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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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Expeditions

May 21, 2019

Field Notes: Solo Ultra-Running the High Himalaya

Peter Van Geit, wilderness explorer, ultra-runner, Founder of the Chennai Trekking Club, shares the field notes from his 1500 km alpine-style run across 40 high altitude passes the Himalaya.

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WRITTEN BY

Peter Van Geit

During the summer of 2018, I completed a three-month journey across 40 high altitude passes in Spiti, Pangi, Chamba, Kinnaur, Shimla and Kangra districts of Himachal, in the Himalaya. As always, I ran alpine style, which means self-navigated and with minimal gear through forests, alpine meadows, moraines, glaciers, snow and wild streams. Although I did meet up with a few friends for portions of the journey, my mostly solo exploration took me to many lesser known passes only used by shepherds including Chobia, Chaini, Kugti, Pratap Jot, Thamsar, Kaliheni, Lar La, Padang La and Buran to name a few.

In the following collection of photos and captions, I jumped districts and valleys across the Pir Panjal, Dauladhar and Baspa ranges traversing through the picturesque valleys of Pangi, Saichu, Sural, Miyar, Hudan, Chandra, Tsarap, Zanskar, Lingthi, Lugnak, Lug, Barot, Ravi, Pin, Parbati, Baspa, Chenab, Buddhil Nai, Pabbar, Chamba and Spiti.

The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes.

Several weeks went into planning the route, analyzing maps including OSM (Open Street Maps), SOI (Survey of India), Google Earth, Olizane and various reference blogs. Credit goes to Sathya Narayanan who inspired me through his solo trekking explorations and wonderful blog before he went missing last August. Also thanks to my close friend Maniraj who identified many trails. Navigation (and photography) was done with my OnePlus 6 mobile and offline OpenTopoMaps. A total elevation gain of 200,000 meters with seven passes above 5,000 meters and 21 passes above 4,000 meters. Being an ultra runner and minimalist, carrying only 6kg luggage, most of the pass crossings were done in just one to two days after initial acclimatization, covering 30-40 km every day. The remaining time I traveled on HPRTC buses in between sections. The journey went across colorful alpine meadows, high altitude desert, vast glaciers, wild stream crossings, huge moraines, steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a few technical climbs and wilderness navigation near a few unused trails.

On many nights, I overnight camped in the tent I carried with me, but many times I stayed in shelters with shepherds and mountain tribes and in many welcoming homes at remote, hospitable villages. My food packing was kept basic with no cooking tools to reduce weight. No technical gear was carried except for a pair of hiking poles to assist in crossing streams, ice slopes, and landslides. The journey was one of stunning natural beauty, hospitality beyond words and overwhelming vastness of remote out-of-this-world landscapes. I indulged in lip-smacking local cuisine, encountered hikers and wildlife in the remotest corners of the Himalaya, and listened to beautiful music on local instruments. More details on passes, route, preparation, photos, and videos of my journey can be found at ultrajourneys.org.

Saichu Valley Apline Meadow, Pangi

Traversing beautiful alpine meadows dotted with pink and yellow flowers in the remote Saichu Valley in Pangi beyond the last village of Tuan. These higher altitude meadows of Saichu are grazed by many herds of the shepherds who migrate each summer from Chamba valley through one of the many passes across the Pir Panjal range. Here on the way to explore an unknown jot (5,260 m) trying to cross over from Saichu to Miyar valley.

Shepherd descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m)

Descending from the Kugti pass (5,040 m) with a shepherd guiding his 500 sheep into the beautiful cloud indulged Chamba valley below. Kugti is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range used by shepherds for their annual migration to graze the high altitude meadows. Here we are crossing over from Rapay village along the Chenab river in Lahaul to the picturesque Kugti village in Bharmour, Chamba. The Kugti pass requires traversing of moraines and landslide-prone slopes on either side of the pass.

High altitude meadows of the Miyar valley

Bright red alpine flowers in the high altitude meadows (4200m) of the Miyar valley while descending the Pratap Jot (5,100 m) pass onto the moraines of the Kang La glacier. Pratap Jot is one of the several passes across the Pir Panjal range separating the Miyar and Saichu valleys. Around 10 shepherds and their 3000+ sheep graze the beautiful meadows of Saichu valley every year crossing one of these passes. The 25km long Kang La glacier seen here connects Lahual/Pangi with Zanskar, Ladakh – walking across this vast moraines landscape of huge boulders and rocks on top of melting ice is quite challenging.

Best friends in the mountains

“The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.”

Your best friends in the mountains – the gaddi’s! Here preparing hot chai, fluffy roti and yummy aloo gravy for two starved (and half frozen) travelers after an icy crossing of the Rupin pass with heavy snowfall and hazel during mid-September 2018. The shepherds leave home at the start of summer in May and cross several high altitude passes to graze their large herds of 300 to 600 sheep and goats in the remotest corners of the Himalaya returning only six months later in Sep-Oct. Every few weeks they descend to the nearest village to resupply rice, atta and other food items. They use home woven blankets and clothing to stay warm in their temporary shelters in the alpine meadows between 3,000 to 4,000 meters altitude. The warmest hospitality can be found in the most remote corners of our planet.

