For me, winter began on 10/29/09 with a fall snowstorm that dropped close to 2 feet on Berthoud Pass. Coincidentally, it was my 2nd day back in town. Not being one to waste any time, Ella, Nieves and I were hiking the West side face by mid afternoon. The next 2 days saw a few hikes each, the joy of returning to ski shape after a lazy autumn apparent in my body language. Lungs and legs struggling due to the transition from sea level to 11,500 foot. Two thoughts to keep me on pace – the first hike of the season is always the worst, no pain no gain.
November saw a return of warm temps and little snow. Hence, the snow pack problems began. To say this winters snow pack was fragile is to say hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. Both dangerous, both capable of ruining lives. December saw a return to winter like conditions, minus the precipitation. Cold and windy. Windy and cold. One word- brutal.
Remember those lovely turns from late October? Sure you do, it was the onset of winter, supposedly. That initial layer has now returned to haunt you. It is weak and faceted. What should be akin to bricks now resembles Popsicle sticks. Layer #1 will not support layers 3 and 4, much less 2. Late December sessions left skiers hearing more whoomps than a 95 South concert. That`s right, “Whoomp There It Is” across the Colorado Rockies had the white boys moving, and not in an early 90`s Miami bass heavy kind of way.
The Avalanche Rose on the CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) is a useful tool for all backcountry enthusiasts, containing 8 aspects (N, E, S, W, and every diagonal in between). It concentrates on three altitudes; below, at, and above treeline. Checking it daily is a good habit to get into. 5 colors represent possible danger; green/yellow/orange/red/black, which correlates to low/moderate/considerable/high/extreme. Let’s just say this winter has been like a sunset, heavy on the orange and red.
Lack of new snow and no snow pack layer cohesion led to a dangerous combination. Skiers were chomping at the bit for quality turns, yet safe, available terrain was extremely limited. A few skiers had eyes bigger than their brains this winter, me included.
What is it about powder lust that forces rational people to make irrational decisions? Could it be the offseason dreams of deep snow? Unrealistic expectations of an early or even on-time start to winter? A long and uneventful fall? A desire to start where you left off last April or May? Perhaps, something less meaningful yet more realistic; a recent breakup, or a sweet photo opportunity for Facebook.
CAIC has another section on their website, ‘incidents’. The ’09-’10 winter had staff extremely busy keeping up with close calls, avalanche injuries, and sadly, a few deaths. Fortunately, my early season prediction that someone would perish on my home turf, Berthoud Pass, has proven inaccurate to date.
I learned a few life lessons this past winter, yet the most valuable one never really changes – there’s always next year.