By Steve Marlenee
Are you looking for an opportunity to not only ride some of the best snow in Colorado, but also heighten your avalanche awareness and advance your snowmobiling skills? Recently I rode with Matt Entz (Mountain Skillz). Here is my story:
After just a couple quick emails, Matt had us set up with a hotel room and our learning/riding itinerary. We started our trip from Fort Collins, CO., making the drive down to South Fork, CO in around 5 hours on a Friday afternoon.
DAY 1 – CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION (Friday)
When we arrived in South Fork, we met up with Matt and carpooled over to Pagosa Springs, CO., where we met up with a few other people for the classroom portion of the Intro to Avalanche Awareness course. All in, our group size was 10 for both the classroom and field instruction. In cooperation with the Wolf Creek Avalanche School, Matt utilized an AAA accredited instructor for the instruction portion of our trip. The classroom session was VERY informative and both Matt and Sandy did an excellent job involving us. Using slides, video, and personal narrative, it was easy to absorb the information. In fact, there were several children in our ‘class’, and with how the information was presented, even they stayed very attentive and intrigued throughout the three hour class.
DAY 2 – FIELD INSTRUCTION (Saturday)
The next morning, prior to heading up to the Tucker Ponds parking lot, we ate Breakfast at the Feelin’ Good Coffeehouse and then it was time to get ready.
Once we geared up, Matt and Sandy took the ten of us through the CAIC avalanche bulletin for the day. They explained how to interpret the rose chart, what the dangers were, and how to adjust our ride to account for this bulletin. Next, we went over how to properly plan for an emergency, and what gear each of us had both in our sleds, and on our person. Once we were comfortable with the advisory, we took to a snow bank and practiced shoveling technique. Matt and Sandy explained not only how to properly shovel, but how they came to this technique and why it works the best. Using a pile of plowed snow was a good simulation of actual avalanche-packed snow. Finally, before we headed up the mountain, we performed a beacon check.
On the trail, we stopped several times to practice proper avalanche terrain technique, including route choice, crossing ‘one-at-a-time’, and other techniques that could save your life. We rode for about three miles, until we got to a large meadow.
In the meadow, we practiced probe assembly, including instruction on minimizing the time it takes to assemble your gear from your pack. Next, a couple of the instructors buried several backpacks that contained beacons. Meanwhile, Matt and Sandy were back with the group demonstrating proper searching techniques, spacing, and beacon use. After which we stepped through the proper way to initiate a search, how to manage the searching group, and then the actual search. For this, we broke out into groups of 2-3, plus one instructor per group, and searched for our ‘victims’. We repeated this exercise several times, with a different instructor each time. I really got an excellent feel of not only searching, but probing and shoveling. I really liked that they rotated instructors. It gave me several ways to look at different problems. I also thought it was great that they used backpacks stuffed with clothing because it really gave a good feel of the difference in striking the ground vs. striking a person-like object. Both Matt and Sandy were very capable of explaining all of the concepts, and both used language and tone that captivated the entire audience. The search technique instruction was beyond just learning. Matt and Sandy made the exercise fun (despite the shoveling)!
After about 2-3 hours of rescue instruction, we took a quick lunch break. Then, we formed a line on a slope, and dug a pit to demonstrate layering, surface and depth hoar, and instability. We repeated this exercise on different slope angles and aspects, as well as near trees/shade, and in direct sun. Then, we again hit the trail. We stopped several more times to evaluate conditions. Matt demonstrated how to use your machine to test conditions (instead of digging). We completed the ‘field’ training around 3:30, and Matt led us to a meadow where everyone spent some time practicing on their own, and riding around.
DAY 3 – THE RIDE! (Sunday)
OK, so here is the best part, the ride. Sunday morning, Matt met us again for breakfast in South Fork. This time, our group was only two (plus Matt). Unlike other riding instruction, I was impressed to see such a small riding group. This day, instead of avalanche instructor, he was to be our guide and riding instructor. It was exciting to see him shift roles. Over breakfast, we discussed what kind of riding we wanted to do, and what sort of things we wanted to work on. Full of confidence, we intently described that we wanted to ‘tree ride’ and to be pushed. Matt was very excited to take us out. Just sitting there, you could tell that he is genuinely excited both to show you a great ride and to help you learn.
