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Maxed out

One question, multiple answers

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"Is it safe?"

The more I asked the question, the more I felt like Dr. Szell, the sadistic Nazi dentist from Marathon Man .

"It" was an early season snowpack in the Cariboo mountains west of Valemount, B.C. The question was directed to any of the half dozen certified mountain guides busily analyzing conditions on the lower flanks of a slope of perhaps 32°. The mountain above us rose 1,200 metres and steepened; we'd skied to our current position on a long traverse.

The area had been blessed with copious snowfall, as evidenced by the deepening pit being dug, deep enough now to swallow a person of normal height. I was attending guide training at Canadian Mountain Holidays' Cariboo Lodge. It was December 2003, less than a year after B.C. had suffered back-to-back avalanche tragedies that had left 14 people, half of them students on a backcountry skiing excursion, dead.

The people around me had, collectively, well over a century of backcountry experience. That's not the level of experience people who head into the backcountry a couple of times a winter have; it's the kind of experience people who work every day, all winter long, guiding skiers in uncontrolled terrain accumulate. If anyone could venture an educated guess about the stability of a slope of snow, it was these men and women.

In attendance that week were a veritable Who's Who of avey rock stars - Bruce Jamieson, Dave McClung, Werner Munter, Chris Stetham and Peter Shaerer among them. I'd read their books, devoured their academic papers, spent one-on-one time interviewing them and generally making a pest of myself trying to glean some insight into the question always front of mind when skiing outside the ropes.

"Is it safe?"

"Look for yourself," one of them said, handing me a sizing grid and loupe.

Looked like snow crystals, well-faceted, unique, beautiful, potentially dangerous.

"Is it safe?"

They'd isolated a column of snow, identified layer boundaries from individual storms, conducted compression tests, learned about as much as they could from it and decided to take things to the next level. Splitting into two groups, each cut a rutschblock - an isolated block of snow about two metres square, dug out on three sides and "cut" with a cord on the high side. One of the guides gently stepped onto the top of our block, skis on. He compressed it, bringing his own weight down with moderate force. Nothing moved.

He jumped. Nothing moved. Another guide joined in and they both jumped. Nothing moved. A third stepped on and all three jumped up and down half a dozen times. The block didn't budge.

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