By Daniel Gibson |
Caption for top image: Lake Fork Valley backcountry image shows a fracture line and avalanche below a skier’s uphill path and safe downhill tracks on the right. Tracks of another skier, who apparently triggered the release, are found below the slide. Photo courtesy Taos Avalanche Center.
See current conditions at the bottom of the story. |
The fastest growing segment of the skiing and snowboarding industry is to be found outside of ski resorts, and the boom in people “earning their turns” is now also generating substantial numbers of deaths due to trauma and suffocation when avalanches hit these same folks. Last year, 37 people — including skiers, snowshoers, and snowmobilers — died in avalanches in the U.S.
Avalanches can move hundreds of tons of snow and ice at breakneck speeds, and while flowing initially like a liquid, once movement stops they “set up” like concrete, trapping people under their jumbled surface. If not already dead from being swept over cliffs or through trees, the cocoon one is trapped in quickly becomes an icy shell and oxygen is soon depleted.
It used to be that people venturing into what is called the “backcountry” were doing so largely blind, without information on conditions. Beginning a few decades ago, Colorado, Utah, California, and other states and locales established avalanche centers that produce vast databases accessing current conditions, hazard levels, and numerous other factors to make outings safer.
Today, people venturing into the Wheeler Peak and Columbine Hondo Wilderness Areas near Taos Ski Valley, by far the most popular areas for backcountry skiing in New Mexico, have such a resource — the Taos Avalanche Center. TAC was established in 2016 by Andy Bond and Rachel Moscarella.
“The sentiment was that there was a real need in Northern New Mexico for backcountry avalanche information, and avalanche education programs,” Andy explained recently while sitting on the tailgate of a truck parked near the Bavarian at Taos Ski Valley, enjoying some sun and rest.
At the time, Andy worked on the TSV Ski Patrol in their avalanche program, and Rachel served as the director of the snow safety team. It soon became clear it was too much ground to cover, so Andy left the patrol to focus on TAC. The first winter he was assisted by Graham Turnage, a member of the ski patrol at Bridger Bowl, Montana, who was in Taos as his wife completed an internship at the Taos orthopedic center.
They set up TAC as a nonprofit, Andy explained, whereas many avie centers in the West, some 13, are funded through the U.S. Forest Service, and Colorado’s by the state department of transportation. They work closely with the National Avalanche Center, the American Avalanche Association, and many local and state centers, sharing information and procedures. “The Sierra Avalanche Center was a huge help in our first years, and more recently the Sawtooth Avalanche Center in Idaho provided us with the templates for our web site platform,” Andy said.
In their first year, TAC also provided many talks and presentations, and the basic components of the operation were established. “The second year, the 2017 – 18 season, we had high hopes but there was almost no snow; I recall some eighty inches total,” Andy explained. “Most outings consisted of walking over rock. So, we shut the center down in February. This impacted the next winter, as it affected funding — the entire town was hurt financially. I had to find work, and was hired to guide in Antarctica, so I did that and we missed another season.
“We were operating out of McMurdo Station with a group of international scientists,” Andy continued. “We were the first people to set foot on the Thwaites Glacier, the so-called ‘Doomsday’ Glacier, setting off explosives to determine where the foot of the glacier is.” The glacier, which extends far out into the Southern Ocean, is being undermined by seawater and scientist are worried it might snap off and slide into the sea, which would trigger a significant rise in global sea levels. “It was really cool experience; I loved it,” he said.
On Jan. 17, 2019, while in Antarctica, he got news of the inbounds avalanche at Taos Ski Valley, which sent shock waves through the local and rapidly growing backcountry community. “The need was greater than ever, and I decided to come back and get TAC up and running again.” Since then, he’s had professional friends from other snowy realms periodically lend a hand, but he is the sole staff member today, and is stretched pretty thin.
