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!