From the desiccated deer head nailed over the door to the old skin magazines buried beneath a pile of second-hand rescue equipment, the rickety shack that sits atop 13,487-foot Silverton Mountain in Southwest Colorado is an unlikely spot for the cutting edge of anything. But if you find yourself there, freezing your ass off in two down jackets with Doug Krause, Silverton's Snow Safety Director, you're in the dojo with a master samurai of big mountain snow safety.
Qualified to teach head patrollers and lead heli guides the most advanced aspects of avalanche control work, Krause and fellow samurai John Clauson and Troy Nordquist form the core of Silverton's staff-wide snow safety effort. These three have spent a staggering amount of time—collectively, 47 years—on snow-control missions on high-consequence terrain, often in unstable conditions.
"Everyone that does avalanche control work is taking on risk, but what they're doing is on another level," says Ryan Copenhagen, a patroller from Mammoth on his second visit to Silverton. "It's far more complex, with way more variables than most ski areas. Those guys are definitely recognized as leaders."
While an uncomfortable number of experienced backcountry skiers are getting in trouble in what should be far less hazardous scenarios, this team has been able to keep it tight in the ultra-sketch continental snowpack of the San Juan backcountry. Which is why, after a winter with way too many funerals, I'm here in the shack, freezing my ass off despite two down jackets, to watch and learn.
If you're terrified all the time, you're probably doing something wrong. If you're never scared, you're probably not that bright.
Putting his pack together for the day, Krause remains quiet, slow to open his mouth until he's thought my questions over. A patient teacher, the 41-year-old Vermont native communicates in short, radio-friendly sentences. When asked for a personal opinion, it's inevitably incisive and most likely barbed. Or a grinning furnace blast of the darkest black humor this side of Chamonix. Krause lives in reality. Delusions of the ego could kill him.
If you accept hazards, you manage risk by managing exposure. Exposure is, in part, managed by assessing the potential consequences of an action. This is where people fail… Personally, you should already have an idea of the amount of exposure you are willing to tolerate. Critically examine that level of tolerance and try and determine if it is appropriate or crazy. Imagine your mom or your wife or your kids crying because you had to nail that fucking line and you died.
A couple years ago, Krause wrote an article for the Avalanche Review, the snow safety journal. He didn't write about snow analysis or forecasting or explosives, but about the importance of stopping to breathe and be in the moment when you're on a route or in the backcountry. Twenty-one seasons of guiding, patrolling, and performing avalanche work on Alaska's Denali and at Las Leñas, Argentina, Arapahoe Basin, Colorado, and Silverton have refined his protocol to something as natural as breathing.
The next day, I follow him on an assessment lap, watching him move through the potentially sketchy terrain of a huge alpine face, skiing simply and efficiently, constantly observing everything around him, moving methodically through every step. You can see the understanding of the reason behind each action; every movement has a purpose, like a climber free-soloing way off the deck.
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Working our way down a well-anchored ridgeline, we arrive at a perfect north-facing powder tube with a small wind-loaded pocket just under the entrance. Krause ski cuts across the cove, hitting the tiny trigger point perfectly. The pocket pulls out, runs a few yards and dissipates. Satisfied, he waves me over. For him, it's a slow day at the office, but in the big picture, we've just moved through several thousand feet of complex avalanche terrain with minimal exposure.
Later, I ask him where his head is at when he's on a big sketchy face in the San Juan backcountry.
Based on my experiences over the years, I'm thinking about my location and [that of] those around me, that season, that month, that week, that day and on that route. I'm trying to forecast and assess optimal strategies for interacting with my partners and the environment. I'm trying to identify the unknown and separate what I'm sure of from what I still need to figure out.
He feels good enough now, sending it past me into the sluicing tube of powder with what can only be described as gusto, ripping it fast and true in AT boots with a 40-pound pack. It's probably my deepest, longest powder run of the season. But for Krause, who probably skis more untracked than anyone else, it's just another little snack. He looks back up at the line, grins at our tracks, the only ones on this far flank of a huge empty face.
