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Avalanche on Berthoud Pass Report and Photos

by Kilo - December 19th, 2009

An unnamed EMS official reported that the Flight for Life helicopter was flown in for the sole purpose of delivering an avalanche dog.  He also reported that there had already been an avalanche dog at the scene when the second dog was flown in.

An unnamed witness reported that the snowboard tracks that can be seen just to the left (skier’s right) towards to top of the avalanche we laid down AFTER the avalanche occurred.  In the photo on Teton Gravity (see below) the showboarder’s tracks are absent.

I and two other people scanned the area with a decent pair of binoculars and were unable to see any tracks leading into the avalanche area.

The fact that we were unable to see tracks into the avalanche, the report that the closest tracks were laid after the slide, and the fact that no body was recovered indicate that this may well have been a naturally triggered avalanche.

Here is a nice post on Teton Graity with a much better photo and a good description of the situation. Make sure to scroll to the bottom of the page and look for the post by bngofast.

The avalanche danger rating for the “Front Range” (that includes Berthoud pass) for today, Saturday, 12/19/09, was reported as considerable by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

For those of you that are not experienced backcountry skiers/riders please make sure to review the Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s web site before you venture into the backcountry.  The daily reports are typically issued between 5:30 am and 7:00 am and even if this is too late you can still get an idea of the situation by checking the previous day’s report.  Just use your favorite search engine to search for “CAIC” and you’ll find the site.

As a side note, I witnessed Greg Foley, Grand County Search and Rescue incident commander, in a heated argument with either a sheriff’s deputy or a National Forest Service official.  Foley flipped off the other official holding his finger inches from the official’s face.  A uniformed sheriff’s deputy stood by and witnessed the heated exchange.

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Mt. Evans Traverse via Mt. Spaulding

by NickJ - July 4th, 2009

The Long Tour

June 19, 2009

On the Friday following our descent of Mt. Evans, Kilo and I decided to hit up the area again. The temps had been climbing in town, but we doubted that the North facing lines had melted out significantly in such a short time.  We had also been talking about the possibility of a traverse from Evans to Gray Wolf Mountain, on the far end of the cirque. A long tour, with a few unknown sections thrown in, promised adventure, and since we were also looking at doing a route on the North Face, which had scoped the week prior, the odds of us finding some decent turns seemed likely.

Backcountry Skiing on Mt. Evans in June

by NickJ - June 17th, 2009

Tourist Attraction

6.12.09

The morning of June 12th, Kilo and I hooked up at our usual spot, the Stegosaurus Lot, one of the quieter Park-n-Ride areas, located off the I-70 Morrison exit. It was 6AM and I was in desperate need of coffee, but a quick hike through the new spring grass to watch the sunrise over the hogbacks and meditate on the psychedelic swells of Red Rocks, soon made me forget how damned nice my bed had been.  Well almost… Kilo pulled up in his battle-tested Explorer a few minutes later, and when that happens, adventure is soon to follow.

Our plan was to hit the Northeast Ridge of Mt. Evans, the same route Chris Davenport had taken from the summit during his 14ers project. The North Face looked steep and exciting, but there was no direct line from the top, so we planned to maybe look into that after skiing the peak. It has been an unusually wet and cool June this year in Colorado, with a fresh shot of the white stuff  visible from my back yard nearly every morning on the high peaks, so my hopes were high for better coverage than the photos I had seen of Davenport’s descent: small patches of snow linked together between numerous rocks. He also described having to cross a few sections of grass. Nice.

The drive to Idaho Springs went by fast, as we spoke of the jacked up state of the economy, etc… and then the subject that always brings a smile: skiing and just having fun period. Before long, we made the turn onto 103 and continued up the windy, two-lane road toward 5, the Mt. Evans Scenic Byway. At the entrance station, we paid our $10 “amenities fee” to The Man, then were informed that the road leading to the summit was being plowed, so we could only drive as far as Summit Lake. I was pleased for two reasons: a) fresh snow  b) we wouldn’t be tempted to treat this like the highest road shot in North America, and simply drive to the top, we would have to earn our turns.

The conditions at Summit Lake turned out to be closer to Wintertime than Summer. We were greeted by a blast of icy air as we opened the car doors, and as we followed steps in the new snow toward the restroom, the hard wind driving ice pellets along the frozen ground, hands shoved deep in my pockets, I could feel its sharpness on my neck and ankles, and couldn’t help but laugh to myself. A-Basin ski area, the last resort open in the state, had closed on June 7th, and here we were freezing our asses off. I love Colorado.

We got our gear together and chatted with a couple of guys who said they were prospectors who had pulled up next to us. They were taking a hike around the frozen lake, and seemed impressed with us strapping skis to our packs. They suggested taking a puff on the summit, and the idea sounded solid, but I was dry. I would’ve asked for a care package, but hadn’t brought so much as a lighter. Next time around maybe.

