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Backcountry Foundations with Angela Hawse

It’s the eve of my second backcountry overnighter for the year; a 5th-season “veteran”. I did the shakedown, honed the must-haves, stacked my gear systematically, prepped my snacks adequately – I always stuff more into a secondary bag and random pockets as I’m walking out the door because, well, you never know – and triple checked the itinerary. 

I’m headed to the Thelma Hut, a newer backcountry lodging destination in the San Juans. Currently in its second year of operations, the Thelma Hut sits at 11,200 feet and provides overnight accommodations to those looking to access countless acres of backcountry. Nestled at the base of a south/southeast-facing hillside near the famed Red Mountain Pass, it’s a short jaunt from a parking zone along highway 550 and is a perfect combination of cozy essentials and classy vibe mixed with a rustic-chic, powered-by-the-sun architecture and design. It’s a lot to take in, but I’m glad I do.

For two days, I’m joining the newest addition to the Eddie Bauer Guide roster, Angela Hawse, and four other women for an introduction to backcountry skiing and avalanche safety training – the perfect prerequisite for my Level 1 AIARE course later this winter.

After a long drive to a place that isn’t exceptionally easy to get to from where I live, I indulge in a deliciously crisp beer at the Ouray Brewery and catch some shut eye in the quaint historic Hotel Ouray.

The next morning, with my appetite for beignets and caffeine needs checked off the to-do list (thanks to the early risers at Camp Bell’s), I meet our posse and guide in the hotel lobby.

Angela and I skip the handshakes and go directly to “nice to meet you” hugs – I’m a hugger, what can I say? Plus, if you’ve read her bio, you’d want to hug her! This woman’s background is incredible. For over thirty years, Angela has climbed, skied and guided her way around the world. 

In 1983, while attending Prescott College in Arizona, she climbed her first mountain, Snowdon Peak, in the San Juan Mountains between Silverton and Durango; and while four years prior to that marked her first turns on snow, it took until her years at Prescott to return to skiing. Angela shares, “I first skied with a YMCA youth group at Snowshoe West Virginia in 1979 when I was 16 years old. I didn’t ski again until 1983 when I went to Prescott College where everyone was free-heeling in the backcountry. I rarely skied inbounds and didn’t fix my heel (AT) until around 2006”. Now based in Ridgeway, it seems only fitting that the San Juans were a source of initial inspiration for Angela.

First inspired by Rod Newcomb and Don Bauchman in 1984, during her first avalanche course on Red Mountain Pass, avalanche safety and awareness has also become an integral part of Angela’s life. When asked what drew her to guiding and educating others on avalanche safety she shares that Newcomb and Bachman’s “ability to convey the gravity of winter backcountry travel and their depth of knowledge inspired a curiosity that has never faded.”

In addition to being an obvious “lover of mountains and winter“, Angela is president (and first female instructor) of the American Mountain Guide Association (AGMA), recipient of the 2011 AMGA  “Guide of the Year” Award, and an International Federation Mountain Guides Association Licensed Guide (which is the highest level of internationally recognized training and certification in three AMGA Disciplines, including Certified Rock Guide, Alpine Guide, and Ski Mountaineering Guide). She goes on to share, “I love teaching [avalanche safety] skills to others and helping set them up for success and longevity to enjoy the backcountry like I do”.

With introductions wrapped up as we prepare for our trip in the lobby, we move on to talking itinerary, ski kit – the Eddie Bauer’s BC Fineline Bib and Jacket, to be precise – and of course, avalanche safety equipment (beacon, shovel, probe), load up our food provisions and head to the trailhead.

Our destination is located in the ultimate winter playground and situated near the cusp of an invisible, yet surprisingly apparent line (thanks to the in-your-face topography and a strategically placed “Continental Divide” sign), And, even as a self-proclaimed “lover of mountains and winter”, I appreciate Angela’s thoughtful seasonal connectivity as she so mindfully notes (particularly for the fly fishers in the group) that while skiing locally is a lot of fun, it has an even larger purpose, elsewhere. Ski right, and your tracks perforate future runoff waters of the Rio Grande basin; ski left, and find what will eventually melt into the Gunnison and points downstream. My takeaway: thankfully, for our present and future selves, refills are in the forecast.

The San Juans, while beautiful and fun to explore, are jagged, rugged, and predictably moody. Meaning, whichever line you point your skis, the fact remains that traveling within this range means traveling through avalanche terrain. In fact, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), in 2019, 4,273 avalanches were recorded in Colorado, with over 1,500 taking place in the Northern and Southern San Juans. The 2018-2019 winter had above average snowfall. Conversely, in winter 2017-2018, a below-average snowfall year, 2,196 avalanches were recorded with over 400 occurring in the San Juan regions; and the year prior, the state racked up nearly 3,000 avalanches. 

Consequently, it seems that regardless of whether we have a below, at, or above average snowfall year, avalanches are guaranteed to occur. Cue the education piece.

The Silverton Avalanche School’s Backcountry Foundations is a 2-day course and the roadmap we’ll follow throughout our experience at the Thelma Hut and surrounding terrain. 

As we drive, Angela and I swap some background in the front seat. I tend to get excited at this point in a trip – the buildup en route to a trailhead, that is – and I can’t help but share my love of touring and skiing. I ask her about her experiences and she openly shares her passion for all things adventure and outdoor pursuits.