Leaving South Fork, it was about a 15 minute drive up the mountain to where we unloaded. Matt had us sign a standard indemnification release, and again we discussed the day’s avalanche bulletin. We went over gear, an emergency plan, and exchanged emergency contacts. We then individually spent a couple minutes going over our sleds, looking for any potential problems, adjusting last minute stuff, verifying fuel, oil, belt, coolant, etc. It was nice to see Matt practice what he had preached the day before.
From the trailer, we drove about a half-mile before we headed into the trees. Matt immediately looked at home. We ducked and dodged through the trees for about 45 seconds before I had the first of several lapses in judgment and was stuck. Before I could even get my sled shut off, Matt was back at my side helping me drag the front end around. Matt took the time to explain to me why I ended up where I was and what I could have done different. His instruction was very calm and informative. He seemed to take special care to not even let you think that you were not as good of a rider as him, despite the fact that I’ve never ridden with someone that is as smooth and effortless as he.
We spent about 90% of the rest of our day on steeper hillsides, in the trees. The terrain was forgiving in that while there were trees, they allowed you several outs, and it made the ride both challenging and very rewarding while boosting confidence. Matt checked with us often about the terrain and difficulty. He went out of his way to make sure we were comfortable with what we were riding. I laugh to myself a little bit here…. at one point, about half-way through the day, Matt looked at me as we were rolling over a steep hill with a side-hill, and asked “now are you OK with going downhill across this hill”. The humor to me was that after a half day of riding similar terrain, both his instruction and intent to make sure you were having fun had somewhat automated him ‘checking with us’ to see if we were comfortable with where we were. It just reinforced that he really cares that you are having fun and riding what you expected. Additionally, we practiced getting into and out of ravines and creek beds. Matt took care, here, to find ravines that had an easy ‘ride-OUT’, but we worked on banking across them. I feel pretty confident that I would have a lot less trouble getting myself out of a situation like that, now. We touched on several other skills, but by this time, I was getting pretty exhausted. One thing we definitely practiced was getting unstuck. I’m thinking of going pro in that, now.
At breakfast, I told Matt that I wanted to be ‘pushed’ and that I really wanted to end the day tired. Matt more than exceeded at both. All in, I think we put about 25 miles on. I burnt about 1/2 tank of fuel. I was stuck probably a dozen times, maybe more. Matt helped me dig out everytime. His ability to both recognize and adjust the ride for what you are expecting is very uncanny. As a guide, I don’t think I could have done half as good of a job.
So what did I learn on this trip? Most importantly, I got a chance to refresh my avalanche awareness. I feel more than confident that I can perform a timely rescue and possibly save someone’s life. I feel capable of using the avalanche advisory and snow conditions to help me make decisions to ride safer. Next, I learned that I still have a LONG way to go, both in regard to my avalanche awareness and with my riding ability. Going into the Sunday ride, I admit that I felt overconfident in my ability. Riding with someone as talented as Matt is a both a good learning tool, and a great motivator. The Monday after I was still sore as all heck but I only want to get back out and work on my riding again. Finally, I feel that I did pick up a lot of tricks from Mr. Entz. There were a few things, albeit small, that I was doing wrong that were really causing me to over-fatigue. Matt did an excellent job helping me work through them (or at least understanding some of them).
Would I go again? One word, YES! Both the class and the ride were worth every penny. Matt’s ability to guide is unparalleled. He had done his homework with the terrain prior to our arrival, and ‘saved’ us enough playing areas to go the entire day without crossing tracks. This is especially tough, considering the snow conditions state-wide. Matt’s ability to relate real-world experience into his avalanche training is incredibly helpful. And finally, Matt’s patience made the trip so much more fun. I spent a lot of time stuck, trying to push my riding limits, and Matt only offered help and encouragement; a true professional.
Check out Steve’s video from the day. Following Matt Entz