The Outdoor Junkie

The Outdoor Junkie is a blog by Ann Driggers, a backcountry bon vivant who lives to hike, run, ride, ski and climb in the great outdoors, and is most often found roaming through the red-rock canyons and mountains of Western Colorado.

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Snow Testing with an Avalanche Forecaster

By Ann Driggers
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

It's been a while, but the Outdoor Junkie has returned to the blog. Due to the mammoth task of transfering everything to the new and improved Daily Sentinel website, I got a little backed up on posting. As you can imagine I haven't been sitting around twiddling my thumbs, so I'll get right to it. Here's an account of an awesome day I had hanging out with a forecaster from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), a couple of weeks ago:

Cup of joe in hand, reading the daily weather and avalanche forecast from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) is one of my morning rituals.  Even if headed only to work, learning about and understanding the changing conditions of the snowpack is vital for safe travel in the snowy backcountry. Every day’s avalanche report is like a page in a large book, building up a reservoir of information about the snowpack over the winter months. It is today’s weather that creates the snowpack and avalanche conditions of the future. 

This year is going down as being one of the most dangerous in recent memory. Several long periods of dry weather interspersed with some moderate and very large snowfalls has created a rotten and dangerous snowpack. Overlaid with last week’s big snow event the snowpack is now teetering on the brink and in many places, has come crashing down. Hundreds of avalanches have been recorded and sadly several deaths too.  As a state program whose purpose is “to minimize the economic and human impact of snow avalanches on recreation, tourism, commerce, industry and the citizens of Colorado”, the CAIC has been very busy in recent weeks.

The daily forecasts are, in part, based upon observations from backcountry travelers submitted to the CAIC. Although our backyard, the Grand Mesa, has its own avalanche forecast, the number of observations trickling into the CAIC office is minimal, and the forecast is sometimes an extrapolation of neighboring zone observations. Wanting more information on the local snowpack, I recently accompanied one of CAIC’s forecasters, Scott Toepfer, on a Grand Mesa foray and conducted a number of tests to assess the stability of the snow.

 We dug a pit on a north facing slope at approximately 10,000 feet with an angle of 32 degrees. The layering within the 4 foot deep snowpack was immediately obvious:


The bottom of the pack was made up of old snow particles called facets. Created by a process of metamorphism the sugar-like cohesion less grains are typical of a weak Colorado snowpack.


Scott then performed several tests which identify possible weak layers, the strength of those weak layers and overall snow stability.

First was the Shovel Compression Test which failed at the first hit from the shoulder with an easy and clean shear (CT21, Q1):

Next, a Rutschblock Test, which again tests the bonding of the layers, this time with the weight of a skier on an isolated block of snow. Rather disconcertingly, this failed when Scott stepped onto the block (RB2, Q1):


Scott also performed a relatively new test of snow stability, the Extended Column Test (ECT). The ECT provides information on where a fracture in the snowpack could be initiated and how it might propagate. Although there was no result from the ECT the low score on the Rutschblock Test was concerning enough that we decided to ski relatively conservative terrain and avoided slopes greater than 30 degrees.

The final test of the day is one I call the Happy Skier Test (HST). This test assesses the quality of the snow for skiing purposes. Judging by the size of the smile on Scott's face I would say that the HST had strong results (HST gold star).


Upon submitting the observations that were made during our trip the avalanche danger was increased from Moderate, meaning natural avalanches are unlikely and human trigged avalanches are possible, to Considerable on NW - N - NE aspects. Considerable danger means natural avalanches are possible and human triggered avalanches are probable. This was therefore important safety information for backcountry skiers and snowmobilers.

 In order to provide the most accurate information possible the CAIC encourages those traveling in the backcountry to submit observations on their website. I would also encourage anyone who reads and uses the forecasts to financially support the CAIC so that we may continue to be well informed and safe beneficiaries of this important program.


Never Summer Ski Tour

By Ann Driggers
Monday, January 18, 2010

Bony is the name of the backcountry game, not only in Colorado, but just about everywhere in the Rocky Mountains. However there is good news on the horizon as the weather forecast is looking much improved this week. The bad news is that it’s not here yet. So when the snowpack is skinny and all the usual popular backcountry spots are pulverized into bump runs, long tours to high and remote terrain usually yield the best results. Furthermore there are silver linings to a snowless three weeks: the snowpack has consolidated moderating the avalanche danger and making for fast travel across longer distances.

We visited friends in Grand Lake this weekend who offered to take us on a ski tour into the Never Summer Range, an area that sees little ski traffic and whose name alone offers great promise in a season where winter has yet to settle in for good. The Never Summer Range's 12 peaks over 12,000 feet follow the Continental Divide and the western border of Rocky Mountain National Park. The central peaks are named after clouds, Mounts Cirrus, Cumulus, Nimbus and Stratus. It was in our hopes to touch the sky and bag one of these beautiful peaks, when we set off early on Sunday morning. Leaving the trailhead our first hurdle was crossing the Colorado River...headwaters. Buried beneath the snow it was neat to stand above the water that in a hundred miles or so would be running through the middle of town, here in Grand Junction.


The first hour was spent gaining a bench with steep skinning through thick forest. We plugged away and were rewarded with our first sight of one of the cloud peaks. Fluffy and white and appropriately named Mount Cumulus.


Navigating around a series of drainages and traversing a few avalanche paths (observing protocol) we continued to climb into a basin between Nimbus and Cumulus.

