With chairlift season waning but the touring season still vibrant, I wanted to include additional photos for an article recently published at Vue Weekly.
BACKCOUNTRY: THE RIPPEL EFFECT
LEARNING ADVANCED SNOW SAFETY FROM A PEAK FREAK
Bobbi Barbarich / email@example.com
Tim Rippel isn’t lucky. There have been serendipitous moments in his life, but luck is not an element he trusts, especially as he treks behind one of his Level Two Avalanche Safety Training students.
Six more of us plod behind Rippel. Nic Tremblay, a general physician from Gaspé, leads our troupe. He pauses on the edge of a steep open slope and looks over his shoulder at Rippel. Tim looks at the trees above us. Tremblay looks at me.
“Where do you think?” Tremblay asks.
It’s hard not to defer to Rippel. He’s trained hundreds of would-be mountaineers and daytrippers on the slopes around Nelson, BC, for 18 years since he started Peak Freak expeditions with his wife Becky, an international travel guru.
Rippel had spent several years previous to meeting Becky climbing and training for expeditions in the Murray Range near Powder King Ski Resort in BC. Waking at 3 am, Rippel ascended the rocky ridges and skied the gnarly faces in typical northern BC mercury-plunging temperatures. Only then would he start his day leading mountain safety and operations at the remote resort. Some considered these actions worthy of the nickname, Peak Freak, and the name stuck.
“What do you see?” asks Rippel, focusing his attention at our temporary trailbreaker.
“I think there could be an avalanche here,” reasons Tremblay as he looks at the sparse trees missing branches on the uphill side. Below us is a gully. Should someone or something release the snow above us as it obviously had in the past, thousands of pounds of fluid powder could easily whisk us into the terrain trap. Conditions at and below tree line are “considerable” today, a middle category in which, according to Rippel, the majority of casualties due to avalanches occur. “Easy” and “moderate” classifications are more stable, therefore less risky. “High” and “extreme” designations usually keep the recreational backcountry tourers at home.
People must use extensive judgment in this considerable grey zone. Our group is spending four days gathering this judgment from Rippel. In his nearly two-decades worth of guiding, Rippel’s safety record is impeccable. Considering he goes on five yearly expeditions to 8000-plus metre peaks around the world, and has made eight trips to Everest, including a successful summit, his clean record is exceptional.
He has been dragged down a mountain by an avalanche, however. While heli-ski guiding with Canadian Mountain Holidays, a bold client chose to traipse beyond the safety line Rippel carved with his own skis. The client brought a class-one avalanche down on Rippel and the client’s eleven-year-old son. Rippel fought free of the flowing slide with a scalp laceration and wrenched knee. The boy was exceptionally frightened as a bloodied Rippel dug him out. The client blamed Rippel for the accident. Yet everyone else in the party noted that Rippel’s careful words were not regarded.
“Let’s keep five metres between us, no?” suggests Tremblay. Rippel passes the message back and waits until Tremblay has cleared the opening before proceeding.
For Rippel, choosing to live and work in the mountains was part evolution and part conscious decision—in a roundabout sort of way. He chose Okanagan College because he wanted to play volleyball, and finished with a welding ticket he’d later use to fix chairlifts and his houses.
“When I met Tim he didn’t even have a bank account,” recounts Becky. “He lived for playing in the mountains and every cent he earned went towards his next road trip. He didn’t even have a vehicle when I met him. He had a dirt bike he would load up each season to do the change-over from winter guiding in the north to mountain guiding on Vancouver Island. His skis, his moose meat and Koflack boots all aboard and away he would go.”
Rippel is taking ornaments off a Christmas tree in the couple’s cabin at the base of Whitewater Road as his class, one of at least four avalanche courses Peak Freaks offers every winter, gathers snow analysis kits—pencils, notebook, saw, magnifying glass, crystal card, rope, ruler and thermometer.
“There’s a lot more to riding than snow,” he notes, stringing the lights into a circle. A movement over our heads makes us all glance upward. A block of snow slips off the tin roof past the window beyond the naked Christmas tree.
“I think it heard us talking about it,” smiles Rippel.
He’s enthusiastic to get outside, moving quickly between a pile of beacons in Ziploc bags, capping dry erase markers and tidying the tree. He shoos us outside into the parking lot to practise multiple beacon searches. With numerous time restraints due to increasingly popular international expeditions, the Rippels have hired guides to work their winter expeditions in Africa and Argentina partly so Tim can continue teaching avalanche courses at home.
Becky attributes increasing backcountry traffic to adventurers looking for a more natural experience, easier availability of gear and increasing education and commercial ventures into the backcountry—and the realization that it’s dangerous territory, often spurred by horrific accidents such as when seven students were killed in 2003 by an avalanche in Glacier National Park. Even more so, “We see more people wanting to make their own educated decisions, which we feel is very important and a long time coming. It used to be that one person would have an avalanche course under his belt and backcountry enthusiasts would feel somewhat protected following one person’s lead.” Now, though, more people want to make their own tracks.
