The uncertainty around Coronavirus has been massive. Scott and I both face a likely work drought in the coming months. Right now I am supposed to be guiding in Iceland. The week after I was to be in Austria working on an Eastern European Ski Guide exam.
Another time. Salt Lake City is on lock down and we are encouraged not to start gallivanting around the state. Obie’s school is closed until the end of March, if not the end of the US school year.
We’ve been back from NZ 6-8 weeks. As I returned to the US on January 28, I was somewhat anxious about this emerging virus and what the coming months may entail. Peripatetic gang that we are, our doorstep has been graced by many Kiwi visitors since then. The last two were curtailed by the 5.7 earthquake (what next!) to hit Salt Lake City yesterday but we got them away today. Come as a friend, become a refugee then leave as a hostage. They will return to NZ to quarantine for two weeks. New Zealand has 28 cases of C-19 so far, the US has 8313 and Utah has 65. I’m now charting it. The New Zealand border closed last night. I’ll admit it in writing: I prefer to live in New Zealand. I strongly identify with the land and it’s always been hard for me to be away from it for long. The rapidly closing borders and threat of reduced trans-Pacific flights awakens a deep-seated fear for me – what if I (and my family) get stuck on the wrong side?
Fear is something we all must work through from time to time. More than ever I look to my morning routine of self-care (hydration, stretching and foam roller work out and meditation) as a source of a calm start to the day. Seeking facts is also important for me right now. Since we must decide (extremely) soon whether to ride this pandemic out in Utah or in NZ, I follow several reputable media sources: The New York Times, Radio New Zealand and The Salt Lake Tribune. I also look to trusted scientific friends for information. My good friend Esther Smith at Grassroots Physiotherapy sent this link on limiting in person interactions to help to flatten the curve and slow the spread of COVID-19. Wise words.
In the meantime, we ski and walk and Obie skateboards. We help Obie with his school work. We think of those who are really stuck – living paycheck to paycheck and those without support.
We are all in this together. Take it seriously. Wash your hands. Look after your kaumatua/elders – you are lucky to have them. Kia Kaha.
A couple of new things:
1. I’ve stepped up to assessing on NZMGA Climb exams. After 21 ski seasons in a row, the feet just love it when I squeeze them into rock shoes instead of ski boots. Just joking …. I’m motivated by challenge, and the option to step up for my lesser sport (though equally loved) of climbing seemed like a logical step. The recent NZMGA climb assessment was challenging – full westerly conditions for 2 weeks. November at it’s most tempestuous with seething snows replenishing our glaciers (this is good). Yes, a challenging couple of weeks but I do love working with guides-in-training and seeing them psyched to share mountain passion. It’s an intense and demanding career choice.
2. I’ve joined Macpac as an ambassador. This is huge and another full circle milestone. Back in the late 1980’s when Adventure Racing was a fledgling sport, our Canterbury team was outfitted by Macpac with lightweight Pursuit packs, sleeping bags and clothing. it was good fun to go and visit the crew at Macpac, talk gear and get experimental. We put that gear seriously to the test in the world’s first adventure race, the Raid Gauloises, NZ (which we won – I bought my first car with the prize money!) It’s a crazy honour to be invited to represent Macpac again, a quiet 30 years later. AND I DON’T HAVE TO TRY AND WIN ANY RACES! That’s a relief as I’m actually not into competitive sport anymore.
Photos: Recent images from a day’s training with Justin and Paul on Philistine. Photos: Jane Morris.
