A joke I shared with several other Ava. forecasters working for CDOT/CAIC in the old days.
OLD & NEW THOUGHTS ON RISK TOLERANCE
Like many older people I find in recent years that I learn more from those younger than from my peers. I recently gained a new sliver of insight into the matter of risk tolerance from my youngest son, Jason, who lives in Santa Cruz, California and is an avid surfer. Several years ago I heard about Mavericks, the famous, big, dangerous wave an hour north of Santa Cruz. I asked Jason if he knew about and had been to Mavericks. “I don’t do that kind of thing, Dad,” he replied. As a parent I was understandably relieved. Last year the fine biographical film “Chasing Mavericks,” about two Mavericks icons, was released. It is, in my view, a superior film about the human quality of risk tolerance and much more. After I saw it I asked Jason if he had seen it. He knows some of the people portrayed in the film but his busy life as a parent, husband, firefighter, surfer and mountain bike rider had left him no time for the film. But he said something that resonates with lessons for those willing to learn them. He said, “You know, there are only a handful of surfers in the world capable of riding Mavericks, and within that handful there are only a few who want to.”
About 20 years ago I was talking about the latest casualty of the mountains with a friend, a fellow climbing guide. It is a theme that people who live, work and play in mountains return to all too often. Our discussion that day veered away from the specific most recent death of a climber we knew to all the people we had known who had died in the mountains over the period of our lives. Some of them had been friends, a few close ones. For reasons I’ve forgotten, we decided that we would search our memories and each make a list of all the people we knew who had died in the mountains. The next day we resumed our conversation with our respective lists which totaled more than 70.
We were both surprised. We should not have been.
SARAJEVO, Yugoslavia, Feb. 11— Pat Ahern of Breckenridge, Colo., lost an opportunity to win an Olympic medal in Nordic combined skiing today when controversial rulings by the jury canceled two rounds of jumping and wiped out his jumps, two of the longest of the competition.
Officials canceled the rounds in the 70-meter jump, the second time with only four skiers left, because the competitors were jumping so far that the jury considered it dangerous. Both cancellations nullified strong jumps by Ahern. When the competition was completed, he could manage only a tie for 16th with his subsequent jumps.
”I feel lousy,” said Ahern. ”If they had counted just my second ride, I think I would have won the gold medal.”
If you want to know more about western Colorado weather, climate change or how they mix it up in the San Juan Mountains show up Saturday night, the 8th. I worked with Joe for nearly 20 years and he saved my b— on many lonely nights driving Hwy. 550 in hideous storms wondering what to do?… I’d call Joe for counseling. Everything I know about weather forecasting came from Joe Ramey…. j.r.
The theme and the wisdom that Whymper (1871) handed to us many years ago. He spoke of mountaineering in general, but his words are just as cogent today in this “decision” context: “Climb if you will but remember that courage and strength are naught without prudence, and that a momentary negligence may destroy the happiness of a lifetime. Do nothing in haste, look well to each step; and from the beginning think what might be the end.”
“Look well to each step” covers many individual actions or observations on the way to acquiring bases for decisions. Here I will look at a couple in detail. First, there is the eternal business of digging snow pits…how many, how often, where and in what detail (the ascending spiral is spinning fast here). McCammon and Sharaf (2005) cite Peter Schaerer’s sensible admonition to be quick, an approach to snow pits I can readily endorse. Let’s look closer at this whole pit digging business, one that sometimes can become the tail that wags the very large dog of avalanche data collection. Snow pit digging is a necessary but far from sufficient action to understand snow stability. If it is only part of the picture why does it so often come so much to the fore? I suggest that this is because we can observe and record a select body of detail like crystal type and size, hardness, density, layer thickness, etc. And why do we record these particular features? Because they are readily rendered into numerical values and logged in notebooks, an act that may convey comfort in having acquired “objective” data but not always be what we need to know. For example, rate of change of viscosity in a snow layer might be more informative, but this is a tough one in a cold laboratory and impossible in the field. So, we are often led down the easy primose path of the possible. Let me put forth the heretical notion that we do not need more data from a given snow pit, but less. The act itself of digging with a shovel is the culmination of the Schaerer Quick Pit concept. By the time I have finished digging a snow pit, I usually know about 90% of what I am going to find from it about snow stability. Logging pit details is a good educational tool and expands knowledge about a wide range of snow properties, but should not be confused with the backbone of avalanche forecasting. In the larger picture of snow stability, snow pits provide a quick but static snapshot of conditions at a given time and place. From the external perspective of a passing observer, snow on a mountainside is just sitting there, apparently dormant. The snow cover, however, is neither static nor dormant, but a positively seething mass of activity. Snow is constantly gliding, creeping and settling. Layer by layer the physical properties are constantly changing as crystals metamorphose. Waves of changing temperature sweep through the snow cover while radiation works at the surface. Snowfall and wind drifting change the amount and distribution of loading with each passing storm. Understanding the complex behavior of snow is a problem in rheology, the science of deformation and flow of matter. In this case the problem is further compounded by the matter in question being a granular visco-elastic solid close to its melting point. You can’t make it much more complicated than that.
