New Zones: Green Mountain Girl, Rocky Mountain Basics

Posted on 19 January 2016

Words by Katy Kirkpatrick.  Photos by Katy & Tyler Wilkinson-Ray.

With an inclination for bigger mountains and a new town, I loaded up my car with skis, bikes, and a few hats and sent it straight from Vermont to Telluride, Colorado. It was only August, so I had some time to explore the mountains before the snow fell.  On fall hikes, my local pal Victor would point out his favorite lines amidst big cliffs, rocks, and steep mountain faces.  I’ve always loved a challenge, and my imagination gawked at this new terrain.

The San Juans are daunting, so I took a basic approach to becoming comfortable in this new zone.  My plan was simple.  Step one: get comfortable with the geography, mountains, and trails here before the snow falls.  Step two: meet people who know where they’re going, and who are familiar with the area, because I’m a novice (and make sure they are fun!).  And lastly: take an avalanche course to get acquainted with big mountain concepts.

The Dash Knit in Heather

Taking an avalanche course had been on my to-do list for a while. Same with checking out Aspen. So when I saw the two listed together online, I jumped at the opportunity!

The day before the class, Tyler and I skinned up to explore the resort and catch some fresh tracks!

As class began, I braced myself for two long days outside filled with new lessons and synthesizing information.  We met indoors and planned out our day in the backcountry together as a group. Our instructor helped us to navigate topo maps and the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) website to help gauge the safety of different zones:  trees vs. alpine, north-facing vs. south-facing slopes, as well as weather patterns.  This was particularly helpful as I would be planning my first hut-trip with some friends a few weeks later. (And it was a great success thanks to Britt’s course!)

Our instructor, Britt, veers off the skin track to feel how the snow might hold his body weight.

To my delight, the group was filled with fun and interesting people, making our long days outside playful in the snow!  Beacon hide-and-seek, anyone?

While some activities focused on individual skills - i.e. “how do you find your partner?” - other sessions were group driven, which brought up great questions about snow pack, crystal shapes, and how to find the best, safest pow. Britt’s lessons were often followed by quick tours with fluffy powder turns!

The take-away? My class through the American Institution for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE) was educational, fun, and informative.. and most importantly, got me feeling comfortable in this new terrain.  

P.S.  Aspen is sweet!  ...Pow, mountains and killer smoothies :)

... And there's so much to explore in my own backyard - Telluride.

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