Few natural environments are as conflicting as deep powder
snow. On one hand, floating through 30 inches of fresh can be transformative, a
feeling of freedom more powerful than any other. On the other hand, deep snow
is often dangerously unpredictable -- deadly even -- when it comes to
No matter what steps you take to mitigate the threats, they
remain lurking beneath your skis like a land mine.
In light of the fact that it often takes a month (or two) to
return to the cautious mindset that protects a backcountry skier or snowboarder
each season, we bring you the perspective of an expert who has seen almost
Blue River, Colo., resident Scott Toepfer, 55, is the
longest tenured forecaster at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center,
entering his nineteenth year on staff. He also is a committed powder
seeker the likes of which you don't find often, even in ski country. Here, he
talks about balancing his urge to ski fresh snow with the sobering realities
that permeate his profession.
In Toepfer's words ...
Thirty years ago I was skiing powder over my head, so
I've had this experience for a long time. Now that I've been there and had that
experience, the uncontrollable drive to ski powder that's over your head, the
floating, skiing through clouds and things like that, isn't as all-consuming as
it is for somebody that's just gotten into it and experienced it for the first
time, and has gone, oh my God, this is the most amazing experience I've ever
had -- I need more. It's probably like a heroin addict.
I believe that 20, 30 years of experience is still
not going to make you the consummate avalanche expert, because it's just too
complicated of a system. You need to go with the textbooks, you need the
experience to back you up, and then you need to be humble, because you have to
be able to say no, and that's not an easy thing to do in Western civilization:
turn around or choose a different slope, without a tangible reason for doing
so. There might be some things that tell me it's probably OK, but making a
mistake can kill you.
What would be even worse in my world would be if one
of my ski partners got killed while I was out with them. That would be just
devastating. And I see that in my job; you interview people who've been
involved with accidents where people have been hurt or killed, and you see what
it's done to people who survived a bad accident when their partner didn't. It's
crushing. It can destroy somebody's life forever. Having that experience can
often make me a little more conservative in my quest for righteous Colorado powder.
That being said, several times a year I will have a
backcountry experience where I will tell myself, for the rest of my life, I
will never be able to match this. It's a combination of the environment that
you're in, it's the friends that you're with, it's the weather, and it's just
this wonderful feeling of standing on the summit of a beautiful peak in
Colorado -- I've never experienced anything in life that even comes close to
There are times when I'm on a ski tour, and I kind of
got this from a friend of mine who was one of my mentors. We were doing a big
tour in the San Juans along this ridge, and he would just look down this
incredible bowl, and he'd go, "Death." And we'd just keep going.
So a lot of my decision making, when I'm deciding
whether to go down this path or not, I ask myself, "Is the risk here death?"
And obviously, enjoying what I do so much, I don't want to cut it short by any
stretch of the imagination. So I ask myself, "If I screw up here and make a bad
decision, am I going to die?" If the answer is yes, then maybe I'm in a place I
don't want to be.
Personally, I think my gut plays at least a 50
percent role in my decision making. And I think that gut feel comes from
Taking a Level 1 avalanche class and going to three days
of instruction, by no stretch of the imagination does it give you all the tools
you need to survive in avalanche terrain. Basically, you've just started into
You really have to change your paradigm when you
become a backcountry skier in that we don't necessarily look for reasons to do
something, we should be looking for reasons NOT to do something.
There's just days when you have to throttle back a
bit. And say, "I'm here for one reason. Why am I here? Am I here for the
experience of being in the mountains and enjoying this, or am I here solely for
the experience of deep powder skiing." I think eventually you're going to
discover that you're here for the experience of this environment, period.
It's a hard thing to say no when heaven is two feet
below your ski tips.