The weather had been warm and sunny but as we started to climb towards a saddle connecting these peaks clouds moved in and began to look a little ominous. Reaching the saddle we still had great views across to the west, but we decided the safest decision was to make this our turn around point and forgo any summits. It was almost 2 p.m. and we had over 4 miles and 4,000 feet of descent to return to the trailhead.

 Looking out to the west from the Continental Divide


The flat light and manky snow higher up made the skiing 'interesting'. Neilie drops into the basin


But lower down in sheltered gullies we found some creamy snow that made for fun turns. Doug enjoys the recycled powder.


Chad too.


The last few hundred feet before the valley floor, the bones started poking through and it was a little dodgy. The snow has become so rotten that we bottomed out several times hitting rocks and logs. Someone's brand new skis suffered a core shot (sniff) but at least no bodily injuries were sustained. Despite my sad skis and no summit, the day was deemed a great success. Thanks to Doug and Neilie for showing us this special place.


The Wonderful Eisman Hut

By Ann Driggers
Tuesday, January 12, 2010


Situated at 11,180 feet in the mountains north of Vail, the Eisman Hut is one of the best in the 10th Mountain Division. Built in 1996, the 'hut' is in fact a beautiful log structure that accommodates 16 in relative comfort. Since one has to carry in supplies and sleeping gear up a 7 mile trail, backcountry lodge would be a more accurate description. The surrounding terrain provides a variety of skiing opportunities including fantastic gladed areas right off the hut's spacious deck with has stunning views of the nearby Gore Range. In every aspect the Eisman Hut has the right combo for a stellar hut trip. We just returned from three days and two nights at the hut where I attempted to capture the aspects of hut life with my camera.

Sunrise on the first morning, looking north towards the Flattops:


Skis lined up waiting to make some turns:


Playing in the glades beneath the hut:


Cocktail hour on the deck:

  Cocktail Hour.jpg

Another gorgeous sunset:


Drying gloves hang over the wood stove as it also melts snow for water and heats the hut:


Hanging out around the dinner table after a big feast:


Another day, another sunrise...and so it goes on....


Going with the Snow

By Ann Driggers
Saturday, January 2, 2010

With a week of play time scheduled between Christmas and New Year and the ability to travel, numerous options existed for finding the best snow in the Rocky Mountain west. Head north to Jackson Hole, south to the San Juans, east to the Elks or west to Utah. A plethora of choices would surely give us a week of off-the-hook powder skiing. The plan was to go with the snow.

Snow Smiley.jpg

Packed and ready to hit the road we decided to pick our destination at the last minute, following a final check on the weather forecasts and web cams. Sheesh, there was no doubt it had been a dry start to the ski season just about everywhere. A motorized lawnmower looked a better mode of transportation in Jackson Hole. Resorts in Utah were reporting a paltry snowpack and others in Colorado hadn't seen snowfall of any significance for weeks. None of the options were particularly inspiring nor motivating enough to burn a ton of gas. There was one place however which had seen several storms in the last 10 days, each producing double digit snowfalls. Despite being at low elevation, below 10,000 feet, the ski area was 100% open and the webcam showed oodles of white stuff and nary a rock or shrub in sight. Huh? Where could this place be? Was it worth the drive and would our powder appetites be sated? Although we had not for once considered this is where our epic week of powder would materialize we decided it was worth a shot. Going with the snow would mean....staying at home! Yep, little ol' Powderhorn, our town hill, was delivering the goods in spades. Perfectly positioned to capitalize on the recent storms on a west and south-west flow, the forecast looked as it would continue. And when Powderhorn is good, the Mesa backcountry is even better. So we unpacked our gear and went about investigating the local snow conditions with numerous forays into the 'hood. Over the past week we barely made a dent in our local options and we definately found the goods. Here are a few photos of evidence:

Day One. Chad skis makes turns with classic Mesa views:


Here I am writing my own lines in the aspen shadows.


I love the light at this time of year though it can make for challenging photographs where the snow is best — in the north facing glades.


Day Two: Pete Harris enters the white room:


Day Three: It was snowing so hard and it was too cold to take pics. But with another 11 inches let me tell you it was GOOD!

Day Four: Another day in the white room. I think this was New Year's Eve:


Jumping for joy at the amazing snow:


Day Five: Ringing in the New Year with yet more snowy goodness. Twyla Gingrich partakes of the powder.


Day Six: After thousands of feet of climbing, many miles of skinning and too many turns to count it is time for a day of rest. In any case the next storm is coming in and I need to be refreshed for tomorrow. Going with the snow = staying at home. I think you will agree we made the right choice.

And the even better news is that the snow has started to fall in other places so I hope this is the beginning of a really good winter and we will be going with the snow....all over.


Holiday Snowkiting

By Ann Driggers
Sunday, December 27, 2009

Unfortunately Father Christmas has been delivering plenty of fresh powder to my homeland across the pond while Santa Claus has dropped the ball here in the Rocky Mountains. Though I have managed to get a few turns in here and there, it's been rather skinny and the avalanche danger has made things a little sketchy. Winds have been moving what little snow we have into hard slabs on steeper slopes and causing quite a few slides in the backcountry. Some skiers have had lucky escapes in recent days. So what to do? Well, with a snowkite the wind can be harnessed and powder turns can be had on the flattest of terrain.

No avalanche danger whatsoever! Of course there are other dangers so I did swap out my holiday hat for a helmet before whizzing backwards and forwards on this small lake.

Santa Snowkiting.jpg

And I even got some powder turns!

Powder Turn.jpg

Although Christmas has now passed, Santa is not off the hook. He needs to get with Ullr and make him give us some snowy love.

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