With Thunder Mountain looming in the background, Chris Denne records snowpack data after digging a test pit near Cameron Pass.
n one of the last truly wild corners of Colorado, things can go wrong quickly – and with dire consequences. Members of the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol devote their lives to saving fellow backcountry adventurers from worst-case scenarios.
The snowfields atop South Diamond Peak come into view first for drivers emerging from the forest on Colorado Highway 14. After climbing Cameron Pass from Fort Collins, at 11,850 feet, the bald-topped mountain dominates the north side of the highway. To the south, the jagged Nokhu Crags soon form a beautiful, jagged crown on the mountain ranges that crowd this remote area.
Where others might see beauty, backcountry skiers see nearly endless possibility.
“There’s a sense of freedom in the backcountry,” said Lucas Mouttet, a Steamboat Springs resident and Cameron Pass regular. “You can go where you want, and there’s nobody out there.”
With its quiet beauty and thrilling challenges, the backcountry’s winter allure is irresistible to those who prefer exploring the new to sharing the well-known. But the same unpredictability that makes the backcountry appealing also makes it dangerous.
Avalanches start quietly, as a crack speeding across the snow.
“Someone yelled for me to look out, but just a couple of seconds later it ran over me like a Mack truck,” Mouttet said. “Then it was just me fighting like hell to stay on top.”
An avalanche is a churning wave that consumes everything in its path, snapping trees like toothpicks and unmooring boulders. The noise is deafening, like being in a cloud during a thunderstorm.
Mouttet was ragdolled a couple of hundred yards. With help from an emergency air bag, he ended his ride with his head and arms above the snow.
His ACL, LCL and MCL were destroyed in one knee, forcing him to make the 3-mile trip out by “skiing” on his good leg and sliding down on his rear when it got particularly steep.
“I got to think about how I’d be a smarter skier from then on,” Mouttet said.
After living through one of nature’s most terrifying displays of strength, the thought of giving up skiing didn’t even cross his mind. Instead, he passes on lessons learned as one of 30 members of the Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol, an elite squad of backcountry skiers who keep a winter-long watch over their fellow skiers in its roughly 70,000 acres of patrol area around Cameron Pass.
The wind swirls during a Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol avalanche education class on Cameron Pass, as patrollers slice through the snow with a taut string to reveal the layers beneath. Even the light pressure of a tap on the top of the column is enough for the compacted layers of snow, made slick by the freeze-thaw cycle, to slide off the sugary “depth hoar,” which acts as ball bearings to accelerate the slide.
Members of the class, there to gain a sense of security for their own backcountry outings, marvel at how quickly and easily the snowpack collapses.
The Diamond Peaks Ski Patrol began as a backcountry-education, emergency-care and rescue organization during the 1990-91 season. Patrollers have adapted to the unusual nature of the area they cover, using touring skis or snowboards to climb trails that gain up to 3,000 feet, carrying emergency survival gear and practicing toboggan handling in rugged terrain.
Patrollers check in with local officials to let them know where they will be training or skiing on the 100 miles of trails in the patrol area. Carrying radios (cellphone service is spotty at best), they frequent popular trails to better their chances of getting to people who need help.
All members of the patrol have a deep appreciation for this remote area’s power, as well as its beauty. They know how quickly things can go wrong, because they have seen what happens when they do.
For the rest of the story see the January/February 2019 issue of Colorado Life.