I have a confession to make; until this last spring I had zero backcountry skiing or snowboarding experience. Yes, I purchased a hotel in Silverton, CO without having ever been in the backcountry during winter. I grew up snowboarding on east coast ice. A good day was when it had been cold enough to have a fresh layer of man made “snow” on top of the ice sheet and by day’s end you’d completed 3000ft of vertical.
So, when I had the chance to come down to Silverton last year for the annual Silverton Splitfest I logged some vacation time and made the drive down from my new home in Boise, ID.
Day 1: Avalanche Rescue Course
Two year’s before when I had the intention of moving to Silverton full time to help Dan re-open The Avon I purchased the requisite safety gear from Backcountry’s spring sale and there it had sat in my gear closet. My first stop for the week was to get some training on beacon use and rescue techniques in the case of the worst.
The day started with about an hour in the classroom with Jasper and Ack from Silverton Avalanche School reviewing the pre-course reading we had done and discussing the current philosophies and tactics for winter travel and rescue in avalanche terrain. Most of the class had far more experience than I did. Most had done some backcountry skiing/riding and one or two had served on ski patrol at one resort or another.
The historic snowfall and avalanche activity last winter in the San Juans meant that the Silverton Avalanche School was able to teach theses skills on real debris fields. They did an excellent job not only teaching the skills, but then putting them to practice repeatedly in drills. We practiced digging at maximum effort at 10,000ft in tree limb reinforced concrete snow, taking turns until our lungs screamed and our stomachs threatened to reveal our breakfasts. I can tell you with the utmost certainty that I sure as hell never want to get buried or have to rescue a friend who has been. After this experience I am amazed that any one is ever recovered alive after anything further than a near surface burial.
Being my first day on splitboards also offered a unique challenge. My most recent skiing experience was more than 15 years prior and unclipped heels on wide awkward skis adds a whole new level of challenge for the uninitiated snowboarding.
If you haven’t taken an avalanche safety course before, could use a refresher, or are looking to advance your knowledge I highly recommended taking a course with the Silverton Avalanche School. They are a world leader in this type of training and Southwest Colorado is the ideal location to learn these skills in a realistic environment. They run courses throughout the season and always have sessions attached to the Silverton Splitfest.
Day 2: Red Mountain Pass tour to US Basin
I arrived early in the week and worked from the hotel’s lobby. I wanted time to review progress with Dan and also thought some acclimatizing would come in handy before the tour on Friday. After the epic winter of 2018-19 I was comfortable in my riding, but this was the first time I would ever skin uphill on a splitboard and I hadn’t been above 7000ft all season.
The group for the tour included many of the same people from the prior day’s rescue course and was guided by Jasper and Ack. Once again the day started in the class room this time to go over the day’s objectives and avalanche risk assessment. We charted a rough course up from Red Mountain Pass and down in to US Basin with several possible objectives depending on how the day went. It had been a cold night and conditions looked to be good through the early afternoon when temperatures in the 50-60s would start softening the snow pack.
Being new to travel over this type of terrain I made a few significant errors in packing that would take their toll. I had extra layers, glacier glasses, and water (not enough) in addition to my splitboard and avalanche safety equipment. What I didn’t have and would greatly regret was baseball cap, extra sunscreen, additional water, and my albuterol inhaler. I had recently started using albuterol for exercise induced asthma during high intensity sports like soccer. I had never needed it snowboarding, but I has also never skinned up several thousand feet of terrain above 10,000ft.
The going was very tough for me and I struggled with the thin air almost from the beginning. Living at 2,700ft doesn’t seem to help much more than coming from sea level. This was definitely a type II fun sort of day that I feel very good about in hindsight. We saw some incredible view and rode some great terrain high above the treeline in one of if not the most beautiful mountain ranges in the lower 48.
After dropping in to US Basin we did a lap up the far ridge to ride down The Snotch. We had great spring snow conditions riding on top of the deepest snowpack the region has seen in recent years. Back at the bottom of US Basin I started to feel the unwelcome symptoms of altitude sickness. On top of the labored breathing and headache I had been experiencing for a couple of hours the nausea came on and really put a damper on the day. The decision was made to start the trip back down to Red Mountain Pass. I still feel guilty for being partially responsible for ending everyone’s day early.
Jasper and Ack were great guides and kept an eye on me during the descent. I really appreciate the assistance they gave me in getting down safely that day.
I learned an incredible amount in two days about traveling safely in avalanche terrain and what to do in the worst case scenario. I feel like I now have a firm foundation for future adventure in the backcountry both around Silverton and back at home in Idaho.
In hindsight I think my struggles during the tour were really driven by a lack of sun protection on my head and the affects of altitude especially without my inhaler. I developed a nasty sunburn on my scalp that only fully revealed itself the following day. Several of the symptoms of sun poisoning overlap with altitude sickness and I now think the sun may have been my larger issue that day. In addition to the sunburn part of sun poisoning you also get:
Pain and tingling
Fever and chills
I learned my lesson and look forward to coming back next spring for the Silverton Splitfest; hope to see you there!