We scouted our line for a few minutes before heading up. I was wanting to hike the descent route. The snow was firm, with most of the pow having blown off overnight, so it looked mellow and we would probably make excellent time. Kilo, however, was pushing for something “more interesting”. I was reluctant at first, but went along with the urge to do shit up right. Why not? There was a line of small snowfields up the face below the ridge, so we decided to connect them, and see what happened…

The first few hundred feet went well, with sections of hard snow, and some minor ice. We were able to kick decent steps, though, and climb the rocks in between, so the going was pretty good. We traversed a few times, finding the best means of ascent, attempting to stick with as much snow as possible. I really wanted some boots with sticky rubber, like Kilo’s, but apart from one area, with a few ice drips and a slick runout onto rocks, the climb was mainly Class 2, so Kilo was fine and I just had to be more selective with my foot placements sometimes. Not too bad, but still enough exposure to make the heart beat faster sometimes, the smiles widen, and we were able to leave our axes on our packs and just go with ski poles.

At around 13,700 feet, we made our way up a large snow field, which led to a small notch between some small boulders on the ridge. We chose to head for that, as the snow ran out, with only talus remaining above. The view was improving with each step, and around the corner, the summit ridge and Crest House came into full view, and as often happens in the mountains, what we thought was the summit instead turned out to be a false one. I find you should always save a little extra in case that happens, because running up what you thought was the final pitch can sometimes leave you sucking fumes when you see the next one suddenly appear from “on top”.

Passing 14k, we were able to peek over the edge of the rocky cirque. The area is well know for it’s technical climbs, and the rock looked bomber, so with no cornice at the lip, you could find some awesome spots to experience the head rush that is staring down a 700′ wall, or the charge of kicking steps within inches of oblivion. Kilo said I was nuts, donned his crampons, and hung a few feet back. The wind was running away from the edge, but since it can sometimes shift in a moment up in the mountains, probably a sound decision all in all.

Upon reaching “the summit”, we had that fun experience mentioned earlier of seeing a smaller peak a few hundred feet away, and as also happens all the time it seems on peaks, not being able to figure out which was higher. That can be a fun game, especially once the burning fuzz of oxygen deprivation sets in, or a storm is coming. I figured I could just ask someone, as the road had just opened at this point, a long line of cars snaking their way up the switchbacks. Just before the first arrived, there was a lone jogger who completed his trek and, barely pausing, took one pull from his water bottle, stared off toward the hazy horizon, then started plodding back down. Soon a car had pulled up and a few people began walking the few steps toward where I stood. Very weird thing, having hiked 1400 feet, only to be greeted by Escalades and kids in shorts. The first person who dared the terrifying 30 second hike said where I had been was the top, but as I was about to turn and head back up, someone else said, no, the other was actually the deal. Fuck this, I thought, better go do it just in case, which is what normally happens anyway. We grabbed my skis, hiked, and found the summit marker. The release and satisfaction of getting “there” flooded my mind, despite the circus like atmosphere of Mt. Evans, and I was in good spirits as I posed on the edge nothingness, dreaming of owning a squirrel suit, then clipped in while leaning on the summit boulder, and skied the trail back to where I had been. We had done our thing in decent style.

We pulled our lightened packs on, clipped in, and began our descent on the Northeast Ridge, linking turns between small rock outcroppings. The coverage was better than the images I had seen, with perfect corn and no grass in sight. We had to weave a bit to find the best line, but the fields blanketed everything, so once you picked a line between small rocks jutting from the snow, there were plenty of wide open stretches, where you could get some speed. On a small wind lip near the bottom, Kilo got a couple of nice airs, then hit the runout with some extra juice, while I stuck to the main face and made some wider turns down the soft bank of white, pulling up just shy of the newly plowed road. We cruised back to where the snow ended, next to a portable road sign, near Summit Lake. The sun shining – it was good to be there.

We chilled for awhile, then thought what the hell, stuck out our thumbs, and ended up getting a ride in a pick up. On the way, we saw a cool face just below the observatory that an earlier party had laid some nice tracks on. There were two perfect lines left for the taking, so after chatting for a few with the nice couple visiting from the plains who had given us a lift, we hiked over the rise behind the Crest House, where Steve, the driver, took some shots as we clipped in and made our way toward the face. The mountain goats weren’t out, so I guess we were the tourist attraction on this day.