A couple of years ago I was teaching a snow safety class at Mt Cheeseman. Constant snow flurries, low visibility and wind kept us inbounds on day one. On day two, after the upper Cheeseman slopes had been controlled and opened by a hardworking 3-member Ski Patrol, my group headed into Tarn basin. We linked the lower angle pitches to the very bottom of Tarn and had 500 metres of first tracks – superb, low risk, boot-top plus powder skiing. We spread out for the section that rides through the runout of the Tarn chutes. As the group skinned back up the basin (again spread out for the exposed section), a pair of skiers dropped together into the Tarn chutes (approaching 40 degrees steep at the top). I felt troubled by this – dropping in at the same time seemed unnecessarily risky. If they had both been avalanched (it was within 24 hours of the snow fall – the time when snow is most unstable), we would have to make the difficult decision whether to go to help. My group, many of whom were in the backcountry for the first time, would be exposed to steep nearby slopes which could also avalanche. The so-called Slack country is not that slack. As soon as you leave the ski area boundary, it’s backcountry. Ski Patrol are often too busy to be able to respond to a backcountry accident, especially if it’s a powder day. Time is essential. No-one breathes for long under snow. It’ll be up there with the scariest thing you’ve ever had happen. I know: I’ve been there.
I feel like I see this often in New Zealand – people dropping wherever they feel like it in the backcountry, regardless of whether others are beneath them. Even wilder are all the times I’ve seen folks skinning back up the 35 degree ski lines while riders drop in around them. In other busy touring areas, you’d be given grief for this. It ties into manners but it’s really about risk management. Although spreading out in avalanche terrain is not necessary every single day on every single run, it’s a good habit to develop. Even when avalanche hazard is low, best practice is to at least verbalise the spacing plan among team members and assign regroup spots that are (as much as possible) away from avalanche runouts. The real trick comes into play when it’s unpredictable. I’ve had many friends get caught out by avalanches in an otherwise stable snowpack. Often an anomaly gets them – a small unexpected windslab carries the victim over a cliff or a wet slide knocks you off your feet and buries you in a drainage. This “spatial variability” – the idea that weak snow layers are variable from location to location, can be a frustrating concept. The only mitigation method is to avoid having too many people exposed at once on avalanche-prone slopes (slopes approaching and above 35 degrees). Set yourself up for someone to be available to help. The avalanche question already involves a complex interplay of factors: Is the slope steep enough to avalanche? What aspect is the slope in relation to wind and sun? What elevation is the slope and how does that affect the snow? What shape is the slope? Does it have steep rollovers? Shallow rocky areas? How is the weather affecting the snow? Add in ourselves with our odd habits and urges and ask: What happens if an avalanche occurs? Will the slide be big or small? Could you be buried deep in a terrain trap, swept over a cliff, swept into a party below….? It’s about examining consequences and options.
Best practice is to ski an avalanche-prone slope separately, particularly if there are several other groups in the vicinity. How much space you allow between riders will depend on the likelihood of an avalanche vs the consequence if the slope does rip. Before you drop, talk to your partner/s and establish the island of safety you plan to regroup at. It may be a long way down (think Crystal valley off Porters) – which adds to risk management. If the first skier makes it safely and the second gets avalanched, the skier below will have to skin to the rescue. Islands of safety are higher points like knolls or ridges. When you arrive at that island, look around and ask yourself “Am I in the safest spot I could be given the conditions?” Agree on the distance between team members before dropping in. Avoid stopping part way down. As you drop, have an escape route in mind, should the slope go. This may be a nearby ridge, a big rock that you can duck under or a route back onto the ridge you left from. It’s wise for the first person to ski/snow board cut – high across the slope – to test it before committing to the drop.
Respect other riders and avoid dropping in on them until they’re at a safe spot. Avoid dropping in above people skinning. Skinners and booters – take the line that avoids being directly under slopes that folks are riding, even if these means going further or it means you lose the race for first tracks. Honestly, there are always more first tracks!
I’m keen to avoid a multi-casualty accident in popular and accessible areas like Tarn basin and Crystal Valley. Having a little self control and skiing/riding one at a time while identifying safe stopping areas is a healthy habit – whether it’s a stable day or not. You never know when you could get it wrong.
At the risk of sounding preachy, here’s a quick version of dos and don’ts with backcountry etiquette:
1. If the ski area is generous enough to sell a one-ride ticket, preserve that goodwill by only taking ONE RIDE! Don’t be the one who kills the privilege!