While a passionate skier, Angela has an even more extensive (and incredibly impressive) climbing background. With countless summits on numerous peaks in ranges across the world, Angela has accomplished guided climbs and personal pursuits not only at home in the U.S., but also in the Andes, Canadian Rockies, Patagonia, Himalaya, and Karakoram. Yet, with all this climbing experience, to hear her say “I mean, I love climbing, but there’s nothing as fun as skiing…nothing as fun,” only fuels my stoke as we round the next curve.

At the trailhead, we talk pack fitting, apparel layering, and skinning uphill. I have explored the Colorado backcountry for a while now and if there’s one thing I learned early on, it’s that there are a lot of moving pieces. Planning a backcountry trip takes lists, itineraries, maps, and more, especially for an overnight experience with multiple days on the snow. As Angela shares some tips for the uphill climb, we put our skins on, hike our gear across the road, and begin our on-snow experience.

Fast forward a couple hours and quick lunch break later and we’re learning about beacons. Practicing proper protocol is critical. We turn our beacons on while standing outside the hut, check our send and search modes, and skin to a spot to conduct a couple practice searches.

Day 1 sessions are mellow. For some of the gals on this trip, this is a very new experience. It’s their first time skinning and first hut trip altogether. For others, it’s an opportunity to refresh for the season. And for me, well—I’m just happy to be here, ma’am.

Actually, if I’m being honest, my typical backcountry day seems hectic compared to today. I’m usually managing childcare timing, photography equipment, and touring with just one other person (my husband). So, getting settled in with a group of women who I feel are on the same page (excited to learn and in awe of the landscape) is a new (and relaxing) experience. Angela’s calmness, steady uphill stride, and patient demeanor is also quite encouraging.

The sun sinks behind the nearest peak and we return to the hut with hot soup awaiting our arrival. As we gather around the table, I’m reminded just how empowering an all-girls experience – especially an outdoor pursuit – can be. Women leading women and women supporting women is something Angela is visibility passionate about. And while she shares a climbing-centric statement in her bio, that reads “Although I very much enjoy guiding men and women alike, there is a very special energy, support and encouragement when a group of women climb together that I thrive on”, I think it is still applicable…and you can feel it from her.

After an evening sauna, great conversation and a restful night, I wake up to slightly warmer temperatures and an eagerness within myself to take on the next challenge. I’m also ready to rip some turns. But first, breakfast.

We sip coffee while eating tasty quinoa bowls sprinkled with dried fruit, ham, roasted potatoes, and warm maple syrup. I’m readying myself for the uphill climb by way of carb-loading. When breakfast is done, Angela shares our route for the day. We again discuss our kit (layering, temperatures, etc.), pack our lunches, consult the map, and head outside. After a beacon check, we skin upslope.

Angela breaks trail in gradual terrain in an almost methodical fashion. She’s steady and it’s apparent that this isn’t her first rodeo. The views are surreal, par for the course when it comes to the San Juans. And the steady stream of encouraging hoots and hollers – “whoop whoop”, “yeah” and “alright” – feel good; I can’t stop saying how beautiful this place is.

We take a moment to hydrate and refuel while Angela digs a pit and we talk about snow conditions and the visible layers. Words like “faceted”, “persistent slab”, “snowpack”, and “slide” mix together in a smorgasbord of snow science lingo. She talks about the avalanche forecast for the day, her personal method of monitoring and forecasting the season’s conditions and her findings after digging the pit. 

This course is just an introduction into avalanche safety, and while we each didn’t dig our own pit, I learned a lot through Angela’s explanations. We talk about how conditions change with temperature fluctuations, snow accumulations and how slides can happen due to weak layers in the snowpack. My biggest takeaway on pits is that they give us a view into the snowpack on that specific slope for that specific day. Conditions 100 feet away on a different aspect can be very different. The session is informative, eye-opening and makes me eager for the softer snow we’re bound for.

Unfortunately, the upper pitch above the pit is challenging me. While I feel like I’ve mastered my tele kick-turns, my second-hand skins are slipping, failing on the tail end due to the steepness and lack of stickiness underfoot. Snow is building up and my frustration with myself is real. Another participant is fighting a head cold and the steep slope seems equally challenging for her. Angela doesn’t miss a beat – she assesses and reevaluates; I take a moment to re-evaluate myself, too. 

Later, I come to find out (after our course/experience ends), when I ask Angela what she feels is the most important thing she hopes women take away from an avalanche training experience, she writes “Confidence to speak up, ask questions and share their opinions”. Please excuse me while I have a personal “ah ha” moment.

Backcountry training and education courses aren’t just about the gear, the technical skills, the weather, or the snow conditions. They also give us an opportunity to hone and understand group dynamics, manage our expectations, and understand ourselves (motivations, abilities, etc.). I ask the gal touring behind me for help, I push through my frustration with my gear and as I reach the front of the group, I’m honest with that emotion – and it feels good. I’m outside my comfort zone, as are other women on the trip, but we work through it; and that in itself is a gratifying feeling and empowering experience.

We throw on some layers, take off our skins, and eat lunch under gorgeous evergreen trees with a view of untouched powder before us. There’s only one thing left to do: rip those turns I’ve been waiting for!

We do some laps, skiing low-angle gullies before skinning back to the hut to load up our remaining gear. On the final uphill, I think to myself about what draws us to the backcountry – year after year, turn after turn, lap after lap – and how experiences and learning opportunities like this are part of keeping that stoke alive.

To learn more about Angela and the rest of the Eddie Bauer guides, visit the EB website; for backcountry and avalanche training opportunities, visit the Silverton Avalanche school website; and to find more women-specific trips with Angela, visit Chicks with Picks.

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