Hard work, strict safety lead to sweet powder skiing

Posted: Friday, February 06, 2004

OGDEN, Utah Northeast facing slope. Thirty-two degree angle. 7,826 feet above sea level. The perfect place for a 4.5-foot snow pit. Lee Fortin dug one last week in the same spot, but a week's a long time out here.

''Just to see how the snow changed. That's critical. I don't wanna be digging that guy out and he doesn't wanna be digging me out,'' Fortin said.

''That guy'' is Scott Levine, a Boston transplant who ekes out a living renting out condos at Powder Mountain and guiding rafts down the Weber River in summer. When his condos are rented out, he crashes at Fortin's home in Liberty.

''I think he stays with us because my wife's a good cook. I've never seen anyone who enjoys food as much as that man,'' Fortin said.

Food, and skiing. Levine gave up a job as a civil engineer to devote his life to skiing. He spent a year living in a tent in the French Alps, but now he's at home in the Top of Utah.

''They got big mountains over there,'' he says, ''but there's no snow in the world like this.''

''The Pow'' as he calls it. Fortin remembers the first time he met Levine. Fortin was leading a group down a long, light, backcountry run. He stopped at the top of one ridge and said to Levine, ''You take this one.''

''He just floated by, came up over that ridge and said, 'Thanks, dude.'''

Think ''Finding Nemo"'s Crush on skis. A firm handshake, a wide grin and a laid back, intense enjoyment of the greatest snow on earth. But don't try to slip into this group without a beacon, a shovel, a probe and some basic avalanche knowledge. Not even on the most stable days.

''It's just good protocol,'' Levine said.

Before we start, Fortin and Levine bury a beacon and send all of us look for it. Then, we all turn our beacons to ''transmit'' and walk by Levine to make sure they're all sending out a signal.

And at the first stop, the Cutler Ridge Sno-Tel site, when half the group pulls out water, sandwiches, Snickers or Laurie Fortin's legendary Davenport Bar, Fortin and Levine get down to business.

Fortin extends his probe to measure the snow depth the 10-foot probe doesn't reach the bottom and Levine doesn't even stop.

''Looks like a good place for a pit,'' he says. ''I'm gonna go dig one.''

''Give a civil engineer a little avalanche training and look what happens,'' Fortin says.

Fortin notes that their regular backcountry group has got all the bases covered. There's a doctor, a firefighter and a paramedic for emergencies. Fortin has a background in statistics, which helps with predicting avalanches. The doctor is also a pretty good photographer. And the paramedic is a machinist, which makes for handy avalanche saws and cheap, effective tools all around.

But even as late as last year, the group made a serious misjudgment. They ended up on Cutler Ridge with snow sliding all around them, even having to dig one guy out after he was buried to the neck in a medium slide. They went into full-on survival mode, sticking to ridge-tops and winding their way around. They were out until after 9 p.m.

''Then we said, 'We're going back to school,''' Fortin said. They spent a week in an intensive class near Jackson Hole last year, and this year, they'll take another one. In the meantime, they're reading and practicing almost every day.

''Even when we know it's probably safe, we practice the same protocol,'' Levine said.

They listen: For the telltale whumpf! of settling snow; for rolling thunder on a clear day. They look: for recent slides, cracks in the snow and weak layers underneath.

''One finger graupel at 72 centimeters,'' Levine says from the pit, and Fortin jots it down. That's as much as he can wedge into that weak layer. There's also two finger snow, three, four, five, fist.

''If it's totally loose, light powder, that's infinite,'' Levine says and breaks into a grin.

''That's the good stuff,'' Fortin adds.

On this day, they found several weak layers and tested them by cutting a small block with the shovel and pulling them out. They noted a jagged edge to the cuts, showing that it was relatively stable. A layer can be so slick the snow ''flies out at you.'' That's when you worry.

Today, it looks stable. Very stable. But they didn't know that until the thorough test was over. The last test is the Rutschblock test. A man stands on top of the snow pit and jumps as hard as he can as two others look for failures. None.

''That's a Rutschblock seven. No failure,'' Levine says. ''Bomber.'' Another grin.

So we're off. By the time the hiking's done, Ben Lomond and Willard Peak are visible. Across the ravine is a huge open bowl, complete with chutes, huge cornices and steep untouched faces. And that's the way it'll stay.

''No way,'' Fortin says when asked if he's skied there. It's not too steep, it's too dangerous. Powerful winds blow over that ridge, loading up large cornices and setting it up for monster avalanches.

''Huge,'' Fortin says, when asked if he's ever seen one go. ''Huge.''

There's no vegetation at all, it gets routinely leveled by giant slides. Just rocks and large slabs of snow, waiting for the trigger. But on this side, the snow is fast and deep. Large trees line the runs, showing the boundaries of all but the biggest slides. The view of the peaks is magnificent and the hoots and hollers are frequent.

Once they find the spot, they ''do laps'' until there's no more room for untracked skiing. The run is about 600 vertical feet, it would take five times up and down to equal one top-to-bottom run at Snowbasin.

''I like Snowbasin, but I'm too old to be doing 100,000 vertical feet in a day,'' Fortin, who's in his early 40s, said. But he's not too old to hike 7,000 vertical feet in a day for an equal amount of virgin powder.

''Sunup to sundown,'' Fortin said. ''That's what it takes to get 7,000 feet. We only got around 3,000 that day. But Fortin and Levine took it all in stride.

''The thing about backcountry skiing, it's not the amount of vertical you get, it's the quality,'' Fortin said. ''If you can ski all day without crossing a track ...''

Then you're probably not at Snowbird. You've probably spent much more time going uphill than down. And you better know a bit about avalanches.

Another thing, food never tasted so good. Along with this high-energy workout comes high-energy food. If it tastes good, eat it. Fat and sugar are made for this. Sugar, especially in fruit, gives a quick kick. Fat spreads itself out over the long haul. And when you're done, nothing ever tasted so good.

''Oh, you know what I want? Lobster,'' Levine said on the top. No lobster up here, but Laurie Fortin was waiting at home. With dumplings.

She'd taken a quick run, on Test Hill just above her home, and was back making dinner for the weekly post-ski party. When we showed up, she threw in the dumplings. They were ready in five minutes.

''We chowed pow and now we're gonna chow dumplin's,'' Levine said.

Or in other words, ''Sweet day, dude.''

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