It’s early October. Fall storms have grizzled the high elevations of the Tetons, and the hard-core skiers are already in the mountains. Two people, a woman and a man, have died. They were climbing a long, steep chute of snow in Montana’s Madison Range when a weak layer in the snowpack broke and kept breaking all the way to the top. The avalanche ran down right on top of them. The man dug himself out of the snow and searched for the woman, his girlfriend, for three hours before marking the debris with his avalanche probe and hiking out to his truck. Then he drove to his home in Bozeman, wrote a note for the search and rescue team detailing where the woman had been buried, and took his own life.
While I wasn’t skiing this day, the Madisons are an hour and a half from my home in Idaho and are among the mountains I ski frequently. I read the local avalanche center’s report on the incident, which includes a photo of the peak the couple planned to ski. The avalanche path and the pile of debris at the bottom are visible in the picture. I find a map of the mountain and make a note to ski it in the spring. I know there is something wrong with this.
Popular images of snow paint it as marshmallow creme, homogenous from top to bottom, soft and forgiving and miraculous. In reality, it’s more like a skyscraper cobbled together with whatever the builder found lying around: some floors are constructed of steel beams; others, of Styrofoam. That’s snowpack: the piled-up remnants of storms conjoining with or warring against those that come after. Fragile and knotty and convoluted, and sometimes deadly.
Late that October, I’m at a week-long retreat at a cabin in Teton Valley, Idaho. One afternoon, I take a break from writing and run up a narrow dirt two-track, into the mountains. Not a quarter-mile from the cabin, I hit the first patch of snow. The road narrows to a trail that follows a creek, then turns hard to the right. I follow it up a ridge, and now the snow is everywhere. The thin crystal glaze doesn’t look malevolent, just out of place against the still-green brush. But it’s already turning to sugar; the future of this snow is easy to predict.
Take last year, a typical season: October snow, warm days, rain, then, finally, in late November, the storms we’d waited for. The snow fell light and cold at first, then warm and wet and heavy. All of these were danger signs, but a pair of skiers on Teton Pass chanced a line through Wolf Trap, a notoriously touchy spot, and set off an avalanche that caught and carried both of them. They dug themselves from the debris and walked out.
The local avalanche center had rated the hazard that day as four on a five-point scale: “Very dangerous avalanche conditions. Travel in avalanche terrain not recommended.” What were those guys doing up there? What analysis led them to believe that slope was stable?
In retrospect, every decision seems easy, but what’s easier is to convince yourself of what you already want to believe. Snow scientists call the psychological phenomena that lead us onto snow we should know won’t hold our weight “human factors.” Some experts say that nearly all human-caused avalanches can be traced to these phenomena. Though it doesn’t show up in the literature, perhaps the biggest “human factor” is the impulse that draws us to snow in the first place.
I feel some magic even in the remnants of this early season storm, and I climb higher on the ridge, though the snow is slick and treacherous and plasters my shoes so that I nearly fall. In the coming weeks, new snow will bury the thin layer I’m sliding on now, and storms after that will bury it deeper, until, probably sometime around the first of the year, the weight of the snowpack will overwhelm the structure, and it will all collapse. I just hope someone isn’t on it when it does.
Snow science is a black art.
The basic principles are clear. Weather, for instance: one of the first things any backcountry skier learns is to avoid steep slopes immediately after a storm. Or terrain: ski a low-angle slope, and it won’t slide except on the kind of day where the danger’s so high you should probably stay inside and tune your skis anyway. Simple enough. But the days steep slopes are most dangerous are also the days they’re most inviting, a paradox that almost seems intended to bait us into avalanches like fish to a lure. Plot danger and desire as two curves on a grid; risk is the space where they link.
As pure science, it’s easy. But translating it to a go/no-go decision at the top of a clean bowl of untouched powder when all your love is telling you to go ahead and ski it despite everything you don’t know about the fragile menace buried beneath beguiling powder—that’s the art.
It’s January, and I’m on the Continental Divide outside West Yellowstone, Montana, breaking trail through deep snow toward a ridgeline that marks the invisible boundary with Idaho. I’m here to help a friend who teaches a backcountry ski class—it’s the two of us, plus ten students. We’re on wide, lightweight skis, with carpet-like skins attached to the bases that allow us to walk uphill without sinking into the snow, but even with these advantages, setting a new track in fresh powder is like running through sand with weights tied around your ankles. During the slog back up the slope, the student behind me asks questions about snow science.
