2/2/13: Berthoud Pass Backcountry Skiing

Adam and I departed the Dinosaur Lot this morning at 0630, headed toward Berthoud Pass to try and catch some tracks in the recent snow, which finally cleared out last night. We arrived at the Pass in a cloud, only 5 cars in the parking lot, and followed the typical skin track up the West Side, near what used to be  the CDT West ski run. The skin track we followed was fresh and not yet compacted, and there were no downhill tracks in the pristine powder yet. We were right on the edge of the cloud that capped the Pass and it oscillated in and out, allowing the sun peek through low in the west, while in between the cloud deposited frost on any thin thread of clothing on us.

As we usually do, Adam and I opted to remain in the low angle ‘groomers’. Looking at the face as we departed the car, I noted that it would be hard for me to decide to ski the higher-angle stuff, given the morning’s CAIC (Colorado Avalanche Information Center) report. Colorado’s continental snowpack is characteristically sketchy, and the recent dump of 1-2′ of snow on top of layers of snow that have been sitting for nearly two weeks is a bad combination. Prior to our last run I peeled off to the side and dug a quick snow pit, wanting to see how the snow had changed since we were last up several weeks ago. A quickie compression test revealed the top layer of storm snow failing on the first tap, with two layers beneath failing in the next 10. Although the lower column of snow on top of the 12-18″ of depth hoar didn’t move, there is a large interval of facets that provides the ‘slip’ to allow an avalanche to rip all the way down the column of snow to the ground.

After our third run we got back to the car to find the parking lot full (probably 80+ cars), and I took a few images of the face which a few hours ago had been untracked. There were now lines that had been skied all over, and I just couldn’t fathom in my mind how people can rationalize skiing lines like that knowing that you just never know when a given slope will let go.

After arriving home before noon, I heard that there had been an avalanche on the West Side after we left, and it turns out the location of it was contained in the last image I shot before leaving. At the end of the slide show below, note the 9News.com web report with an image of the track into the slide. The solo woman snowboarder was really, really lucky to have been left near some trees, rather than deposited at the bottom of the cliff where much of the snow ended up. Marcus Beck of Alpine World Ascents witnessed this slide from the parking lot with a Level I Avalanche Class, and filed a CAIC observation report. Marcus taught my Level I course here at Berthoud years ago, and every winter day out I thank him in the back of my mind for the things he imparted to me.