Friday, December 30, 2005

Wilderness = ? - A discussion with Lou Dawson

Lou Dawson, eminent BC skier, recently blogged on the phenomenon of more skiers using snowmachines to access backcountry lines here. The operative part of his comments is reproduced below:

Tired of ski lifts, can’t afford a helicopter — but you’re still a
motorhead? It’s been happening for a long time, but the
seems to be paying more attention
to the fact that many backcountry
skiers are also snowmobilers. I’ve always been amused by the “conflict” that
some backcountry skiing advocates seem to relish portraying between skiers and
sledders, when in reality many people combine both activities or simply know how
to go places where they won’t see snowmobilers (or if they’re a sledder, not see
pedestrians). With more people seeing how useful snowmobiles are for backcountry
skiing support, it’ll be interesting to watch the 50-something grainola
crunchers try to figure out how to deal with 20-something Red Bull quafers.
Hint, it’s spelled W-I-L-D-E-R-N-E-S-S.

While taking some liberties with the ages of the two user groups (up here in AK, there seem to be pleny of 50-something machiners and plenty of 20-something BC skiers), Lou makes an interesting observation that it will be more and more difficult to parse out the two groups (skiers and sledders).

I personally think the distinction is an easy one - you either have a motor or you don't. This is siginifcant to me because the most important aspect of being in the backcountry (more than safety or even (gulp) powder) is the wilderness characteristic of the place.

The Wilderness Act defines wilderness thusly: A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.

Besides being among the best poetry Congress has produced, this language presumes not only a temporary visit by man, but a light touch during that visit. Not all land we use in the backcountry has the legal definition of wilderness but in my humble opinion, it is our duty to treat it as if it did. Loud engines, fast speeds, pollution, and countless tracks (more countless than skiers) seem in direct contrast to this. I will admit my position is highly subjective and Lou I think would differ (text of our correspondence is below) but I think we both agree that as snowmachines (indeed, helis as well) become more of a fixture in the backcountry - we as backcountry users need to take a hard look at what wilderness means to each of us.

Text of discussion on

AKBC Says: December 30th, 2005 at 4:49 am
... for the record, I really don’t see how snowmachines are “useful for backcountry skiing support”…what exactly needs supporting? More snowmachiners than skiers die in avalanches every year by about 2x (and generally don’t get avy education), they pollute the air, the are loud and they destroy the wilderness characteristics of our wild places. Sledders should have a place to play but please don’t lump them in the same group as BC skiers just because they like snow too. And plenty of 20 something red-bull quaffers just happen to skin up mountains Lou…we’re not all motoheads (and there seem to be alot of 50-something flabalanches out there on sleds)

Lou Says: December 30th, 2005 at 7:41 pm
Thanks for the comment AKBC (Alaska, per chance?)
Of course I know various age groups do both activities (categorizing was done to make a point) — my field observation is that the snowmobile skiers tend to be the younger set, while the anti snowmobile activists tend to be baby boomers. Just a generalization for sure.
So when I ride a snowmobile to access a backcountry ski area, am I a sledder or a skier? My point is that I’m both, and so are a lot of other people, and that when the two activities are mixed it becomes harder to make value judgments and segregate uses.
As for who dies where and why, what’s your point? That snowmobilers are inferior to backcountry skiers because more of them die in avalanches? Perhaps there are just more of them and they go bigger. Or too much Red Bull?

AKBC Says: Your comment is awaiting moderation. December 31st, 2005 at 12:57 am
Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Lou
Admittedly, the “who dies where and why” comment is a bit of a value judgment. I don’t think wild places should be reserved only for those who recreate responsibly (keeping themselves and other safe) but I do think it is the responsibility of each BC adventurer to be as safe as possible. It is frustrating that the safety line seems to segregate so cleanly between sledders and skiers (at least according to accident literature and avy class enrollment). But it is not fair to lump all sledders into the irresponsible pile.
More to the point, if you are riding a snowmachine, you are a snowmachiner - regardless of what else you are doing (skiing, hunting, checking traplines, etc.). A major issue in this discussion, at least in terms of land use, is what kind of wilderness we are talking about. No matter how you slice it, snowmachines have a greater impact on the wilderness characteristics of our wild places (they are loud, can access more remote terrain, pollute, scare animals, here in AK they mess up tundra, etc.). These are fungible qualities of the machines, not the riders (and it doesn’t matter how much Red Bull they drink). I think the value judgment is easy when you look at it that way - how much noise, wild life disruption and pollution will we tolerate in the hills? I say it shouldn’t be much. These are slippery slopes for sure, and there are major questions involved a person’s right to be in the wilderness but I think a very hard line can be drawn (and indeed has been) between motor/no motor - it just doesn’t seem that complicated.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Hatcher Pass Avalanche 1 Class

This last weekend, Andrea, Hillary, Brian, and I headed to Hatcher Pass for the Alaska Avalanche School's three-day Level 1 Backcountry Avalanche Hazard Evaluation and Rescue Class. The school is run by Nancy Pfeiffer, a long-time Alaska resident who took the reigns at AAS in the last couple years.

