Thursday, September 16, 2021

Where the Three Rivers Meet


Alex with a set of elk sheds. 

It could have been an old truck’s exhaust backfiring, we didn’t know. What it really sounded like was a gunshot, but we wouldn’t admit that. We only saw one other vehicle in the area on the way in. It was already dark when decided we’d spend the night at the rusty, abandoned windmill and cattle tank. We were on a piece of land we shouldn’t have been on and we knew it. There was something about this patch of earth that spooked us; perhaps it was its remoteness or its lawlessness. Maybe it was the ancient peoples who used to live here and their stories of angry spirits. Maybe it was the gunshot. Either way, we pretended to forget about it.

We camped where the three rivers met—where barren desert kissed lush, emerald mountains. We got in late the night before a big shed hunt. Alex was an avid shed hunter, having hiked all over these mountains and this desert in search of antlers. On a good day, he’d come back with a heavy, cumbersome load strapped to his pack. A good shed hunt could yield dozens of antlers or more. In this area, brown elk and mule deer antlers or “brownies,” as Alex called them, suggested that the animal had only recently dropped them, as they do every spring.

Brownies were the real prize, especially from elk, as they looked the prettiest and sold for the most. But at this time of year in mid-July, the sun would have scorched almost every antler it’d come in contact with for a prolonged period of time, leaving most of them chalky and bone-dry. At the windmill we set up sleeping arrangements, drank some aged tequila, and fended off swarms of ardent moths—there was no campfire.

The next morning we woke up before dawn and this side of the mountains were still shaded from the rising sun behind them. A hasty breakfast and we started walking through sandy washes and desert shrubbery towards the mountains to our west. The flat earth gradually grew into rolling hills. The sun was soon on us and we could already feel its intensity early in the morning.

As the hills swelled larger the closer we got to the mountains, small junipers started springing up one by one until they got bigger and bigger and we were suddenly immersed in a forest. The shade was comforting and we clung to it, stopping and glassing with Alex’s binoculars from cool vantage points for anything that stuck out amongst the greenish-brown vegetation. We trudged forward, going higher and higher in elevation in the direction of the mountains. At the top of one sunny plateau, with desert below in one direction and mountains above in the other, I spotted the first elk shed of the day.

It was sitting in the shade between the trunks of two juniper trees. The moment my eyes scanned over an out-of-place tinge of white amongst the junipers was the moment my body came to a halt. I knew what it was.

Once we got to the top of the plateau, our luck increased dramatically. 

I shouted back towards Alex, who was zigzagging the hillside below the crest of the plateau. He hurried over and we were both elated—it was the first elk shed I had ever found. It was a small antler with about six tines; it was old and chalky with a coarse, dusty feel to it—not a brownie but a shed nonetheless. We shared smiles and high fives—the morning of grueling hiking had suddenly all become worth it. But we soon returned to mindfully sweeping the countryside for more of them, with no time to waste. Not more than five minutes had passed when I found another one.

This antler was precariously positioned in the upper portion of a stubby juniper tree, which looked more like a bush. The shed was at shoulder level as I eagerly went over and plucked it from the branches. It was also old and chalky like the last one but bigger.

A bull elk had been fiddling with the tree at some point, using the tree to rid itself of this annoying piece of bone that had outlived its purpose. The bull dislodged it in the tree branches and went elsewhere while the antler remained, frozen in time. Alex said he hadn’t found a shed stuck in a tree like that before and so we laughed. It was not long after that he had found a shed as well—a big, white eight-pointer that he immediately and quietly strapped to his pack. He carried on silently.

By lunchtime, our packs were already strapped tight with sheds—ten or so between the two of us. We found a nice, shaded spot beneath some juniper trees with a view of the desert floor below. We enjoyed sandwiches and a timeout from the heat. The sun was high in the sky and the temperature was likely in the triple digits already. We decided to start the long trek back to the car because we were over the heat and were already satisfied with our finds from the morning—me especially because I had found more sheds than Alex. But that moment of silent gloating was short-lived.

By lunchtime, each of us had already found several elk and deer sheds. 

