WORDS: Kim Kircher
I arrive early for the weather briefing, trudging through eight inches of new snow. Soon I will line my pack with explosives and head into the dark to start avalanches on the slopes of Crystal Mountain. I look around the room as Chet summarizes the snowpack. One patroller quietly buckles his boots. Another leans against her locker, her red jacket hanging on a hook beside her. Everyone listens intently. A rain crust lurks 15 inches deep; yesterday’s surface-hoar is now buried below our latest storm. Two boxes of explosives sit on the floor, the scent of cardboard mixing with a chemical tang.
“So what do you expect to see today?” Chet asks. In murmurs we agree the new snow could break down to the crust. The earlier powder-hungry smiles have given way to subdued nods. The weather briefing makes us careful. Like a magnifying lens, it clarifies the snowpack’s weaknesses. Instead of hurrying out to the powder--our headlamps illuminating the storm--we imagine the shape of the buried surface hoar, curious about the wind’s timing, hoping it came in first and obliterated the fragile crystals.
Later I stand on a ridge, the wind blowing hard pellets of snow against my cheek. My route partner, Andrew, hunkers against rime-coated firs scattered along the rim. Below lie three feet of wind-troweled storm snow. A flat cornice on our left, built out over the season, offers a tempting optical illusion. I stomp my tail in the snow; it’s as hard as Styrofoam. Andrew’s shot explodes, and I look over the ridge. No results.
I sigh. I’m supposed to place an air shot--a large explosive taped to bamboo--in the middle of the slope, but I’m not sure I trust Andrew’s “cover shot”. I remember Chet’s parting words: Be careful of wind slabs today.
I ease myself onto the slope. The snow feels hollow underneath, and I cringe. I shouldn’t be here. I stop and place the shot in the snow. I’m high, but I’m not willing to go further. It’s too dangerous. I light the shot and return to the ridge. After ninety seconds, the shot explodes. The slab breaks cleanly, fracturing a three-foot crown across my tracks, surging down the slope, breaking tree limbs, and billowing fifty feet high. I back away and take a long, slow breath, glad I remembered the weather briefing.