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Dust Buster

May 22nd, 2013

Wind. Without it we wouldn’t have storms and without storms we wouldn’t have snow. I get it, but in recent years the wind has brought little to the San Juan Mountains each spring but dust. I’m not talking about a few rogue particulates that have blown in from the desert. I’m talking about dust storms that make me think Apocalypse.

I’ve been skiing in the San Juan’s for the better part of two decades, but the dust storm phenomenon has only been plaguing our spring snowpack for the last five years. Local backcountry skiers now know the dust is coming each spring, it is just a matter of when it will come. To add insult to injury, the dust storms of the last two springs have coated an extremely thin snowpack. Scientist are saying that the dust is contributing to about 45 fewer days of snow cover in the San Juan’s each season than a decade ago. The dust storms flare up when we get a stiff and steady wind from the southern side of the compass. This year the first major event hit April 7th the following week. By late April the snowpack looked to be a color best described as somewhere between an off-brown and adobe. Regardless of where the dust comes from, it’s here, so I can either hang up the skis or suck it up and get out while there is still snow to ski.

In late April we get a minor reprieve with half a foot of snow. The dust lurks beneath the surface but for a day I have a small window to get some turns in snow that is relatively free of visible dirt. The objective is a tight couloir off the eastern side of South Lookout Peak near Ophir Pass in southwest Colorado. I have been looking at this line for more than a decade, trying to find a time when coverage is sufficient and the couloir and run out are free of debris. From highway 550 I look at the line through my binoculars and it looks good to go. I drive a few miles up the Ophir Pass road find a small pull-out and put things in motion.

South Lookout Peak (El. 13,370) and the couloir from Ophir Pass Road.

The last storm cleared out less than 24 hours earlier, but as I start to skin, I notice shades of brown starting to poke through the brighter snow. As I gain elevation, the depth of the new snow increases and the visible dust dissipates. I traverse a large alpine basin and climb until the pitch exceeds the grip of my skins. I toss the skis on my pack, latch on the crampons and continue to head higher. The couloir narrows and the pitch steepens. I glance down at my bootpack and notice two distinct dust layers within the cross section of snow exposed with each footprint. The dust layers are separated from each other by an inch of snow and from the top by less than three inches. With today’s brilliant blue sky, I know that by tomorrow this white snow I climb will look like a chute of soot.

The pitch intensifies and gets my attention. It is steep enough now that my helmet grazes the surface with each step. This is the only time I ever feel truly exposed when skiing dicey terrain. The fear of sliding backwards, chest down, on a cliff-lined 45-degree pitch keeps me focused, which is probably good given the consequences of a fall.

After the crux, the climb mellows to a more comfortable 45 degrees.

After a period of sphincter-tightening steps, the couloir widens and mellows enough to allow me to take more relaxed steps to the top. The top of the couloir is a narrow notch in the rocks that provides exceptional views of the Wilson range to the west. From my perch I can see that the Wilsons took the brunt of the last dust storm. Being the first major mountains east of the desert has made the Wilsons a geological catcher’s mitt for massive amounts of dust. In terms of coverage, the snowpack looks like it should in early June, but the tone of the surface is sickening.

View west toward the Wilson Range from the top of South Lookout Peak showing dust on the snowpack.

Lunch is consumed, gear is stowed and it is time to drop in. Skiing couloirs is a methodical but detailed process where each turn needs to be executed with precision to avoid putting a disastrous chain of events in motion. I get my game face on and feel the pull of gravity as I aim downward. The goal to skiing couloirs efficiently is to work with gravity, not fight it.

Letting gravity do the work in the couloir.

Rhythm is the key, and within a couple of turns, I have found mine. I stay focused a couple turns ahead and try to keep my speed up fast enough to not let my sluff catch me. I approach the narrow section and swivel a couple turns to dump speed as the slot is too narrow to allow my skis to turn perpendicular to the slope. After I pass the choke I cut right, make a wide turn, and let the sluff pass on my left side. The crux is over and now this is simple high-angle fun. The couloir widens and I gain speed quickly. The last of the cliff walls disappear and I find myself on huge well-sloped apron, where I dump a hundred vertical feet with each arcing turn. The entire run has taken a couple minutes but is well worth the multi-hour effort.

