Avalanche-prone continental snowpacks never agonize over their murderous ways. They could give a rat's ass when pit-digging humans accuse them of harboring weak layers, structural failures, and overweight slabs. They know no shame, and will shear and flee at the slightest trigger. They're loose, dangerous, and unpredictable. We skiers might loathe inland snowpacks if only we didn't, you know, adore them unconditionally.
Maintaining a relationship with champagne powder means dealing with its inevitable tantrums. The best thing we can do for continental snowpacks is to show them tough love. Which is why I recently enlisted for preseason boot-packing at Colorado's Silverton Mountain.
Boot-packing is the art of what The Avalanche Handbook calls "stabilization by compaction." Essentially, it asks bipeds to walk through avalanche starting zones making a dense pattern of footprints. It sounds like a prehistoric approach to snow management because it is. But it's the only way. Skis don't penetrate deep enough to mash nefarious depth hoar into submission - since skis insist on skimming merrily over the surface. Forget machines: Avalanche terrain tilts too steep for snowcats, and the Japanese have been sluggish at developing powder-stomping robots. All you have left, besides bombs, is what the French call le boot-pack.
Arriving at Silverton early one 20-degree Saturday in December, I found a parking lot full of transceiver-and-shovel-equipped skiers and snowboarders. Silverton awards boot-packers a free day of guided skiing (retail price: $99 to $129) for two days of trudging, and the mountain consequently gets pummeled by as many as 600 volunteered appendages at a time. The opportunity has persuaded face-shot aficionados to fly at their own expense from as far as Washington State. This year, thick accumulations on the Front Range drained the laborpool a bit, yet 108 people still showed the day I did. According to the license plates, they came from New Mexico, Montana, Oregon, and Texas, as well as Colorado. That's a lot of skiers who came here not to ski.
Actually, everyone carried skis and/or snowboards on their packs and got to enjoy a few turns near the valley floor. Toil carried the day, however. We began before nine o'clock and shuffled into the afternoon with only a quick lunch - not provided. Someone questioned whether boot-packing pays minimum wage once the cost of traveling to Silverton, deep in the San Juans, is accounted for. One wiseass replied, "Ask not what a ski corporation can do for you, but what you can do for a ski corporation." Which isn't fair. Silverton is anything but corporate; it's a controlled backcountry area served by a 33-year-old lift that Mammoth discarded. The infrastructure entails a wood-stove-heated yurt, a keg, and several dusty dogs.
Besides, boot-packing isn't a job, but a calling. The War on Avalanche Terror wasn't built on lies. Since 1950, Colorado has recorded a quarter of all U.S. avalanche deaths - about 205 - mostly due to dry-slab fractures of the type that plague Silverton. The San Juans also contain some of the steepest terrain in the Lower 48. Douse all those slide paths with 300 annual inches of fluff, and you've got prime habitat for the White Beast. Boot-packing alongside 100 other soldiers promised meaningful results - a rare chance to form a militia and fight back.
We split into four groups and winged up the double chair to Silverton's 12,300-foot summit. The guides carried big rolls of duct tape - for our pant legs, they said, because even the snuggest internal ski-pant gaiters get shoved aside and violated. Adhere your cuffs to your boots, or feel snow jam its way up to your crotch.
After angling up a wind-scoured ridge and across to its leeward side, we reached a powder-laden bowl. The snow was soft, deep, and loaded. It begged to be ridden into cold smoke. Instead, we trampled it. This was heartbreaking, and maade me wonder, "What kind of people would waste bodacious powder with ponderous plodding?" Oh, yeah: snowshoers. I wondered, not for the first time, what the hell they're thinking. Walking is just so...pedestrian.
A Pollyanna behind me offered a pick-me-up: "My mind is skiing, at least," an attempt at good cheer that only pointed out the inherent sadness of it all. But with war - sacrifices.
At its worst, boot-packing is postholing downhill. The same old miseries apply. Snow pouring around shins like cement. Wretched struggles for release. Sweat soaking through pricey undergarments. Despair at punching through. Wedgies.
My legs bent at awkward angles at unexpected times. I'd take four or five hard kicks to clear my boot, think I'd gained a modicum of control, and then grunt as the tails of my backpack-mounted skis caught in a drift and spun me a quarter-turn, inviting theretofore unimagined vectors of spinal stress.
"People get pretty frickin' worn out," said our guide, Bill Allen. "Some guys from a crew team came up once, and said boot-packing was the hardest workout they'd ever done." Attack faceting crystals, gain buns of steel.
By my second "run," I'd learned how to ease the strain. My five steps to better boot-packing technique:
1. Be born to tall parents. Short-legged boot-packers are pretty much screwed.
2. Hips behind the knees. Should the hips get thrown ahead, you become trapped and powerless and feel a whole lot like soon-to-be-slaughtered veal.
3. Look on the bright side. You're not really veal. The morass in which you're wallowing is virgin snow, not your own filth.
4. Imagine yourself in an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus. The only way to extricate your hooves is to make the absurd, exaggerated, looping strides John Cleese made on behalf of the Ministry of Silly Walks.
5. When all else fails, fall to the ground, roll, and thrash around till your feet are sort of where you want them to be. In other words, pretend you're a snowboarder.
When I managed to link a series of effective heel strikes, my mood soared. There's a perverse joy in kicking the living tar out of a slab. One of the despicable things about slabs is their fickleness. They can come hard or soft, moist or not so moist. Their widths vary from a few yards to a mile. But they don't need mass to kill: Slabs only a few inches thick have swept skiers to their graves. As I stomped chunks ranging in scale from pizza box to garage door, I'd taunt, "Who's the faceless killer now, bitch?"
For this, the guides expressed deep gratitude. Slope stabilization, explained Allen, "gives us so much more confidence to ski steeps." To induce shooting fractures in December is to escape them in March. Perhaps my actions saved the members of an entire company retreat or bachelor party from meeting their makers. Maybe they prevented nothing more than a bruise on a chipmunk. In any case, my soul is right. "Boot-packing is a core thing to do in the ski industry," says Silverton's co-owner, Jen Ader. "It's great for your karma."
I guess that's true. At the time, though, I felt less like an enlightened Hindu and more like a plum-tuckered dairy farmer. Aside from hydroponic operations, boot-packing is the closest skiers come to practicing agriculture. We the Silverton boot-packers stomped the ground in hopes of reaping a rich, safe harvest. I drove home from Silverton exhausted but fulfilled, as if I'd made something of value with my own two feet.