Avalanche safety in the Rockies: Stay on top of the slopes and ‘crush pow’
Pete showed up in New Mexico at the right time. On the last Friday in February, the skies were dumping at Taos, in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains, though it had barely snowed all season. Staff were out skiing, and most ticket booths were shuttered when we arrived, save for the will-call office. Our stoke, as skiers say - enthusiasm - was high, and we spent the morning cutting fresh tracks.
In the afternoon, Pete wandered off to Bootdoctors, a local pro shop, to have climbing skins cut for his touring skis, which have bindings with a releasing heel for striding uphill. The skins, in turn, attach to the bottom of the skis and provide traction; he’d need all of it during the three-day avalanche-safety course we’d signed up for, in southern Colorado, for backcountry skiing.
The trip had been a long time coming. Pete and I had grown up together around Boston, and just after college we’d taken our first backcountry turns on Tuckerman Ravine, on the back side of Mount Washington. The trip marked our last time skiing together for a while; shortly after the Tuckerman trip, I moved to China for a few years, and Pete moved to Cleveland. In the dry smog of Beijing, I often daydreamed about the Rocky Mountains, which I’d first visited with Pete in high school. Pete’s move to the monotonous, flat shores of Lake Erie left him with similar yearnings.
So when I finally moved back to the United States last year, to Albuquerque, we were both antsy for a return to the backcountry. Two of the great Rocky Mountain ranges - the Sangre de Cristos, straddling southern Colorado and northern New Mexico, and the San Juans, in southwest Colorado - lay just three hours away to the north. Most skiers visiting Colorado still fly into Denver, electing to drive west across Interstate 70 to resorts dotting the highway, leaving the southern ranges - which are closer to Albuquerque than to Denver - an undertrafficked afterthought. Flying into Albuquerque for a week-long ski expedition to the Southern Rockies, hours away from the Denver crowds, sounded like a great idea, and Pete didn’t need much convincing to visit. We’d spend a warm-up day at Taos, take the backcountry safety course in the San Juans, then head to Telluride for a glitzier victory lap.
A powder day at Taos was a great start, though it stretched the definition of a warm-up. The mountain’s ridges drop into legendary steep tree chutes, and there’s a throwback culture of hiking to get to them, complemented by old-school lifts which turn slowly but keep trails underskied. Updates, however, are on the way. In the coming year, the resort’s first high-speed chairlift will replace its old base lift, shortening ride times by about 40 percent. Taos’s new luxury base lodge, the Blake, sits just behind it along with a gondola, opened last year, that shepherds skiers along the base area. But even with the updates that began with new ownership a few years ago, Taos retains its laid-back, old-school vibe.
From Taos en route to Durango, a common access point to the San Juans, we drove across northern New Mexico, an expanse vast enough that it’s a good idea to fill your gas tank before crossing the first mountain pass. Only three major resorts are located in the San Juans - Telluride, Wolf Creek, and Purgatory - making the range a haven for backcountry skiing and snowboarding. Guide companies abound in the San Juans, and many offer safety courses certified by the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE). Over the past decade, backcountry skiing has become increasingly popular, AIARE’s executive director, Richard Bothwell, told me.Meanwhile, avalanche deaths in the United States largely plateaued in that span, since a small spike around 2010.
“I’d like to think that’s in part because of education,” Josh Kling, the founder of Kling Mountain Guides, in Durango, told me.
That was motivation enough for us. The next day, after crashing in Durango, we showed up for Kling’s class in the basement of the Durango Mountain Institute at Purgatory Resort, about 25 miles outside of town. Five other students attended. Over the next three days - one inside, and two outdoors in the mountains - we’d begin learning how to manage avalanche risk. We’d also drink a lot of beer together.
It was our first day in class together since high school, and Pete and I eagerly took seats in front. AIARE’s blue field books for journaling and planning trips waited at our seats. Tico Allulee, one of the most experienced ski guides you’ll find, sat at the front of the room beside a projector, his face bronzed from decades of snow-reflected sunlight. His desktop background was projected on the screen, featuring a photograph of him standing in the Indian Himalayas before completing a first descent of Lalsura, arms and poles raised skyward.
Over the next few days, Tico would describe as many varieties of snow crystals as he did varieties of skier. His first imitation came while gazing at a photograph of a small line of skiers in an Aspen glade. “Yeah bro, I ski that,” he said, mimicking the stoned pride of Jackson Hole mountain bums.
He bantered playfully with AJ Appezzato, a younger protege and our second instructor for the weekend, throwing around jokes about the idiocy of snowshoeing, the obnoxiousness of snowmobilers, snowboarder stereotypes and the unsatisfactory summer pastime of jogging. In a sport where making the wrong reads can have serious consequences, the improv stand-up kept the room loose and laughing, in that comfortable zone of relaxed yet focused attention.
Tico and AJ introduced us to avalanche-safety techniques, philosophy and strategies, employing both technical speak and backcountry slang. There were two main goals in what we were doing. The first, as Tico repeated constantly, was to ski powder, or “crush pow.” “Don’t get smoked” - the vernacular for getting caught by an avalanche - was the second.
