White, smoke-like plumes of powder puffed behind Santiago "Chago" Rodriguez at every turn as he cruised down a slope near Mores Creek Summit, an area deep in the mountains north of Idaho City. His whoops and hollers echoed around towering peaks and faded in narrow gullies.
Rodriguez may know these mountains better than anyone else on the planet. Mores Creek Summit, as indicated by a sign at the side of Idaho State Highway 21, is a winter sports playground for snowmobilers, snowshoers and backcountry skiers. To Rodriguez, this place is much more.
"That's where my kids grew up with me," he said. "To this day when we get together, we know that ... when they come to visit [we're] going to Mores Creek Summit."
Rodriguez has a strong emotional attachment to the place, and feels a sense of personal responsibility for its well-being and that of the people who use it. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, Rodriguez saw many of his favorite surfing destinations close to the public due to abuse by the very surfers who purportedly treasured them. For Mores Creek Summit and dozens of other Park-N'-Ski areas sprinkled across the state, access could be severely limited or lost entirely should misuse or abuse cause the Idaho Department of Transportation to simply opt out of plowing pull-outs along the highway. Since relocating to Boise in 1992 and being introduced to Mores Creek Summit shortly thereafter, Rodriguez knew he'd stumbled on a gem and was determined to protect it.
"It was just love at first sight," he said. "I recognized it was a special place, similar to the beach in Puerto Rico. I could find my solitude. It was a place of comfort, a place of thought—a special place."
Following years of backcountry skiing in total ignorance of avalanche danger, Rodriguez received a wakeup call during one of his first trips to Mores Creek Summit, when he and a friend triggered a series of dangerous slides.
"It was terrifying," he said. "We never thought it could happen while we were there... I am alive today by luck."
Since then, Rodriguez has dedicated his life to avalanche education, teaching field courses in Alaska, Colorado, Chile, Idaho and Spain, and has kept a blog for the last 10 years about Mores Creek Summit snowpack conditions. Five years ago, he began attending Boise State University to earn his PhD in snow science, and he now teaches snow science courses there in addition to running his avalanche education business, Avalanche Science, which he operates out of Idaho City. The hope is to help other backcountry users avoid potentially fatal mistakes that he himself made as a young skier.
In the last decade, avalanche science has advanced rapidly. The prevailing theory, anti-crack theory, didn't even exist until eight years ago, when it was presented at a biennial International Snow Science Workshop in Alaska, a conference Rodriguez himself attended. According to the theory, anti-cracks, or cavities in the snowpack that can expand when snowpack compresses, create instabilities that can cause massive, dangerous slides.
Armed with this theory, Karl Birkeland, an avalanche scientist with the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center, advanced the use of compression tests like the column and extended column tests in forecasting avalanche danger. Unlike the previously popular shovel-shear test, these tests are designed to both test the snowpack for failure from forces known to trigger avalanches and predict their severity.
"You can argue I'm alive because of him," said Rodriguez about Birkeland. "I and many others owe our safety to him."
Despite a better working theory for forecasting slides, fatality rates due to avalanches continue to climb. Data from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), which has tracked every reported avalanche fatality in the United States since 1950, shows that over the last 30 years the average annual number of deaths from avalanches has risen from 18 to 26. Correspondingly, there have been a total of 1,047 avalanche deaths in the United States, with 25.8 percent of those deaths occurring in the last decade. That rate puts the number of avalanche fatalities expected in an equivalent 67-year window at a staggering 2,010, nearly double the 1,047 observed between 1950 and 2017. Rodriguez attributes the staggering increase to more people recreating in the backcountry.
Another factor increasing the danger for recreators is the warming trend Idaho and other western states have experienced for the last several years. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, average temperatures in Idaho have risen by 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit since 2000. While that increase may seem inconsequential, it has huge implications for snowpack stability. Variable weather and frequent temperature changes weaken bonds between layers in the snowpack, making avalanches more likely.
"Change in climate exacerbates the stratification of the snowpack," said Rodriguez. "The more you stratify, the closer you are to having an avalanche problem."
Even skiers using resort-serviced chairlifts can find themselves in danger when the allure of deep powder beckons them beyond boundary ropes and backcountry gates. Those venturing into this "side country" terrain are often under the false impression that rescue is nearby and avalanches are unlikely so close to groomed trails, yet according to CAIC, 75 skiers died in side country avalanches between 1950 and 2007. There have been 28 such fatalities since 2008, putting side country avalanche fatalities on pace to surpass 170 by the end of an equivalent 57-year period.
