SKI TRIBES OF THE SAN JUANS

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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.

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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.

Ava mitigation philosophy, J. Roberts. Photo Johnathan Thompson
señor rŌbert

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 the original exploration and naming of the back country zones in the Silverton area in the 70’s & 80’s through today. 

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 Battleship

Battleship-Tim Lane

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

Nixon in Portillo

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.

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 ~ rŌbert

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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.

READ MORE : FULL ARTICLE IN SILVERTON MOUNTAIN JOURNAL

FOR A MORE SCHOLARLY VERSION READ THIS LINK:

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A student of snow retires from decades long career in high country ~ Durango Herald

By Jonathan Romeo Herald staff writerSaturday, Dec. 26, 2020 7:52 PM

Chris George, 82, has spent most of his life in high-elevation mountains. But about 10 years ago, health reasons caused him to move to Durango. Recently, he retired from serving as president of the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, capping a decadeslong career.Jerry McBride/Durango Herald 

When you’ve lived most of your life above 11,000 feet in elevation, you’re going to have some stories to tell.

And Chris George has no lack of them.

“My life has been so diverse, what can I say?” George said. “You name it, we’ve done it.”

George, 82, is perhaps best known for his contributions to snow and avalanche research, as well as restoring a hut and ski lodge atop Red Mountain Pass known now as the St. Paul Hut & Lodge.

Recently, George retired from serving as president of the board for the Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies, capping a decadeslong career.

“A pioneer,” CSAS director Jeff Derry said of George. “He took the research of avalanches into the realm of science, so it wasn’t just something that was obscure that only mountaineers were knowledgeable about.”

George’s life adventures started in England, hiding in a bed with his brother as bombs rained down during the Battle of Britain. Growing up, he thought he would be a chef, having even been Charlie Chaplin’s cook for a few months.

But as a young man, George took to mountaineering, going on epic journeys in the Middle East’s Hindu Kush mountain range and the Alps. When he visited Switzerland, and saw the way mountaineers lived, he saw his life’s trajectory.

“It was just a fleeting fancy,” he said. “I never thought it would develop.”

At the age of 28, the Outward Bound program, which offers educational experiences in the outdoors, recruited George to work in Colorado on a 10-week contract. Ever since, he’s called the San Juan Mountains home.

“I decided I wanted to make my living in the high mountains,” he said. “I was researching all the places around Colorado, but you come to the San Juans and it’s a no-brainer from then on.”

George purchased the St. Paul Mine property on Red Mountain Pass in 1973, and quickly got to work renovating it into a ski lodge and hut. Although he was experienced in backcountry skiing, he said the San Juans presented unique risks.Chris George is best known for helping advance and legitimize the study of snow and avalanches, his colleagues and friends say. Jerry McBride/Durango Herald

“I’d climbed high mountains on three continents before I got here,” he said. “What I discovered … was definitely the most complex and treacherous snowpack I’d ever experienced.

“And I still believe,” he continued, ”that after nearly 50 years of studying it, it is a very complex snowpack and very, very difficult to forecast.”

The reason why snowpack is so difficult, George said, is because of the amount of sunshine in this area (not to be confused with high temperatures).

“The solar radiation creates surface instability in the snow,” he said. “It creates weak layers. It’s very subtle.”

In the high country just around Silverton, 11 people have died in avalanches since 2010, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.

Realizing the need all those years ago to better understand the intricacies of snowpack and avalanche activity, George, along with others, like Ed LaChapelle, started several projects up in the mountains.

In 1975, George took the helm for avalanche observations and reporting for the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research “San Juan Project” on Red Mountain Pass and the newly formed CAIC, both of which he continued until 1995.

“He was always able to relate well with the people doing the science,” said Keith Roush, a Center for Snow and Avalanche Studies board member and former owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering.

Roush said he’s known George for almost 40 years, and spent the better half of that time conducting search and rescue trainings and avalanche classes together.

“We weren’t the science experts, but we spent lots and lots of time in the snow,” Roush said.

Great advancements in the understanding of snowpack and avalanches, as well as technology, have been made over the years, George said. But America, in many ways, is far behind other countries, especially those in Europe.

Derry agreed, saying there’s usually an uptick of interest in funding projects or organizations that study snow after a winter season with a high number of bad accidents. But more often than not, that momentum fades.