The observational role of the snow pit in all this compared with a broader and more lengthy data collection is clarified by a concept in rheology put forth by Meiner (1964), the Deborah Number. Meiner pointed out the significance of the Prophetess Deborah singing that “the mountains flowed before the Lord”. In the limited time frame of human perception, the mountains are static and eternal, but for the Lord, whose time frame is infinite, they flow. Meiner defined the non-dimensional Deborah Number as follows:
D = time of relaxation/time of observation
A high Deborah Number means the subject in question appears to an observer to be a static and unchanging solid. The brief observation from a snow pit implies a high D snow cover and hence a static view of what actually is an active (“flowing”) snow cover. To gain insights into the dynamic character of the latter, observations extended in time are needed to lower the value of D. In other words, stability evaluation has to be an on-going process, the longer the better. Ideally, the estimate of snow stability evaluation on a given avalanche path begins with the first snowfall of winter. More about this in a moment.
A second relevant action, consulting some sort of checklist, appears when George (2005) describes the NivoTest. This is where the ascending spiral really starts to spin. Check list have been around for a long time and in various formats and the NivoTest stands out as possibly the most sophisticated one to date. Looking into history, the earliest check list I can find is G. Bilgeri’s Six Points (three for terrain, three for snow conditions) already in use by the 1930’s, described by Seligman (1936). Later, as one example, we have Atwater’s (1952) Ten Contributory Factors, initially with equal weight but later informally modified by various weighting schemes. I like the NivoTest because it nicely condenses terrain, snow features, current avalanche activity and human factors. However, it is disquieting to see it illustrated in TAR by a photo of a guide consulting it in the field in the middle of what appears to be avalanche terrain. This brings the checklist concept into play far, far, too late. If you wait until standing on the edge of an avalanche path before considering snow stability and risks, very poor decisions can ensue. Again, evaluating snow conditions is an ongoing process, not a single event (reduce the Deborah Number!). The NivoTest, or any similar scheme, needs to be constantly in play days prior to any avalanche exposure, when evolving weather conditions contribute to the checks. Early entries to the NivoTest may be hazy as to detail, but even then a picture will start to evolve than can be constantly updated until the final moment of decision in avalanche terrain.
Seligman (op. cit.) nearly seventy years ago placed strong emphasis on anticipating snow conditions from weather patterns long before going into the field. More recently I have made the same point (LaChapelle, 1980). Of course, the weakness of any checklist system is the risk of rigidity and thus locking out unusual thinking demanded by unusual conditions. Whether a NivoTest or any other scheme, check lists have to be reminders and not substitutes for constantly paying attention to a wide spectrum of clues about snow behavior. I view George’s mention of mandated us to use checklists like the NivoTest with much alarm. Plantiff’s lawyers can have a field day with mandates.