"It's just as dangerous [as backcountry]," said Rodriguez. "You leave the boundaries at Bogus, it's just as dangerous as Mores Creek Summit or Red Mountain Pass or Golden Mountain in British Columbia."
To Rodriguez, the root of the problem is that people make decisions with poor situational awareness, putting themselves into peril. But despite the frightening statistics and increased accessibility to backcountry education, interest in courses like the ones Rodriguez offers remains inconsistent, particularly in Idaho.
"These areas do have avalanche danger. Avalanches do happen here," he said, adding, "And that's part of the problem: People don't think it happens here."
As winter slips into spring in central Idaho mountain ranges, above-freezing temperatures will introduce water into the snowpack, making conditions ideal for avalanches to claim more lives. This increased water content in the snowpack acts as potential energy waiting for a trigger—natural or man-made—to release a powerful avalanche. For that reason, safe and informed navigation is even more critical for backcountry users in spring conditions.
Education may help make mountains safer for recreators, though. Rodriguez believes the majority of accidents could have been prevented by a simple level one avalanche training course, but once a victim is fully buried in an avalanche, there's only a 50 percent survival rate.
"You cannot eliminate those statistics, but I think we can significantly reduce your chances [currently 10 percent] of being buried," said Rodriguez. "I strive for every one of my students to come out prepared to violate that statistic."
During his classes, Rodriguez's students skin up slopes to enjoy the next powder-filled run until he sends them on an unexpected, frenzied search for a transceiver signal coming from within the snowpack. Employing the triangle formation transceiver screening technique to hone in on the "victim" and using probing techniques taught in the classroom, students hurry to pinpoint the location of the signal and begin an excavation. Meanwhile, Rodriguez keeps one eye on them and the other on his watch—rescues taking longer than five minutes result in yet another one of these impromptu drills.
That's not all Rodriguez does to prepare his students to stay safe. Before even setting foot in the backcountry, Rodriguez stresses the importance of discussing every detail of each trip, including any personal problems or personality traits in the group that could impact decision-making for the day. Students are also required to keep detailed daily journals of expected avalanche problems, medical information, evacuation routes, snow pit and stability test observations, goals for the day and more. Rodriguez makes a point to educate his students on backcountry etiquette, including proper use of the limited parking spots along the highway.
"Get educated," said Rodriguez. "This is one of the best times to get educated because we're finally understanding it."
Though winter is winding down in Idaho backcountry, Rodriguez said he still has work to do. He'll teach courses at Mores Creek Summit and ski other mountains in Central Idaho well into May while he wraps up his snow science classes at Boise State. Then at the end of May, he'll turn the clock back and head to South America to teach avalanche courses in Chile, where terrain and snowpack conditions vary dramatically from those in Idaho. Rodriguez's commitment to both educate backcountry users and protect his favorite places remains steadfast.
"Just leave the place better than it was before," he said, noting the fragility of backcountry access. "Can you imagine if we all do that?"
In February, Rodriguez embarked on his annual "Tour of Memories" trip to Mores Creek Summit with his son, Pedro. On a cloudless day, the two skinned up to Pilot Peak, a place they've enjoyed together for more than 10 years. At some point along the way, they bumped into a family taking their young daughter snowmobiling, just as Rodriguez took Pedro backcountry skiing at Mores Creek Summit starting at age 11. Rodriguez can't help but drift back to those euphoric days with his son. In a blog post, he wrote about memories like the time he and Pedro spotted entrance tracks without exit tracks into the path of an avalanche and decided to search for potentially buried skiers in dangerous terrain, and the time Rodriguez playfully released a small slide and buried Pedro up to his chest, much to his chagrin. With Pedro away at college, these memories and the lessons learned at Mores Creek Summit have become that much more meaningful to Rodriguez.
Most days Rodriguez can still be found teaching these same lessons to people young and old, whether he's in Idaho or somewhere halfway around the world. To most skiers, finding new terrain on new mountains with new lines to shred is the holy grail of the sport, but each year, when winter descends upon Mores Creek Summit and Rodriguez returns home, the whooping gets a little louder, the hollering a little jollier and the grin a little broader.
"[Pedro and I] have continued to ski tour in Colorado," Rodriguez wrote in his Tour of Memories blog post, "But it's not the same when you're in a place with so many memories."