Backcountry Safety at Pebble Creek

By Scott Astaldi

Written Dec. 30, 2020

Editor's Note: In a ski world full of Vail Resorts, paid parking, $200 lift tickets, and lift lines filled with strangers, Pebble Creek stands out as a beacon of just how good skiing and the ski community can be away from corporate oversight. The community is tight knit, the parking is free, the skiing is rad, and the independent soul of skiing is alive and well. Scott and his family are part of the Pebble ski community - after a death in the Pebble sidecountry in March of 2020 Scott wrote this reflection. It was written just over a year ago, and updated this week:

Pebble Creek Inkham Idaho Ski Powder

A patroller stands next to a large crown in the Pebble Creek sidecountry

As I sit here writing this, Pebble Creek ski area in Inkom ID is experiencing one of the latest openings in recent history. This delay has allowed me to reflect on events of the last year. Being 2020, the craziest year in my fifty plus, that opens a lot of doors. However, I will not discuss pandemics, politics or any other subject I would rather forget about and go skiing. Instead, I am going to look at the changing avalanche culture at our small but amazing hill and how this late opening may affect our avalanche conditions. This change is taking place partially because better equipment, like my new Sego Condors, makes access to the backcountry easier. The other reason is that in 2020 the Pebble Creek backcountry experienced its first avalanche death. I will not analyze this horrible accident, rather look at how a changing culture may help us prevent future such events.

I arrived at Pebble creek eight years ago via a convoluted path from Arapahoe Basin CO. On arrival I joined the Ski Patrol and was excited to ski at an area that did not have the volatile continental snowpack I was accustomed to. It did not take long to learn that many local skiers and even some patrol members took avalanche safety very lightly. I often heard comments like “nothing ever slides around here” and “the only time anything slides is when you bomb it”. I also noticed that very few backcountry users had packs or avalanche safety equipment of any kind.

Scott gets in some sweet turns on the Pebble Creek Patrol Route

I even spent time one powder day on the patrol deck with my transceiver switched to receive. Despite lines of locals passing on their way to lap the backcountry barely a peep was heard. As a long-time skier and patroller at Arapahoe Basin, I have been involved in several avalanche rescues, even some involving friends. With these rescues (mostly body retrievals) engraved in my memory, I had a hard time comprehending this laissez-faire attitude. Could it really be that the snow at pebble was that much more stable?

Pebble Creek Ski Patrol

Pebble Creek ski Patroller on the job

As a member of the avalanche safety team, I had the unique opportunity to see firsthand that avalanche conditions truly existed on Skyline Peak (Pebble Creek). What about the backcountry? As I ventured into the backcountry the first year, I found all the same weak layers of facets, surface hoar and rain crust that the controlled slides were releasing on. Maybe the backcountry runs are not steep enough to slide? When I took out my inclinometer or looked on Cal Topo most of the terrain in the Portneuf Range is between 30 and 45 degrees with much of it right around 39, the angle where most avalanche accidents occur.

A couple weeks into 2014, (another slow-starting season) I heard the popular backside run “The Tron” had “slid pretty big”. Hearing this, I skinned into see the slide and do some tests in the flank wall. I found the “Tron” had collapsed on a surface hoar layer and stepped down to the ground where there were faceted crystals. The slide ran for at least a half a mile while removing trees in the path below. These faceted crystals and surface hoar had formed during the cold clear nights that came along with our early season dry spell and formed persistent instabilities. These persistent instabilities were still in the snowpack when we finally started to get snow in January, making for dangerous conditions. As a side note, the Tron slid again this year 12/28/2021 with similar early season conditions. If you get the daily avalanche reports in your e-mail, (if you go in the backcountry, you should!) this may sound awfully familiar. The Teton and Utah avalanche centers have been reporting similar conditions after a dry spell that ended in mid-December. These conditions have led to at least two deaths in Idaho and several close calls in the past two weeks. While Pebble has received several storms in the past couple weeks, we have now entered a dry spell where the shallow snowpack will continue to deteriorate. This is something that all backcountry travelers in the Portneuf range MUST keep in mind when the snow starts to fall again.

High altitudes, cold temperatures and strong winds cause Colorado’s continental snowpack to almost always have facets and depth hoar (multi-faceted snow near the ground) with overlying hard slab. These continental conditions are very persistent and are notoriously hard to forecast. Continental snowpack accounts for a large percentage of the avalanche deaths in North America every year.

Pebble Creek’s lower altitude, warmer temperatures, higher density snow and occasional rain typically make for more of an intermountain snowpack. Pebble Creek’s snowpack instabilities are often made up of facets, surface hoar, rain crusts and weak layers within a storm cycle. However when we have a shallow snowpack and early season dry spells like this year, depth hoar, facets and surface hoar can form making for persistent instabilities that can last much of the season depending on conditions. 

Having now spent eight years in the Pebble Creek backcountry I have seen avalanches on most aspects and elevations. These avalanches have been large, small, hard, soft, wet, and dry. They have occurred at many different times of the season. While I will admit that the snowpack is much less temperamental than the continental pack found in Colorado we still need to be prepared. We can minimize our risk by following the Know Before You Go protocol. Get the gear, Get the training, Get the forecast, Get the picture, Get out of harm’s way.  An avalanche class is suggested for everyone going into the backcountry but they fill up fast.  Bruce Tremper’s book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain 3rd is an excellent resource and good place to start if you want to learn more about the subject.

Many in the avalanche and ski industry anticipate that we will see a large increase in user numbers in the backcountry this season. The hope is that this will not lead to an increase in avalanche fatalities. Unfortunately, as of December 26th  2020 Colorado already has four avalanche deaths and one in Wyoming just 70 miles east of Pebble Creek. This being said, Pebble Creek Ski Patrol is trying to do its part in several ways. For starters last month PCSP put on what is hoped to be an annual avalanche awareness class with field day that was well attended by 40 people despite the COVID-19 restrictions. If you are interested in next years, stay tuned to the PCSP website. An avalanche transceiver test station is now in place at the top of the mountain so that we can all be sure our transceivers are on and functioning on a daily basis. Patrol is starting a campaign to encourage backcountry users to have "the equipment” every time they leave the boundary, please do not take this personally. We hope to start an annual Beacon Bowl that will help educate and allow people to practice their avalanche rescue skills in a festive Pebble Creek kind of way - but details are still pending.

Now I ask you to do your part if you ski in the Pebble Creek or any other backcountry this season by being prepared: practice using your gear and making good decisions. Remember to ski one at a time, never cross above another person, and have an escape plan every time you ski in avalanche terrain.

Scott Astaldi has worked closely with the mountain community for 30+ years as a patroller, rescue team member, climbing, and ski guide. He currently works as a pro patroller at Pebble Creek and as a Flight Nurse for Life Flight Network. He would much rather make some powder runs in the backcountry with you than see you in an official capacity for one of his jobs.

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