Among the various TAR articles about decisions, only Stewart-Patterson mentioned luck, where he named it one of the three main factors in decision-making, though only in passing. This topic needs wider recognition. Let’s face it, most of us in the avalanche game have been saved many times over by luck. George (op. cit.) mentions that even experts say they are right only 50% of the time. Now we know that experts don’t get caught in avalanches 50% of the time, so the obvious conclusion must be that luck along with undocumented skills is right in there as a major player. This is not surprising when we consider that most places and most times the alpine snow cover is stable in the face of normal triggering forces. The whole business of evaluating snow stability and making decisions hinges on recognizing those fewer times when it is not. Thus the odds more often favor a mistake on the safe side than one that raises risk. Of course, by random chance, bad luck as well as good can follow even the most skilled and careful decisions. “… from the beginning, think what might be the end.” This really gets to the heart of the matter, emphasizing the idea of stability evaluation as an ongoing and continuous process mentioned above. Whymper spoke to anticipating risks in mountaineering: his words speak with equal force to anticipating risks in avalanche terrain. Here is where the experts get sorted out from the beginners. My idea of an expert is a person who constantly follows evolution of the snow cover and repeatedly thinks ahead to “what might be the end” for one risk situation after another. The end might be an avalanche fall, and even more important might be consequence of an avalanche fall. I learned this many years ago from Andre Roch (personal communication) who pointed out that two questions are involved. First, will an avalanche occur, and, second it if does occur what will be the resulting risk? For example, a small avalanche poses much less risk to a skier if it has a gentle outrun onto safe ground than it does if it carries a victim over a cliff or into a crevasse.
The whole business of expertise is examined by Conger (2005), who allots analytical skills in decision-making to persons ranging from novice to proficient, but reserves the role of intuition for experts. He is onto something here, raising the whole question of just what constitutes intuition. Perhaps this is a case of of not being able to define intuition but being able to recognize it when we see or exercise it. Certainly we can all recognize the “seat-of-the-pants” factor in evaluating snow stability, but just what do we mean? Here I will make a try at answering this question and defining intuition in this context. To begin, consider what intuition is not. It is not some magical quality bestowed on mature people of wide experience along with gray hair and slowing reflexes. It is not some sort of extra-sensory perception; quite the contrary. Intuition is the lifetime accumulation of precisely those sensory perceptions of snow, weather and avalanche behavior that have accumulated, often in the sub-conscious, that cannot readily be quantified, logged in a notebook or clearly explained. Such perceptions, nevertheless, are based on the physical behavior of the real world, not on vague mental constructs. An example is the meteorological perception of a mountain snowstorm evolution based on subtle changes in the spectral distribution of light filtering through clouds as the sun descends in the sky and cloud layers come and go in shifting fashion. No doubt a wide-spectrum recording light sensor could construct graphic records of these changes and eventually build a quantitative document. But the expert integrates all this under the guise of intuition and recognizes the likely next storm trend. Here is another example from my own experience. I once was involved in a field training program for heli-ski guides. The exercise was preceded by a very light fall of fluffy snow, followed by a substantial fall of mixed snow types and mid-range densities. This combination produced widespread instability with the fluff acting as lubricating layer. Two days of field training produced ski releases everywhere, excellent for demonstrating how, and how not, to test ski an avalanche path. On the third day the first helicopter flight took several of us to a ridge top. One of the experienced guides skied 100 yards down the ridge and stopped. I followed close behind and joined him. He turned and said, “There is no tension in the snow today”. I replied, “I agree”. That day-long exercise never started another ski release no matter how hard we tried. So here were a couple of presumed “experts” putting their intuition accurately to work. What did we actually sense about the snow? We can throw around words like kinesthetic perception and psycho-rheology, but what we actually had was many years of experience with the way our skis and legs reacted to snow structure, accumulating this experience somewhere in our heads. Did we actually experience “tension” as physics would define it? Probably not, this is another convenient word to toss around, but we both knew what we meant. How many readers of TAR know what we meant? As the spiral ascends and scientific and technical knowledge about snow continues to grow, are we coming closer to improved training and safety practices for avalanche risk management? Or are we locked into Wilde’s (1994) risk homeostasis trap? The dialog needs to continue.
Ed LaChapelle was born in 1926 in Tacoma, Washington. He spent two years in the U.S. Navy 1944-46 as an electronic technician, then graduated in math and physics from the University of Puget Sound in 1949. Professionally he has been a guest worker at the Swiss Avalanche Institute 1950-51, a snow ranger with USFS at Alta, 1952-72, done glacier research in Greenland and Alaska 1952-1956,and on the Blue Glacier on Mt. Olympus 1957-1970. He was appointed to the faculty of the University of Washington in 1967, retired as Professor Emeritus of Geophysics and Atmospheric Sciences in 1982. He has been active in snow and avalanche affairs for all of his professional life, including retirement. Ed died February 1, 2007 enjoying some new powder at Monarch Pass after attending his ex-wife (Dolores LaChapelle’s) memorial in Silverton a week earlier… JR
This was the Saint Germain Foundation’s lodge and religious retreat, a former ski lodge, before it burned in January 1952. The group’s religious beliefs were upheld in a major U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1944, two years after the organization had bought the lodge.
