Locally-made skis, snow terrain parks, backcountry awareness, winter events.
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Left Blase Reardon examining snow crystals.
Right Blase Reardon and Chris Lundy assessing snow conditions in the Galena Pass area.
Keeping safe in the backcountry
The rewards of backcountry skiing are undeniable—no lift lines, fresh tracks, indescribable views and the feeling of escape. But like most outdoor activities, the bliss of the backcountry comes with risks.
The wrong weather conditions can easily turn fresh powder into an unstable slope and a dangerous place to be. But with proper education and awareness about avalanche danger, the backcountry can be a lot safer. With the goal of safety in mind, the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center began in 1994.
The center, which is technically part of the U.S. Forest Service-Ketchum Ranger District, puts out daily avalanche advisories, and covers the mountains between Bellevue and Galena Summit, and the Sawtooth Valley and Fairfield areas.
Each morning, a member of the team goes out into the field to look for signs of recent avalanches or weakening of the snowpack. They often dig pits to study the layers of snow that have accumulated and, as Chris Lundy, the center’s director said, to look for “slabs” and “weak layers.”
“Weak layers here are usually caused by extended periods of time without snow,” Lundy said. “Usually, you get warmer days and cold nights which turn the whole snowpack into loose snow. It’s the kind of snow that feels like sugar. It’ll just pour out of your hand.”
Combine this with a “slab,” which is one layer of snow sitting atop a weaker layer, and you get what international backcountry ski guide and the owner of Sierra Mountain Guides, Neil Satterfield, calls “the Oreo cookie effect.” “You need something hard sitting on something soft that’s on top of something else hard to slide on…and maybe a little milk,” Satterfield joked, while presenting at a High Sierra seminar on avalanches a couple of winters ago.
If digging a pit reveals this kind of layering, Lundy said, there is a good chance the slope could slide.
Satterfield also explained that the Oreo cookie effect is just one of three main ingredients that causes avalanches. Besides the dangerously layered snow, the other two components are: avalanche terrain, usually slopes angled between 35 to 45 degrees, and a trigger—“usually you,” he said.
The goal of the Sawtooth Avalanche Center is to alert—and educate—backcountry users to the snow conditions and dangers. After gathering observations in the field, the center combines the information from their notes with reports from a series of remote weather stations in order to create the avalanche forecast for the next day.
Aside from compiling the advisories, the center also hosts introductory-level avalanche safety courses, which range from snowmobiling-specific classes to general field sessions. It also puts together the free Avalanche Rescue Training Park, in the field along Sun Valley Road, which allows backcountry advocates a chance to practice using their avalanche beacons.
To help keep up with the ever-changing slope stability around town, observer reports are available online. Lundy encourages anyone who has been in the backcountry, whether the snow was safe or not, to fill out a report so the rest of the community can be aware of what is going on.
-Photography Craig Wolfrom