In pursuit of powder
A brush with death: Steamboat Springs resident Tom Williams recalls surviving an avalanche in the Flat TopsI hoped I would never have to write this letter. But after the death of Jesse Christensen in an avalanche on Feb. 14, 2017, I feel compelled to put my thoughts and memories on paper. Jesse and I share something few other people share. We both have been caught in avalanches, and both of us were in the Flat Tops. The difference is I lived to tell about it, and he did not. Maybe by sharing my experience back in 1982 when I was 29 years old, I may prevent another tragedy like Jesse’s. Rolling down a hill at the mercy of turbulent snow leaves an indelible mark in one’s memory that cannot be erased, even 35 years later. I was on a long, get-out-of-Steamboat weekend with a group of about 20 friends to Trapper’s Lake Lodge. Back then, there were no cell phones, Spot satellite communicators, avalanche rescue beacons or flotation airbags. About ten inches of fresh snow fell the night before. From the lodge, we skied to the lake and then northwest to the base of the nearby cliffs. Never for a minute did we think about the hazard that was looming just a few minutes away. Danger was the last thing on our minds. Not being a proficient telemark skier, I lost my balance about twenty yards down the hill and fell into deep powder. The only way I could get up was to take my poles off my wrists, something that I think may have helped save my life. As soon as I got up, a friend above hollered at me, “Tom, I think it’s sliding.” I looked uphill and could see where the snow had broken away, leaving a two foot ledge and the top layer of snow was moving slowly at me. No big deal. I turned away from it and braced for the snow to surround me and move on. Wrong. I began moving with it as it pushed me down the hill. Still no big deal. Then as it picked up speed and raced down, it slammed me from behind like I could not imagine. I was in big trouble. All of a sudden my body started acting by instinct, impulsively, without thinking. I tried back swimming. I maintained upright for a few seconds, and then my body was slammed head first by the rolling motion of the snow. I started to roll head over heals uncontrollably. As soon as my head went down, I tried to swim in a forward motion and continue the roll. My head popped up, but only for a moment. Again, I tried back swimming. And then again I was forced head first by the rolling of the snow and my body was plunged upside down in a flurry of white. I did so many somersaults I lost track. After what seemed like an eternity, I could feel my movement slow down. Then it stopped, leaving me sitting on top of the snow. I jumped up and shook my arms in jubilation to let others know I was okay. Then I sat back down to catch my breath and mentally recover from a potentially deadly experience. My mouth and my sunglasses were packed with snow. Both of my skis had been pulled off. One was still on the surface. The other was buried. Both poles were lying above me on the snow. I looked uphill to see that I had traveled about 200 yards down the slope. I did not die. If the thought of suffocating in an avalanche and the following events thereafter turn your stomach, it should. For the past 35 years, it turns mine every time I hear of someone getting caught in one. Death from an avalanche is 100 percent preventable. All it takes is to avoid avalanche prone areas, even when the conditions are moderate. After the avalanche, my life continued as normal. Almost. My perspective of avalanche danger was totally revised. Several weeks later I went on another backcountry ski trip. I had the opportunity to ski some very nice powder on a moderate slope. This time I declined. Today, we have better machines to aid us in our backcountry pursuits. High powered snowmobiles, snowbikes, better skis and snowboards enable us to go deeper into the backcountry. They allow us to dance with danger more than ever before. The best defensive with avalanches is your brain. Knowing when to say no can save your life. It supersedes the fastest snowmobile, the best avalanche beacon and flotation device. Your brain should know when to pass on a downhill run, even when your excitement runs high. Now that my thoughts are down in writing, I can quit thinking about what Jesse and I have in common and what we don‘t. Steamboat lost a good man, husband and father. He was creative in his music and talented as a painter. Everyone who knew him liked him. Yes, I can quit thinking about avalanches for now. At least until the next one buries someone else.
Steamboat Springs — The relatively new sport of motorized snowbiking in the backcountry is evolving and growing, bringing with it a new group of users, some who have little experience exploring avalanche terrain.
Expert dirt bike riders and motorcycle enthusiasts now have a year-round hobby with some snowmobile riders making the switch to the snowbike, a dirt bike retrofitted with treads and a ski to create a lightweight vehicle that can easily snake through the aspens in deep powder.
“I let a friend of mine ride it for 10 minutes, and he sold his snowmobile the next day,” said Steamboat Springs resident Paul Worster, who has logged about 35 days this season on his snowbike.
With its nimble ride, the snowbike allows easier access to some parts of the backcountry that are better left untraveled because of the avalanche danger.
“If there is a sweet spot out there, it might be easier to find it,” said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, or CAIC.
On Feb. 14, Colorado had its second-ever snowbike avalanche death when Steamboat resident Jesse Christensen was killed in the Flat Tops Wilderness. CAIC believes the avalanche was triggered when Christensen’s riding partner, Sean Searle, traversed a 33-degree slope. Colorado’s first snowbike avalanche death in February 2016 was also triggered when a person was side-hilling near Cottonwood Pass.
