In our second installment of BCA’s blog series, “#unepicadventures,” Jon Miller recounts a day of snowmo-boarding around Ketchum, Idaho. This story illustrates how important it is to have a Plan B if avalanche conditions don’t quite line up. Jon is the director of Backcountry United, a manufacturer of snowmobile racks for carrying skis and snowboards—and a big advocate for multi-use access to public lands.
By Jon Miller / Photos By Wyatt Caldwell – Backcountry United
The great thing about being a “hybrid” snowmobiler/snowboarder, is that there are plenty of options on any given day. While you might set out from the parking lot with a laser-focused mission to shred downhill lines, you can always adapt to the terrain and conditions with the sled. Even riding flat terrain on a sled can be a blast—and a great Plan B.
Being from Colorado, I’ve always wanted to get up to Sun Valley to ride with Wyatt Caldwell and friends. I finally had the chance last February, driving through a storm from Salt Lake to Ketchum. The stoke was high when I arrived at Wyatt’s place and we discussed our snowmo-boarding plans for the next two days. Avalanche conditions were seeming a little sketchy so we adjusted our plans accordingly. On the first day we decided just to ride chairlifts and enjoy the fresh snow at the ski area. Later in the day we took one lap in some low-angle terrain outside the boundary.
Back at the truck afterward, we had decided that the day couldn’t have been much better. We also agreed that the snow was a little dense on the surface and a little hollow at the bottom. There were no danger signs, cracking, whoomphing, etc, so we figured we’d be okay sticking to low-angle terrain either on skis or on sleds.
The next day, Wyatt got a call from some pro skiers (Griffin Post, Todd Ligare, Dash Longe and Dustin Handley) to see if he was down to come out and shoot some stills and discuss avalanche conditions. The guys were waiting for a clearing in the weather to get some shots for Teton Gravity Research (TGR). I was stoked to meet those guys and watch some cinematography in the making, so we loaded up and headed out.
The snow had settled a little bit from the day before, but there were visual affirmations of the previous day’s conditions on steep east-facing slopes. We saw several slides that ran wide and long, right at and above treeline. After we all got our sleds stuck a few times, Todd, Griff and Dash put their skins on their skis and headed up about 2,000 vertical feet to where they wanted to drop in.
Wyatt, Dustin and I got on our sleds and found a flat safe zone away from any terrain traps. We sat there for a couple of hours, while in radio communication (BC Links, of course) with the guys up top, just waiting for the flat light to clear out. They needed good light for line selection and for getting A+ photos. Griff and the boys spent 30 minutes hiking around on the ridge cutting cornices to see if anything would move in the snowpack, as we watched from our safe zone. There was small natural avalanche activity on a similar aspect slope nearby, but it was on a predictable convexity below rocks on an open slope. The lines the three boys wanted to ride were more protected chutes that did not hold as much tension. The guys had discussed ripping four turns down the slope with speed and out into an open apron.
Unfortunately there were a few too many red flags that afternoon to make dropping in worth the risk: the storm slab was less than 12 hours old, with some wind loading, some natural avy activity, and a pretty steep entry near rocks, where the snowpack was shallow. Even if the slope didn’t avalanche and they got great shots, it would still have been risky decision-making. Since not everyone was on board, the whole crew backed off.
The decision was to let the snowpack settle a bit overnight and try for a day or so later. The mountain wasn’t going anywhere. And we can always come back when conditions improve. The guys skied back down their skin track and made a few deep pow turns for the cameras. Wyatt and I hopped back on our sleds and went exploring around the Sawtooths, over ridges and across valleys. We rode more untracked snow that afternoon than most skiers get to experience in a week. We lugged our boards around, but again found that lower-angled slopes and forested areas were a sure bet for deep sled turns.
At the end of the visit, I was just as satisfied as if we had made hero turns in the backcountry on our snowboards.