex back. "You see a lot of avalanches when a group of people tries to traverse together. The snow flexes as far as it can, then breaks."
The crossing earns us one of the weekend's sweetest rewards. After a brisk hike up a wooded shoulder, we emerge on a promontory in the Four Pines area, two canyons over from the resort. The huge, empty swaths of mountain and canyon are why we're in this course: I could ski up here every day for a year and not cross my own tracks once.
We bomb a long sequence of powder-dream turns before carving into the forest and follow a creek bed down toward the resort. We see other ski tracks, but no other people.
While I love mountain solitude as much as the next guy, I confess that the first beer of the afternoon tasted all the better on the sun-baked deck of Jackson's tram dock. Charlie and I settled in as our outlook for completing that night's reading deteriorated rapidly.
Like most ski towns, Jackson has hordes of happy tourists. But unlike many other destination resorts, Jackson is also home to packs of amiable locals. The guys in Teton Village Sports, at the resort base, worked on my bindings, helped me figure out my new-fangled ski gear, advised us on restaurants, bars and terrain, and only reluctantly accepted payment for the binding repair. When Charlie broke a pole, they loaned him a pair gratis. And when we dropped back in at day's end to pick up our street clothes, they handed us beers and encouraged our adolescent banter.
The goodwill pervaded on the mountain and in the town of Jackson, where we were staying. It's a 50-square-block meld of Old West saloons, restaurants, outdoor shops and touristy stores about 20 miles southeast of the resort. On a taxi ride from our motel to Picas, a Mexican restaurant the ski shop guys recommended, our driver told of seeing local homeowner Vice President Dick Cheney in the grocery store. "He'd pick up a packet of sausage, read the health label, shake his head and cuss, and put it down. Then he'd do it again with something else. He did that about five times before he gave up and left the meat aisle," he said.
We ambled down one of the town's many covered wooden sidewalks and into the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar, which obtained the first liquor license in Wyoming following Prohibition. The two long bars are fronted by leather-saddle stools and inlaid with hundreds of silver dollars. The place was dead -- on busier nights it fills with live music and western dance lessons -- but Charlie didn't seem to miss the distractions as he crushed me in pool.
Jackson is the rare ski town that spans centuries and demographics to provide a sense of real place: a 19th-century cowboy town turned international recreation destination, where working ranchers brush shoulders with ragtag ski bums and millionaires. Off-mountain activities range from sleigh rides through the National Elk Refuge and browsing the $800 goatskin jackets in town to packing into the local high school auditorium, as we did, to watch ski footage as part of the Banff Mountain Film Festival.
And, always, the affability: From the cheery-at-6-a.m. clerk at the Jackson Hole Roasters coffee shop to the bus drivers who chat about rising real estate prices, we had trouble spotting a disgruntled face in town or on the mountain.
After about 90 minutes, we came to the crest of a wide bowl of sparkling powder.
Charlie and I almost bounded right past Sanders and on down the hill. But we remembered that whole avalanche safety thing and refrained, just as Shephard told the group to break out our shovels and dig. An hour later we had two pits, each about seven feet deep and 10 feet wide. The pits revealed distinct layers in the snow pack: a 20-inch-thick top tier of uniform, compact snow atop an inch-thick band of granular, icy gropple, like the crystals that form in your freezer, and many layers below that.
We cut column lines down the pit walls and Sanders showed us how to test the snow stability. "Put your shovel blade on top of the snow and tap it with an open palm until the block releases. Keep count of how many times you tap." If a block holds through 30 taps, that layer is considered solid.
The first block released on the 10th tap, sliding off of the granular layer as if rolling on ball bearings. It was a meaty chunk of snow and I tried to imagine the force of it -- times 10,000 -- bearing down as I tried to out-ski it.
The weak layer, called surface hoar, had formed during a recent snap of cold, clear nights. "It's like wintertime dew," Sanders said. The cold, coupled with low humidity, caused crystals to grow up and out like feathers. When a new layer of light snow comes down on top of surface hoar, he explained, "it's like balancing a box on top of a bunch of pencils that are stood on end: It won't take much to tip the whole thing over."
I asked Sanders how often he'd dig a pit if he weren't teaching a group of novices. "If I'm paying attention to the weather and reading the avalanche forecasts from the beginning of winter, I won't ever have to dig a pit," he said. "I'll know what's at every layer."
Backcountry weekenders like us could likewise avoid pit digging by reading up on avalanche conditions and, at least until we gain more experience, heading into the backcountry only with knowledgeable guides.
So can one bad snow layer ruin backcountry skiing for a whole season? Typically not, Sanders said, for two reasons: High humidity or a heavy storm could change the characteristics of a bad layer or compress it, giving the next layer up a stronger foundation; and the pressure bulb of a skier or boarder extends only about five feet below the surface, so if the dangerous layer is 10 feet down, it won't respond to the surface activity.
On our last day, Shephard, Charlie, Jason and I hiked out far from the resort before vaulting down through a dusky forest in No Name Canyon. The camp had not transformed me into a backcountry expert, nor had it promised to. Besides, I thought, as I launched off a 15-foot rock between two pines and glided back into the pillowy powder, this is a lifelong pursuit and it's going to take dedication. And for once in my life, safety actually will come first.
As Shephard said, "If there's any doubt about a slope, always remember that tomorrow's turns are more important than today's."
John Briley last wrote for Travel about the hurricane recovery efforts in Southeast Florida.
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