I soak up the San Juan sunshine while waiting for the rest of the crew to join me in the basin. Once we are all back together we start laying out a plan for our next ascent and select some possible lines. The north-facing slope above us still looks to hold some powder from the last storm. The last few turns we made have left white marks on the brown snow.

Art and snow. Interesting but reason for concern as this isn’t what snow should look like in late April.

While it looks interesting, it is another sign that our spring snowpack will likely be gone earlier than ever. Not knowing how much longer our San Juan snowpack will last this spring, we decide that there is no better time than the present to get after it. Skins come out, water goes down and more sunscreen goes on. This is the cycle of my life, and life is good.

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Climate Change to Dent Ski Industry $12.2 Billion?

December 14th, 2012

Alison Gannett is a World Champion Extreme Freeskier, founder of The Save Our Snow Foundation and an award-winning global cooling consultant who has spent her life dedicated to solutions for climate change.

While I’ve been working to save our snow from climate change for over 20 years, superstorm Sandy was still a huge wake up call for me. One of the biggest problems for us global warming geeks is that “it” was always happening to someone else, usually thousands of miles away in a third world country. My skiing travels certainly made it more real for me as glaciers and snowfields I had skied just a few years ago disappeared forever in just five years or so. But the impact of Sandy hit close to home, so to speak.

For years, arguments have passed back and forth regarding what “safe” amounts of carbon dioxide emissions that we could emit might be. A recommended 80 percent reduction by 2050 was often seen as the only sensible way to keep extreme weather at bay, save our snow, and keep low-lying countries above water. Yet this was often regarded as too extreme and unreasonable to reach. While at Copenhagen in 2009, I watched the U.S. delegates actually argue for a one percent reduction over 1990 levels, while most of the rest of the world argued about 80 percent not being sufficient. McKibben’s recent speaking tour, along with a demonstration of actual higher-than-projected-emissions, are now showing us on path for a 7-14 degree temperature increase. Considering a two degree increase is most likely to put many countries under water and most ski and snowboard resorts out of snow, we now need to really skip the baby steps and focus on real and meaningful reductions.

This all doesn’t have to mean doom and gloom and crawling into a cave – I’ve happily reduced my energy use and carbon footprint in half in the last several years – all while saving money and increasing my quality of life. We are able to do this, but it means that we have to get real with reductions and stop being so damn nice about it. Forget recycling and driving your Prius; What is your carbon footprint and can you cut it to three tons from 40? This is going to involve some hard choices for all of us. In 2001: I gave up heliskiing; in 2005: my snowmobile; and in 2010: my ski pass. Each one involved tears and temptation, yet in the end I believe I am happier and healthier.

All of this leads me to another report I read this week, this time from Protect Our Winters (POW) and the National Resources Defense Council. It’s called the Climate Impacts on the Winter Tourism Economy in the United States. So often, folks tell me that we can’t afford to implement changes in our lives due to the economy, yet (as this report shows) it is the very economy that will suffer the greatest in a world with super wacky weather such as droughts, floods or a combination thereof: super storms. Yet until now, no one has ever attempted to put a financial figure on the losses that the winter sports communities might incur, or the amount of jobs that might be lost. While skiing and snowmobiling contribute $12.2 billion dollars and 600,000 jobs to our national economy, the numbers from the state of Colorado alone are staggering; a $154 million in revenue could be lost due to the impacts of climate change.

“In order to protect winter – and the hundreds of thousands whose livelihoods depend upon a snow-filled season – we must act now to support policies that protect our climate, and in turn, our slopes,” wrote study authors Elizabeth Burakowski and Matthew Magnusson of the University of New Hampshire.

