Sunday, January 29, 2012

avalanche hunting

Already people are worried about the canyon. When the canyon burns, only the weather can put it out. Because generations of people have fiddled with the canyon, fires in it are not natural. They sweep across the cheat and thistle with a ferocity that is unstoppable. This year, because we are not having winter, the grass is tall. This grass will cure, dry out, and become flammable fuel. All we will need is lightning.

Of course our winter could turn around. We still have the typically snowy months of February and March to catch us up. But so far we have had snow followed by rain followed by ice. I can't remember the last time I ran without ice grippers. The mountains are dangerous, avalanches waiting to happen.

But because we are adventurous souls, we have to check it out, so a steady stream of people have hiked up to look at the latest big slide. It came off the ledges above Hurricane Creek and thundered almost to the river.  Before I moved here, I used to think that the flats were good places to camp in winter. Now I know: just because you are on the flats does not mean that you are safe.

Big avalanche on Hurricane Creek.

I ventured up to my favorite running turn-around, Slick Rock Creek, but as I hiked (the snow was a little too deep for running) I was aware of what lay above me, like a big creature ready to pounce. The slopes are loaded. It is only a matter of time.

See the roller balls on the slopes? Red flags.

There is snow up high, and yesterday the skiing was a particular form of fabulousness that I love, crust cruising. It is spring skiing in January, and you can go anywhere, gliding over the surface without punching through. It is not the kind of skiing I should be doing in early winter. As I write this, the temperature outside is 45 degrees.

When I used to fight fire, we celebrated winters like these, thinking that a fat fire season would pad our bank accounts, bring us lots of interesting travel to smoky mountains, and provide that rush of aliveness that we craved. Now it just makes me uneasy. Sure, maybe I can get into the high lakes early. I can cross streams with impunity. But it doesn't feel right.

Today as I ran on the treadmill (a respite from the ice grippers) I watched an OPB show on television to ease the boredom. It was about a dry summer in Southeast Alaska, the summer the salmon almost didn't come back due to the lack of water in the streams. If the salmon don't come back, the bears don't eat. If the bears don't eat, dragging fish carcasses up into the trees, the trees feeding on the nitrogen from the fish, the entire dance of interdependence stops.

I remember that summer well. It was my last summer in Alaska and each unusual sun-drenched day was a jewel. We camped without tarps. We stripped down to our last layer and paddled, sweating, through the bays. It was both glorious and frightening. We knew, even as we cursed the rain, that we needed it.

I'm sure the snow will come, and we will forget that we were ever without it. I'll wish for open trails in July and curse our short, fleeting summer. Until then, we are stuck in spring.


  1. This is a strange winter. I enjoy biking, running, and hiking in the sun, I worry about our dry hills. I don't recall them staying so gray for so long. Normally they are all green by early December.
    I am going to Tahoe for a while and I wonder if I'll even get a chance to do any xc skiing. There was one decent snowfall but by now snow could be all gone. :(
    JMT will be so much easier this year.

  2. thanks for this glimpse into life there. totally opposite of my experience there exactly a year ago! i hope things right themselves before too long. cam must be expecting snow (he's a skier) and be shocked at 45 degrees.


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