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
The lodge burned in January 1952, and that fall members of the “I AM” religious group built a garage on the site. The garage still stands immediately adjacent to U.S. Highway 550. Leigh Ann Hunt, forest archaeologist for the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, says, “The Saint Germain group came planning to do big things and then it never materialized. The lake and garage are now landmarks in Ironton and they will be managed to preserve them.”
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
A water tank and wooden platform still stand from members of the “I AM” religious group whose adherents moved to Ouray in 1942 and brought new perspectives to the old mining town. After their main lodge burned, members continued to camp on the site.
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
Few structures remain on the 800-acre site, but one extant building is this cellar or storage area. It includes traces of yellow and purple paint on the interior.
ANDREW GULLIFORD/Special to the Herald
The concrete foundation of the original 1940s lodge can still be seen at the north edge of Ironton Park. Built as a ski lodge, the building became a retreat for the Saint Germain Foundation and “I AM” religious teachings.
Driving across Colorado and the West, I see historic buildings or structures that compel me to get out of my truck and take a walk. For years, I’ve driven between Silverton and Ouray and noticed the large stone garage just east of Crystal Lake in Ironton Park. I’ve always wondered what it was, but in my most vivid imagination I could never have created the story I’m about to tell.
No fiction. Just fact. Including: a ski area, a religion, loudspeakers sounding heavenly music, a couple’s spiritual beliefs tested all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, a tragic fire, a yellow Cadillac, and the colors of the rainbow.
The story begins simply enough. A couple of friends decided to build a ski area.
Ouray businessman Joseph Condotti and Ralph Kullerstrand, president of Citizen’s State Bank, acquired patented mining claims on the north end of Ironton Park, and using lumber and bricks recycled from the Saratoga Smelter, built a two-story lodge with a full basement and attic. Ouray historian Don Paulson writes, “They built a ski lift with seven towers, the remnants of which can still be found, and cleared a run of approximately 1,800 feet.”
Across U.S. Highway 550, the partners created today’s Crystal Lake and stocked it with trout, which Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr ate while he attended the lodge’s opening ceremonies in 1940. But the lodge never succeeded. The business partnership failed.
Paulson writes, “Some believe that avalanche hazard was the cause of the disagreement. The Guadalupe slide runs just north of the lodge building and would have threatened the ski run.”
As the ski area sat vacant, a burgeoning religious movement, borne out of the desperation of the Great Depression, lost one of its founders. The religion’s practitioners sought solace in the San Juan Mountains. They bought the lodge and ski area.
In many cultures around the world, mountains are seen as sacred places. Ouray bills itself as “the Switzerland of America,” so maybe that’s why in the 1940s the Saint Germain Foundation bought the unused ski lodge for a religious retreat. A decade earlier in 1930, Guy W. Ballard, hiking on Mount Shasta in northern California, had encountered the Ascended Master Saint Germain. That experience was the origin of the “I AM” religious teachings.
According to the Saint Germain Foundation, Jesus Christ was an Ascended Master, and Joan of Arc and Benjamin Franklin were earlier embodiments of Mrs. Guy Ballard. In the 1930s, Saint Germain inspired Guy Ballard to write books titled Unveiled Mysteries and The Magic Presence. The books communicate theosophy, and volume No. 3 is The ‘I AM’ Discourses, which are sacred scriptures and part of the Ascended Master Teachings religion. In 1939, Guy Ballard became an Ascended Master.
The “I AM” movement grew spectacularly during the dark days of the Depression. In 1942, the federal government indicted his wife, Edna Ballard, their son Donald Ballard and other affiliates on 12 counts including mail fraud. They were convicted of organizing a moneymaking scheme, and the same year the foundation bought the lodge and members moved to Ouray seeking privacy. The Ballard family appealed the convictions, and two years later the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in one of the most important decisions about religious freedom in the 20th century.
