March 20, 2017
The “Ides of March storm” – this is one locals in Stowe will not forget for a while! From Tuesday afternoon until mid-day Thursday it snowed and snowed and snowed some more! When the sun finally reappeared, although only briefly, the official tally of the fresh snow had reached 50” which is one of the biggest storms that anyone can remember for quite some time.
Back in the middle of February, the snow pack as measured at the WCAX snowstake had reached a high point of 104” and then the warm weather arrived and soon enough it had shrunk down to just about five and a half feet. A good number to be sure but not what it had been. Now it is at nine feet and rising with a bit of snow still in the forecast.
Needless to say, this kind of powder splurge will launch most skiers and riders right back into the woods, which brings this writer to the real topic here, being safe in the woods. Sounds reasonable, after all who goes into the glades planning to get hurt? No one right! But things happen in there and some of those are pretty bad. People break stuff and it isn’t just a ski or a board. It can be an arm, a shoulder or a leg and if you happen to be the unlucky one, your chances of surviving to tell the story to others are vastly improved if you pay attention to the most basic of all rules, “Don’t go in alone!”
This writer has been around these parts a long time and he has heard two very sad tales along this line. Back in 1964 or ’65, a young woman ducked onto Starr late in the day. The closure rope was up because the trail had been swept earlier, which was the custom in those days. She pitched off that gnarly headwall up top, fractured her leg and landed in the woods. There was no one to find her until the next day. There was the more recent tragedy of the young snowboarder trapped in a tree well in the woods near the Nose Dive Glades. Unable to get loose from his gear he was not found until 11 p.m., a time too late to prevent his death.
The one common thread here is the fact that both of these stories share a common thread, both victims were in the end alone. You hear the mantra over and over, “don’t go alone, don’t go late or in bad weather, don’t go unless your group knows the way.” Its real folks! The latest victim started out apparently with others but when they got separated it seems that his companions figured he was okay.
If you lose someone in the woods, you simply have to keep trying as quickly as possible to re-establish contact. Mount Mansfield patrollers would also like to remind everyone that while having a cell phone is great, they don’t work everywhere. Stowe Mountain Resort has dead spots like just about everywhere on the planet. Translation – just because the buddy hasn’t called doesn’t mean it is all good. It is not the end of the world to go back and ski or ride the route you just travelled to make sure no one is in trouble.
There are other things you can do when you are in the woods in addition to having the right companions. A good piercing whistle can be a simple way to send out an SOS. Inexpensive LED flashlights are easy to keep in the inner pocket of your jacket and can be used to signal at night. These may all be options that won’t solve the problem of being trapped or disabled in the woods, but the more tools in your kit the better your odds.
But the best tool of all remains picking the right companions. If you are with friends, they will worry if they lose touch. They will phone home, they will call your family, they will call for help as fast as they can when they begin to worry. One other tip as a friend of a potentially lost companion — if that person has a Stowe ticket, the electronic monitoring system can easily detect if a later lift ride was taken. If no sign that your friend took another run you had better start talking to those who can provide assistance.
Avalanche deaths out in the Rockies attract a lot of publicity but in these parts it’s all about the woods. Just for grins, google “skiers lost in the woods” and you will be amazed how many stories pop up in Vermont. Most skiers lost in these high alpine forests will survive this ordeal, sadder and wiser, but going in alone or with a not so good choice of companions, unaware and unequipped could be the last bad decision you will ever make.
Deep snow means lots of hazards. Stay safe!
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