There was decent coverage for the lead in, which went on for awhile. We had to work right to avoid the Northeast route next to the ridge we had skied earlier, then the run appeared. At this point the snow was buttery corn to about boot depth, and still not very catchy, so the turns were unreal. I picked a line to the left and Kilo to the right, linking arcs to a patch of rocks about 500′ down. The pitch was so good, I took one look at Kilo, and said I had to do that again. So nice you have to do it twice! There was a bootpack from the party that we had seen hiking up the road that morning, so the going was quick back to the top. The second lap was well worth it. I let out a holler or two, as my perma grin deepened…

We made our way back to the pick up. Destroyed, we contemplated a second 14K roadshot, and just when all hope was lost, a decked out subaru, carrying a Russian emigre and his mom, stopped. We had to stick the skis carefully out the window to have enough room, and then held on as he went balls out up the mountain, his mother chuckling softly the whole way. Clouds were rolling in and the snow was hardening. As we lapped the same face, Kilo stuck to right and found the goods, ending the day on a high note.

We slid back into Summit Lake, as the skies opened up with “hershey kiss” graupel, and drove back to town. As Kilo always says, success or no, ‘we just went skiing, so it was the best day ever!’ And so it was…

Introduction to Loveland Pass Backcountry

by Kilo - June 12th, 2009

Loveland Pass is a popular destination for Colorado Backcountry Users, veterans and beginners alike, with a wide variety of terrain that can challenge all ability levels. From spending a bluebird day linking turns down low angle bowls, to storm riding deep powder in steep, tight trees, to having your first Ski Mountaineering experience on a big mountain line, Loveland Pass can deliver the goods. The area is also well known as an outdoor classroom of sorts for learning the basic skills that can keep you safe in the Backcountry.  Here are the details on how to get started with your first Backcountry experience atop the Continental Divide.

First off, of course, always have the basic safety gear in place before traveling in the Backcountry – shovel, probe, beacon (if possible), and partner. In addition, as much knowledge of safe Backcountry travel techniques, and key warning signs for snowpack instability, as you can get your hands on are also highly recommended (there are many good books and articles out there, and we will have more info here coming soon).  Also, before you head out, let someone know where you are going and when you should be expected back. Doing the little things right can make all the difference should something go wrong.

By the way, don’t let anybody tell you that this is not Backcountry because Loveland Pass is “just a road shot”. There is no patrol here, no signs telling you it is closed when it may be dangerous, no marked obstacles, and no one will come looking for you should you nail a tree. If you are not Inbounds, then you are in the Backcountry. Have fun, but always keep that fact in the front of your mind. You will have to take care of yourself.

To get there, take I-70 west from Denver to exit 216, the turn off for Hwy 6 and Loveland Pass, just before the Eisenhower tunnel. After you exit I-70, you will pass the Loveland Ski Area off to your right, as you make the first sharp left turn and begin up the pass.

Along this first stretch of road, you will see the Seven Sisters slide paths to your right. These are a series of avalanche paths that load with snow from storms, and from snow being carried by winds crossing the divide, so they are especially prone to avalanches. According to Ethan Greene of the CAIC, Colorado Avalanche Information Center,  ” the Seven Sisters have the dubious honor of being the most active slide area over a U.S. Highway”.  Even though tracks can be seen from time to time down these avalanche paths, DO NOT attempt to ski these as they are permanently off-limits because, as mentioned above, the risk of avalanches and the impact they would have on passing vehicles. Also, never park in this area, because of the obvious danger, and because your car will be towed!

After you pass the Seven Sisters, the road will turn to the right and then you will come to a sharp hairpin left. This is an important stop on your introduction to this Backcountry area because this bend is also the major exit for most runs on the East side of the pass. In fact, this is where you will end up on your first run, so take note of the location. Also, if you see anybody waiting for a ride up the hill, pick them up and take them to the top of the pass. This is good karma you will need later on to get your own ass back to the top, and it’s also a great way to meet cool people and learn about the conditions.

In general, if you hitch rides on the pass, always be good a steward. This means being friendly, like thanking the person who gave you a lift, and always taking good care of their vehicle (i.e., clean off your boots before you hop in, watch the upholstery when you carefully place your gear in, etc…). You know. Also, when hitching rides on the hairpin, or Rider’s Bend – as some locals call it – make sure to stand on the side of uphill traffic, and always look before crossing to/from the pullout. The tankers haul ass around this turn, and there is less visibility than it seems. Many people have almost been hit, so watch out! In addition, if you hear a deep grinding noise heading your way, that means snowplow. You’ll want to hike up on the bank, and make sure to grab your gear, too, because they tend run close to the wall, and don’t like to slow down!

Loveland Pass Tip “The Noon Rule”: If you arrive at the main pullout after noon, in particular on weekdays, the traffic to A-Basin and Keystone usually slows to the point where you may want to insure your ride. This means parking your car in the dirt pullout, located to the left of the hairpin, and catching a ride to the top, which guarantees that when you finish your run, there is some way for you to leave. Otherwise, you may have to hike all the way up the pass to get your car! Bad news on a cold day, with night on the way.