The Ballards won. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned their conviction in United States v. Ballard 322 U.S. 78 (1944). In a victory for the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, the high court ruled that the tenets of one’s religious faith could not be legally challenged.
Now comes her yellow Cadillac, Mrs. Edna Ballard, and members of the “I AM” religion. They preferred the colors of the rainbow, including purple and yellow, and her inner staff wore formal clothes. One story is that a local Ouray teacher involved in the “I AM” religious group would not tolerate red and black crayons in her schoolroom. The lodge held a sanctuary on the main floor for regular services. Sounds of violins, carillon bells – at the time the highest in the world – and harp music wafted down the canyon. Nearby were plans for a music healing temple.
Lifelong member Bud Thayer knew Mrs. Ballard and he told me, “She was guided by Saint Germain in what she did in purchasing the property. We were very near a concentration of spiritual energy in that whole area for a number of miles around. We regard that property as very sacred.”
Followers of the religious group produced radio broadcasts “that went all over the world” through wire connections from the property. Normally five to 10 people lived on site, but when Mrs. Ballard arrived there could be as many as 25 assistants.
“She came three to four times a year. She absolutely loved it. She was at her happiest at the lodge in Ouray,” Thayer says.
On the site, a root cellar still has traces of purple and yellow paint. A careful hiker can find little patios under pine trees, short hand-stacked stone walls, and other rock masonry architectural features.
To this day the Chicago-based Saint Germain Foundation exists worldwide with over 300 “I AM” sanctuaries and centers, including one in Santa Fe. But not in Ouray.
After buying the ski area in 1942, the religious group purchased mining claims until they owned an 800-acre site.
According to Paulson, “In 1947 they announced plans to open a large summer camp able to house over 500 people but that never materialized. Unfortunately, in January of 1952, the lodge caretaker accidentally set the building on fire using a blowtorch” while melting snow and icicles on the roof. Because of prevailing canyon winds the old mining timbers burned instantly. Terraces show where summer cabins would have been built.
Today, only the concrete foundation of the lodge remains and I like to hike around it. I think about the ski area and summer camp that could have been but never was. The stone garage built in the fall of 1952 is locked. Plans included rebuilding the lodge one or two stories atop the garage, but instead it became a truck and storage area.
The foundation held on to the property for a few more decades and members of the organization camped on site. On Feb. 10, 1971, . Edna Ballard died in Chicago and took her ascension as the Ascended Lady Master Lotus.
Assisted by federal funding from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, the Red Mountain Project and the Trust for Public Land purchased the 800 acres and transferred it back to the U.S. Forest Service. What was private is now public land.
Leigh Ann Hunt, forest archaeologist for the Grand Mesa-Uncompahgre-Gunnison National Forest, has written a cultural resource inventory of the site. A stout metal and wood picnic table remains, and I love the stone walls and terraces that look like elves built them.
I agree with the Saint Germain Foundation. Mountains are sacred places. The foundation established more permanent quarters at Mount Shasta, and their former Colorado religious retreat is once again public domain. For me, the silvery San Juans meet my spiritual needs, and though I like rainbow colors, I prefer blue – sky blue – the color you see at 12,000 feet.
The San Juan Avalanche Project by Don Bachman-Silverton Mountain Journal–February 2001—Reposted because it’s such an important story in San Juan Mountain history–J.R.
In early May of 1971, I was detailed to Silverton by the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR),University of Colorado with a purchase order and instructions to locate a house of suitable size to base an office and living quarters for an avalanche research project.
That night I stopped at the Grand Imperial to listen in on a busy town of 850 people supported by the employment of two large mines, the Sunnyside and Idarado. I wasn’t long on the bar stool before two fellows got up from a table and sandwiched me, right and left with the admonition from the big one on the right of ”We don’t allow no #$%&*! hippies in here”. Well, I was fresh from the hippie-cowboy wars of Gunnison County, so not too concerned. My hair and beard weren’t really that long and I was a bit older and sober, and after all was still running a bar of my own back in Crested Butte and felt at the time, those attributes along with carefully honed negotiation skills and perhaps friendly allies could save the day. But, the bartender didn’t look too supportive of customer immunity, and for that matter did the rest of the crowded place.
