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.
May of 2013, the George Gardner Scholarship Fund Board of Directors met to peruse over Ouray County graduating senior’s university scholarship applications along with several wilderness adventure education applications. We spent most of an afternoon hashing them over and trying to decide who really qualified, who really earned consideration, who would benefit the most from financial assistance. After painful hours of rereading and discussing all options the question was asked: “what would George do?” The decision was easy—“everyone got scholarships.“
Now six college bound students are being assisted by the GGSF. One student spent a day with Exum Mountain Guides on a rock climbing course and another student attended several Telluride Adaptive Sports Programs this summer with great success.
It should be noted that GGSF supported the Ridgway Elementary Learn to Ski Program and gave scholarships to five Ridgway seniors to participate in the senior Outward Bound River Trip last fall that George started so many years ago.
We were excited and most happy to help students with financial need attend colleges and wilderness education programs this year.
The Ouray County Winter Sports Swap provides our largest endowment for GGSF, but it is not enough to support students who need financial assistance to continue their education. Contributions from local donors and other sources are needed to promote our dream of helping kids follow their dreams.
The GGSF Board of Directors
Dan Schultz tells the extraordinary true story of desperado survivalists, a brutal murder, and vigilante justice set against the harsh backdrop of the Colorado slick-rock wilderness
On a sunny May morning in 1998 in Cortez, Colorado, three desperados in a stolen truck opened fire on the town cop, shooting him twenty times; then they blasted their way past dozens of police cars and disappeared into 10,000 square miles of the harshest wilderness terrain on the North American continent. Self-trained survivalists, the outlaws eluded the most sophisticated law enforcement technology on the planet and a pursuit force that represented more than seventy-five local, state, and federal police agencies with dozens of swat teams, U.S. Army Special Forces, and more than five hundred officers from across the country.
Dead Run is the first in-depth account of this sensational case, replete with overbearing local sheriffs, Native American trackers, posses on horseback, suspicion of vigilante justice and police cover-ups, and the blunders of the nation’s most exalted crime-fighters pursuing outlaws into territory in which only they could survive.
“Dan Schultz has lit upon a dark and fascinating desperado tale. Part Monkey Wrench
Gang, part No Country For Old Men… Dead Run promises to be a classic true-crime
thriller of the Desert Southwest.” —Hampton Sides, NYT bestselling author of Ghost Soldiers and Blood and Thunder
This was fascinating drama that played out in SW Colorado near the turn of the century (21st). I’d ride my bike to the grocery store every morning to fetch the paper and read the day’s coverage of the “Desperados” that stole a water truck, shot up a bunch of cops then fled into the canyon country outside of Cortez, Colo. Wondered when a book or movie would appear. Looks like it finally happened. I’m ordering it today… J.R.
Two years have come and gone and much has happened to make us grateful, but a tough time for many of us was losing brother Bean when he took another path July 10, 2011. He died a month short of his 38th birthday. We think of you often and surely miss you.
DUST LAYERS were thick and evident in the snowpack on top of Ophir Pass Tuesday afternoon. The dust accelerates the melting of the snowpack in Colorado’s high country, and a new study finds that the amount of dust being blown across the country is on the rise. (Photo by Brett Schreckengost)
A New Study Finds That Dust Blown Across U.S. Has Increased
WESTERN SAN JUANS – It’s a phenomenon many residents in the region know, anecdotally, to be true: The amount of dust being deposited by storms is on the rise. Now, a University of Colorado study is providing evidence this is correct.
The study, led by C.U. doctoral student Janice Brahney and recently published online in the journal Aeolian Research, found that the amount of dust being blown across large swaths of land in the Western U.S. has increased over the past 17 years.
Besides the fast-melting effects it can have on snowpack in the Rocky Mountains, Brahney said the higher levels of dust can have a host of other impacts, including impoverished soils where dust is being lost. Wind tends to pick up the finer particles in the soils, and those are the same particles that have the most nutrients and can hold onto the most soil moisture.
“Dust storms cause a large-scale reorganization of nutrients on the surface of the Earth,” Brahney said. “And we don’t routinely monitor dust in most places, which means we don’t have a good handle on how the material is moving, when it’s moving, and where it’s going.”