THE DAILY GRIND
Andy’s primary focus is providing a daily forecast, and more in-depth summaries at least three times a week. He rises at 4:30 a.m. and puts together the daily forecast, then three days a week, or more often in a storm cycle, he heads to Lake Fork Valley and into the wilderness around and above Williams Lake, where he digs snow pits, takes measurements, and observes and records conditions. “I get back home and input the data I’ve gathered, then respond to emails, eat dinner, and go to bed. Then, I get up and do it again the next day,” Andy explained. Typically, it’s a 12-hour day. “There are times when it’s a grind, going up and down the same trail day after day. But once my head is in the snow, it’s always interesting, as the snow is constantly changing and is never the same day to day.”
His work is focused on Lake Fork Valley, adjoining Taos Ski Valley, but he also visits and reports on drainages within the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area to the north. There are no high altitude weather stations elsewhere in the state, such as on Lake Peak above Santa Fe. Nor does TAC have the funds to pay a staffer to be positioned in Santa Fe, and the travel time required for him to come and go does not make sense. The situation is similar in the Truchas Peaks area, and in the Latir complex northwest of Red River. Thus, lack of information precludes him issuing reports on other regions in the state.
The TAC website does include comments and details from general backcountry skiers on their outings and observations in locales like Lake Peak. “People need to realize we are not a major forecasting center. Submitting observations is a big help, because I can’t be everywhere at once,” Andy said.
TAC’s website also has details on backcountry and avalanche safety training courses offered in the Taos area, as well as Santa Fe and other locales in the region. TAC generally does not run these courses, as securing permits for such courses has been a challenge and Andy simply does not have the time nor energy to plan and present the trainings. But, last winter they facilitated a free Wilderness First Aid course for 16 teens, ages 15 – 19 conducted outdoors, and are planning another this year for younger youth.
There’s lots of useful, interesting information on the site even for people who ski in-bounds at TSV. Three weather stations on the mountain provide precise snow reports and other details that TAC posts.
Perhaps the greatest challenge he faces locally, Andy said, is that “in New Mexico we do not openly talk about [disaster] events. There is a lot of secrecy tied to incidents and fatalities. There is no avenue or process to actually talk about what happened.” There are several cases a winter, he thinks, that go unreported. “There is a stigma about having been caught in a slide, and that should not be the case. We should be sharing this information and learning from it.” Moving forward, he hopes TAC can help overcome this reluctance.
ANDY’S PATH TO TAC
His path to his profession is both a common story, and most unusual. Growing up in Massachusetts, he skied a lot at Jay Peak and Burke Mountain, and his love of skiing drew him to attend Colorado Collage in Colorado Springs. “In college,” Andy explained, “I began to do a lot of ski touring and backcountry skiing. I set out to learn as much as I could about snow and avalanche dynamics, so I could safely the big mountains, the steep and the deep.” He visited and skied in British Columbia, Utah, and Washington, then “I got to spend some time down here and fell in love with it. There’s something about Taos that draws you here, the Land of Entrapment,” Andy joked. So, at age 21, in 2007, having just graduated from college, he moved here to work on the Taos Ski Valley Ski Patrol.
“I was also fortunate to get into mountain guiding, and have worked a lot with Dave Hahn [another member of the TSV ski patrol who is an internationally renowned mountain climber, having summited Everest numerous times]. In 2008, I was hired by RMI [Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.].” That led him to work on peaks like Denali, which he’s summited numerous times, as well as Mt. Hood, and lots of “big, beautiful highly technical peaks in Bolivia.” Today, Andy oversees TAC in the winters, and April through September, he guides.
There has been a local perception that backcountry skiing in early or middle winter is super dangerous and foolish, but Andy noted that in Colorado and elsewhere, people have been safely skiing backcountry throughout the season. Waiting for the snowpack to consolidate in spring is not required — if you are educated, properly equipped, and exercise caution. “There was that adage when I first came here, that backcountry skiing before spring was inviting disaster, but that has changed.