Hmm, this wasn’t looking good, so I stuck out a hand and introduced myself to Clayton Hadden and Marvin Blackmore. That worked for a minute. Then I said I was in town to run the logistics for an avalanche project. Thank goodness, the other guy at the table they’d just left hopped up and said to leave me alone: he’s heard about this deal and I was probably ok.
That was the first of many times Tuffy Foster, Colorado Highway Maintenance Foreman for Red Mountain and Molas Passes, was to contribute to the well being of the San Juan Avalanche Project. Then Marvin bought me the first of many beers we shared over the years.
11.5″/.95 new, low density snow at Desperado Estates
Experts say extreme dust levels threaten Colorado’s water supply, much of which comes from snowpack.
Snow at the headwaters of the Colorado River is melting six weeks earlier than it did in the 1800s, according to scientists.
Dust may be the culprit: When a dark layer of dust lays on top of clean snow, the snow melts faster, because the dark particles absorb more of the sun’s rays.
Dark-colored dust that settles on snow in the Upper Colorado River Basin makes the snow melt early and robs the Colorado River of about 5 percent of its water each year, says a new study co-authored by researchers from the University of Colorado at Boulder-based Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES.
[JR….this might be a little harsh but publish it if you think it might
get peoples attention or stimulate conversation. Denny and I often use this analogy
in our snow conversations]
Ski Aware ! Burnie
From Jerry Roberts: Old Snowmen Of The San Juans Summer Rendezvous at Desperado Estates. Lisa Issenberg photo. l-r: Mark Rikkers, Denny Hogan, Pat Ahern, Jerry Roberts, Peter Shelton.
Hi Lynne… ya a nice get-together of old field hands. Denny was visiting Colorado for a month vacation (just prior to his paid vacation with the govermun shutdown) and came over for a few days of R & R with old friends. Quite fun and many pisco sours later ‘Seldom Seen Denny’ crawled off in the darkness to lick his wounds and left before the next sunrise for Kalifornia.. think he’s retiring in January or may make it through the whole season so he can buy new drapes for his Buena Vista casa.
Profesor Tim Lane, Poet in Residence-Bar National – Santiago Chile, Avalanche forecaster/consultant for the Chilean mining industry, CDOT/CAIC intern forecaster (at 62) & legendary San Juan ski pioneer….
Ski cultures are territorial, especially the old ones. The locals band up like gorillas claiming large swaths of alpine territory. The troops get protective when others invade. Guarding the stash can become a way of life. The local chiefs are elusive and operate in the shadows. These full-timers are the real silverbacks. The local tribe knows more than god about the terrain and roams in the less obvious. Their timing always seems perfect as you gaze upon their tracks from a distant ridge and wonder. They lurk in the areas that we all want. They arrive there while we are drinking coffee. They have spent a lifetime looking for these places and have discovered them. The lines are not documented but recorded in the minds and verbal histories of the privileged. This is their land, their terrain, and you are a visitor. You might see their tracks, but sightings are rare. Tracking them can be dangerous prospect. They might feel hunted and reactions are unpredictable. You should stick to what you can ski from the road.
Lisa Issenberg – Artist, “Former” Ophircan and CDOT groupie.
This tribal phenomenon is rich in the Southwestern Colorado San Juan Mountains. This area is home to one of the oldest ski cultures in the country and is also one of the least developed. For example, there is no formal written documentation or publication of first descents and features are often unnamed; most significant information has transcended the generations through verbal history. At 13,000ft plus, alpine ridge crests develop distinctly segregated circles that separate the populations. This cultural division has always reminded me of the evolutionary history of minority groups in Southwestern China. Large groups of people separated by terrain that after thousands of years have distinctly diverged languages and traditions. Silverton, Ophir, Ouray, Ridway, Durango, Telluride all have separate castes of usual suspects operating in their respective terrain. They even have different names for the same futures seen from opposite sides. The explanation for this is simple. The terrain is constructed in such a way that discourages travel. One could ski tour from Silverton to Telluride faster than one can drive there. The biodiversity is limited. So is information sharing.
