Kilburn slide: Winter mountaineering 101

By Phil Brown

In the first few days of February, the Adirondacks got about fifteen inches of snow, prompting the state to issue an avalanche warning.

Naturally, Josh Wilson and I decided to ski a slide that weekend.

That’s not as reckless as it sounds. Although slide paths are prone to avalanches, our destination was the Kilburn Slide near Lake Placid, a mellow slope that usually poses little danger. Indeed, guides sometimes take clients to the slide to teach them the fundamentals of winter mountaineering in a safe setting.

Josh Wilson digs a pit. Photo by Phil Brown

Once we crested the cliff, we put our planks back on and activated our avalanche beacons (mine borrowed from a friend of Josh) to transmit a rescue signal. If one of us got buried in an avalanche, the other would switch his beacon to receive mode. The receiving beacon would then emit a beep that would grow louder or fainter as the rescuer moved nearer or farther from the victim. It’s like a game of hot and cold, except it’s no game. In most cases, a buried victim will die if not found within thirty minutes.

Not that Josh and I were fearful of an avalanche. We wore the beacons mostly for practice. As we followed the zigzag skin track laid down by previous skiers, we detected no signs of instability in the snowpack—no cracking, no hollow sounds, no sloughs. At one point, I measured the slope angle at twenty-five degrees, outside the high-risk zone. It seemed typical of the slide.

We did encounter two cliff bands presumably steep enough to avalanche if conditions were right. In both cases, the skin track led us to the left and up mellower terrain. When we neared the end of the slide, the slope steepened. This is probably the section most prone to a natural avalanche. Indeed, sliding snow had increased the depth of the snowpack considerably.

We stopped here to construct a Rutschblock (German for “slide block”). With an avalanche shovel, Josh dug a wide pit, about four feet deep, down to the base of the snowpack. We then examined the snow. The top few inches were loose and fluffy. Beneath was a thick layer that was more consolidated. And under that was a thin layer of older snow, loose and granular.

The pit’s back wall formed the front of our Rutschblock. We used Josh’s snowboard to make three deep slices in the snow behind the pit, creating a square block. From the slope above, I stepped onto the rear of the block to see if it would hold up under my weight. It did, so I flexed my knees, bouncing to put extra pressure on the block. Nothing happened. I jumped a few times. Again, nothing.

Next I stepped onto the middle of the block and repeated the three tests. This time the block collapsed on the first jump. According to a Rutschblock informational card, also sold by Life-Link, our test suggested that the snowpack was fairly stable. In contrast, if the block had collapsed when I first stepped on it, that would have been evidence of a dangerous snowpack.

Afterward, we examined the pit again. It appeared that the thick layer of consolidated snow slid on the loose stuff underneath. This is not surprising, for avalanches often occur when a slab rides down slope on top of a weak layer.

“If the whole slide was like this, I’d think twice,” Josh remarked.

After the test, we prepared for the descent. Earlier we had seen three snowshoers below, and now they caught up to us. They were impressed that we were able to climb the slide on skis and assumed that we must be expert backcountry schussers. They continued in this belief after watching Josh take off down the mountain, creating a rooster tail as he carved wide arcs in the unbroken snow.

Map by Nancy Bernstein

Then it was my turn. As soon as I started downhill, I felt out of my element. I do most of my skiing on backcountry trails, powder glades, or groomed slopes. This snow was deep and not as fluffy as I would have liked, and I had trouble linking turns. I fell once or twice before catching up to Josh. The upper cliff band had enough snow that both of us felt comfortable riding over it. The lower cliff band, has a more vertical drop. I went ahead and stopped to watch as Josh glided over the edge and into space, soaring fifteen feet before landing in a white splash.

Soon we arrived at the big cliff at the foot of the slide. Josh had been thinking about snowboarding the cliff. Now he decided to go for it. He angled downward, made a sharp turn, and dropped out of sight with a loud whoop. In a few seconds he reappeared at the bottom and gave the thumbs-up.

“How was it?” I shouted.

“All the snow sloughed off the bottom part.”

“Is it skiable?”

“Not anymore.”

“Thanks a lot.”

Not wanting to down-climb, I followed Josh’s tracks to the middle of the cliff, where he had made his turn, and then continued to angle downward to an icy lip maybe twenty feet from the base. Josh suggested a jump turn, but I wasn’t sure I could pull that off, partly because my stance was precarious. Instead, I edged forward over the lip, and as I did so, my footing and the snow gave way. I slid ten or fifteen feet, coming to rest in a pile of powder. If only all avalanches were that much fun.

On the way out, I mulled over why I had so much trouble skiing the slide. I concluded that I had not been bold enough. I should have been facing the fall line and aggressively unweighting my skis during turns. But it’s hard to be aggressive when you feel intimidated by unfamiliar conditions. I have a lot to learn, but that’s OK. The Kilburn Slide is a great classroom.

DIRECTIONS: From the junction of Route 73 and Route 86 in Lake Placid, drive east on Route 86 for 4.3 miles to the Monument Falls pull-off on the left. The unmarked trail begins on the other side of the highway.

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