“Does an avalanche make a slope safer or less safe for the rest of the season?”
“Do you want a denser or less-dense slab?”
“How does rain affect the snowpack?”
Wind? Cold temps? Sun?
Snow science, he’s learning, isn’t easy.
In some of these instances, the variable is time. In others, it’s the direction the slope faces. In still others, it’s the combined history of weather and snowpack since the beginning of the season. When a slope has already run, the equations are so complex it’s hard even to begin to describe them to someone whose avalanche knowledge is such that they know enough to ask the question but not enough to realize the impossibility of touching a solid bottom of certainty—let alone while you’re skinning through deep snow at 8,000 feet, gasping for air.
In Hindu mythology, Kali is the goddess of time and change, of power and destruction. She could easily, I think, be the goddess of snow.
May is late season in Wyoming, and I’m in the central Tetons with Braden. I spend the night in a cabin with a view of the mountains and watch rain fall on the high peaks until the sun goes down. The next morning, we meet early and drive to the trailhead and start to climb.
The surface of the snow is dimpled with fist-sized cups melted away by sun and rain. The north face of the mountain is a wall of cliffs broken by narrow, skiable chutes; a large bowl curves off the summit into a long, glacial valley that runs along the base of the cliffs. Our plan is to ski the bowl, but we stop at an overlook and take pictures of the crags and the canyon before continuing up.
It’s windy on the summit, and cold. The serriform peaks of the Grand, Middle, and South Tetons splinter against the blue-gray sky. We see no one else—for all we can tell, we are the only skiers, the only humans, in the range. The sun hasn’t yet softened the snow in the bowl, so we stop to rest, napping at the top for close to an hour.
When we finally peel the skins from our skis and drop in, the snow is still hard, and my skis scratch out turns against the crust. The valley below the bowl descends past the cliffs in a series of steep steps. I wait for Braden to join me at the bottom of the bowl, and together we ski the mellow stretch of the upper basin to the next step.
The scene from the edge is astonishing. The lower half of the valley has slid, from the top of the step, onto the flats, and around the corner where we can’t see. It takes a moment to reconstruct the scene: the overnight rain must have softened an overhanging block of snow, a cornice as large as a van hanging from the top of the cliff. It froze overnight, but as the day warmed, so did the cornice, until its mass overwhelmed the snow’s cohesion and it fell, exploding onto the slope below with enough force to trigger an avalanche. The snow that slid had buttressed the steep chutes along the wall of the canyon, but when that foundation collapsed, so did the slopes it once supported, and hundreds of tons of snow rolled down the valley, snapping full-grown pines and gouging chunks of rock from the cliffs.
Avalanche Canada classifies the destructive potential of avalanches on a five-point scale: While D1 is “relatively harmless to people,” D5 “could destroy a village.” This slide, I estimate, is a D4: large enough to “destroy a railway car, large truck, or several buildings.” Friends who hike the area late in July will tell me the debris hasn’t yet melted away.
In the photo I send to the newspaper in Idaho Falls, Braden stands near the spot where the cornice landed, on an icy ramp that once anchored the accumulated weight of the winter’s storms. A sheer, bright wall of snow left undisturbed by the slide rises above him. He holds his pole in the air. The distance from his feet to the point of his upraised pole measures the depth of the avalanche. But that’s not the whole story.
When I get home that night, I upload photos from my phone to my laptop and click through them. In the pictures I snapped from the top of the cliffs on our way up, there is no avalanche debris in the canyon. The cornice broke and the whole valley slid between the time we stopped for pictures and the time we skied to the top of that step. Napping, we heard nothing. As we’d watched rain fall on the peaks the night before, we suspected nothing. The depth of our ignorance is unfathomable.
A few weeks later, I’m skiing with Jaren in Grand Teton National Park. Our objective is a steep chute that rises out of Amphitheater Lake, a blue glacial tarn surrounded by dark cliffs, the snow-dazzled summit of the Grand Teton looming above. But the nearest trailhead is closed for maintenance, and by the time we reach the lake, the sun is up, the air warm, and the hard morning snow is softening to mashed potatoes. We agree the safest option is to backtrack down one of the gullies we traversed on the ascent. The snow is fast and creamy-smooth, and even if we haven’t skied the chute we’d aimed for, it’s a beautiful day in the Tetons.
