Cheap thrills at Great Sand Dunes National Park

Who says adventure has to be expensive? I recently went, along with two friends, to southern Colorado to try out sandboarding at Great Sand Dunes National Park. It’s one of those otherworldly places that seems like it belongs more in southern Utah with its combination of mountains, dunes and rivers.

In any case, it was great fun trying to stay upright. Waxing the board frequently is the key to sliding vs. stopping. But the sand is certainly determined to find places to hide. It worked its way into the stitching of my backpack and just about everywhere else. While sandboarding really doesn’t compare to the winter version, it’s a fun way to descend miles of sand.

Cost breakdown:

Camping at Zapata Falls Campground: $11 per night

Entrance to Great Sand Dunes National Park: $3 per person

Sandboard rental from Kristi Mountain Sports in Alamosa: $18

Total cost per person for two days of fun: $24.67





Black Diamond to launch more sophisticated avalanche airbag

Black Diamond Jetforce Avalanche Airbag Pack
Photo courtesy Black Diamond.

Two companies are poised to shake up the snow sports industry with radical new airbag backpack systems. They’re designed to provide the latest in defense against gnashing avalanches, and solve problems with an earlier generation of systems.

But experts do have concerns. In a blog post, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, challenges claims made by some advertisers. Although he’s supportive of new winter tech, he points out that if skiers and snowboarders rely on it too much, they may find themselves in increasingly dangerous terrain and situations where airbags won’t help.

Market demand, meanwhile, seems strong. At least a dozen brands are now offering the products. Here’s a rundown on the evolution of airbag packs.

Passive safety

While there are three main kinds of avalanches, the most dangerous slides, often triggered by humans, occur at weak layers in the snowpack. It fractures and releases large slabs that dredge up compacted layers of snow and ice. Avalanches exhibit almost fluid-like behavior as they move down the mountain, settling into heavy masses as they come to rest.

If a victim gets buried completely, rescuers may have to remove a ton or more of snow to reach them — not to mention deal with severe injuries once they do. Avoiding an avalanche altogether is the best course of action through proper training, planning and weather knowledge.

Avalanche survival has traditionally focused on passive safety. The core pieces of equipment are the shovel, the probe and the transceiver. In other words, you have to wait for your buddies to find you and dig you out.

Black Diamond helped push the passive winter tech envelope with its AvaLung, a breathing device that prolongs how long a victim can remain under the snow. It pulls in oxygen through a filtration system while moving dangerous carbon dioxide away from the face. The AvaLung can be strapped to the body, and it also comes as a built-in feature on certain backpacks. Though it’s simple and lightweight, the trick is getting the mouthpiece clenched in your teeth before it’s too late.

Airbag movement

A German company, ABS Peter Aschauer, started the airbag backpack movement in 1980s with the launch of systems powered by compressed gas cartridges. Airbag packs were designed to augment the traditional tool bag and help skiers, snowshoers and snowmobilers stay afloat. Once inflated, airbags also protect the head and upper body. They became popular in Europe.

As more companies entered the fray, they began racking up the number of human “saves.”

Pro snowboarder Meesh Hytner fell pray to a nasty slab avalanche in Colorado in 2012. She deployed her Backcountry Access Float 30. “I felt like I was riding a mattress down the stairs. This thing saved my life,” she’s quoted on BCA’s website.

Fan power

Arc’teryx caused a small stir in 2012 when it filed for a U.S. patent for a fan-filled airbag powered by a battery instead of an air cylinder. Then Black Diamond started teasing the market with its newfangled airbag system that sounds less like an explosion and more like a vacuum cleaner.

Lou Dawson of Wild Snow had his hands on a prototype version and provided the first detailed report on Black Diamond’s “JetForce” technology. The pack uses a ducted fan to inflate the bag in 3 seconds. An electronic brain then initiates a series of cycles based on a typical avalanche scenario. The fan keeps sending air to the bag in case of tears. After 3 minutes, the bag deflates to provide an air pocket if the victim ends up buried.

Dawson points out some advantages to the system: no hassles with traveling on the airlines or having to find places to refill air cylinders, multiple inflations without having to carry heavy spare cylinders, lesser chance of accidental inflation and easy repacking. And there are some disadvantages such as relying on lithium batteries, possible obstruction to ambient air intakes and limited pack styles.

Black Diamond’s system won’t be cheap and is expected to be in the $1,000 range, comparable to some of the more expensive compressed-gas systems. Weight for its smaller Halo 28 pack will be around seven pounds. A Black Diamond spokesman says the company doesn’t have a set product release date.

Ultimately, Tremper advises backcountry adventurers to choose slopes carefully. “In terrain with few obstacles, terrain traps, sharp transitions and smaller paths, avalanche airbags have the potential to save significantly more than half of those who would have otherwise died,” he writes.

Tracing the evolution of snow skis

Hiking to more than 13,000 feet at the top of Breckenridge Ski Resort. Photo copyright Nathan A. Ferguson.

Skiing began as a simple and effective form of locomotion across snow-covered landscapes. It would take thousands of years for it to morph into a multibillion-dollar industry. To understand modern equipment, it’s important to take a look back to see how the snow ski evolved into a fine carving instrument.

Early attempts date back more than 5,000 years in Russia and Scandinavia, according to archaeological research. The skis were wooden and used for hunting, trapping and crossing frozen waterways.