Overall, the course was an amazing eye-opener for all of us. As with all outdoor/backcountry education, the avalanche classes illustrated how a little more knowledge about your environment, gear, or technique can dramatically change your outlook on the backcountry experience. I can honestly say that for the four of us, we will never look at snow-covered slopes the way we once did.

The class is three full days and consists of classroom and field work. Because of the late sunrise, classes started at 8 and went until around 10:30. We spent the rest of the day (until 4:30) in the field. Then it was back to the classroom until 7. We stayed at the visitor center at the mine, 22 or so people sleeping on the floor. It reminded me of a cross between European mountain huts and junior high summer camp. It was lights out every night at 10.

Day one is beacon training, learning how to use your beacon and probe and how to conduct single-burial and multiple-burial searches. Nancy ran our group this day. Multiple-burial scenarios turned out to be the most difficult because more than one beacon is transmitting and depending on the beacon you are using to find them, it can be hard to distinguish between the signals. Our group found four "victims" (backpacks with beacons in them) in just under 17 minutes at shallow burial. Considering the survival rate of an avalanche victim dips below 50% after 15 minutes of burial, it wasn't too bad (but kind of a bummer for the fourth victim).

Timed beacon searches

Day two is snowpack analysis. We learned how to dig pits, conduct shovel, compression and rutschblock tests to determine the stability of the snow. Blaine Smith ran this class for my group.

Heading out with Blaine on day 2

Measuring slope angle is critical to evaluating stability

Blaine illustrates how to make the walls of your snowpit straight by using your probe

Cutting a block for a shovel compression test

Applying pressure for the shovel compression test

Digging pits

Blaine illustrates how to fill out our pit books

Day three is terrain and route evaluation. This day each group did a short tour led by around the valley, focusing on route selection and determining when it is safe to travel through dangerous terrain. Our group, led by Kip Melling, headed up to the Gold Cord Mine then across a route called the "Death Traverse" to a bowl just below Pinnacle Peak. There was an ice crust below 3800' but once above that, the snow was soft and light and we were able to ski some nice shallow powder runs in the short December days.

Andrea's group on their third day tour

Checking stability

The weather over the weekend was unbelievable and some of the instructors commented how lucky we were, recalling how in years past, classes were taught at twenty below zero. Monday (the day we did our mini-tours) really took the cake for weather. The temperature was in the low 30's and the sun shone on us all five hours of our short arctic day.

Andrea's group heading out with Nancy

Aaron and Hillary back at the lodge

Our home for three days

Hatcher Pass sunset

Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Big Whump

Anchorage has had record high temperatures the last week resulting in near annihilation of our Nordic ski trails. With temps in the mid-40’s, the only relief for snow craving skiers was Hatcher Pass where according to the staff at the Hatcher Pass Lodge, the temperature had not gone above freezing. With rain falling on our heads, we departed a quickly melting Anchorage early Saturday morning hoping for fairer conditions at the pass.

The rain turned to snow just outside of Palmer and by the time we reached the parking lot at Hatcher Pass, we were in the midst of a full blown snowstorm. We planned on skinning up to Gold Cord Mine where the low-angle slopes were hopefully safer than April Bowl or Microdot.

We decided to climb to a cross just above the mine buildings and ski some of the steeper vertical just above. Halfway up an extremely wind-scoured slope we heard the second most dreaded sound in backcountry skiing; a giant Whump! (The first most dreaded sound in backcountry skiing is of course a giant whump followed by the slope sliding out underneath you.)

A whumping sound is caused when a weaker layer of snow beneath the surface layer is no longer able to support the weight of the upper layer and literally collapses in a big WHUMP! Snow science experts more commonly refer to this phenomenon as “settling.” As the authors of Snowsense put it, whumping is nature literally “screaming in your ear” that instability exists. Needless to say we left the high-angle slope as quickly as possible and skied less-than-30-degree slopes the rest of the day. Even on the low-angle slopes below the mine, we could see shooting cracks along the tops of convex slopes.

Another interesting phenomenon we experienced on Saturday was the Hatcher Pass Whiteout which is probably more “white” and “out” than anywhere else in Alaska (ok, this could be stretching it a bit). By the time we were ready to head downhill, we could not tell where the snow stopped and the sky began, it was a perfect “white room.” While unnerving in the high-avalanche-risk terrain, when we started skiing the safer low angle stuff, it was kind of fun. The snow was soft so you just pointed the skis downhill, bent your knees to absorb unexpected bumps, and hoped for the best.

Riding just below Gold Cord Mine

Emerson and Riley getting face shots

"It's a great day to be a skier"

Skiing with Vickie

In mid-November, Andrea's mom Vickie came to visit from Wisconsin. We took light backcountry skis up to Hatcher Pass and did some light touring up to Gold Cord Mine.

It was mostly all up then all down prompting Vickie to comment that "cross-country skiing in Alaska is like downhill skiing in Wisconsin!".