Another Spring season in Colorado. The ski resorts have closed early per the COVID-19 protocol, along with most other establishments. Even on the normal schedule, most ski resorts would have been closed for the season by now, bringing more people to the backcountry. But this year seems to have seen an upswing in backcountry activity, where many people are going to stay active while limiting exposure to others. Just over a week ago, a team of 20 search and rescue volunteers rescued a 26-year-old man who had fallen hiking on steep terrain around St. Mary’s Glacier, Colorado. Last year, a total of 10 snowmobilers were killed in the backcountry in avalanche slides. Only one was wearing a beacon.
Backcountry and Avalanche Safety resources, thankfully, are growing more plentiful and accessible, and last winter, we published an article on the basics. Earlier this winter, I spoke with backcountry athlete and web development colleague Dan Beerman, whose experience in the backcountry really broadened as a backpacking guide in New Mexico during the summers 12 years ago, followed by a position as a climbing instructor.
When I was a backpacking guide, I was on the search and rescue if I didn’t have a crew … We had a radio, so we were the point of contact for finding and doing extraction. That’s when I learned the most and was exposed to the most. I took my Wilderness First Responder course in 2014, and that was through the Wilderness Medical Institute.
Dan’s also a fellow hut tripper, and we’ve been talking about doing one together (when we’re on the other side of the current pandemic). He’s spent the last two New Year’s in huts, backcountry skiing or snowshoeing tours. This past year, he skied Buffalo Mountain’s Silver Couloir, in the Gore Range, and made an attempt at a couloir on Mt. Torrey’s. And there have got to be some good “couloir” puns out there.
I have aspirations to do the Colorado trail quickly, but I don’t know if I wanna do that in a competitive way or just recreationally backpack it. It’s hard to balance summer objectives, or climbing objectives vs. winter backcountry goals vs. alpine mountaineering objectives.
And he makes a great point:
In Colorado, your recreation is so close to becoming high-consequence all of the time! If the weather changes from the trailhead, that could be a really big problem.
I’m familiar. Nothing really teaches you as much or as quickly as getting caught in Colorado’s extreme weather patterns.
Dan took an Avalanche Awareness and Safety class through Colorado Mountain School, held up in Rocky Mountain National Park over two field days after two nights of class in Boulder. His main takeaway:
Check an avalanche conditions snow report daily. Observing the snowpack over the season is going to make your confidence on the day of your excursion a lot higher. I’d had no context for why avalanches were happening, where and why it’s dangerous. Having that lens through which to view weather events in terms of avalanche conditions is so valuable. It’s an intuitive thing about paying attention to the weather.
This is my first season getting out at Copper, for example, and they all have that double-black diamond terrain in the back bowls that are labeled ‘EX’ on it. There’s a sign that says, ‘Ski with a partner,’ and I just thought, ‘Oh, shit, that sign should probably be much bigger!’
Beacon, shovel, probe are the mandatory avalanche terrain items — you’re putting other people at risk if you don’t have [them], because even if you observe a slide, you can’t do anything about it. Additionally, if you don’t have a beacon in a slide, others can’t find you. You’re not contributing to a rescue, nor can you be rescued. In Colorado, there’s an increasing awareness for that. I typically will bring that with me all the time, it’s just always in my ski bag. Having some snacks, having some water, those are the kinds of things: you should never not have them.
I’ll take the goals of the expedition and plan accordingly. If I’m doing a ski trip, I’ll wanna get out and do hikes with weight or runs where I’m doing elevation several times. I like to do six weeks out, of four weeks of training and two weeks of tapering down.
I tend to be in a constant attempt to gain weight. On the Pacific Crest Trail I tried to gain weight prior, eating a lot of fatty foods, that kind of thing. Jonathan and I came up with this metric: calorie-per-dollar-per-ounce. Lightweight food that’s affordable, easy to ingest, easy to prepare, and you aren’t having to burn a lot to carry that with you to the backcountry.
[On the trail], peanut butter is always a winner. Olive oil is one of the highest calorie-per-ounce [food]. I have literally drank it before, but just add it to everything. I do eat a lot of standard trailmix, it’s easy and accessible. I’m a big fan of pumpkin seed mix or stuff with chocolate in it. I like CLIF bars. I do not like Luna bars because I’ve eaten so many of them. I can’t eat pop tarts anymore because they used to be in the meals that were issued when I was a guide. Snickers bars are a great calorie-per-dollar-per-ounce deal. I eat a Snickers bar or two before bed when I’m sleeping at altitude so my body has calories to stay warm.
I’ll make these mass-gainer complex food supplements. It’s like protein powder, but it also has carbs, like a workout and performance powder. And I would add that to water with coffee, and that would be a breakfast while hiking. There’s a lot of different kinds of powders and mixes you can add, but when you’re in calorie-burning mode, I do recommend this. If you’re hiking 20+ miles in a day or 4000+ feet of elevation in a day, you’re burning greater than 4000 calories, so you really have to eat more than you think you can.
I wouldn’t say that I had HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) or HACE (high altitude cerebral edema) … Definitely, especially when I was younger … I would travel from 4000′ to 10,000′ in a 24-hour period. I’ve actually had search and rescues where someone was having night-terrors or hallucinations [due to HAPE or HACE]. I was a backountry professional for the Boy Scouts at a camp at 10,800′ (one of the first backcountry camps, in New Mexico). I’ve experienced dizziness, nausea, insomnia, weakness of the knees, elevated heart rate … and I’m a runner, I’m in decent shape. But you should acclimatize before setting out on a trip.
One last piece of advice,
Learn the Leave No Trace principles. We live in a state where impact is so concentrated that the more that everybody knows, the more likely it will be there for the next generation.
Dan and his backpacking, backcountry cohorts keep a blog full of breathtaking landscapes and telling captions on CaptainsofUs.com.
There will be plenty of time to escape to the backcountry again after the risks of COVID-19 have subsided. The current time is a good time to start preparing mentally. Know before you go.
Roberto Santos is from the remote island of Saipan, in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. He has since lived in Japan and the Hawaiian Islands, and has made Colorado his current home, where he is a web developer, musician, avid outdoorsman and prolific reader. When he is not developing applications and graphics, you can find him performing with the Denver Philharmonic Orchestra, snowboarding Vail or Keystone, soaking in hot springs, or reading non-fiction at a brewery.