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Alison Gannett: A MoveShake Story

November 13th, 2012

“We’re all dying deep down for a reconnection to something bigger.”

Alison Gannett is a mover and shaker to the core. A world-champion freeskier, Alison also runs three nonprofits, including the Save Our Snow Foundation, and inspires other women to fall in love with the outdoors by teaching them how to ski, mountain bike and surf with her Rippin’ Chix camps. On top of that, she’s a busy climate change consultant and speaker for businesses and audiences large and small. And more recently, she and her husband Jason, took the leap into farming the 75-acre Holy Terror Farm in Paonia, Colorado. Determined to walk the talk, she and Jason strives for 100% self sufficiency on the farm, taking big steps each year to make the world around them a better place.
Read more…

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Counting My Blessings After a Rough (and Dry) Winter In Colorado

May 18th, 2012

Spring is here, and I’m currently building a new hoop house for the tomatoes at our farm, but I can’t help but thinking about powder today. Water is going to be desperately short here in Colorado this year for us farmers, and for those of us farming powder this past season, it was a bit of a rough winter. I’m usually the person that just misses every storm, and is stuck listening to everyone spout on about last week’s epic while I watch it rain. This year was different, maybe some good karma long overdue, or not, but regardless, I was beyond blessed on every ski expedition. Sixty-three feet of fresh in Silverton, too much snow to count in Canada at Red Mountain and Whitewater, then seven feet at Kirkwood covering almost all the rocky nastiness.

Me with my herd of Scottish Highland cattle. We move them everyday to fresh grass, improving the health of the cows and our fields. Photo by Halffro Productions

I hope some Osprey folks out there got some great turns in this winter, while staying safe in the scary backcountry. I was just demoing Osprey’s new sidecountry ski pack, the Karve — it’s so sleek and convenient. I am wearing that my Karve in the above photo. Best part, aside from the look, is that it contours so well to your back that you forget about it, and don’t even notice you have something on, even on the chairlift!

Editor’s note: Colorado, especially counties in the Northwest part of the state, is heading into what may be the worst drought in more than a decade — partly due to a much below average snowpack as Alison mentioned. Learn more about what you can do to help stop climate change over on Alison’s website.

Alison Gannett is a World Champion Extreme Freeskier, founder of The Save Our Snow Foundation and an award-winning global cooling consultant who has spent her life dedicated to solutions for climate change.

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Global Weirding – Save Our Snow? What Snow?

January 18th, 2012

Alison at Silverton, CO - credit Sherri Harkin Photography

As a World Freeskiing Champion, the founder of the Save Our Snow Foundation, and award-winning global cooling consultant, I’m often asked about my viewpoints on climate change in regard to snow droughts, like we are experiencing this year.

I found that people couldn’t relate to “climate change” and that the term “global warming” left people confused, so I switched to “global weirding.” That term more accurately describes what is happening — while the planet is warming, the actual result is extreme weather. Global temperature increases result in really strange local weather — record low temperatures, record heat waves, more windy weather, record droughts, and yes, even record snowstorms. As the air warms, it can hold more moisture, so in the short-term we can have larger snowfalls. In the long term, more of those storms will fall as rain.

Today in Colorado, we are seeing record dust storms that are assisting in extremely early snowmelt — up to 40 days earlier than historic records. I don’t think anyone has to be a rocket scientist to see that the weather is a bit weirder than usual. The extremes are just so much more pronounced. It’s January, and I’m going for a bike ride. How strange is that? In Pakistan, I saw glaciers advancing in 2005 due to increased snowfall, and then watched them retreat up to 50 percent by 2007. On one ski expedition it was raining at 17,500 feet — something I have never seen in my lifetime. In Bolivia, I skied the highest ski area in the world at 18,000-plus feet, but that glacier disappeared forever in 2009.

Folks ask me about a critical tipping point.  In my opinion, we have already passed a critical point in the concentrations of carbon dioxide on our planet. But I’m an optimist and I believe we have the ability to change.