A passion emerges
In January 2012, volunteers from Jackson and Routt County Search and Rescue teams spent two days trying to find two men caught in an avalanche while snowmobiling on Buffalo Pass.
Fort Collins resident Jordan Lundstedt, 21, survived, but his brother, Tyler Lundstedt, 24, was killed.
Fundraising for the Lundstedt family surpassed what they needed, prompting brother Brian Lundstedt to found Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness, a nonprofit staffed by volunteers that provides avalanche education and helped standardize avalanche course curriculum.
This year, more than 800,000 people worldwide tuned in to watch snowbiking make its Jan. 27 debut at the X Games in Aspen. With the growing popularity of the sport, Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness now has a new group of people to educate. Brian Lundstedt, an avid snowmobiler, began snowbiking this year so he could experience the sport and develop a curriculum specific to snowbike riders.
“I had a lot of pressure to make sure the snowbike community had education,” Lundstedt said.
He plans to begin teaching the courses in the Rocky Mountains next season.
Hop on a snowbike and it is easy to get hooked.
“It’s a very unique form of travel,” Brian Lundstedt said. “It’s its own winter sport. You can’t compare it to snowmobiling.”
Jim Otto moved to Steamboat two years ago from Wisconsin and picked up the sport.
“I love dirt biking and needed something to do in the winter,” Otto said.
Paul Worster caught the bug when he rode a demo bike while working at Steamboat Powersports.
“I was hooked right away,” Worster said. “Being a motorcycle guy, this was definitely what I wanted to be doing.”
Those selling the snowbike conversion kits say the sport has attracted a mix of people. Some, like Christensen, the Steamboat man killed in the Feb. 14 avalanche, had extensive snowmobile experience. Others have never stepped foot in avalanche terrain.
“We’ve kind of been trying to identify the buyer for a year now,” Steamboat Powersports general manager Jason Stanhope said. “It’s not necessarily a snowmobile guy who’s looking into buying a Timbersled or a snowbike. We’ve seen more people that are dirt bike guys — that maybe don’t have a ton of snowmobile experience.”
With the agile bikes capable of easily traversing a steep slope, that presents a danger.
“Every time we take a leap forward in how we travel in backcountry terrain, we have seen an increase in fatalities in that user group,” said avalanche expert Ethan Greene, who helped prepare the report on the fatal Valentine’s Day avalanche. “The avalanche skills tend to trail the transport skills. In that initial period, you tend to see more fatalities.”
Greene said terrain selection is going to be key for those who venture out on snowbikes.
Inside Steamboat Powersports, snowbikes from the manufacturer Timbersled are prominently displayed, with two fully built models as well as the conversion kit showcased inside the business’ front doors.
“The business is definitely growing,” Stanhope said. “It a was pretty rough start.”
Steamboat Powersports started selling Timbersled conversion kits in 2014 with about five sales. Now they are selling about 20 each year. The kit by itself costs between $4,000 and $7,500.
“If you have a bike, it’s pretty inexpensive,” Stanhope said.
By comparison, a snowmobile sells for an average of $14,000.
Sales are also on the rise in Aspen.
Aspen Motoworx started selling conversion kits last year. They sold about five.
Owner Alex Dicharry said they have sold more than 25 this year to a mix of dirt bike and snowmobile riders.
Dicharry sells kits featuring carbon fiber and titanium manufactured by Yeti SNOMX.
The big names in powersports have recognized the growth in the sport.
Timbersled was founded in 2002 in Sandpoint, Idaho, and their sleds went into production in 2010.
The company was bought in 2015 by Polaris, which has annual sales of about $4.5 billion.
“We are excited to add the Timbersled brand and team to Polaris’ strong snowmobile business,” Polaris CEO Scott Wine said in a news release announcing the purchase. “Timbersled has created a compelling product and revolutionized the sport of snow biking, and we are excited to see what they can accomplish with access to Polaris’ considerable engineering, manufacturing and distribution capabilities.”
After purchasing a snowbike, Stanhope said they steer customers to the parts department, where a variety of avalanche beacons, probes, shovels and airbag packs are sold.
Airbag packs are designed to help an avalanche victim stay on the surface of a slide. The rider has to pull a cord to inflate the airbag with gas.
During the Feb. 14 slide, survivor Sean Searle said he pulled the cord, but he just heard a hiss, and the airbag did not inflate. He swam and did dolphin kicks to try and stay on the surface of the slide.
After airbags are tested, they can be recharged for about $25. It is suggested that avalanche safety equipment be tested at least annually.
Stanhope said they do what they can to keep people safe in the backcountry.
“We’ve had internal discussions about people that buy Timbersleds that don’t have the backcountry experience,” Stanhope said.
In addition to avalanche classes offered through Colorado Mountain College, Steamboat Powersports has teamed up with Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness to offer free avalanche courses twice each year.
The courses are covered during four hours in the classroom and then a day of hands-on education in the snow.
“People can buy all the avalanche equipment that money can buy, but if they don’t know how to use it, they need to get the backcountry awareness,” Stanhope said.
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