We stop where the gully narrows and steepens. I offer Jaren first tracks.
“Should we ski cut it?” he asks.
“I can if you want.” What I want is to descend before the snow warms, and pausing to clear the slope of unstable snow seems like an unnecessary delay. I’d rather ski it fast and veer out of the gully if it lets go.
“Do you think we should?”
I side with Jaren’s gut over my own impatience and speed across the top of the slope, bouncing on my skis, testing whether the top layer of snow will break free and hoping I’m moving fast enough to ski away from it if it does. I’m halfway across when the snow beneath my feet rips out and plunges down the gully, sluicing back and forth, gathering more snow as it goes.
I wait on the opposite side of the chute until the whole accumulation of collected disorder finally settles at the bottom, then look back at Jaren. He nods, wide-eyed, and we follow the slide-polished snow into the gully.
Then there’s a clear spring day in the Lemhi Range—a dry, little-used spine of rock that runs up the center of Idaho. Braden and I make plans to ski Diamond Peak, the highest summit in the range, a 12,000-foot pyramid that juts from the sagebrush plain of the Birch Creek Valley. We’ve both climbed the peak before, but we’ve never attempted it on skis.
As the day warms and the snow softens, the eastern slopes of an adjacent peak known as the Riddler begin to shed snow in long white showers that arc over the cliffs guarding the base of the mountain. Every quarter of an hour, a new slide lets loose, the avalanches marching clockwise around the cirque, each one hitting closer to our position.
We huddle below a small cliff band to reassess our plan. I take off my skis to test the hardness of the snow and sink to my hips. We’re at least an hour and a half from the summit; by the time we reach it, the avalanches’ eastward march will have overtaken us. We decide to bail.
We ski a short slope into the basin below then climb a shaded chute that still holds hard, stable snow. From the top of the chute, we sit and eat jerky and trail mix and energy gels, watching the slides tick across Diamond Peak. Snow pours down the face of a cliff and onto the spot where we stood ninety minutes earlier. Braden and I look at each other and laugh like pardoned men.
Stories like these are scattered throughout avalanche literature and in the tales backcountry skiers tell each other in the truck on the way to the mountain on winter mornings while snow frenzies the air. Stories of almosts, of just made its. Of everything we didn’t know made visible in surging, shattered snow.
Snow scientists love to talk about “managing uncertainty,” but it’s hard enough to know what’s happening when snowflakes are in the air, isolated and individual; once they hit the surface, the interactions multiply. Round and warm, snowflakes bond together, gaining strength. Cold and blocky, they weaken, lying in insidious wait for a skier or a snowmobile, then break. Rain turns the whole pack to paste.
To understand snow takes a mind both diagnostic and analytic, both doctor and coroner. Every avalanche tells a story about the snow maladies endemic to that winter; skiers read these clues to construct an epidemiology of snowpack and predict where the next one will release. But you’ve got to see what’s not visible, too. You’ve got to feel where the sickness hides.
To take what we don’t know and act based on that ignorance seems injudicious at best. Every piece of information we need to make a decision is hidden under the snow. When it’s uncovered—if it’s uncovered—it will already be too late for whatever story it tells to be useful to whoever started the slide. And whatever story they’ve told themselves may never be heard.
I’m at a family gathering one night when a distant relative by marriage asks about skiing. “You don’t ski alone, though, right?”
I like to believe I’m more attentive when I’m alone, that I take fewer chances. I keep to areas I know, that are well traveled, which is an easy thing to do on Teton Pass. But I know familiarity is its own kind of trap.
Take the fog-hooded day on Mount Glory when I set off down a ridge I’d skied at least a dozen times, a line dotted with whitebark pines I hoped would mark a path through the blank of snow and clouds. But a hundred yards down, the trees I had expected to follow were gone. I knew from other, sunnier days that the ridge falls away toward cliffs on one side and a steep, avalanche-prone bowl on the other, so I picked my way through the fog a turn at a time, until a radio repeater the size of a highway billboard loomed above me. I had skied the wrong ridge, south instead of east. That I’d so easily become disoriented was unsettling.
“Yes,” I answer truthfully. I do ski alone.
The distant relative sighs. “Promise me you won’t do that. You need to be careful.”
