The Cake Factor

The Cake Factor | by Stephen Eginoire

My good buddy often points out the similarities between excessive powder skiing and excessive cake eating. Both are extremely enjoyable. Both are fairly hedonistic activities that pose considerable health risks to the participant. Cake eating causes the brain to release pleasurable amounts of dopamine in an almost identical fashion as when one is carving at top speed though deep, blower powder on a steep slope. Both can, and should be enjoyed responsibly, but the lines between risk and reward easily become warped when one is in the midst of a cake or snow bender.

 Let’s face it. Most powder days blend together, and we should be so lucky to end a season with even one that will live on in our memories for years to come.  The very best days, the ones we really remember, are usually a culmination of conditions, fitness, good partners, and a common objective. We like to believe that we have enough common sense and experience to be able to assess the risks posed by a certain slope, but sometimes it’s hard to deny that second serving of cake.

 Two winters ago, my friends Andrew, Alex and I were enjoying over-the-head powder in familiar terrain. The snowpack was in classic mid-winter San Juan condition; Depth hoar on the ground, a few thin slabs on top of that, and a thick slab from a substantial old storm on top of that. And then a few more thin slabs, topped off with a fresh helping of around 3 feet of new, low density snow. It’s what my friends and I like to call a shit sandwich. Potentially catastrophic? Absolutely. Which is why we chose to ski in an area where avalanche starting zones can be easily avoided, and sub 35-degree terrain through the trees can be easily followed.

 It was one of those freezing cold afternoons with no wind, and although it had stopped snowing hours before, shimmering snow crystals were suspended in mid-air, filling the space around us. The three of us climbed up our skin track through old growth fir and spruce, back to the top of a run we had just skied down. We moved along the ridge to where the snow hadn’t been touched, and the slope was just a little bit steeper.

Some things are worth the risking your life for, but let me tell you skiing deep snow in trees is not one of them. Even IF the skiing is really, really good. Two seconds after the above image was captured, the entire slope began moving. Several large cracks shot out from my stance behind a tree as the slab shattered like a pane of glass. I had just enough time to scream "Avalanche!!", as loud as I could, hoping Andrew, who had just skied past, would hear. 

These are the final images captured on my camera's memory card. My finger must have been stuck on the shutter button as I was ripped from my stance and swept downhill.  The first tree I hit rung my bell. The second tree I hit, I thought had broken my jaw, and the third, well, I always wondered what it would be like to die in an avalanche. The snow accelerated with incredible speed over every downhill inch. I was well beneath the snow for a second or two,  but emerged back on the surface just in time to slam into the trunk of douglas fir, pinning me and breaking my fall. The force of the snow pushing my helpless body against the tree was outrageously violent, but the pressure began to ease off, and everything stopped moving. The woods were absolutely silent. The peacefulness that followed was one of my life's defining moments. I was still alive. My subliminal state of consciousness was snapped back to reality when I realized Andrew was calling our names. Then I heard Alex call out. Holy fucking shit everyone was still alive.

Alex reached me first, and helped dig me out. His skis were gone, his knee severely blown, and was probably moving on pure adrenaline. Andrew was able to dodge the slide by cutting a hard left away from the slide path to relative safety. Although largely able to self rescue, we were in pretty rough shape and texted a friend in Silverton, who placed a 9-11 call for us.

 Not my proudest moment. /Photo by Andrew Temple

Not my proudest moment. /Photo by Andrew Temple

 Avalanche carnage. /Photo by Andrew Temple

Avalanche carnage. /Photo by Andrew Temple

 Making our out with no skis as the daylight quickly fades. /Photo by Andrew Temple

Making our out with no skis as the daylight quickly fades. /Photo by Andrew Temple

I arrived within sight of the highway, hypothermic, well after dark.  My shoulder was dislocated, I had decent sized hole below my bottom lip and some severe contusions around my tailbone and inner thighs. Andrew was still helping Alex, who was basically post-holing through waist deep snow with his one useable leg.  If surviving the avalanche wasn't already sobering, then the sight of two ambulances, search and rescue vehicles, the sheriff, and state patrol, all with their emergency lights collecting in the otherwise quiet peacefulness of the mountains, surely drove it home. 

Our friends Susan Hale and Mark Gober, both avalanche forecasters, came to help me walk the final length of hill to the highway, and into an ambulance. I have a lot of respect for their work and their wealth of experience, and I felt terribly embarrassed. An hour or so later Alex and Andrew arrived. The whole show moved to Mercy Medical Center in Durango, where we spent the night in the hospital being x-rayed and dosed with morphine.

I'll never forget seeing Page, my wonderful partner, nervously waiting by the double-doors outside the ER, how happy I was to see her, and how overwhelmingly embarrassed I felt; Skiing in the backcountry, when I knew the conditions were questionable, playing games with my life for some face shots. What the fuck. 

Coping with a near miss in the mountains is a real eye opener. The implications raise many questions ranging from how we justify risk to what's most important in our own lives. At the end of the day, I suppose it's all about balance, and for us skiers, it's about not eating too much cake.

Right now, I'm sitting in my house in Tucson, Arizona, far far away from the nearest avalanche prone slope. Page is finishing up graduate school, and we're talking about where our next move will take us. It has been good for me to be removed from skiing, and honestly, I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would. That said, I feel compelled to look at the online data collected by weather stations in the northern San Juan Mountains, and have been reading the CAIC forecast discussions on a regular basis. I guess I have a bit of FOMO. 

I do know that right now, typing this very line, the avalanche conditions are in the red with more snow and wind on the way. It's only November, and if El Niño continues to deliver, this season is going to be a good one. 

Stay safe out there everyone.  








A gem in southern Arizona.