Another important note about parking – once you pass Loveland Ski Area, you will notice a sign on either side of the main pull-outs that indicate parking is not allowed except in the designated area. This generally means the area inbetween the signs is where you are supposed to park, and be careful with this one, because the Colorado State Patrol is known for showing up and towing cars that are not legally parked. Don’t worry, there’s normally plenty of room, but the top can get crowded, so don’t be tempted to park beyond the cut off or less than 6 feet from the edge of the highway.

Continue on past another major hairpin and the exposed, windy stretch that ends at the pass. Once you get to the top, then just park to the left, or hop out to the right, if you caught a ride, and walk downhill from the Continental Divide/ Loveland Pass sign. There is a sign on the West Side and on the East, and this refers to East Side, the one you just came up from. So just get your gear together, and get ready for the easy part. Point ’em/it and ski/ride.

There are many different runs that you can choose from by going left or right from the road. Some are steeper, or tighter, than others, but most would be considered black diamond and above. Going straight down with the fall line is possibly a hard blue. Just remember, that whatever way you go, all runs funnel down to the Rider’s Bend, so if you don’t know where you are,  just keep heading down. Congratulations, you just had your first Backcountry experience!

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What Happens When You Accidentally Activate Your PLB (personal locator beacon)

by Kilo - June 12th, 2009

A few days ago I had the opportunity to accidentally live-test my 406 MHz personal locator beacon (PLB).  For those of you that are unfamiliar with what a personal locator is a PLB uses the SARSAT system to alert emergency search and rescue services of person that is in distress and away from normal emergency services i.e. out of cell phone coverage.

If you own a personal locator or are thinking about getting a personal locator for use in the backcountry then I hope this post will provide some valuable information as to exactly what happens when someone set off the personal locator beacon.

I was skiing in the backcountry in the Loveland pass, Colorado area when I accedentlly activated my ACR ResQFix 406 personal locator beacon.  I carry the PLB in my cargo pocket of my ski pants and, in most cases, never put anything else in this picket.  However, on this day the weather was so nice that I was not wearing a jacket (t-shirt skiing in Colorado!).  What that means is that NORMAL peoceedure was thrown a curve.  I carry my Garmin Rino 530HCx radio/GPS on a clip on my pack while hiking or shinning.  This gives me easy access to the radio/GPS but the clip is not reliable in a fall and I can see my $600 plus (software, special battery pack, and memory stick) radio/GPS getting buried in feet of snow is if yard sale and never finding the thing.  (Yea, I know, I need to get a radio harness but I have too much shit to carry as it is and I’ll figure this out sometime soon.)  So, before I start my run, I always take the GPS/radio off of the clip on my pack and put it in my jacket pocket.  On this day, however, I had no jacket on so I put the GPS/radio in my cargo pocket along with the ResQFix 406 personal locator beacon.  I must have dislodged the cover over the activation button on the ACR ResQFix 406 with the Garmin unit and activated the ACR ResQFix.  It took my maybe ten minutes to ski the run down Loveland pass and then I spent a few minutes talking to the others in my party at the bottom and then we hopped in the Expedition and began to drive up the pass.  On Loveland pass there is a short part of the road where one can get a cell phone signal and as we drove up that part my partner’s (Nick) phone was ringing.  It was my wife on the other end of the phone.  After finding out that we were NOT in danger she explained to Nick that the United States Air Force had called her to ask her about my whereabouts because they had received a signal from my ACR ResQFix personal locator beacon.  WOW!  Within minutes of my personal locator beacon being activated the United States Air Force was looking for me!

The only problem: this was a false PLB activation.  The Air Force left a contact name and a phone number with my wife for me to call them back at.  I called the number and talked to the contact (A female Sergeant).  The Sergeant was very nice and understanding as I explained that the activation of my PLB was accidental.  The FIRST thing she asked me was, “where are you?”.  I did not think of it until later but my answer probably helped her verify that I was A, safe and B, verify my location so she knew it was actually me that was calling in.  She told me that she had already notified the Colorado Search and Rescue coordinator.  I was really worried that I may be in some minor trouble for accidently activating my ACR personal locator beacon but she said that it was no problem.  I asked if I needed to call the local police or Colorado Search and Rescue and she said no and that she had already notified them that I was fine and that the PLB activation was accidental.  I assume she did that through some kind of automated system while I was on the phone with her.  Furthermore, I asked her if I needed to file any kind of report and she said that I did not.  She did thank me for registering my ACR ResQFix PLB and noted that they (the Air Force) get frustrated because there are cases where they cannot call anybody when they receive a PLB activation because the registration information is either missing or not correct.  So, make sure you both register your PLB and keep that PLB registration information up-to-date.  For those of you that do not currently own a PLB—1st, get one right away!—you register them online and it is very easy to do.  Note: registration of your PLB is mandatory by federal law.