She’s talking about uncertainty, though her uncertainty and mine are not the same thing. What she understands of backcountry skiing is the story she hears on the news—yet another skier caught, buried, killed. To her, the backcountry is a blank menace: avalanches just happen, and if your partners dig you out, you survive; if you’re alone, you don’t. For me, it’s more complicated.
I know that most avalanche accidents happen to groups, and not just the ones that make the news: six caught, five killed outside Loveland, Colorado; four caught, three killed on the backside of Stevens Pass, Washington. Groups can reinforce flawed thinking, or propagate a fever for powder that leads them to overlook signs of danger. Nine out of ten avalanche accidents are caused by the victim or someone in the victim’s group. And if you do set off a slide, even trained, experienced partners are no guarantee of rescue: in up to 29% of avalanche fatalities, the victim is killed by trauma, not burial. All of which is to say that the effects of partners, like so much about backcountry safety, are uncertain.
So I tell myself that being alone in the mountains makes me a better person, more thoughtful and aware. More full of awe. But my explanations and justifications are nothing more than pretextual fables. The truth is, uncertainty is part of what attracts me to the backcountry: I love the snow for what it refuses to confess, for what remains inarticulable. The silence of the winter woods, the solitude of skinning for hours up a ridge, the heart-plunge-and-catch of a powder turn, some alchemy of the physical and the spiritual—these reasons lurk beneath the surface, perceptible only when the snow is flying and I’m floating, touching nothing solid beneath.
Bottomless. That’s the word skiers use to describe the best of conditions, those days when the snow is so deep and light that, with every turn, it rushes into your face and streams around you in a pearly cloud, and skiing feels like nothing less than flying. Pure, bottomless experience.
Another May day, and I’m in the Snake River Mountains. Jaren and I are skiing Mount Baird, the highest peak in the range at 10,025 feet. The route description says to follow the creek drainage to the ridge, then turn right and ascend the ridge to the summit, but we’re impatient and climb the ridge early. This turns out, unsurprisingly, to be a bad idea. The snow is too hard and the slope too steep for our skins, and we take turns sliding backward down the face as we lose traction. We strap the skis to our packs and try to climb in boots, but the crust is too weak to support us, and we sink past our knees. But we push a path through, and by some unforeseen act of mercy, it has snowed overnight at the higher elevations; our skins clamp tight to the new powder, and the last thousand feet are a pleasant tour through stunted pines dusted with snow.
When we reach the peak of Baird, we stop, astonished at the ranges that fold themselves around us in all directions: Tetons, Gros Ventres, Wyomings, Wind Rivers, Snake Rivers, Caribous, Big Holes, Centennials, Madisons. Jaren and I have been in all these ranges, have summited many of their peaks, but we’ve never seen them like this—the sheer mass and variety and spread of them, the way they fill the world with wonder. Neither of us speaks. Both of us are near tears.
Finally, we strip our skins and gear up and ski back down the mountain. The descent is some of the best skiing of the year, but it’s not what I’ll remember of that day.
It’s been more than three years since that trip to Baird, and still it may be the closest I can get to explaining why I choose to ski the backcountry. I’ve not yet been in the mountains on a day that matched it. I don’t know that I ever will.
It’s early November. Four feet of snow have fallen in the Tetons in the last week. The highway over Teton Pass closed two days ago so the transportation department could fire the avalanche cannons that keep the road safe. This morning’s avalanche report includes an ominous warning: “Assessing the stability of these slabs is problematic. Snowpack stability tests may not be reliable.” Conditions today are far more uncertain, more dangerous, than that tragic day last month in Montana.
The snow that will take me may fall next month, or next year, or in ten years. It may be falling today. It may already cover the ground, waiting to be buried, waiting to contort into the small jeweled crystals that lie in ambush at the base of the pack—invisible, elegant, lethal. Snow makes no pretension to permanence. It changes at a breeze, at the emergence of the sun from behind clouds, at the half-moon bend of a pair of skis. To embrace snow is to acknowledge that nothing in this life lasts, but what there is in this moment I will take and love, not in spite of but because it will never come again. Its transience is its danger, but also its beauty. And what is a life without the possibility of that kind of wildness?
Tomorrow, I’ll ski the backcountry. It will be my first trip of the year. The snow should be bottomless.