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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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