©2018 by Will Boyer for Nevada Backcountry. 

Lessons in Caution: A New Year's Day Avalanche in the Toiyabes

January 15, 2019

Editors note: We are currently in the midst of a monster snow cycle, so please be careful with all the new snow!  Here is a story that was generously contributed by Matt Francis that I thought was relevant.  These events happened in 2016, but could easily repeat themselves just about anytime and anyplace there is avalanche danger.  Be safe out there, and enjoy the story! -Will

 

Bunker Hill with good snow, photo © 2015 Matthew D. Francis

 

Skiing the Toiyabe Range in Central, Nevada is an adventure, often characterized by long approaches, inclement weather, and variable snow conditions.  In the winter months, it is difficult to easily access prime skiing areas without a snowmobile, and one is presented with a multi-mile skinning extravaganza to reach the goods.  With that said, the Toiyabes are a beautiful, tall, and rugged mountain range that can offer amazing powder skiing with no one else around for many miles.  The remoteness and seriousness of skiing in the middle of Nevada’s longest mountain range in winter was made strikingly clear on New Year’s Day, 2016. 

 

As is customary for our family, we spend the New Years’ holiday in Kingston, Nevada at the base of the Toiyabes to enjoy the company of our Kingston friends and watch the fireworks shows offered by Miles End Bed and Breakfast (https://www.milesendbnb.com/) and the Lucky Spur Saloon (https://lucky-spur-saloon.business.site/).  The night before travelling to Kingston, a storm blew in that dumped over a foot of snow. 

 

While my friend J.J. from Colorado was arriving later in the day on New Year’s Eve, 2015, I decided to head up Kingston Canyon on a snowmobile to check out the fresh powder.  This day turned out to be a perfect Kingston powder day.  The snow was incredibly light, the sky was clear, and there was zero wind.  I parked my sled at the top of the switchbacks separating Kingston Canyon and Big Creek, and made a couple of runs by myself.  

 

Fresh pow near Big Creek Summit, photo © 2015 Matthew D. Francis

 

Prior to the first run, I dug a pit that did not raise any red flags.  The snowpack appeared consolidated on the West-facing aspect I was planning to ski, and I felt comfortable skiing alone – something I do not often do.  I skied through the dry powder, skinned back up to the sled, and then skinned up the steep east side of the ridge.  I then dropped into Big Creek through the aspen trees, amazed at how perfect the conditions were.  I have skied that line many times with my family and friends. 

 

I skinned back up to the sled, and gunned the snowmobile back to Kingston to retrieve J.J.  We returned and made several more laps on Big Creek and Kingston Canyon aspects before darkness started to set in. 

 

 

 

Good times, photos © 2015 Matthew D. Francis

 

We sledded back to Kingston and celebrated the day accordingly at the Miles End and Lucky Spur.  We also hatched plans to return to the same zone the next day. 

 

That night, the wind started to howl, which is not uncommon in Kingston.  Despite the fact it was windy, my friend and I were undettered, and decided to travel back up the canyon.  We reached the top of the switchbacks and decided we would ski down to Big Creek again like the day before.  On the skin up to the east, we discovered that the once perfect powder had been replaced with a styrofoam-like surface layer that we would occasionally break through.  Instead of skinning all of the way up the ridge, we decided to ski through the aspen trees to Big Creek, stopping to wait for one another.  I went first. 

 

Within the first few turns it became evident that the skiing was terrible, and there were no pockets of powder left, even in the quakies.  I stopped in a safe zone in the trees, on a slope that was less than 10 degrees.  My friend joined me, and I skied off again  through the trees.  This time I stopped near the edge of the trees, above the same gully we had skied the day before, and many times before that.  The gully is north-facing and empties out near the first switchback separating Big Creek from Kingston Canyon.  After I stopped on a virtually flat surface, I looked uphill to watch my friend as he skied down to me.  All of the sudden, I heard a quiet “whoosh,” and watched the whole gully break free and slide into a tight choke/terrain trap at the very bottom.  To my horror, I noticed that 10 feet below me there was a crown, which extended all the way around the gully we had intended to ski.  I bearhugged the closest aspen tree and yelled “avalanche”!  My friend joined me and we both stared at the amount of snow at the terminus of the avalanche.  While I had an airbag and beacon, there was so much snow that it would have been difficult for one person to dig me (or my friend) out.

 

 

 

Debris from the avalanche, photos © 2016 J.J. Folsom

 

We skied down the scoured slope, and cut out just above the debris.  As soon as my skis hit the untracked snow, fracture lines appeared.  We worked our way down to the snow-covered road very carefully.  I was shaking, and was nervous that our weight on the road would propagate another slide.  We went one at a time, and finally reached the sleds.  We then retreated to Kingston. 

 

After the avalanche, I became upset with myself for exposing me and my friend to danger.  I should have heeded the warning signs of the strong wind and heavy crust layer, but I didn’t.  I should have dug another pit on the north-facing aspect, but I didn’t.  Instead, I was lulled into a false sense of security by the fact that I had skied that same slope many times for numerous years without incident, including the day before.  We were very lucky that day, and the event has taught me new respect for skiing the Toiyabes and backcountry skiing in general. 

 

Skiing the Toiyabes, or any mountain range in the middle of Nevada, is remote and serious.  Even skiing terrain that you would consider mellow at a resort can potentially kill you.  Part of the allure of skiing in the middle of Nevada is that you will typically have a whole mountain range to yourself and your friends.  This can be a blessing and a curse.  If you get caught in an avalanche or otherwise injured, or your vehicle gets stuck or breaks down, most likely no one will be there to help you except your friends.  In an effort to mitigate being stranded due to injury, a dead battery, getting stuck in the Nevada mud, etc., I typically carry a Garmin inReach Explorer (https://buy.garmin.com/en-US/US/p/561269) when travelling the Nevada backcountry.  This satellite device allows for two-way text communications as well as location sharing and other GPS features, and also has an SOS feature that can enable a search and rescue mission.  The basic monthly plan is about $16.00 as of the time of this writing.  Another service worth considering is REMSA’s ambulance and flight programs (https://www.remsahealth.com/membership/).  For a relatively nominal annual fee, you can obtain ambulance and care flight coverage for much of Nevada.  Obviously, the Garmin Explorer and the REMSA program are not substitutes for backcountry knowledge and safety.  Also, always remember to tell more than one person where you are going. 

 

In my experience, the most consistent time to ski the mountains of Nevada is in the spring, when the snowpack consolidates and the corn cyle begins.  Additonally, the roads melt out and allow for better access for those who don’t own snowmachines. 

 

To me, Nevada is the most beautiful State in the United States, and one could spend lifetimes exploring its vast landscape.  I hope that anyone who reads this article will take the opportunity to explore Nevada and ski some of the amazing terrain the Silver State has to offer.  Just be well prepared and careful when you go.   

 

 

 

©2019 Matthew D. Francis

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