Asking about sking around the verbal history of the area is vague. I have picked up scraps of information in coffee shops, taverns, and road cuts. My casual research tells me the early ski explorers in this avalanche stricken terrain were some of the nations first avalanche forecasters hired by the state of Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) and National Forest Service. Their job was to keep Highway 550 open for commerce. This effort was not in vain since during the winter of 2006 – 2007, CDOT triggered 464 avalanches with explosives for mitigation purposes. 159 of the controlled slides impacted Colorado highways. Veteran CDOT forecaster Jerry Roberts is a local living legend and was part of the first the group responsible for most of original exploration and naming of the back country zones in the Silverton area in the late 60’s, 70′s & 80′s.
Due to the correlation with avalanche mitigation several of the ski runs here were named after slide paths that hit the highway. The only ski beta sold for years was the Colorado Department of Transportation slide path map. This is the most intact record of the San Juan ski history.
The passes are still today mitigated by CDOT with artillery from a vintage Korean War howitzer. One of the culprit paths is named “The Battleship” in its honor. Outside of these documented paths the consistency of names drift. Which name you use will indicate just how long you have been here. Roberts’s crew skied most of the drainages for better understanding of the continental snow pack. Roberts stated ”We were not special skiers in any way, we were just the only ones exploring.”
The snow pack is technical. More, it is intriguing. To complicate matters there are six to seven micro climates in the San Juans that manipulate the weather. This is dependant on how the storm tracks into the range and how the mountains alter the air masses relative to the complex terrain. Telluride will get 15” and Silverton will accumulate 2” yet the towns are 12 miles apart as the crows fly. Truthfully, the opposite trend is typically the case, but Silverton wants Telluride to believe just what it needs to. The local wind effect here makes it difficult to find the stashes at first. The wind here is the most powerful factor. Large wind events will strip windward faces to the ground. The snowpack will be transported in its entirety to the leeward aspect. This all making perfect avalanche country.
Notorious San Juan Desperado
Contemporary bands of elusive locals from Silverton are the contributors to recent King Lines. Not naming names to protect the innocent, they can be found all living on one of the most unassuming back alleys on the other side of the tracks in the town of Silverton. They are a group of unsung heroes without team name or sponsor. They are tackling the never skied bold lines San Juans 13K peaks and taking the secret home with them. A few of them are responsible for a descent of Hunter in the Alaska Range. Mount Hunter is a entry test piece of American mountaineering to climb let alone ski. They sneak into the deep corners of the San Juans, redefine the standard, and slip back into town to saddle up to the Miners Tavern. That’s the way its been done here for decades and that’s the way the trend seems to remain. The most common trend in the terrain accessed from the Highway 550 these days is the presence of more people. The rapid pulses of public interest in back country skiing due to the advances in gear, media, and its availability are making places like the San Juans more accessible.
Helitrax, San Juan Ski Co, Adventure Guides are all services bringing the public into the snow. Andrew Klotz is the author of new guidebook “Cold Smoke” writes about San Juan backcountry and showcases 25 classic tours of the area. This book has had little effect on the true secrets of the area covering only few of roadside classics. Recently the town of Silverton has transformed from a mining boom town and has seen a resurgence as a ski advocates epicenter. The Elementary School even has PE classes on skis for local kids. The sleepy town hosts collections of boutique manufactures like Venture Snowboards and Skis, Mountainboy Sleds, Montanya rum distillery, and the Silverton Brewing Co. The town’s exports have become cold powder, skis, split boards, local brews, and kicksleds
All of these factors are encouraging new activity to what is easily seen from the road and the ski are, bringing a new resident culture to the range with it. Yet, the core tribes of the range are still skiing the lines that have never seen second descents by outsiders. The silverbacks’ wish to keep it that way. Approach at your own risk.
Written story by OR Brand Ambassador By Mark Allen, November 19, 2012.
Well, a new ski season is happening and the San Juan snowpack is so typical. Early October snowfall, cold mean daily air temperatures that drive the faceting & weakening of the new snow and early season backcountry folks who are looking for happiness of the turning ski…
Too often many backcountry riders don’t have their guard up yet. Mostly thinking of the turn, suffering from ‘POWDER SHOCK‘. They’re not using their avalanche eyeballs yet.
Several people took rides this weekend with the new snow and high winds which are two very important variables that are often ignored/discounted or not yet morphed into thoughts or warnings because of powder shock and maybe the stampeding of the herd mentality.