We aimed towards a dry creekbed at the base of the plateau but quickly realized that we were up higher than we thought; the descent proved to be a steep, rocky mountainous mess that took much longer than expected. The rocks were small and loose and you had to be careful not to lose your balance and tumble down the steep decline. To make matters worse, Alex told me that this type of country is the type that black bears and mountain lions love and probably reside in, and that we should be on our toes.

We were miles away from the nearest road with no cell signal and backpacks full of sheds. At one point on the way down to the creekbed, Alex and I became separated. I yelled for him but heard nothing. Powerful, piercing sun rays beamed on me in the desert heat but I still couldn’t help but get the chills.

Nearing the creekbed, I heard his booming voice coming from up and to the right of where I had just come. I was washed with a wave of relief. I went over to him, where he was sitting below a large, dead juniper tree next to a bull elk skull that still had its antlers attached.

“Come look at this,” he said. The bull’s skull had a copper bullet lodged in its forehead. Someone had shot this elk but left its skull and antlers behind. “Probably a poacher,” Alex said, who had likely shot the animal and harvested its meat but not its horns so they wouldn’t have been spotted leaving the area with something as noticeable as a fresh set of elk antlers.

Alex with the deadhead. 

We carried on, following the dry creek as it snaked along the feet of towering plateaus, offering us much shade. It eventually dumped out into a flat basin where other creeks met it. Was this one of the three rivers that distinguish this area? I wondered.

It was here that Alex started finding shed after shed like he was in an orchard harvesting low-hanging fruits. He’d walk along, stop, bend over, pick one up, put it on his pack, keep walking, and repeat a similar process a hundred yards later. It hadn’t been long since I took delight in the notion that I had found more sheds than Alex, whose pack was now clearly heavier than mine.

The closer we got to the vehicle, the flatter the ground got and the more sheds we started finding. We crossed sandy washes and flat bushy areas and they were everywhere, with Alex and I picking them up off the ground left and right. We recovered sheds all the way up until the car and were pleasantly surprised that we hadn’t found them in the morning when we first set off.

“Not bad for a morning of hiking around in a pretty spot.”

It was early afternoon when we got back to my car; we were drenched in sweat, out of water, and thoroughly exhausted. But we were stoked with the day. Alex had found about eleven sheds and I had found nine, including a set, which is a pair of antlers from the same elk. Finding sets isn’t common as elk don’t usually shed their antlers at the same time, Alex told me, so we were both excited when I had found one. We snapped a couple of photos of our finds and enjoyed the desert scenery and far-off mountain views for a moment from the comfort of my car’s AC. “Not bad for a morning of hiking around in a pretty spot,” I told Alex. He agreed.

In this inhospitable land we had scoured that day, we saw signs of life and death everywhere. Sheds and animals bones were scattered like puzzle pieces across the desert floor while raptors, lizards, and insects carried on, business as usual. We didn’t know it at the time, but in this world—in their world—we belonged to them.

On the way out we passed by a petroglyph site. Ancient people had once lived in this seemingly uninhabitable land long ago and had left behind traces of their existence—stone inscriptions of their unique lives and culture for future onlookers like us to admire and ponder about later. Alex and I chatted about these things as we sailed back along the empty, dusty highway with weary grins on our faces and a trunk full of sheds.

Alex strolling off into the eternal. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Why is Avalanche Safety Gear So Expensive?


The BCA Tracker 4. | Photo courtesy of Backcountry Access

The gold standard of avalanche rescue gear is a beacon, a shovel, and a probe—three products you hope you never have to use outside of a beacon park. A standard-issue kit like this will almost always set you back at least a few hundred dollars—$333 is the cheapest one I found on, and that’s a bargain. Avalanche airbags are quickly becoming a recommended part of the standard backcountry quiver, too—but good luck finding one for under 500 bucks.

