Guiding in a super-continental snowpack: How to keep guests happy in the San Juan Mountains

Some of our favorite terrain off Red Mountain Pass in the San Juan Mountains.

By BCA ambassador Josh Kling of Kling Mountain Guides

The San Juan Mountains around Red Mountain Pass and Silverton, CO are known to have the most avalanche prone and finicky snow pack in the lower 48 states (some would say the world). Terms like Radiation Crystallization for near surface faceting were coined in the San Juan Mountains (Karl Birkland 1998 Terminology and Predominant Process Associated with the Formation of Weak Layers of Near-Surface Faceted Crystals in the Mountain Snowpack). Backcountry skiing here can be a dubious process, especially for the novice backcountry traveler. Finding stable snow is easy. Finding untracked snow is easy. However, the crux is finding the combination of both that is also fun to ski. Now add on top of that paying customers who are expecting to be shown the goods, guiding in San Juan Mountains is no easy process! So, let’s take a look at a few steps KMG takes to make sure guests are staying happy. These steps can be applied to any snowpack, and are especially applicable in our super continental snowpack.

Forecasts: Our days always begin by looking at the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) forecast for the Northern and Southern San Juan Mountains.  Learn to read the avalanche center forecast first, before choosing a tour location. So many backcountry users (skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers) choose the location first and then look at the forecast to decide how to mitigate the risk; i.e., they decide they are going to ski on the east side of Red Mountain Pass, forcing the forecast to their specific location and terrain. They then proceed there regardless of conditions. May it be great skiing? It may be horrible. May it be safe and stable? It may be sketchy and unstable. Looking at the forecast first can help tailor a tour specifically to the conditions.

In addition to the CAIC forecast, our guides also look over a variety of other weather stations, such as NOAA, for more info. We have a pinpoint forecast for Red Mountain Pass and other weather stations saved as bookmarks making it pretty efficient to check the weather.  Some of these additional weather stations we like at Kling Mountain Guides are listed here.

On top of direct weather sites like the ones listed above and the CAIC, we typically will look at the CDOT as well as the Purgatory Resort, Telluride, and Wolf Creek snow reports. This gives us as much possible info as we can get from a variety of sources. Our links are saved as bookmarks, so it does not take that long.

CalTopo, Google Earth, and Terrain Photos:  There are advantages and disadvantages to everything, including maps versus actual pictures of terrain. Ideally, you are using a mixture of everything. At KMG, we have an extensive terrain atlas of pictures and named runs. Our guides go through this list and picture atlas before heading out in the morning. The guides are intimately familiar with our terrain around Silverton and Red Mountain Pass. However, spending time going over maps and terrain photos before heading out helps us deliver that much of a better product to our clients. The general public should check out the Silverton Off-Piste Ski Atlas which I co-authored. The Silverton Ski Atlas is filled with many of the same aerial photos that our guides use.

All of our pictures are well labeled and on a Google Drive. This allows our guides to view them on a computer as well as on their phones for viewing offline while in the field.

Prospect Gulch shown in top photo is on the left side of of this terrain photo. The tree runs are visible in both photos of terrain off Red Mountain Pass.

The Chattanooga Curve zone just south of Red Mountain Pass.

Having detailed photos, along with a map, along with Google Earth allows for the guides to dial in their specific tour.

In addition to the terrain photos, our guides utilize, Google Earth Pro, and the app GAIA GPS. Utilizing CalTopo, KMG has an extensive map of our terrain, complete with labeled runs. Nobody thinks twice about how rock climbing routes are named, but for some reason, ski runs (especially backcountry runs) tend to be much more vague. By having a detailed map with named runs, our guides can be extremely specific when setting up a tour by opening and closing certain terrain or runs.

CalTopo map displays slope shading to show steepness of terrain pictured above.

Google Earth map showing terrain pictured above.

It’s often much easier to use Google Earth in conjunction with a topo map, rather than just trying to visualize a topo map by itself. Regardless, once the guides have read the forecast, we open up these programs. We then begin to scour the map and  Google Earth in the general zone for that day. CalTopo has some amazing features such as slope shading and graded relief (as shown above), which can help us get an idea of how steep certain terrain is. This does take some time and commitment. We may spend 10 – 20 minutes looking over terrain trying to find runs that meet what we are looking for regarding terrain for the day. This can be vastly expedited by having a named run list (see below).

Pre-built Run List and Photo Atlas: At KMG we utilize an extensively built run list. These are named ski runs all over our terrain. The terrain boundaries are Coal Bank Pass on the southern end of Red Mountain Pass on the north, Ophir Pass on the west over towards Handiest Peak and American Basin on the east.  Building a run list is likely a new concept to most recreational backcountry travelers however it’s relatively simple. Naming runs not only helps with tour planning but also with risk management. It cleans up communication both before a trip and while in the field. It allows guides to be specific about what terrain they will ski as well as what runs should be avoided. And if an incident occurs, a backcountry run list can help Flight for Life or Search and Rescue locate you and your group as well.

A sample run list of some of our terrain around Silverton and Red Mountain Pass

Fat powder gear: This one sounds silly. When you think about it though, it really isn’t. Powder oriented backcountry ski and snowboard gear allows you to float more. It used to be that if you wanted any float with 80 mm under foot skis, you needed to ski steep, more avalanche prone and aggressive lines. Today, skis like the K2 Pinnacle 105 or Black Diamond Helio 116 are great for riding powder. Fat skis allow you to float and have tons of fun in 25-35 degree powder, no problem! I find that most, if not all, of our clients have a ton of fun skiing 32-degree untracked boot-top pow.

External Training: All of our guides go through external training outside of KMG. This includes organizations like the American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) for ski guide training and the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) for avalanche training. These organizations tend to be technically oriented (i.e. the skills they teach are more hard skills such as snow science and risk mitigation rather than soft skills such as coaching). However, when a guide is technically proficient due to extensive training and examination, they can put 100 percent of their energy into client satisfaction. These organizations also work on skills such as client care and professionalism.

Float Avalanche Airbag Packs: You may ask how does a Float Pack like the BCA Float Speed 27 help somebody have more fun? Well, I’ve found that many folks are nervous or even apprehensive about skiing in the backcountry, especially in the San Juan Mountains around Silverton. This is can be especially true without a guide. Folks’ nerves seem to ease slightly with a guide making the risk management calls. For the past several years, however, we’ve provided BCA Float 22 packs to clients free of charge. When a Float pack comes at no additional cost, people seem to use them without hesitation. When they ski with a Float pack, they seem to feel that much more relaxed. It’s entirely a mental thing. We would ski the same terrain and make the same risk management calls with or without a Float Pack. However, anything to make folks more comfortable.

A couple of psyched KMG clients sporting BCA Float 22 packs, walking back along the infamous US 550 after linking some classic San Juan ski lines.

These are just some of the techniques we use to help find good snow and ensure that our clients have a great time. If you feel like seeing for yourself what the ski terrain around Silverton, CO and the San Juan Mountains have to offer, please give us a shout! Until then, happy skiing.

Josh Kling is an AMGA Certified Alpine & Rock Guide, AMGA Assistant Ski Guide, AIARE Course Leader and the Owner / Lead Guide for Kling Mountain Guides, LLC.