Increasing amounts of dust in the atmosphere also can cause people living in the rural West a variety of problems, including poor air quality and low visibility. In extreme cases, dust storms have shut down freeways, creating delays and hazards for travelers.
Dave Carman (recent Ridgway local) and I developed and ran guide training courses at Exum for aspiring guides in 1970’s before the current national certification programs took hold. The photo above is on the summit of Mt. Owen during an early season guides training course, with the North Face of Grand Teton in background. We also developed the rock climbing program, along with Kanzler, at Minnesota Outbound School in the late 1960’s. I ended my guiding career at Exum in 2005, and continued on as a Director and partner until 2009. Dave and I officially retired together from Exum in 2009. This occasion called for a big bash at the Climbers Ranch, in summer 2009.
I crept into the American Alpine Club late one evening to read Peter Lev’s only print copy of “The Next Pitch”. A sign above the Reserved Room door with an admonishment “Do Not Remove” made the illegal entry even better. It’s really an incredible slice of history tracing his youthful climbs, many international expeditions/avalanche forecasting days through his time as guide, director and partner in Exum Mountain Guides. Peter’s clarity of words/ideas and his emphasis and belief in mentors and mentoring was a cool refreshment.
Maybe someday, ‘The Next Pitch’ will be in chapbook (a book of popular ballads, stories) form so the many admirers in the mountaineering audience can enjoy a truly colorful history of this pioneer.
Two weeks ago I listened in on an “open media call” regarding Colorado’s continuing drought.
It was hosted by Western Resource Advocates, an environmental law and policy nonprofit founded in 1989, with headquarters in Boulder and offices across the Southwest. As it happened, the call coincided with announcements by two Front Range cities, Louisville and Lafayette, that they were initiating water restrictions in their communities.
Bart Miller, WRA’s water program director made an intriguing comparison between the years 2002-2003 and our present drought situation.
“Two-thousand-two was probably the driest year in [Colorado] history,” he said. “But in 2003, the state was saved by the largest snowstorm in Colorado history.”
‘Layton Kor is Dead’……CLIMBING……”I was fortunate to have spent a couple of climbs with Layton as a youngster in the early 70′s (Nineteen).” J.R.
Layton Kor and his son Arlan in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, in 2012. Photo by Cameron Burns
4/22/13 – Layton Kor, one of the most prolific and accomplished American climbers of the 1960s, has died at age 74. Kor had suffered from kidney failure and prostate cancer. A resident of Kingman, Arizona, he died during the night of April 21.
Kor’s name was virtually synonymous with Colorado climbing during the late 1950s and ’60s. Starting as a teenager in Eldorado Canyon, he put up many of the sandstone canyon’s most famous and enduring classics, both free and aid, including Ruper(5.8+), Rosy Cruxifiction (5.10), The Naked Edge (5.11), and many, many more. He also did dozens of first ascents in Boulder Canyon, the Flatirons, Lumpy Ridge, Glenwood Canyon, and many other crags in Colorado. Original Kor pitons are still discovered today on obscure crags throughout the state.
Kor on the cover of Climbing No. 2 (1970), leading the Salathé Wall in Yosemite.
Branching into the mountains and beyond, Kor did many new routes in Rocky Mountain National Park, the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, the desert Southwest (Castleton Tower, the Titan, Standing Rock), and Yosemite Valley (south face of Washington Column, West Buttress of El Capitan). He took his skills to foreign mountains on walls like the southeast face of Proboscis in Canada’s Northwest Territories and the Harlin Directissima on the north face of the Eiger in Switzerland.
Kor was still climbing into his early 70s, including the first ascent of a 150-foot tower in Arizona with friends Stewart Green, Dennis Jump, and Ed Webster. Cameron Burns, who is writing a biography on Kor, said, “If Layton got a nickel for every person who ever climbed one of his routes, he’d have been a wealthy man.”
A new edition of Kor’s classic book Beyond the Vertical, edited by Stewart Green with newly scanned photos, will be out in June.
Click here to read a Brendan Leonard guide to seven great Kor routes, both famous and lesser-known, from Climbing 291.
Date of death: April 21, 2013