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Travel

Mar 12, 2019

Charge Hard, Stay Smart: Guru, Fritz Sperry, on Safety in Avy-Prone Backcountry.

Local guidebook author Fritz Sperry knows the Colorado backcountry as well as anybody. The Outdoor Journal were invited on an outing, so Kela Fetters grabbed her Skis and started trekking.

WRITTEN BY

Kela Fetters

It’s early March, and there are signs that Old Man Winter’s stranglehold on the Tenmile Range is giving. The first evidence is auditory; birdsong punctuates the otherwise mute atmosphere of Mt. Victoria’s evergreens. It’s snowing, but the temperature hovers just below freezing and the resulting flakes are quick to liquesce. Rainbow Creek, invisible but animated, gurgles under several feet of snowpack. Fritz Sperry, doyen of Colorado’s Front Range backcountry skiing guidebooks, is deep in research—waist-deep, in fact, given last night’s snowstorm.

Sperry’s guidebook to lines north of I-70 in Colorado’s Front Range.

In guidebook parlance, “research” is synonymous with “training”. Sperry uses his go-to powder stache in the Tenmile Range as the setting for notching some spectacular vertical. It will all pay off come springtime when he will redeem his accumulated fitness on big lines around the state. Everybody wins when Sperry skies a new descent; the endeavor will likely end up in the next edition of his backcountry guidebook, along with critical information about access, technicality, and avy potential.

 

Fritz Sperry conducting research. Photo by Gary Fondl.

Sperry’s been skinning around the Centennial State for 26 years, but his blunt vernacular betrays his Bronx upbringing. He moved West thirty years ago after cutting his backcountry teeth at Tuckerman Ravine in New Hampshire and answering the siren’s call of the Rockies. Sperry began writing his first guidebook in 2001 and has since documented his exploits up and down the Front Range. Expletives aside, he knows snow, especially Summit County snow. As we trek upward, he periodically assesses the snowpack with his poles and hands. He chooses representative slopes and stomps cornices. He notes even slight variance in wind and weather. Rounding an exceptionally spicy kickstep in the skintrack, he pauses and shakes several Sour Patch Kids into his palm. “Want some caaaandy?” he offers mischievously.

Guidebook guru Fritz Sperry

Playfulness gleams in his eyes, but vigilance seems to underpin his backcountry ethos. Our outing was a testimony to the centrality of assessing avalanche conditions on the ground. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), a backcountry aficionado’s go-to intel site, posted a Level 3 “Considerable” avalanche warning, but Sperry sleuthed signs of solid stability throughout the day. CAIC forecasts alone should not determine route-planning; in-situ observation supplement general predictions. Slopes can slide under any avalanche rating. On our particular outing, stable snowpack conditions made evident that sometimes, you can have your CAIC, and eat it too. “What are the biggest things to watch out for when assessing snowpack stability?” I asked Sperry. He had a veteran’s robust answer: “To me, there are two seasons, winter and spring. These aren’t dates on a calendar but a snowpack condition.”

“The winter snowpack is a layered cake and slab avalanches may be the result. The elements of a slide are the most important thing to keep in mind when trying to assess the risk: slope steep enough to slide, trigger, slab and weak layer. You need all of these elements for a slide to happen. You can eliminate one and not have any issues. The easiest element to control is the slope angle.”

 

Sperry paints on the side (including his own guidebook cover art). Pictured here is Nokhu Crags, 20×30, Acrylic and Spray Paint.

“In spring we deal with melt/freeze snow. This might happen any time of the year but usually, it’s once the sun gets high and the melting and freezing process begins. Corn is the offspring of this process. Wet slides are another child of this. Focusing on timing can help with this situation. I often hear talk of the ‘alpine start’. This is great if you’re planning to ski an east facing line, but a 4am start for a southwest face will only lead to the loss of fillings from the rock-hard ice you’ll be skiing [conveniently, Sperry’s guidebooks feature a “sunhit” estimate for users to optimize their line’s solar exposure]. Time your line so you’re skiing after the sun has been hitting it for a few hours. If the slope you’re planning on skiing is too soft, back off to less solar aspects. If you penetrate the spring snow to your ankles, it’s time to bail.”

The view from Mount Eolus, 20×30, Acrylic and Spray Paint.

Colorado sees more avalanche deaths than any other state, but backcountry recreation is on the rise.