Read more…

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Take Action: Tell President Obama to Stop the Tar Sands Pipeline

August 24th, 2011

It’s now into the fifth day of peaceful protest outside of the White House, where a diverse group of concerned Americans are gathering to send the Obama administration a simple message: Do not approve the Keystone XL, a 1,700 mile pipeline that would inextricably link the nation’s energy future to Canada’s tar sands — the dirtiest fuel source known to man. So far, more than 200 people have been arrested in the protests, including well-known author and climate advocate Bill McKibben.

What do you think?

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Mountaineers + Reading Glaciers: Our Connection to Climate

July 27th, 2011

Mountaineers see climate change. It’s shoved in our face as an observable fact. On approaches to mountains we deal with miles of moraine where maps show glacier. Once on route, we find that steep glacier headwalls, once covered by spongy neve, have become black ice. And with less neve, we see more rockfall, such as during the summer 2003 heat wave that closed Mont Blanc.

Non-mountaineers have heard that glaciers are vanishing worldwide, yet most have never actually seen a glacier. They’re often curious about our encounters with these climate-change barometers.

Read more…

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Re-booting With Mountainfilm on Tour in Rapid City

April 6th, 2011

Mountainfilm Tour 2011 Elks Theater, April 1-2

By: Markus Jobman, Osprey Adventure Envoy Team

Once in a while you need to step back, pause and re-boot. Look at the world around you and the everyday life that each of us lives. It is so easy to get caught up in the day to day craziness. We get busy with careers, friends, obligations and adventures — and sometimes we forget to just stop and see what is going on and really enjoy what is around us.

This past weekend we took a break. We attended Mountainfilm on Tour. It is a celebration of what is around us: life, adventure, nature, mountains and the thrill of enjoying it. We attended the tour in our home town of Rapid City. For the third year in a row, Mountainfilm’s tour event acted as a fundraiser for the Rapid City Urban Orchard Project, an organization that works with the Department of Parks and Recreation to plant apple trees in green spaces throughout the city and organizes volunteers to care for them after they are planted.

Read more…

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Take Action: Protect the Arctic + Polar Bears

March 9th, 2011

Over the last week, a video has been making its way around the internet — Polar Bear: Spy on Ice. Shot mainly using spy cameras, this film gets closer than ever before to the world’s greatest land predator.

Icebergcam, Blizzardcam and Snowballcam are a new generation of covert devices on a mission to explore the Arctic islands of Svalbard in Norway. Backed up by Snowcam and Driftcam, these state-of-the-art camouflaged cameras reveal the extraordinary curiosity and intelligence of the polar bear.

YouTube Preview Image

Watching this footage is funny, intriguing and at the same time bittersweet. Polar bears are losing their arctic home — searching for ice in a place that used to be covered in it. If we want to ensure that polar bears still roam in the arctic, we’ve got to take action. It’s up to our generation to do what’s right and save these majestic and iconic animals.

  1. Tell President Obama to protect America’s Arctic here.
  2. Take action to reduce your climate impact. Here are some easy ways to get started.

Photo via

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Friday Round-Up: Chasing Ice

February 25th, 2011

Unless you’ve been living in a deep, dark cave… You may have noticed that there is a lot of cool stuff going on out there. So, we thought it was high-time we started rounding up some of our faves each Friday. Every month, we’ll be choosing a theme that fits with the Osprey lifestyle. Since we’re still in the full swing of winter, we decided to pay homage by picking “snow” for our February theme. Welcome to the Osprey Friday Round-Up!

We’re going to veer from the snow theme today and focus on something slightly similar: ice.

Chasing Ice Teaser Video from Extreme Ice Survey on Vimeo.

Chasing Ice documents the work of James Balog’s Extreme Ice Survey, a project used to document climate change.

After watching this film teaser it’s hard not to ask, “what can I do?” Start by checking out the Extreme Ice Survey page with tips for reducing your footprint.

Happy Friday!

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