“Europe is light years ahead,” he said. “But it has come a long way over the years, and Chris brought into light snow science as legitimate and necessary science.”

George lived between the hut and a home in Silverton until about 10 years ago, when health issues forced him and his wife of 41 years, Donna, to move to Durango, which at 6,512 feet, is nearly half the elevation of his Red Mountain Pass lodge.

“It was very hard for me to leave Silverton,” he said. “But Silverton is not an easy place to live. You have to be very physical to stay in Silverton.”

These days, especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic, George is mostly homebound. But, to be sure, he’s got a lifetime of “once in a lifetime” adventures racked up to reflect upon.

“I don’t have anything to feel bad about,” he said. “There’s a lot of things, ever since I was a kid, I thought I’d like to do. By some happenstance, it just happened.”

Hwy. 550 corridor ~ overnight snow/H20 information ~ 12/28/20

This one is looking like the real thing.  Of course, it’s always hard to say til it’s too late… 

Monument 2” w/ 0.1” SWE

RMP 6” w/ 0.3” SWE

Molas 6” w/ 0.4” SWE

Coal Bank 8” w/ 0.55” SWE

CAIC analysis of Battleship Accident

Avalanche Details Location: North Face of Battleship, southeast of Ophir State: Colorado Date: 2020/12/19 Time: Unknown Summary Description: 2 backcountry skiers caught, buried, and killed Primary Activity: Backcountry Tourer Primary Travel Mode: Ski Location Setting: Backcountry
Backside of the Battleship from another year

crédito total, Eric Ming

Number Caught: 2Partially Buried, Non-Critical: 0 Partially Buried, Critical: 1Fully Buried: 1 Injured: 0 Killed: 2Avalanche Type: SSTrigger: AS – Skier Trigger (subcode): u – An unintentional release Size – Relative to Path: R2Size – Destructive Force: D2.5 Sliding Surface: O – Within Old SnowSite Slope Aspect: NW Site Elevation: 11155 ft Slope Angle: 30 °Slope Characteristic: Sparse Trees

Avalanche Comments

This was a soft slab avalanche triggered by the group of skiers. The avalanche was small relative to the path and destructive enough to injure, bury, or kill a person. The avalanche failed on a 15 cm thick layer of faceted snow (SS-ASu-R2-D2.5-O). The crown face of the avalanche was 12 to 20 inches deep and about 700 feet wide. At the crown of the avalanche, the most recent snowfall sat above a firm, wind-stiffened surface that developed during a strong wind event on December 15. Several hundred vertical feet below the crown face, the snowpack was not wind affected, the weak layer was softer, and the slab was more cohesive. This was a Persistent Slab avalanche.There were two avalanches in the main bowl to the east that released sympathetically to the the fatal avalanche (SS-ASy-R2-D2-O)

The avalanche occurred on a steep, northwest through north to northeast-facing slope above treeline, locally known as the North Face of Battleship. The avalanche ran 1600 vertical feet, from the alpine into a below treeline creek bed.

Backcountry Avalanche Forecast

The Colorado Avalanche Information Center’s (CAIC) North San Juan zone rated the avalanche danger as Considerable (Level 3) near and above treeline, and Moderate (Level 2) below treeline. The forecast listed Persistent Slab avalanches as the primary problem at all elevations on west through north to southeast-facing slopes. The likelihood of triggering was Likely and the potential size was Small to Large (up to D2). The summary statement read:

Recent snowfall has thickened slabs above weaker snow inching the snowpack toward its tipping point. Slopes that have not failed naturally may be sitting there waiting for the extra push from a rider or machine. For today, the threat of triggering an avalanche remains elevated and you’re more likely to get into trouble on west through north to southeast-facing slopes. Areas harboring the thickest drifts are the most dangerous and where a small slide could trigger a larger, more deadly one. Strong northwest winds today may help thicken and expand the distribution of wind-drifted slabs below ridgeline and in cross-loaded terrain features.

Treat any steep slope where you see evidence of recent wind-loading, textured snow surfaces, or smooth rounded pillows of snow, as suspect. Although the size of avalanches that you can trigger will be smaller below treeline, these avalanches can be just as dangerous if you are pushed into trees or buried in a terrain trap. Pay attention to surface cracking, audible collapses, and stick to slopes less than 35 degrees to help reduce your avalanche risk.