Peter Austen followed Rippel’s growing presence in mountaineering in 1989. Austen needed a lead guide for his 1991 Everest expedition, the first charitable climb in Everest’s history. Rippel took Austen and a colleague ice climbing near his winter base in Northern BC, where he managed to intimidate the duo and inadvertently convince them he—above 500 plus applicants—should be the lead guide. Rippel’s resume now totals over 40 Himalayan expeditions.
On day four, our test day, we trek into Hummingbird Pass minutes from Rippel’s cabin. “This looks good, guys,” surmises Rippel. He sidesteps up a slope. After three days with him, we know it’s time to dig a pit below the biggest layer of concern—the weak surface hoar—away from the trees, in a somewhat open but safe spot, on a slope similar to what we want to ski.
“If you can link three or more turns within the trees, that’s a good place for a slide,” advises Rippel as we discuss what lies beneath the powder we want to ride.
We fall into pairs and start heaving snow. Rippel doesn’t wear a helmet. His backpack is sun-faded and full of everything he’d need to spend a night or two outside, from slings and braces to tarps, fire starter and extra clothes. His most important piece of equipment is a headlamp. Rippel simply prepares not to be buried on every outing—and he spends 11 months of every year on snow-covered mountains.
My pit partner, Kevin Dodge, is a well-read American snow lover who’s spent considerable time working in ski resort kitchens to be able to ski. He’s now renting a house in Ymir, 30 km south of Nelson, where he and his partner Amy aim to spend more time skiing than working.
Scrutinizing the crystals on his card, Dodge calls Rippel over. “This must be a rain crust, and the surface hoar is 12 cm above,” Dodge half-asks Rippel. Rippel leans into the pit with us and examines the card.
“What do you think’s happening at that layer, Kevin?”
They discuss temperature change through the pack, warming at one degree per 10 centimetres, a gradient not prone to creating pack-weakening facets. Rippel has a way of verifying what you think you see to enhance your confidence, rather than telling you what it is.
Dodge, obviously comfortable in the backcountry, explains why taking the course is important to him.
“I have done some study on my own and have toured with guides who will always answer questions and demonstrate things, but I felt I needed a solid base of knowledge to move forward. The course is giving me more confidence in my own ability to assess stability, conditions and my touring route. I feel like I can actually push the boundaries further than before because I can really assess a situation rather than back off just because I’m unsure or scared.”
Making adequately informed decisions is indeed liberating, a feeling that applies to important choices on the mountain or in your career. In pondering powerful people, there’s usually a significant other who manages to balance the individual. Appropriately, Rippel met his wife through skiing. A friend suggested Rippel stop by the mall in Prince George, BC, to meet a lady working at the ski information centre. Becky was running her own international ski tour business, Snowbusters. Rippel later got her attention when he strip-teased to raise money for his first Everest expedition, and Becky was convinced. “I liked what I saw and today I still raise money for Everest for him.”
Shortly thereafter, the couple arrived in Tibet. When the team began struggling with travel details, Becky recalls, “I jumped in with my 20 years of travel experience and took care of that aspect of the journey.”
“During the expedition we hit a major road block. The road between Tibet and China washed out right before our eyes. We were stranded, years of work and organizing and training for the climbers. It was at a dead stop! Or rather not when it comes to Tim and I and our passion for challenge. Together we are pretty powerful. It was natural.”
After bailing their lead Sherpa out of jail—he was taken by Tibetan police—the team returned to the washout area. It was still spewing boulders from a 300-metre wall above them, but Tim guided their team members through the cascade.
“We all made it through safely except for some abrasions from the debris on some of the climbers legs. This is when we knew we were destined to be leaders in extreme adventures.” V
Filing down the layers of a snow pack, snow ranges from new snow to what could simply be described as ice. But have a closer look. These layers each have a story. When read together, these layers tell you whether it’s safe to ride.
New snow: fresh delivered from the sky. All snow—which can be classic stellar shape, plates, columns or rounded balls depending on moisture content—has its beginning as relatively light crystals.
Rounded snow: slightly aged. Heavier than new, small temperature gradients within the snowpack settle and sinter—breaking off the arms of the flake—the snow. This forms strong layers called slabs.
Crust: formed by rain, wind or sun. Snow is ground into particles by the elements. This crust can create a solid slab, or a strong layer on which a slab can slide.
Faceted snow: square, sugar, or recrystallized snow forms with big temperature changes through the pack. Heat passing from ground to surface, in a process called kinetic metamorphism, turns flakes into geometric shapes that don’t bond to each other, making the layer weak and brittle.
Depth hoar: is faceted snow—large crystal grains with no bonding strength—and found near the ground. These facets shear off each other like broken plates.
Surface hoar: frost or feathery snow that grows on surfaces in calm, humid and clear conditions after a storm cycle. Also a very weak layer, surface hoar persists after new snow has fallen on top of it. This layer of triangle shapes easily collapses under pressure. It’s the most common weak layer and causes a huge number of avalanches.