Kristen Lodge: Friends and face shots in the backcountry
Grand County, CO Colorado
You start out on a tour, you go up, and the view is breathtaking, and you are away from the crowds.
It’s the essence of backcountry skiing, a passion of Denver off-piste skier Tommy Armento.
“When you start backcountry skiing you turn into a powder snob,” he said, gearing up for the early season. “To me, the snow in the backcountry is a blank canvass and you paint it the way you want it.”
On a good day on Berthoud Pass, Armento can ski up to eight hours, about 4,000 vertical feet.
“The beauty of it is the hike to 12,000 feet, skiing down, hitching a ride back from Winter Park, and doing it again,” he said.
Before he could walk, Armento skied. He took annual ski trips to Colorado and Wyoming when growing up in New Jersey. After living on the east coast working 60-hour work weeks as a paralegal in New York City, he decided it was time to move to a recreational town. He chose Denver.
Armento skied Vail and Breckenridge, and as he met more skiers on message boards and chairlifts, he got the backcountry bug.
“Back in 2006, I was skiing in Breckenridge and the snow was awful.” he said. “So we skied into the ‘side country,’ the place at ski resorts where you can gain entry into terrain not supervised, and had face shots all day. The snow was hitting me in the face, clinging to my beard, and I couldn’t breathe. To me, that is skiing.”
Soon he and a friend took to Berthoud Pass.
What drove Armento then and still drives him to the backcountry today: powder.
“When you look back on photos, you remember the challenge.” he said. “And that you went where not many people have been.”
Last April, Armento was with friend Christopher Ruettinger in Rocky Mountain National Park. They had just reached the drop zone atop the previously unskied mountain called Knobtop.
They isolated a column of snow 90cm wide by 30cm deep that was 1-2 meters tall, Then they preformed an extended column test in which the skier taps the top of the column with his shovel 10 times. Then he or she taps the column ten times while raising the forearm at the elbow. Lastly, he or she taps the column ten times with an entire arm.
When Armento and Ruettinger performed this test, the overnight snowfall of about 10 inches sheared off after the sixth or seventh wrist tap, and the rest of the column didn’t fracture until the eighth full arm tap signifying that “yes, there will be sluff and you have to be cautious of this,” Armento said, “but the rest of the snowpack was considerably bomber.
“Effectively, we knew there was almost a guarantee that the new snow would avalanche but we could both sit comfortably knowing what lied beneath was very stable. Before we skied our intended line, we discussed a safe and effective way to ski – cut the slope as a way to release the new surface snow so that we wouldn’t have to worry about it on the descent.”
The pair also discussed safe zones, so if and when the new snow avalanched, they would be in a position where any danger would be greatly negated.
“I just want to emphasize that simply owning and wearing the proper gear (beacon, shovel, probe) does not mean you have a safety umbrella protecting you from all harm,” Armento said. “They are tools necessary to find a body in the unfortunate instance an avalanche does occur. Anyone that travels away from a resort and into the sidecountry or backcountry should at the very least take a course.”
And skiers and riders should never be too proud to call it off.
“I have one friend who snowboards with me, and he turns away from lines 50 percent of the time,” Armento said. “If you go through a season without turning away a line, you’re doing something wrong.”
A link to Armento’s blog can be read on Friends of Berthoud Pass website. Friends of Berthoud is a grassroots collective of backcountry enthusiasts committed to preserving the legacy of public recreation at Berthoud Pass through safety, access and education (www.berthoudpass.org).
“My favorite memory skiing Berthoud was January 2009,” Armento said. “We went up there despite no new snow in 10 days. We ended up skiing on top of 6 inches of recycled pow.
“Friends and faceshots; it doesn’t get much better than this.”
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