Backcountry skiing in Colorado is witnessing an enormous surge in popularity. As resorts have become increasingly crowded, lift-accessed terrain gets skied out in a flash. I-70 traffic crawls, parking lots overflow, resort titans Vail and Alterra duke it out for dominance it’s no wonder that a growing number of skiers have sought solitude out-of-bounds. According to a Snowsports Industries of America report, sales of backcountry gear like alpine touring (AT) bindings rose 84% from 2017 to 2018. Forest Service research uncovered a 15% increase in participation numbers for backcountry skiing and splitboarding between the 2015/2016 and 2017/2018 seasons. The same study forecasted participation increases of 55-106% by 2060. The hordes are heading for the hills, but navigating the backcountry requires sound risk-assessment and terrain knowledge. Enter Sperry, who wants to enfranchise backcountry users while keeping the sport safe. His mission is of particular importance in Colorado, which sees more avalanche deaths than any other state. This is due to the tempestuous nature of the state’s snowpack, the sheer number of backcountry recreators, and the ease of access to dangerous avalanche terrain. This past week, a series of storms prompted CAIC to raise their forecast to a Level 5 “Extreme” in an unprecedented five zones around the state. Videos of avalanches sliding onto I-70 and burying cars garnered national attention.

Even resort skiers aren’t guaranteed safe passage on the mountain; inbounds avalanches evince that the natural phenomenon is an inherent risk of skiing. Resort patrollers work to mitigate the risk of slides, but in the backcountry, there is no such service. In untamed terrain, the consequences of poor decision-making can be fatal.

Colorado leads the US for avalanche fatalities by a wide margin. Source: CAIC
Source: CAIC

The silence of snowflakes is profound; resort cacophony is almost inconceivable at the summit of Mt. Victoria. To the left of a hit called Coin Slot (as wide as it sounds) is an unnamed chute dubbed West Couloir by Sperry. Getting there involved a bit of bushwhacking, ridge-humping, and cliff-descending, but the reward was a torrent of white falling 2000 vertical feet. The route was made more impressive by its vantage of I-70 squiggling along the floor of Tenmile Canyon. Fall-line was a flowy forty degrees and percolated with small spruce. I gave carte blanche to the mountain, schussing down-chute in a symbiosis of man and mountain. The toy cars on I-70 grew larger in my peripheral.

Mt. Victoria delivers the goods. Photo by Fritz Sperry.
Descending West Couloir, with I-70 below. Photo by Fritz Sperry.

“Backcountry can be like a single slice of the best food you’ve ever eatensushi, Jamón ibérico, perfectly cooked or raw or whateverbut really just a slice of the perfect life. Nirvana in the carve.”

I must have let out some powder-brained expression of glee; after coasting to a stop, Sperry radioed me: “Hey giggles—having fun?” As Colorado’s growing number of like-minded recreators will attest to, backcountry skiing is fun. And beautiful. And humbling. Sperry says it best: “Backcountry skiing is the root of the sport…getting away from the mechanized form of the sport returns one to a time of the simple pleasures. Our society has become a place of gluttony and hedonism, quantity and quality. Resort skiing is like a supersized Big Mac plus bacon and a Vanilla Shake with added sugar. Backcountry can be like a single slice of the best food you’ve ever eatensushi, Jamón ibérico, perfectly cooked or raw or whateverbut really just a slice of the perfect life. Nirvana in the carve.”

“Nirvana in the carve.” Photos by Fritz Sperry.

 

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Travel

Mar 19, 2019

Is ‘Sidecountry’ a Four-Letter Word?

A team of Avalanche experts define the word, and discuss how to deal with the phenomena. Do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive, or shape the definition and attempt to harness its power?

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This article originally appeared in The Avalanche Review, a trade and scientific journal serving the American Avalanche Association Membership. It was written by Scott Savage, Simon Trautman, Ethan Greene, and Doug Chabot.

Riding in the sidecountry is fun, and it is marketable. Google ‘sidecountry’ and you get 438,000 search results. As more people recreate in the sidecountry, ski areas promote it, equipment manufacturers capitalize on it, riders benefit through new technology and increased availability, the media eats it up, more people want the experience and WHAM! – we are lost somewhere in a very successful feedback loop. Ski area avalanche professionals and backcountry avalanche forecasters, however, are scratching their heads about how to deal with the phenomena; do we attempt to stop the sidecountry locomotive in its tracks or do we embrace the term, shape the definition to benefit our mission, and attempt to harness its branding power to educate the various user groups that recreate in terrain adjacent to ski areas?