For a place where "there are no caves to speak of", southern Arizona sure has some beautiful karst.  The dense blue limestone exposed amongst subtropical forests of oak and pine adds an exotic flavor to an exotic landscape. In many areas, limestone hides below the rolling savannas of mesquite and chest high grass that flank the mountains. Cave country, indeed.

Where there are caves, there is a certain level of secrecy amongst the local caving community and the forest service to help protect the fragile and pristine environment found underground. Often, it can be hard to breach this secrecy, and it takes time to gain people's trust before much of anything related to caves is willfully revealed. Elitist? Probably. But once you see the harm that is intentionally and unintentionally brought upon these magical underground worlds by visitors, it's easier to understand why "there are no caves to speak of" around here.

Not far from the border of Mexico, we drive up a winding dirt road that leads into the mountains. You can see the border fence in the distance, an unnaturally perfect line dividing an otherwise unbroken landscape. On the craggy slopes above us are large areas of beautiful blue and grey limestone.

 We continue up a deep canyon on foot, where flowing water and abundant shade provide a lush haven for  sycamores, and hackberry, coatimundi and even jaguar.  Fallen leaves have left the trail somewhat indiscernible but eventually we arrive at a small outcrop equipped with a tiny locked steel gate.  Humid air, several degrees warmer, blows through. This rather inconspicuous locale is the entrance to one of the most pristine and protected caves in southern Arizona. 

Our trip leader has been here many times. He tells us about how the cave used to be insignificant- a shallow hole that led nowhere, until a group of out of town cavers smashed down some cave formations to open a lead. Oh, the irony.

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Packrafting the Dirty Devil River.

The Dirty Devil. A major tributary of the mighty Colorado, I've been wanting to tour the length of this wild desert river for long time. The canyon itself is little else than a vortex where eons of sand are moved down-steam on a daily basis. Gouged by water and sculpted winds, you can literally see the canyon walls change shape. Many of the Dirty Devil's side canyons are highly developed slot canyons that create a branchwork system that would take lifetimes to explore. With only a long weekend to work with, myself and two other buddies set out to paddle down the main river channel and explore a few select side canyons along the way. wewewe

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A pyschedelic boogaloo near the center of the universe.

Treasure hunting in the wild scapes of the desert often requires the pursuer to spend hours slogging through sandy washes and navigating through esoteric terrain with a heavy pack. Oh, the irony when one is on foot, under the weight of blubber-grade neoprene, crossing a hot, dehydrated swath of earth. Sometimes treasure hunting also requires one to pass through land protected not by BLM or NPS, but by those so anciently acquainted to their surroundings that your very being there seems unbecoming. Larry, who was so kind as to pay a us quick visit from his humble stream-side slice of universe, told us to spot our trucks further down stream, should flash flooding render our exit route impassable. Larry was a slender Navajo man with a raw hide face and obsidian eyes, barely visible under the shade of his ball cap.  He seemed slightly less than enthused to have his morning interrupted, but his interaction could save him the trouble of having to rescue a few gringos and their trucks out of his backyard. None the less, his helpful disposition put our minds at ease, being the strangers that we were.

As usual, we totally underestimated the length of this particular canyon, and of course, botched the approach of least resistance.  USGS quads can only offer you so much in the ways of micro-featured canyon country. With only two full days to travel this wild stretch of desert, it was apparent that the 10 or so hours of daylight we had to work with would be precious. As it was, we managed to descend maybe a third of our intended route, leaving so much to be explored further downstream. Perhaps next Spring we'll dedicate the three or four days required to see the rest of this remarkably wild and remote desert creek.

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Buckskin Gulch and the Paria River.

Buckskin Gulch is the so-called longest known slot canyon in the world. Seems hard to believe, but with 16 continuous miles of deep swirling narrows, canyons of this stature are few and far between. Buckskin is the main tributary to the Paria River, and although the Paria itself is not considered a "slot canyon", it's sheer unbroken walls of Navajo Sandstone surly make one feel small. From the upper wash of Bucksin Gulch, all the way down through the Paria River is a  50 mile desert odyssey that is second to none. Lots of wading

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Tundra, storms, sunsets and the art of walking in the Weminuche Wilderness, Colorado

I'm sad to say that I have not gotten my usual dose of high-country backpacking in this year. August has flown by, and the short-lived window that is summer in the alpine will soon be closing. Of course, I have excuses for this lack of quality time spent in the high mountains; hiking with a heavy backpack requires patience for moving at a snail's pace, and the willingness to walk for the sake of walking.  My core group of friends are hard workers, and take their fast-action, adrenaline sports very seriously when not on the job. It is increasingly difficult to get folks psyched up to do some some walking. I understand, the backpack is painful. But only at first, and once I find my rhythm on the trail, I'm reminded that miles of walking, all above treeline, is a special thing.

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Living in Durango, I'm lucky enough to have 4,000+ square miles of motorless terrain, literally, in my back yard. The Weminuche Wilderness, as it's known, is the largest designated wilderness area in Colorado, containing some of the most beautiful and remote alpine terrain I've ever laid eyes on. To explore here, one must walk.

The Highland Mary Lakes Trail offers some great access to the Continental Divide area southeast of Silverton.  It's a quick, relatively easy jaunt to get above treeline, making  it one of my favorite spots for entering and exiting the Weminuche. From here, there are a number of high country routes that lead through a vast expanse of alpine tundra broken only by 13,000 foot peaks and deep valleys.

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One of the great rewards after a day on the trail is the alpine bivy. Access to water, a magnificent lake, and viewing platforms are all important considerations to make when searching for the perfect camp. A carefully selected bivouac above 12,000ft. is one of my favorite things.

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The weather-heavy, late-summer season hints at a productive winter, and if moisture continues into the fall, snow will be here before we know it... And hopefully there will be a few more mountain walks before then.