Pisco Dreams

Jerry Roberts
Featured in our Fall 2004 catalog

My work involves forecasting avalanches on a highway in southwest Colorado. Once you begin the life, it’s not easy to go back and learn from another. There’s just no time. I recently revisited an old ‘60s favorite, Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, and he stressed that re-education is a necessary and important life process. I decide it’s time for re-education.

Saturday, July 5, 2003. I arrive in Chile to study under master snow-viewer, very old friend and avalanche forecaster for Ski Portillo, Señor Frank Coffey. An unusual six percent, low-density storm is my companion on arrival. Frank and the patrol go to work. One shot into the main gully above the plateau triggers a large slab avalanche that is heading uncomfortably toward us. Henry Purcell, the owner, suggests we cover up. We bend over in unison to take our punishment from a large powder cloud.

Frank descends into the Gargantita cliffs to retrieve a dud and triggers a meter-deep slab. He’s stuck on a 40-degree slope. A line is dropped and he climbs back to the land of the living. What’s the “sage wisdom,” I wonder to myself. “Experience is a series of nonfatal errors,” I conclude. In darkness, Coffey and I walk to La Posada for counseling. Six centimeters-an-hour stellar dendrites fall as we enter the warmth of the refugio for lomo pobre and pisco sours.

Monday, July 7, 2003. Seventy-six centimeters of wet, 14-percent-density snow falls from a morose sky. An inverted storm! It’s snowing eight centimeters an hour and things are starting to get ugly. A break allows us to get the avalanche work started. “Most of the control work is done by the storm,” Frank says. I hear avalanches running on both sides of the valley.

Tuesday, July 8, 2003. A storm stalls over the Andes with dying winds in its low-pressure spin. It’s snowing four centimeters an hour, with decreasing density. We’ve gotten over 200 centimeters in three days. I anticipate widespread slab avalanche activity, but there is little evidence. I don’t understand what’s happening. A half-meter of delicate snowflakes followed by 14 percent high-density snow with wind. The storm dies with goose feathers. Should I throw out everything I’ve learned? I think of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book.

Thursday, July 10, 2003. Sitting on my pack high on a ridge above Portillo, I spot Frank as he digs the first of many snow pits to prepare for heli-ski clients. Silence surrounds me as condors circle above, looking for fresh meat. I descend to inspect the pit and pucker as I stare at three centimeters of weak graupel lying between two slab layers. Frank smiles. “A little paranoid?” he says. “The two meters that dropped here was a pretty big shock to the snowpack. There are rounds mixed with the graupel, good bonding and warm snow/air temps.”

My life experience in a cold/unstable Colorado snowpack has jaded me. My mind drifts back to the Little Red Book. We ski one at a time from the cliff bands to the landing zone. A series of fine powder turns all the way to the valley bottom. Encantado!

About the Author

Jerry Roberts is an itinerant adventurer, mountaineer and guide. He also is an avalanche forecaster for a highway in southwest Colorado and pursues winter snow in the southern hemisphere as a snow safety consultant for the Chilean mining industry. For a diversion from his real life, he sails his motorcycle south.