Skin To Win - Applying new knowledge in the Gulf of Slides

On the weekend of February 20th, I was in the White Mountains of New Hampshire to do the AIARE Level 2 avalanche course. It wasn't that long ago – December to be exact – that I had done the level 1 and I was keen on becoming an even bigger snow geek. This time, as I understood, we would be spending a bit more time in the field looking at snow grains, making weather observations, and just generally playing in the snow. I was also hopeful that this time I'd have the opportunity to do a little backcountry snowboarding while I was at it.

In preparation for the possibility of touring in the backcountry around Tuckerman Ravine, I had to set up my newly acquired Prior AMF splitboard. The board had been sitting in my garage since I received it the day after I returned from Colorado. I hadn't yet secured any bindings for it and a splitboard is pretty much useless without them. Fortunately my new Ride Betas arrived on Wednesday which allowed me to set them up before I was scheduled to leave for North Conway NH on Thursday.

The course was to be administered by Eastern Mountain Sports, and the course provider was Marc Chauvin of Chauvin Guides.

Note: The difference between the course administrator and provider is somewhat political but essentially amounts to EMS taking care of the paperwork while Marc Chauvin doing all the actual work.

The class size was much smaller than it had been on the level 1 course, although still large – five strong including the instructor – for a group planning on touring in the backcountry. The class consisted of two skiers, Malcolm and Ben, and three snowboarders: Mark, Kathy, and myself. It didn't take long for the gentle ribbing of the skier vs. snowboarder rivalry to begin.

The first day was basically a review of the level 1 material, so we spent it all in class getting a refresher on the decision making framework and making jokes about skiers and snowboarders at every opportunity. Marc Chauvin pulled out a good one about snowboarders, and what they had in common with vacuum cleaners: they both have attachments for dirtbags (sometimes humour is a means of holding a mirror up to the face of society... don't fret knuckle draggers, this wouldn't be the last word).

Over the next three days, we proceeded to geek out on snow with discussions about vapor pressure, metamorphism, temperature gradients and other nerdy sounding things. Marc was very good, however, at not letting us lose sight of the fact that all these things amounted to a very minor data point in a much more global decision framework for safe travel through the backcountry.

The big test for our newly acquired knowledge came on the fourth day of the course: tour day. The plan was to seek out the best riding conditions with the least danger of avalanche. Although there isn't much snow right now in Pinkham Notch, orographic lift has been contributing some precipitation at higher elevation. Combine that with strong north-west winds and you're likely to find wind-loading on south-east aspects. The plan therefore, was to head up the Gulf of Slides trail which, being on the second ridge east, would not be dangerously loaded but could still provide good snow for riding. With a plan set, it was time to take my brand new splitboard on its inaugural run.

Splitboad in skinning mode and bent touring pole
Gah! Somehow my snowboard split in two and my pole is bent! As an aside, what's similar between getting a B.J. from a man and skiing? In both cases, when you look down you realise you're gay... ZING!

The first leg of the trip involved skinning up the Gulf of Slides ski trail which was also a learning experience for me as I was figuring out the exact mechanics involved in skinning. It took me about an hour to get it dialed, however, these new skills came at the expense of my touring poles which got pretty mangled (it probably didn't help that I forgot the baskets in Ottawa).

It took a little more than three hours to make it up the Gulf of Slides trail to the South Snow Fields. This is where we had to decide on the next leg of our tour. We proceeded to make some weather observations to provide some data to make an educated plan. We finally agreed that skinning up the snow fields, then riding down gully #3 back to the ski trail would be the best plan. The alternative involved boot packing up the gully itself, putting us right in the barrel of the gun, so to speak, as this would likely be where the most unstable snow would be found. Besides, the gully is very steep limiting the chances of being able to boot pack up it with snowboard boots and no crampons; the odds of making it to the ridge via the snow fields were much higher. Even though we all had ice axes, these can be a double edged sword: they can get into as much trouble as they can get you out of.

We got to the ridge above gully #3 right around 1PM and, as we had anticipated before heading out that morning, the skies cleared up a little bit to give us a great view of the surrounding terrain. This gave me an appreciation for how far we had traveled because the AMC visitor center in Pinkham Notch was a long way away. No sooner had the sun broken through the clouds, however, did they roll back in thus compromising our visibility. We hastily re-assembled our snowboards so we could drop in before we lost too much visibility.

We had chosen gully #3 for our descent because we had anticipated that, due to it being more sheltered than gully #2, it would have been less wind scoured and have more snow in it. We already knew that the riding conditions in gully #2 were decent by talking to people who had ridden it the day before, so gully #3 should have been really good. However, for some reason that we couldn't figure out, gully #3 was heavily wind scoured; not much powder to be found. That's not to say that the ride down wasn't fun, we just weren't getting the face shots we were expecting. This may be a good example of one of the key lessons that I learned on this course: not all bad decisions lead to bad outcomes, and not all good decisions lead to good outcomes.

Once out of the gully, we rode back to Pinkham Notch via the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail. I think everyone in the group, skier and snowboarder alike, felt that this was a successful tour. In spite of the rivalry that had developed between the two groups, there definitely was a good degree of camaraderie throughout; all ribbing was done in good humour. After all, it doesn't matter whether you ski or snowboard, you're likely to encounter good and bad riders in either case: it's not the shoes it's the dancer. The important thing is to choose your companions wisely, and not predicate that decision by what they put under their feet.

I learned a lot in this class; I now feel as though I know more about snow than any sane person should ever need to. I strongly recommend this course to anyone interested in traveling through the backcountry. Not only will this knowledge help keep you safe, but it will also help you understand how to find the good snow – even though we failed in this case, like I said, not all good decisions lead to good outcomes – that is, after all, what we're really after when we enter the backcountry anyway.

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