One Reddit user posted an interesting question about the pricing related to avalanche safety gear. In a Reddit forum titled “Why is avalanche gear so goddamn expensive?” they wrote:

“I’m not saying that I’m not ok with paying these prices, as I don’t want to make any compromises regarding anything that a person’s life could depend on, but still; are these prices justified? Or are manufacturers taking advantage of people not having a lot of options to pick from? It’s just that I’m having a hard time believing that a piece of aluminum with a hollow telescopic shaft is worth almost a hundred bucks.”

This question led me to want to find out why avalanche safety gear is priced the way it is. I mean, if a beacon, shovel, and probe are absolutely necessary for anybody wanting to make some turns in a place where avalanches kill, shouldn’t these things be more affordable to eager and frugal ski bums everywhere? After talking with Craig Hatton over the phone, the Vice President and General Manager of Backcountry Access (BCA), I found out why these essential, life-saving pieces of gear are priced the way they are. It really only came down to two things.

Supply and demand. Hatton told me that all backcountry gear is made with custom parts that are only manufactured in relatively small numbers—tens of thousands as opposed to millions for some consumer products. He said that it is those small numbers that make an avalanche shovel cost much more than a shovel you would find at a hardware store.

Hatton went on to describe just how much goes into making a beacon, even if the idea behind them is simple: a carriable device with a ‘search’ and ‘send’ function that can withstand the deadly rollercoaster ride of an avalanche and emit a radio signal in a specific pattern that makes it easy for rescuers to find that buried person with their own beacons. At least, that’s avalanche beacons in a nutshell. The more sophisticated the beacon—more advanced beacons having features for more experienced users such as a flagging function for multiple burials—the higher the price.

BCA has three key suppliers located all over the world for avalanche beacons. “The supply chains are really complicated,” Hatton told me. It starts with BCA supplying components to their factories around the world, with some factories sourcing components directly for BCA. These factories begin with a “bare board” (PCB) which is not yet functional because it does not have the required components in place. Once the factories obtain the PCBs, they then “populate” them into an “assembled bare board” (PCBA), which is functional. All electronics—from beacons to smartphones—have a PCBA. The factories populate the PCBs with components via high-tech machinery, turning them into functional PCBAs, before placing them into the back half of the beacon’s case. Once populated and assembled into half of the case, they are sent out for further assembly and “vigorous testing” in BCA’s headquarters in Boulder, Colorado, according to Hatton.

A BCA Tracker 3 beacon, shovel, and probe kit for sale online. | Photo courtesy of

The testing BCA does in Boulder is an incredibly important part of the beacon-making process. People’s lives literally depend on it. So you can imagine it isn’t cheap, either. Types of tests include a “Hard Drop Test,” where a beacon is dropped from about four to five feet in the air onto a hard surface. The Hard Drop Test checks that a beacon would still emit a working signal in the event that a skier or rider is caught in a slide and taken through trees, rocks, or other potential terrain hazards that could damage the device. BCA also performs a “battery life” test, which makes sure the beacon can emit a working signal for at least 200 hours while it’s switched on and in ‘send’ mode, along with a series of other “ETSI standards,” which are a complicated set of regulations put in place by ETSI and recognized internationally.

In the United States, the radio signal that an avalanche beacon emits must also fall within FCC certification standards (Yes, the FCC actually gets involved with your beacon because it’s emitting a radio frequency). If a beacon passes all these tests and is used correctly without abuse, it can theoretically last an entire lifetime, according to Hatton. He said that analog beacons developed in the early 2000s are still in use today, even though he doesn’t recommend anyone continue to use a technology that is now considered “outdated.”

Once they’re tested to make sure everything checks out, they go to the production floor for further validation. It is here that the other half of the case is closed, making the unit whole and ready for action. Every beacon is equipped with a harness and user manual before getting shipped out to BCA’s distribution center in Seattle. From there, they go to the dealers and then onto the bodies of living, skiing, souls.

BCA has three main competitors: Pieps/Black Diamond, an Austrian company—Mammut, a Swiss company—and Ortovox, a French company. While these brands have a stronger grip on the European backcountry skiing markets, Hatton says that BCA is the market leader for avalanche rescue gear in North America and that the market is really a conjunction of two separate markets: the backcountry skiing and snowboarding market, and the sled market. BCA’s market is split 60/40 between skiing and sledding, with the latter being less sensitive to higher-price-point products.