One of the great slopes on Gornergrat with plenty of sidecountry opportunities, near the top, with the ever-distracting Matterhorn in the distance. Location: Zermatt. By Doc Searls Santa Barbara, USA

Currently, defining sidecountry is similar to defining pornography; people disagree on a formal definition but you know it when you see it. In our opinion, sidecountry is very useful term for describing a certain combination of human behavior and geography. It is intuitive because most people understand that sidecountry refers to the terrain adjacent to ski area boundaries. This terrain is easily accessed, easily “lapped”, and in many cases highly visible. Observing this reality and thinking about the term in a geographical and behavioral sense is important because it showcases the idea that sidecountry terrain is used differently than backcountry terrain, and as such, suggests that sidecountry users may have different needs than those traditionally addressed in avalanche education. We believe that using the term benefits avalanche professionals by allowing them to relate to audiences and be succinct when speaking, writing, or educating on sidecountry topics.

“Sidecountry is backcountry”

“Sidecountry is backcountry” is a recently coined phrase that is also highly descriptive and accurate regarding particular aspects of sidecountry. Sidecountry avalanche rescue is effectively a backcountry rescue – regardless of the proximity to a ski area, organized rescue may not arrive in time. Since ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain, the phrase is probably an effective tool to communicate avalanche danger, especially to novice and casual sidecountry users. “Sidecountry is backcountry” is a simple message that is easy to understand. There is power in this: power to educate, power to simplify, power to feel that one is addressing the problem. Unfortunately, we are not dealing with a simple problem or a singular, simple user group.

Ski areas do not perform avalanche hazard mitigation work in sidecountry terrain.

Novice, casual, and experienced sidecountry users have different levels of expertise, attitudes, decision-making techniques, and educational needs. In addition, novice and casual users are highly influenced by experienced users. A cursory look at recent sidecountry accident and near-miss reports reveals that experienced sidecountry users appear to be involved more frequently than the less experienced individuals. The experienced group generally visits the same sidecountry terrain frequently enough to become familiar with terrain features, may actively manage or mitigate avalanche hazard (slope cuts, cornice drops, etc.), and at times may have more intimate knowledge of the slope-scale snowpack structure and stability than local avalanche professionals. Most importantly, an “I’m going there because it’s there and I want to ski” attitude seems to be common; experienced users access the terrain and then decide whether to mitigate or avoid hazard or just forge ahead. Will telling these more risk tolerant individuals that “sidecountry is backcountry” reduce their risk? Will it help us communicate with them? Sidecountry may be the same as backcountry in some ways, but routine sidecountry users and backcountry users are disparate user groups.

Skilled, experienced professional avalanche educators can create effective sidecountry-specific educational programs and presentations. As we have learned while reaching out to snowmobilers, relevancy is everything. Just as force-feeding traditional avalanche education to someone who never gets off their sled is ineffective, so too is drawing a “backcountry box” around someone who skis out-of-bounds 50 days a year, but rarely or never uses skins or established backcountry stability evaluation and decision-making techniques. Sidecountry is a growth market for snow sports equipment and clothing manufacturers, and these companies may be interested in supporting educational and outreach efforts to sidecountry users (their customers). Instead of abandoning or over-simplifying the term, maybe the ski and avalanche community would be well served to take advantage of the strong, established sidecountry brand by partnering with the media and outdoor gear retail industry to accomplish the following:

  1. Define sidecountry as the unique geographical and behavioral issue that it is, focusing on the specific dangers associated with sidecountry recreation
  2. Identify and define specific user groups
  3. Tailor, market, and promote user group specific educational programs

The term ‘sidecountry’ is descriptive, intuitive, and useful. We agree with the recent NSAA Journal Editorial “There’s No Such Thing as ‘Sidecountry’ ” that the avalanche and snowsports communities must better communicate that riders are on their own when they leave ski area boundaries. Our common goals are to educate the public on the inherent risk of avalanches outside that boundary and to help users reduce their risk in this terrain. In our opinion, we can enhance communication by acknowledging the difference in behavior and risk tolerance between user groups, by identifying and targeting the needs of those groups, and by partnering with those that have the marketing and promotional power to deliver the message.

Read Next: Charge Hard, Stay Smart: Guidebook Guru, Fritz Sperry, on Safety in Avy-Prone Backcountry.

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