Things didn’t change dramatically until 1850, when Norwegian skier Sondre Norheim, widely considered the father of modern skiing, incorporated camber — or a middle upward curve — into his skis. By allowing the skis to bow slightly upward underfoot, more of the skier’s weight could be distributed to the tips and tails, which made turning easier and improved grip. This became the design standard well into the next century.

Norheim didn’t stop there. Nearly 20 years later, he demonstrated the telemark turn on skis made out of single pieces of hardwood with sidecuts that made them narrower underfoot. In addition to camber, sidecut improved turning by allowing the skis to flex. Norheim used bindings that allowed his heels to rise while his toes remained fixed, allowing the skier to lunge and maneuver through fluid turns. Even today, this technique is difficult to master.

The Golden Age

The next century saw tremendous progress in ski design and the making of sporting-world luminaries.

One of them was Abel Rossignol, a carpenter and diehard skier who in 1907 made his first set of skis out of hardwood. His company would go on to experiment with all-metal and fiberglass skis, as well as vibration damping. By the 1970s, Rossignol would become the largest ski manufacturer in the world.

But ski design had two big problems, both related to turning on hard snow. Throughout the 1920s, Austrian Rudolph Lettner experimented with segmented steel edges that flexed with the ski. They dug into ice and improved durability. While this was a huge improvement, there was a drawback: The edges had to be screwed onto the skis and often came off after hard use.

In 1950, aeronautical engineer Howard Head set out to make skis lighter and easier to turn. He founded the Head Ski Company, and his innovations with laminated skis helped grow the skiing industry.

The 1960s saw huge advances that carried on into the 80s. Plastic boots, better bindings, and skis made of increasingly complex composite structures gave way to a new technique, the elegant parallel turn.

Playing with Shapes

The ski industry went into a tizzy when Elan introduced a radical new ski design in 1993.

Its SCX, or SideCut eXtreme, featured a sidecut three times deeper than previous skis, which gave it an hourglass shape. This made it easier and more efficient to carve turns. After proving the design on race courses, other companies started producing “parabolic” or “shaped” skis. By the end of the decade, straight skis had pretty much become endangered species.

Ski design continued to get funkier. In 1998, Salomon produced the 1080 with raised tails, initially designed for allowing skiers to do snowboard-like tricks by skiing backward and negotiating reverse takeoffs and landings at terrain parks. Twin-tip skis later proved to provide better float in deep snow.

The Modern Era

After a century of trial and error, ski designers had perfected skiing on groomed terrain at resorts, but the industry was diversifying, and extreme skiers were eyeing virgin peaks.

In 2002, Volant introduced a powder ski called the Spatula, a concept originally dreamed up by pro skier Shane McConkey. Years earlier, he’d sketched it on a beer napkin. It featured reverse camber (now known as rocker), wherein the waist of the ski sat flat or lower than the tips and tails, allowing it to float. Reverse sidecut made the ski turn more easily without grabbing in deep, soft snow. This created a new genre of twin-tip, super-fat skis. Some, like the modern Fat-ypus A-Lotta, are 6.8 inches wide at the tips.

Technology continues to drive the industry, yet, as with the ancient hunters, more people are burning calories in the backcountry. Alpine touring bindings unhinge at the heels so that skiers can walk uphill with climbing skins attached underneath skis. For the trip down, the heels are locked and skiers make traditional alpine turns. This is much easier than learning the old-fashioned telemark technique. But they should give a nod to Norheim for showing them the way 150 years ago.

1989 meet 2011: from skinny to fat skis

Photo copyright Nathan A. Ferguson.

This is more about psychology than skiing. When I was 17 I bought a pair of the same skis that the U.S. Ski Team was using. The Rossignol 4S Kevlar was an iconic model in its day.

With the skinny waist, lightweight materials, vibration damping and catchy teal color, they pushed the edge of what straight skis could do. They were designed for steep slalom courses. In other words, they were perfect for the East Coast and its infamous bulletproof ice.

I remember how beautiful they looked unmounted at the ski shop. I pulled out a happy-looking pair in the 200 cm length. On my first run somewhere in the Poconos, I let my weight get too far back and they crossed at the front bindings. It catapulted me into the woods. The 4SK’s commanded respect.

Little did I know at the time that my brain wasn’t fully developed. As a male, I had another eight years for that to happen, according to psychological research. My friends and I were impulsive and always doing stupid things. It was all about speed and attempting mostly disastrous jumps. This was before helmets and terrain parks. How’d we survive?

We also had limitless energy from some secret source. As if we had miniature nuclear reactors within us, we’d rise at dawn, drive up to two hours, catch the first chair lift and ski until the last one. For some reason, we always changed clothes and made the last run in shorts despite the weather. Then we’d drive home and go out later. Those were the days. It couldn’t get any better than that.

In the spring of that same year, I was lucky enough to ski out West for the first time. I pointed the Rossies downward at Vail’s massive China Bowl and they quickly submarined into the sticky crud. Once again, I got catapulted.

As a Colorado resident now, ski design has gone through a transformation where western skis are getting fat and fatter to maximize float in powder. I’ve also taken up backcountry skiing where you have to provide your own propulsion upward. The Liberty Double Helix skis, designed here in Colorado, are my vehicles of choice. They can handle anything.

There’s a reason I’ve hung onto those old skis and it’s not for the ’80s parties at the local resorts. Every scratch and ding tells a story.