Backcountry basics: Going off trail
When the sun rose on the high Rockies for the third day of our avalanche course change was literally in the air as a mid-December storm front pushed cold winter winds, and not much else, down from the high alpine regions.
As our class ate breakfast and sipped coffee before the start of the day’s trek our guides instructed us to stash some extra clothing in our packs; forecasts for the day were calling for very cold temps, heavy wind gusts and wind chill factors dipping well below zero. Day three of my avalanche course with Colorado Mountain School was all about route selection in avalanche terrain. It offered us an opportunity to take the first day’s academic instructions and day two’s field work and combine them in the real world, with a guiding hand from our instructors at Colorado Mountain School.
Instead of heading for Hidden Valley as we had the day before our leaders instead directed us towards the frozen surface Lake Haiyaha in the Chaos Creek drainage high in the park’s upper reaches. We parked at the end of Bear Lake Road and headed up the trail. My group had a new leader for day three named Adam Baxter, a Georgia native and former Park Ranger in Rocky.
Baxter helped our group work out a basic backcountry travel plan for the day including our pre-trip route selection. After reviewing the day’s avalanche forecast and overnight weather data we decided on a basic circuit route going up to Nymph Lake before turning and heading down a small drainage that leads to Tyndall Creek. As we moved off trail into the wilderness our group joined up with a set of skiers from the class and we all moved through knee-deep powder amidst the tightly clustered pines.
Class leader Joey Thompson was leading the way in an area with which he was quite familiar. After a few brief stops in the woods for impromptu instructions Thompson stopped the entire caravan along a boulder strewn slope that stretched off far above us. He informed the skiers that the snowfield above us was Chaos Creek and, when conditions are right, the drainage offers a great little backcountry ride.
From the creek bottom we climbed up several hundred feet, working our way through a twisting maze of downed limbs, deadfall and clustered aspens and pines. After finally reaching the plateau that held Lake Haiyaha we stopped for a quick break and an opportunity to double up our clothing. We set out for the lake, staying off the main trail, and crossed over the 1,000-foot long boulder field that has been formed by Chaos Creek over the eons.
Trudging up, over and around massive boulders while crossing on narrow snow bridges with questionable stability took time, and the added difficulty created by our snowshoes required patience. After finally reaching the lake we headed off for a small powder covered hillside to review avalanche rescues with a simulated scenario. Our guide, Baxter, had us hike high onto a nearby slope while he worked to hide an avalanche beacon under the snow.
After trudging up the hillside and working to catch our breath Baxter suddenly shouted “avalanche!” and we were sent scrambling down the slope. Our team leader for the day, Jeff Harris, started giving out instructions as we raced for the broken up snow that served as our simulated slide path. As we neared the target area our beacons were out and switched to search mode and we fanned out to cover the most ground.
Luckily it was not long before one member of our team picked up the signal and just as quickly another member was probing the general area. As one man worked his probe Harris, a third team member and myself were busy shoveling snow from the down slope area below our predicted rescue area. After confirming the location of the pack with a second probe strike we quickly dug the bag out. Our rescue time was under fine minutes.
As we descended the trails back to the parking lot we stopped to look out over Rocky’s Glacier Basin as late afternoon sunlight cast long shadows from Long’s Peak onto the valley far below. The weekend had brought a lot of new information and a better understanding of how and why avalanches occur but my biggest takeaway by far was the complexity and difficulty of predicting avalanches, even for those with extensive knowledge and experience.
As our head instructor Joey Thompson explained one day, you can’t out smart an avalanche, so get educated and respect the danger.
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