Chobia pass glacier

A heavily crevassed glacier as seen from the top of the Chobia pass (4,966 m), shepherd gateway across the Pir Panjal range separating the valleys of Lahaul/Pangi and Chamba. As per shepherds, the Chobia pass is the second most treacherous pass (after Kalicho) to cross the Pir Panjal range leaving around 20 out of 500 sheep dead during the annual crossing of this pass. From the Pangi side at Arat village along the Chenab river, one has to traverse steep landslide-prone valley slopes, a vast section of moraines and negotiate deep crevasses in the glacier (following a trail of sheep poop) before ascending a final steep rock to reach the narrow pass. On the Chamba side on the way to Seri Kao village, all bridges were washed away during flash floods in August 2018 requiring scaling steep trail-less slopes on one side of the valley unable to cross the forceful stream currents.

Fresh glacial snow near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m)

Fresh snow on top of the glacier near the Pin Parbati pass (5,300 m) in September 2018. The pass was first crossed in 1884 by Sir Louis Dane in search for an alternate route to the Spiti valley. The pass connects the fertile and lush green Parbati valley on the Kullu side with the barren high altitude desert of Spiti near Mud village. At the Parbati valley side, one encounters many shepherds and hikers on the way to the Mantalai lake and one can indulge in the scenic hot springs of Keerghanga. On the Pin valley side, the eye gets treated by the mesmerizing color shades of the valley slopes of the Spiti rock desert.

Tso Mesik ghost town

“Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough?”

Tso Mesik, one of the many ghost towns one encounters along the remote Tsarap river valley while hiking from the Gata loops (Manali-Leh highway) in Lahaul towards Phuktal gompa in Zanskar, Ladakh. What appears to be once thriving settlements with beautifully constructed homes, surrounded by fertile farming fields have been abandoned for many years. Residents seem to have left in a hurry leaving everything behind. Was survival of the harsh life in this barren high altitude desert too tough, did a natural calamity (2014 floods) force them to leave, did the comforts of the city life tempt them to migrate or did their lifelines (water streams) dry up due to global warming and melting glaciers?

Ibex skull found on the Lar La pass (4,670 m)

An ibex skull on the Lar La pass (4,670 m) deep inside the Zanskarian mountains in Ladakh on the way from Phuktal to Zangla. The entire journey involves crossing two other passes including Rotang La (4,900 m) and Padang La (5,170 m). On the way one passes through Shade village, one of the most remote settlements in Zanskar, being two days away from the nearest road head. Between Lar La and Padang La, I encountered yak herders grazing remote alpine meadows in this barren desert, producing 100 liters of milk from as many domesticated yaks every day, also producing butter and cheese. The same is transported using donkeys, horses and yaks to Shade village to survive the six months of total isolation during winter. All animals are carefully kept in enclosures at night, safe from nocturnal attacks by the elusive snow leopard.

Beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m)

Dreaming beneath the milky way at the base of the Phirtse La pass (5,560 m), the highest of the 40 passes crossed in this trans-Himalayan journey, the Phirtse La connects Tangze village in Zanskar with Sarchu in Lahaul. The starlit skies were captured on my OnePlus 6 phone with 30 seconds exposure trying hard not to freeze off my butt in that very cold night at 4,700 m. The pass connects the Southern most section of the Zanskar valley which is dotted with many beautiful small settlements like Testa, Kuru, Tangze, Kargyak, small fertile patches in the barren desert of Ladakh. On the other side, one descends into the beautiful Lingthi valley encountering shepherds and wild yaks on the way to Sarchu where it joins the Tsarap river.

Menthosa peak, 6,443 meters

Menthosa peak, at 6,443 m, the second highest peak in Lahaul and Spiti, as seen from an unknown pass (5,300 m) while crossing over the Pir Panjal range from Saichu to Miyar valley in Pangi. Menthosa is situated in the Urgos Nallah, a tributary of the exceptionally beautiful Miyar Nallah. Here climbing up steeply from the beautiful alpine meadows of the Saichu Nallah beyond the last settlement of Tuan across vast stretches of moraines towards Great Himalayan Range to enter Miyar valley.

Trapped in a fog whiteout

“I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail.”

One of the most intense experiences during my journey. While descending from the Chobia pass, the most dangerous in the 40 crossed, I got trapped in a sudden dense fog whiteout in the late afternoon at 4,100 meters and lost the trail used by shepherds. Further descent was impossible being blocked by steep rock faces on all sides. Having lost my tent the previous day in the beautiful Miyar valley, I spend that night wrapped up beneath a small tarpaulin sheet braving the cold rains, while trying not to slide down from the inclined slope. Next morning the sunrise cleared up the fog and I was treated to a stunning view of the green Chamba valley below. One hour later and 500 meters lower I was enjoying a hot cup of chai and alloo roti in the first shepherd shelter on my way out.

Award-winning documentary

Upon returning, I shared all of the footage from my journey that I took with my OnePlus 6 and shared it with my friend Neil D’Souza, who compiled it into a short film which won the Best Mountain Exploration Film Award at the IMF Mountain film festival.

For more information on Peter’s journeys, visit ultrajourneys.org.

Instagram: @petervangeit
Facebook: @PeterVanGeit

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