Doing so much high-consequence stuff at work has made me deeply appreciative of groomers and all things that don't scare me.
The next day, Silverton owner Aaron Brill takes Nordquist and I out for an exploratory mission in Zone VII, Silverton's vast heli-only back nine. After a storm and shifting winds, the snowpack is a freak fest. Control work from the helicopter has produced huge slides, including remote triggers, but stubborn blocks of possible hangfire loom everywhere. Brill wants to put some ski cuts in on lower-angle terrain to get a feel for what's going on and figure out a plan for the weekend's heli clients. After he remote-triggers a small release on the backside of the landing zone from the A-Star, we climb out onto an airy ridge. This is definitely a live-fire exercise: All around us are massive slab slides, some that have released without a direct charge, and worse, big hanging pillows of wind deposition that should have slid and didn't. Fortunately, Brill's careful route-finding from ridgeline to LZ tiptoes us through the complicated and intimidating scenario.
Later, while we wait for the helicopter in a sunny meadow, Nordquist, a patroller and gunner at Alta for 10 years, explains his theory of backcountry safety. "It's all about managing expectations. If Doug and I go out for a tour, we might have a goal, and we'll probably do it, but if we just end up skinning around on some ridge, that's a great day, too. You have to keep your expectations in harmony with nature."
I laugh at the hippy-dippititude from a lifetime NRA member. But my questions keep provoking answers that sound more like Buddhist philosophy than snow science jargon.
Back at the shack, now warming in the afternoon sun, I bum a cig as Krause explains what gets people in avalanche terrain.
There are almost always decision-making and communication errors. People suffer from positive reinforcement and don't talk effectively about what the hell is going on.
It's important to remember that people go backcountry skiing because it's fun. If you can't find an adequate substitute for getting out and crushing deep pow in big terrain, you're in a bit of a bind because you can't do that all the time without assuming significant risks. In the end, what's possible is dictated by the mountains. Some days they want you to stay inside and make soup.
The next day, the weather moves back in. We shiver for an hour or two in the shack, but the sun never shows and the temperature drops as a storm moves in from the north. At 3 p.m., Krause offers to take me down to the base and grab some powder turns on the way. After a day of heli and avalanche focus back in Zone VII, the low-consequence powder below timberline has me relaxing until I send a deep turn, hook up on a tree, and feel my lower leg torque in the entirely wrong direction.
And suddenly, we are there: the bad place we've been talking about this whole time. My knee is smoked, and it's about a mile or more of avalanche debris and cliff bands to get down to the road. It's late in the day, no place to land the helicopter, and the inbound storm is now wind-loading the huge bowls above that drain into the gully in which we're stuck. As I cuss myself out for the moment of inattention, Krause is collected. He whips together a brace from a two-piece touring pole and a couple of rubber ski straps, rolls me a cig and calls Clauson up in the shack.
Grinning through his bushy beard, Clauson shows up with a patrol toboggan after what must have been a hideous traverse across thousands of feet of steep trees; a few minutes later, I am dangling upside down over a cliff. With the help of photographer Scott Smith, the two carefully wrestle me and the 100-pound sled through the awkward and exposed terrain in the gathering darkness. They're bummed that I'm hurt, but I can tell they're stoked to get the chance to help someone, to make sure that they're on point.
The rest of us might not have the thousands of hours on the firing line, or all the certifications and education that it takes to earn a spot in the shack, but anyone can practice the core of Krause Fu. Paraphrasing Krause's wisdom: manage your expectations, be aware of your surroundings, understand why you're doing what you're doing, and
Editor's Note: As this issue went to press, we were saddened to learn that Silverton Assistant Snow Safety Director John Clauson, a ski patroller for 17 years, passed away July 25, 2012, after battling leukemia. We extend our condolences to his family and friends. John was humble, selfless, and a true skier. Hans Ludwig wrote this story in memory of Clauson in August 2012.