Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Hurricanes, Slides, Avalanches and Backcountry Access

Photo of Angel Slides on Wright Peak I’m not an avid skier. But I have several friends who are ski and snowboard (and in some cases mountain bike) fanatics. Most grew up in skiing families and learned to ski as young children, at small family operated ski areas like Mount Pisgah in Saranac Lake and Titus Mountain in Malone.

They’re people who love powder enough to climb a mountain for it, seeking out the backcountry where, as one friend likes to say, “The powder is plentiful. The lift lines are nonexistent. And I have the whole darn hill to myself.”

They hike marked, as well as unmarked trails, where nothing is groomed; often trekking up mountains in remote, inhospitable areas, for miles, intent on conquering a slope or slide that’s not part of any ski resort. And while I admire their courage and determination, unlike them, I thank God for the mountains. But thank goodness for ski lifts.

Backcountry skiing appears to be on the rise in the Adirondacks, in part due to improvements in skis, boots, and bindings. But safe backcountry skiing requires training and experience. Severe weather is a real danger. As are avalanches. Earlier this month, the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) issued an avalanche advisory for people recreating in slide areas and other areas of steep open terrain in the High Peaks Region, “due to current snow depths and conditions.” And we’ve received a lot of snow and even some icy rain in some areas, since.

The Adirondacks are the youngest mountains in the eastern United States, with much less surface soil covering the rock they’re made of than other eastern mountains. Because of this landslides and debris avalanches are prevalent here. During periods of very heavy rainfall, the thin soils are loosened and pour down steep slopes, along with loose rocks and vegetation, creating open slides composed mostly of exposed rock. Slides do occur on steep slopes elsewhere in the east, but not with the concentration found here. Early explorers and Adirondack guides used slides as the paths of least resistance to a number of summits.

In 1999, Hurricane Floyd, which had been down-graded to a tropical storm by the time it reached the Adirondacks, created several new slides, many of which are popular today with hikers and skiers. And in 2011, Hurricane Irene, which had also been down-graded to a tropical storm before it arrived here, triggered, by some accounts, at least forty significant landslides and a multitude of minor ones; mostly in the High Peaks region. Slides were created or enlarged on Algonquin, Cascade, Colden, Dix, Giant, the Gothics, Macomb, Marcy, and Saddleback, among others. Many of these slides have been written about in ski and travel magazines and online. Several are approachable by trail or require very little bushwhacking to access and, because of their accessibility and recreational potential, have opened up slide climbing and skiing to an ever-growing number of outdoor and winter recreation enthusiasts.

Regrettably however, the steep, open slopes created by these slides are highly conducive to natural, as well as human-triggered avalanches. And that danger increases following a major snowfall or during a thaw.

In February of 2010, experienced backcountry skiers found themselves swept up in an avalanche while they were making their way up one of the Angel Slides, on Wright Peak. Miraculously, they survived the ordeal uninjured.

The Angel Slides are a lasting reminder of the torrential rains and powerful winds that accompanied Tropical Storm Floyd. They received their name soon after they were formed, following a tragic avalanche event that occurred on Feb. 19, 2000, which killed one young man and injured several other skiers in the party; one seriously.

Last February a similar avalanche occurred on Wright Peak, on a new slide that had been created by the deluge that accompanied Tropical Storm Irene. One skier was trapped, but uninjured, and was rescued by his friends.

For more information on avalanche safety precautions visit DEC’s website. Phil Brown wrote a short history of Adirondack avalanches for the Adirondack Almanack in 2010 – you can read that story HERE.

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

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