Hatton said that pricing is really driven by the component costs (many components, like antennae, are custom parts), shipping and taxes, VATs depending on where the factory is, and the price points that the market sets. When it comes to avalanche shovels, tooling costs and the cost of high grade, 7075-series aluminum have a large impact on pricing. An entry-level avalanche shovel will run you about $50, with a basic telescopic shaft and typically plastic handle, while a more sophisticated shovel with lower-weight aluminum, a metal handle, and a “hoe mode”—which allows the digger to quickly rearrange the shovel blade in a way that allows for speedier burial victim recovery by pulling snow instead of digging it—can reach prices up to $100.

He added that “price points are set by the market,” or what the market is willing to pay. The market is then handicapped by the price points that those brands set. For the last ten to fifteen years, avalanche beacon prices have stayed relatively static. They haven’t gone up very much and they certainly haven’t gone down. But now all of that may be changing due to massive supply chain constraints brought about by the pandemic.

“Demand in the market is stronger than ever,” Hatton said. “The challenge that brands are having—including BCA—is supply chain constraints.”

Virtually every market right now is experiencing supply chain restraints due to the pandemic. To put it in perspective, three major automobile factories are completely idle right now because they can’t get materials to build cars. Hatton said that BCA’s timelines for integrated circuit boards have gone from eighteen to twenty weeks, to now forty to fifty weeks, because of supply chain constraints and increasingly high demand due to the rapidly growing electric vehicle market.

“Imagine a [relatively small] company like ours competing for electronic components with a company like Ford, Chevy, or Tesla. It’s extremely challenging,” Hatton said.

Currently, Hatton says there’s no end in sight for these current constraints and that they will likely run into 2023 before the supply chain stabilizes. BCA is holding its current pricing for this upcoming winter, but Hatton expects that gear prices will likely go up by the following winter for most brands. He said that BCA will evaluate what the supply chain does at the end of this season and then adjust pricing if necessary.

As we wrapped up our talk, Hatton asked me to share in this article BCA’s intensive focus on education. He said that BCA is known for its stance on education and that it is “very vocal and adamant” about pushing out the message to people—especially new backcountry users. BCA has hundreds of education and how-to videos on its website and YouTube, and hosts in-person avalanche safety classes across North America every winter. Because if you don’t know how to use your expensive new gear in the event of an avalanche burial, the person under that mountain of snow may as well already be dead. This is why BCA creates an easy-to-use, intuitive user interface that most people can understand the first time they use any BCA beacon. So, when planning on getting into the backcountry—when thinking about what shiny new avalanche beacon to get or replace—just remember what Hatton told me:

“The best beacon on the market is the one you know how to use.”

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Mammoth Mountain, CA “Snow Farming:” A Dutiful Art on an Absolutely Massive Scale

This image—captured from an aerial point of view—shows resort snowcats farming snow. | Photo courtesy of pistenteam_andermatt

Give Michaelangelo some marble and you’ll probably get a sculpture. Give him some late-Spring snow and a snowcat and he might just be Mammoth Mountain’s Director of Slope Maintenance and the Unbound Terrain Parks, Scott Cherry.

Cherry organizes the resort crews that keep Mammoth and its terrain parks open long after other ski areas have already shut down and transitioned towards summer activities. This is because Mammoth is not like other ski areas. Most ski areas don’t consistently build terrain parks and maintain ski trails until the end of May.

Mammoth officially stopped spinning its lifts this season on Memorial Day, 2021 (May 31.) From the end of April until that fervent closing day, resort crews were giving every nail, tooth, and tear they had left in an effort to keep the mountain open and the runs skiable. They did a damn good job. Snowcats would push, pull, extract, and chisel snow off some slopes and onto others in a process that Mammoth refers to as “snow farming.” It’s like sculpting but in accordance with nature and on a very large scale with very large machinery. Even airborne tools—strapped onto airplanes—get used in the mountain’s unique snow farming system.