2. Know Before you Go: Check the Avalanche Advisory (https://www.avalanche.net.nz/region/5)
2. Be nice to the ski patrol as you exit and enter the ski area.
3. Exit through designated areas. Do not return to the ski area via closed areas (this message is to all you people exiting Porters – that full sliding fall down Bluff face is incredibly unpleasant to witness).
4. Be friendly to other travellers. We are all in it for a good time and we need to look after each other out there.
5. Avoid dropping in on others below
6. Avoid skinning up the down routes. Skin lower angle routes back to the ski area. Spread out where it’s exposed.
7. Ski/Ride out of potential avalanche path runouts as much as possible – aim for a safe regroup spot where you are not under others who are skiing/riding down.
8. If you see an avalanche or get weak test results, share that info to other BC travellers, ski patrol and send it to the local avalanche observer.
Here’s what I have going on for 2018-2019:
The Craigieburn Haute Route: Now in it’s third year, this iconic trip across the Craigieburns involves light packs, excellent ski terrain and ski club hospitality. Still in conjunction with Chill, still with my secret guiding weapon, Stu Waddel! August-September
Private hut-based trips to the gorgeous maritime glaciers of the South Island. Sadly they are diminishing. Ski NZ’s longest glacier Haupapa/Tasman Glacier and it’s tributaries or the West Coast glaciers of Fox and Franz Josef and their tributaries. September-November.
Utah. I’ve lived in Utah’s Wasatch range for nearly 20 years yet people still welcome me to the USA. The kiwi accent endures. I know this range extremely well and would love to introduce you to the secret stashes of ‘the greatest snow on earth.’ Utah has many world-class ski resorts. Tack on some days of ski touring to your holiday. Learn to ski tour. Introduce family to the sport. It’s all good. January-April each year.
Nevada. Ok this one is gold. The past two years I’ve had the opportunity to train American Ski Guides based from the Ruby High Yurt in the Ruby Mountains way out in the Great Basin of Nevada. I love this spot for it’s wildness and remote position. The yurt has tremendous views, heaps of great ski options right outside the door and opportunities for ‘heli bumps’ to more remote ski touring in the range (thanks to the Ruby Mountain Heli ski operation). February-March. 2-4 day trips for four people.
Iceland. I’ve joined with my friend and fellow IFMGA guide, Emilie Drinkwater to charter a yacht in the Western Fiords of Iceland in May 2019. Hero skiing at it’s finest in an exotic location close to Europe…. I can take a group of four for 6 days yacht-based ski touring in this fine island nation. Emilie will also have a group of 4, meaning flexibility to choose where we ski and for how long each day.
Antarctic Peninsula. After travelling to the Peninsula on foot twice in the past two years, I must return on skis with some of my adventurous people. For this mission, I’ve joined forces with Ice Axe expeditions as they have the ship and the organisation to ensure a smooth and safe voyage to ski some of the most remote mountains on earth. We meet in the extreme southern Argentine town of Ushaia to sail across the Drake Passage to the Peninsula. Again, a guide: guest ratio of 1:4 means flexibility to ski as much as you like among the fabulous wildlife and scenery of Antarctica. It’s a trip of a lifetime. November 2019.
Links for more information can be found here: YO, come and join the great ski times!
Let’s go big….
Winter is winding down in SLC. I was interviewed a while back by Utah Avalanche Forecaster, Drew Hardesty. I loved talking to Drew and producer Ben Bombard. My perspective is pretty personal – and quite long. Sorry about that. Only listen on a long drive or a long work out. Here it is
The AKG 2018 pre-season prep is underway. Right now is my climbing season. So far mostly gym focused for fitness.
And fresh back from South Georgia Island and the Antarctic Peninsula. Year 2. A remarkable landscape and experience. Guiding with Tarn Pilkington. This year the big treat was having Michele Gilbert join the trip. This stalwart of climbing, Michele prefers cool weather, low altitude and she doesn’t get seasick! That plus her passion for wildlife meant it was all good.