When it comes to crushing pow while not getting smoked, there’s a fire hose of information to consider, and it can take years to begin to deploy it skillfully. Tico and AJ were careful to stress that one could never fully eliminate risk, only manage it. Most of the classroom day was spent learning about the different kinds of avalanches, where and under what conditions they form, how they slide, how to diagnose them, and how to translate avalanche forecasts onto the “rose” - a diagram of elevation and direction in the AIARE field books used to plot zones of safety and danger - to plan a trip based on that information.
We stayed the night in Silverton, an old mining town about an hour’s drive from Durango in the heart of the San Juans, waking early the next morning for a day of learning in the field. After a group meeting at the cafe and a look at the avalanche forecast, we headed up the hill. Distracted by towering peaks in every direction, I ran a stop sign on the way into the mountains and was pulled over by a police officer, who took pity on me with a verbal warning.
We showed up a few minutes late. Tico seemed excited by our pullover.
“Did you say ‘Howdy Sheriff!’ to him?” he asked us. That was his favorite thing to say to cops out west. We weren’t the first to have a run-in with police during the class, he assured us. Past students were occasionally overly fond of cannabis in the morning.
Our team threw on our backcountry gear and skinned a few hundred yards to an open mountain clearing above the highway between Silverton and Durango. Avalanche debris fields were visible on distant faces, and we spent the day tramping around in the snow, running burial retrieving drills and digging snow pits, paying close attention to the snowpack’s basal facet layer - a weak area near the ground which can cause avalanches once the snow gets deeper. Then we headed to the local bar for well-earned beers.
The next day, we skinned to our first line, a route down the mountain that skied like a dream, powder stashes for two runs of bliss. The tour was a success; we had indeed crushed pow and hadn’t gotten smoked in the process. By 2 p.m. - our predetermined time for returning from the backcountry and Tico’s preferred bar time - we were back in the bar, getting classmates’ contact info for future trips and toasting one another. A happy visit to the watering hole was the sign of a good backcountry day. “Better to be toasting your bros on a good day than pour one out for a homie,” AJ remarked.
Our final two days felt like a dream. AJ was heading back to Denver, and he offered to take us to a mellow backcountry spot the day after our course ended. We skied three lines of tree powder, and diagnosed one avalanche-prone zone, working our way around it. AJ beamed like a proud father and bid us goodbye. A few weeks later, he said, he might be back in the San Juans - Josh had called to ask him if he could guide a bachelorette party.
After four days skinning uphill to backcountry lines, a day at Telluride was a flashy ending to our southern tour. From Silverton, the drive takes about two hours, passing through breathtaking scenery via one of Colorado’s most dramatic major roads, the famed “million-dollar highway,” along cliffs, soaring mountain peaks and abandoned mines. At Telluride, we skied from 9 to 4, down tight tree chutes, high mountain gullies, and wide-open groomers of luxury corduroy serviced by an arsenal of high-speed lifts.
Mountain villas, seemingly designed for Hollywood’s A-list celebrities, dot one section of the mountain, and the terrain we’d skied over the weekend felt far away. But by the early afternoon, high on the mountain ridges, I found myself peering out into the distance, past Telluride’s landing strip, and into the backcountry. On our way back to Albuquerque in the afternoon, Pete couldn’t help but investigate real estate prices in Durango.
This season, I’ve already begun looking at the weather forecast, trying to hold back my excitement. After a few early October snowfalls, Tico provided the right perspective.
“I’m trying hard not to get stoked about skiing,” he wrote me. “It’s only October, today’s pow is winter’s basal facet layer.”
If you go
Where to stay
116 Sutton Pl., Taos Ski Valley, N.M.
With doors that open out onto Taos’s main base area, lockers where a chauffeur stores your skis for you and an airy room just for putting on your boots, this is luxury all the way. The lodge offers spacious rooms with enormous bathrooms and an outdoor pool and hot tub area. Rooms from $324.
Canyon View Motel
661 Greene St., Silverton, Colo.
This budget spot offers a simple drive-up with a heater that kicks for the cold nights, along with some friendly Western vibes. The keys are left in the room for when you arrive, and you’re expected to drop them off when leaving. Dogs are welcome, encouraged even, and the motel provides free biscuits. Rooms from $80.
Where to eat
100 Kachina Rd., Taos Ski Valley, N.M.
The restaurant sits just below Lift No. 4, which services the upper section of Taos. You can stop in midday for lunch and beers, or you can arrange a dinner at night. Think very German food along with fun specials, such as Fondue Night. Entrees from $12.
What to do
Kling Mountain Guides’ AIARE courses
1205 Camino Del Rio, Durango, Colo.
There are plenty of guiding companies which offer avalanche courses, and this smaller operation is highly regarded. Those interested in taking a course can do so in a class that is run in a hut in the San Juan Mountains (meals included), where you’ll dorm up for the weekend with classmates. There also are non-hut courses, for which students typically stay in Silverton or Durango for the night. Level 1 (no hut) and Level 2 (hut) courses are available. Level 1 prices start at $395. Level 2 prices start at $495, plus a $195 hut fee.
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