“The one thing we have on our side that’s a game-changer is SNOWsat, which is basically sonar with lidar mapping of our mountain,” Cherry said over the phone. “So they’ll fly a plane over our mountain, map it for us, and then upload it onto their system and create layers. Then they’ll upload that layering onto a tablet-sized screen inside the snowcats which will tell you within a half-an-inch of where your snow’s at. It’s like a fishfinder.”

A snowcat farms snow. | Photo courtesy of prinoth_pistenbully_pics

The technology described by Cherry is not controlled by him and his team but rather by PistenBully, who is contracted with Mammoth. With the use of lidar, cat drivers can see exactly where the snow is—and precisely how much of it is left—on a screen inside of the snowcat. Cherry, simultaneously, can look at another map on his computer screen that shows exactly where every cat has gone and moved snow, and what terrain features are still untouched.

“It’s an ongoing, developing technology. But it’s extremely accurate. It’s awesome,” Cherry said.

Six of Mammoth’s snowcats are equipped with this software. With digital maps uploaded to screens inside the cats, Cherry and his drivers work with that information in a way that mimics chess. They observe, contemplate, and strategize which slopes are still going to hold snow and for how long. Cherry and his team can forecast snow conditions weeks in advance so it becomes apparent which slopes aren’t going to make it. The slopes that are the next to go, Cherry and his team decide, are the ones that drivers will take snow from and redistribute towards those that will still provide decent Spring skiing. It’s challenging work, according to Cherry, and slopes with minimal snow get abandoned all the time—their organs getting transplanted to other, healthier parts of the mountain.

Which is when the magic happens. Snowcat operators will show up at 3 in the afternoon (when the snow is soft from the heat of the sun) and work until midnight before tapering mountain temperatures harden it into firm, fast skiing snow. They’ll follow the lidar maps on their screens and go to the exact pinpoint of snow that needs to get moved. They’ll farm that snow, push it out at night, and then groom it. But the way they farm it is where the process gets especially interesting.

The cut-away section of mountain next to the red lines shows snow farming in action. Cat drivers slice snow off the slope from top to bottom and move it where they want it. In this case, the snow will be moved down the hill in order to house Mammoth’s giant airbag jump. | Photo courtesy of Scott Cherry

Cherry describes the snow farming process as “typewriter-ing.” It starts with finding dirt. Snowcat operators grooming at night will relay to Cherry which slopes are hurting and which need more snow, and then Cherry will go out in a snowcat, typically the next morning, and farm snow for the drivers to shuffle around. He starts with a slope that has both moveable snow and dirt. This allows him to move the snow much more efficiently than if the snow was just sitting on more snow. Working from the top down, Cherry will go back in forth—like he’s driving his cat along the lines of a typewriter’s keyboard—gathering more snow and dirt as he descends each row. By the time he gets to the bottom, he may have a pile of farmed snow that’s 30-feet-high or higher.

“The better we are at farming the longer we’re able to hold onto our season,” Cherry said.

This blend of science and art—which allows one to move around snow as their mind sees fit—also comes into play with Mammoth’s Unbound terrain parks. Cherry said that it’s rare to see terrain parks open at ski areas this late into the Spring—let alone ones of Mammoth’s caliber with giant jumps and complex jib features. And, only a handful of ski areas still showcase 60 or 70-foot jumps every season.

With a background in building terrain parks, Cherry’s career eventually led him to Mammoth where he got to maximize his potential. When it comes to building a massive park or working with specifics for slopestyle events like Red Bull Recharged, Cherry and his crew will sometimes have to farm snow for 14 days before they can begin sculpting certain features. It takes lasting commitment and astute attention to detail to build Mammoth’s competition-grade features and terrain parks—which may not necessarily be noticeable at first glance when watching these competitions on YouTube.

“When you see those guys enjoy the product that you’ve spent every waking moment trying to get right, that makes it all worth it,” Cherry said.

Scott Cherry loves his job and it shows. How else would Mammoth swindle Mother Nature into staying open for skiing and riding until Memorial Day?