We need to think before chasing the turn. It’s a new year and each year is a new experiment. Most folks put new batteries in their transceivers, check that their bindings aren’t set on FEMUR & stock up on ski swap woolies, but somehow don’t spend as much time considering the changing environmental variables or reining in ego and desire… Make your forecast for the day, but rely on your NOWCASTING skills for an ever-changing environment. Be there now…
chant the conservative Republican mantra….. J.R.
Mark Rawsthorne photo
Each encounter I have with Jerry O, usually to wander around the mountains, I come away with something new, a different way of looking at the world. Dialogue shared on books, film, art, music or old bars like the Family Dog in Berkeley (where we both spent time watching New Riders of the Purple Sage or some other Bay area band)… I depart wondering how someone becomes so creative? I had a conversation with mountain roshi, Peter Shelton, and he offered; “It’s amazing to me how Jerry, a wonderfully gifted sculptor that works in 3D, can produce such beautiful paintings in 2D after a single painting class.” Local painter extraordinaire, Susie Billings called Jerry O’s paintings “Inspired!”
Each painting was produced in an afternoon studio session at The Ah Haa School of Art. – J.R
In the ceramics studio at Berkeley, the spirit of misrule reigned. Under the cigar chomping,
whiskey-swilling tutelage of Peter Voulkos, we were continually challenged to push out
beyond conventional notions of what is beautiful. “Death & Dump Ware” was the result of
having to make a teapot in under two minutes. Art & aesthetics discussion was ignored;
making stuff was the only thing that mattered. “You might try a little something here”, was
With Robert Weatherford at Ah Haa we have been similarly urged to push against our notions
of beauty, discard our need for control, challenge our academic preconceptions, upset the
apple cart of Art and maybe find our authentic voice.
I’m often reminded of Henry Miller’s suggestion to “Paint as you like & die happy”.
As for subject matter, the sign in English on a Japanese music store in Nihonmatsu,
“Music is Vitamin of the Heart”, pretty much sums it up.
- Jerry Oyama 2013
Rō’bear instructs Django in the fine art of the “Dawg Paddle” on his first swim.
Dust Storms Threaten Snow Packs—Old story from 06 from snow friend Dr. Tom Painter about the San Juan Dust on Snow Study
The town of Telluride, Colo., stretches out beneath Painter as he stands atop a 13,500-foot peak. Beyond the town is the Colorado Plateau, the source of most of the dust that lands in the Rockies.
The Colorado Rockies have been blasted by six dust storms since last December. That’s the worst it has been in at least two decades. And dust doesn’t just make the snow look bad. It makes the snow melt faster. That can spell trouble for farmers, power companies and others who rely on the water from the melting snow.
Scientist Thomas Painter recently set out to investigate the dusty snow. But, as he drove over a mountain pass, the blue sky wasn’t quite blue enough for Painter’s trained eye. He suspected we were driving through the sixth high-altitude dust storm of the year.
Dust Series, Part 2
Follow USGS ecologist Jayne Belnap into the Utah desert for a look at dust sources, and solutions.
“Now this will be exciting. It will be the first one that I’ve seen. I’ve always seen the remnants of them, but I never see them happen,” Painter said.
Painter continued to crane his neck as he studied the sky. He says this dust might have blown all the way from China. He was dying to get up to the snow so he could sample it, study it and worry about it. As we wound into the San Juan mountains in southwestern Colorado, the dust became more apparent.
“Whoa! This is very pink snow for this early,” Painter exclaimed.
Not Cat-in-the-Hat pink, but clearly not white, either, the way the snow usually is in the middle of spring.
The next day, Tom Painter drove up Red Mountain Pass and strapped on mountaineering skis to get a closer look.
Thank you Lisa Issenberg for your photo that I took the liberty of altering a bit…
National treasure, genuine classic original… Ramblin’ Jack Elliott hasn’t lost much over the years… I saw him in Berkeley at some dive bar in the late 60′s and a few more times in the 70′s/80′s and I swear he’s gotten better. At 82, his humor is sharply honed, voice about the same, not too worn with the help, I assume of good whiskey. He put on quite a show last night at the Sherbino Theater with a graying audience of 81 strong (T. Hoffman crashed the door), hooting in support of Jack’s quirky, hilarious performance art. J.R.