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Ptarmigan Lake Concert Series

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That rock concert took place the winter of 95-96 at Ptarmigan Lake mine buildings below Telluride Peak which we climbed/skied that day. L-R, Joe Stock, rŌbert, Andy Gleason.

crédito total de la foto, Seldom Seen Denny (Hogan)

TIGERS ON THE ROAD ~ Mark Rawsthorne ~ I held out my camera, pointed to it, and exclaimed, “I think I just got the money shot!” The Avalanche Review

i promise, the last pinche Battleship story …

READ THE ARTICLE:  pp. 1, 17-19

As we drove to meet the gun crew I asked Jerry what he thought it would take to start an avalanche cycle to bring things down.

His reply, “Ahhh, probably the last snowflake.”

From an aspiring forecaster’s standpoint, his answer was quite a surprise and one which left me feeling incredibly perplexed. It wasn’t the response I was looking for. I wanted a number. A water equivalent value. I was used to dealing with hard scientific facts and not the last snowflake-style response.

But as I sat in the truck and watched the piled banks of snow pass in a blur, I realized it was the only true answer he could give me. We were both acutely aware that the snowpack couldn’t take much more of a load. Precipitation intensity was elevated, there was significant wind loading, and it had been snowing constantly for 24 hours. If Jerry had said the snowpack would take an additional inch of water or even an additional half an inch, then I would have been able to sit back and relax in the false comfort of scientific reasoning. But the “last snowflake!”

‘AVALANCHES & MONKEY BUSINESS-Highway 550 Forecasting’-Susan Hale

Tim Lane, CDOT/CAIC Intern of the Year 2004.

There was tension in the voices heard over the crackle of the radio – between forecasters and the highway’s regional CDOT teams. Then, Jerry’s succinct words: “We’re in full conditions here,” the first hint that we might be witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime storm. But of course, at the time, none of us really knew. It was 11:00 pm, January 8, 2005, and it would be an understatement to say it was a stormy night. Forecaster Mark Rikkers was in one truck racing south towards Molas Pass, while lead forecaster Jerry Roberts and his visiting side-kick Tim Lane were headed the opposite direction up Red Mountain, checking on the rapidly deteriorating road conditions and increasing avalanche hazard threatening Highway 550, from the Uncompaghre Gorge above Ouray all the way to Coal Bank Pass – the north/south life-line of southwestern Colorado.

That night, after an already long day of shooting, I was allowed to stay behind and supposedly catch up on much-needed sleep. A night that was sleepless nonetheless, especially since around here we make a habit of snuggling with our Motorolas; no avalanche forecaster worth their Pisco Sours would be sleeping when it’s dumping nearly 4″ per hour on a severely burdened continental snowpack. So there I lay, wide awake, eavesdropping.

Using radio call names, Jerry Roberts is anxiously trying to reach Mark Rikkers: “3 Mary 5-1, this is 3 Mary 5-0; what’s your 20? Mark Rikkers: “Hey Jer, it’s 3 Mary 5-1, I finally made it to Molas Pass – really bad visibility; what’s happening your direction?“ Jerry: “Mark, I’m with a crazy woman stuck in a snowbank near the Muleshoe turn (below a particularly nasty avalanche path) – will need help getting her out so we can shut this highway down. Can’t reach the Red Mountain plow driver – can you try radioing from your location and send him our way?” Mark: “10-4, I’ll give it a try.”

So, trolling for something to do, I ventured an earnest call to Jerry (knowing it was probably a mistake). “Uhh, 3 Mary 5-0, this is 3 Mary 5-2; is there anything I can do from here?” Pause. Jerry, with the whole world listening and a storm puking 4″ an hour, replied, “Thanks 5-2, uhh yea…when we get this lady out we’ll be escorting her back to Silverton for the night, but she might not be able to find a place to stay…doesn’t speak very good English, think she’s Romanian…you think she could camp on your sofa for the night?” I pause, suspicious. “Uhh, yea, sure, I guess so.” Jerry: “Great! And one other thing…I think she’s from the circus … she has a monkey with her.”

Long pause. “Did you say MONKEY?” Jerry: “Ya, I think it’s a MONKEY. Will your dog be okay with that?”

~~~  READ THE STORY: pp. 1, 15-17  ~~