“The backcountry skiing here can be awesome,” Andy enthused. “It’s a small zone but it packs a wallop, and often you have it almost to yourself.” But it is a zone with lots of avie activity, in both the established chutes and pathways, as well as on broader faces. A general rule is that slopes between 30 and 45 degrees are most prone to slide. Slopes steeper than that tend to slough off snow as it falls, and flatter terrain is stable. But he notes that is not an ironclad rule. “The ‘sweet spot’ seems to be 38 or 39 degrees, and guess what? That’s the same slope angles we all love to ski.” A fallacy is that treed terrain won’t slide. “They do, all the time; if it’s open enough to ski, it can slide,” Andy warned.
He is expecting his first child this summer, and is now firmly settled in Taos. “I plan to keep this going and continuing TAC, but it really is dependent on funding. I’m not very good at asking people and businesses for money.” TACs web site has a donate button. If you ski the backcountry and want to keep yourself and others secure, consider a donation. As Andy concludes, “If you’re getting out, stay safe!”
For further details about TAC, classes they help coordinate, to access their data and photos, submit a report or provide a donation, visit www.TaosAvalancheCenter.org.
CONDITIONS & EVENTS AS OF MARCH 1, 2022
Ski Santa Fe has a 46-inch base, and 82 of 86 runs open. It’s received 93 inches so far this season. This Saturday, enjoy live music from The Bus Tapes, plus a tap takeover by Canteen Brewing.
Taos Ski Valley reports 48 inches at mid-Shalako and 61 inches atop Chair 7. All the runs off West Basin Ridge are closed. Taos is once again hosting Freeride World Qualifying events in conjunction with the International Freeskiers and Snowboarders Association and the Freeride World Tour. The 2* Taos Freeride Competition was held on March 1; the 4* Taos Freeride Championships will be held March 3-4 (weather day, March 5). And, Junior Freeride athletes will gather on March 6 at Taos for an IFSA sanctioned regional event. These premiere big-mountain events are New Mexico’s largest and most prestigious ski and snowboard competitions. Athletes from around the globe descend on Taos to test themselves against the resort’s famed steeps, chasing the top podium spot and trying to get one step closer to making the Freeride World Tour. Spectators are warmly welcomed.
Wolf Creek rests on a cushy 102 inches at mid-mountain and 113 at the summit, having received an enviable 308 inches this winter! It is 100 percent open. This Sunday, sign up for the Jane & Pitch Tribute Race, open to all skiers and snowboarders. Sign up is from 9:30-10:30 a.m. in the Raven’s Nest building; the race is from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Charisma run. Sunday is also Local Appreciation Day, and everyone is considered a local here, with discounted lift tickets.
Angel Fire Resort has a 2-foot base, and 76 percent of its terrain open.
Sipapu has a 28-inch base and 40 runs open, including some expert and double black slopes.
Red River reports a 24- to 30-inch base, and 60 of 64 runs open.
Pajarito has an 18-inch base, and 36 runs going, including some expert trails.
Crested Butte checks in with a 69-inch base, and 118 of 121 runs open.
Monarch Mountain is cruising on a 56-inch base, and is 100 percent open.
Telluride has a 58- to 60-inch base and has 120 of 147 runs open.
Purgatory reports 62-67 inches, and 101 of 105 runs open.
Arizona Snowbowl is enjoying its 67-inch base, with 47 of 48 runs open, though none of its hike-to terrain.
Daniel Gibson is the author of New Mexico’s only comprehensive ski guidebook, Skiing New Mexico: Snow Sports in the Land of Enchantment (UNM Press, 2017). His new book, Images of America: Skiing in New Mexico, was recently released from Arcadia Publishing with 183 historic photos. He is a member of the North American Snowsports Journalist Association and has written on the topic for newspapers coast to coast, web sites, and magazines including Powder, Ski, and Wintersport Business. His first day on wooden skis with wooden edges came at age 6 in 1960 on a snowy day at the former Santa Fe Ski Basin. He can be reached at [email protected] or via www.DanielBGibson.com.
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