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Article: Avalanche!


May, 1981. Colorado High Country. Paul Ramer and I are course-finding for the proposed Colorado Haut (High) Route for backcountry skiers along the Continental Divide; we are skiing a section west of Berthoud Pass.  (Some readers will recall Ramer backcountry ski equipment. Paul was on the cutting edge of advancements in that arena, with the famous Ramer Avalanche Beacon, ski bindings, poles, avalanche shovels, climbing skins, etc., etc. The new thrust in backcountry skiing technique was called Alpine Touring. Essentially, the technique combined ski area-style locked-down bindings and wide skis with the free-heel capabilities of cross-country skiing—for moving on flat snow and uphill-- but with the ability to lock down the heel again for descents. The rigid boots and wide skis advantage of standard Alpine gear could be employed and still allow the skier access to the backcountry vs commercial ski areas only.  Paul was unique…a real character. Stories about him circulated widely in the ski world. His standard Trade Show attire will serve to illustrate his uniqueness. Paul’s standard garb was his white lab coat. Everybody in the backcountry ski industry knew that he was a genius in advancing the art--but a lab coat? Paul used my gear, Pro Pack and especially the sleds (for transporting test gear and photo gear) and I used his--beacon, ski poles, shovel, etc. We would visit each other’s shops. Paul wore that damn lab coat even in the privacy of his shop! Which looked rather like…well, a laboratory. So I suppose the guy was at least consistent…the real deal.)  We were a few miles west of the Pass, and were well above timberline—this was supposed to be the High Route after all. Paul was of course on his AT gear. As a dedicated Nordic Guide I was on cross-country equipment—skinny skis, free heel bindings (as we used to say “free the heel, free the mind”) and flexible leather boots. Telemarking was my forte. So Paul and I constituted a mixed twosome of explorers. The ancient Telemark style and the new Alpine Touring style. We had both skiing bases covered. Paul was carrying all his stuff in a standard day pack; I was using a large Fanny Pack. I liked to keep my shoulders free of any impediment when faced with rigorous Telemarking. He had one of his avalanche shovels on board…I did not—couldn’t get one in a fanny pack. One shovel would have to do for both of us. Yes, that was a bit chancy, but as veteran avalanche instructors we thought we had the snow conditions figured out. In retrospect that judgement proved to be downright arrogant.  Suddenly the snow in the giant bowl we found ourselves in became a bit dicey. A spooky “sponginess” was felt beneath our skis. Not good. We held a conference. Go ahead or go back? Maybe it would get more stable, and we could return via a different route. We opted for proceeding. (This decision turned out to contain more of the same hubris.) We would follow standard protocol and advance by leapfrogging between “islands of safety”—rock outcroppings that looked solidly hooked to the mountain itself, not the snow cover. One man at a time, while the rear guy observed the front guy; in case of a slide the rear man—behind his island—could search for the other man if he were swept away. We both had Ramer avalanche beacons. The decision made, we advanced—island to island.  We worked that plan…holding our breath and thinking light thoughts. We were making progress, and the slope was staying put. It was Paul’s turn as lead man. I watched from behind a short table-size outcrop as he skied toward a safe-looking tower of rock about fifty yards ahead. So far so good. About ten feet shy of that tower a pistol-like CRACK erupted, followed by a kind of sigh—and the whole world started MOVING! I saw Paul lunge for his rock—and make it!--just as I flopped behind my little stone table. I lay there scrunched for dear life against the downhill side of that little outcropping and watched as refrigerator-size blocks of snow hurtled over me mere inches above my noggin. Then the blocks of hard snow gave way to seemingly endless cascades of loose snow. The only sound was a spine-chilling “hiss”, not the “roar” of movie legend.  Silence finally replaced the creepy hiss. I gazed over and saw Paul was still perched behind his barrier. We both were still alive. I thanked God for my little rock outcrop; it had saved my life! We gazed far down the slope and saw that we had survived a monster slab avalanche. A Climax slab in fact, meaning the snowpack had given way clear down to dirt. The slide had come to rest as a mass of blocks, many as big as Volkswagens. Had we been swept away there would have been no chance of survival; we would have been ground to burger. After dusting ourselves off we decided that today was not a good day for pioneering the Colorado High Route…at least not by us. We gingerly made our way down to timber and beelined for the truck. Thence to the first mountain saloon that crossed our path.  In my personal debrief of this debacle a couple of things became clear. The first was never, ever become complacent about avalanches. And I never again did; if the conditions didn’t feel right I was outa there. I resolved that the best avalanche preventative was this: DON’T BE THERE. The next item of clarity was never, ever be without an avalanche shovel. This resolution led to the invention of what came to be the renowned Mountainsmith Lumbar Pack.  Paul Ramer produced the best avalanche shovel of the times. But it was far too large for any fanny pack of that era. And I was adamant in my desire to ski with “free” shoulders…no weight up there to inhibit those graceful Telemark turns in the steep and deep, no sir, not for this boy. I resolved that I would create a “fanny pack” that would be big enough to contain a Ramer Avalanche Shovel plus support gear AND be rock-steady enough for bad-ass skiing. That turned out to be quite the quest.  Fanny packs, waist packs, all shared the same center-of-mass waistbelt cinching method. That was just the way it was done. Nothing wrong with that, it was the obvious way to ensure a stable load-bearing outcome. But when I made prototypes tall enough to slide my shovel into, using the standard centered-in-the-middle belt, bad things revealed themselves. The load rocked. And it came way too far down onto my butt. Even with a wide band of “transition” fabric from the top to the bottom of the pack sides, thence connected to the webbing center-belt, the wobble and butt cheeks encroachment were all-too evident. Wearing the thing high enough to get it off my butt just resulted in the belt squishing my diaphragm…not good at all. Hmmm. There has to be a way to make this work.  Idea One hit me: move the belt to the bottom of the pack. I did. Aha! No more butt cheek discomfort. BUT, now the pack rocks away from my back at the top…nothing there to hold it in. Okay, Idea Two was needed…let’s just cure that with straps running from the upper edges of the pack down to the waistbelt. And let’s make them adjustable—just like the waistbelt—so that variable loads can be controlled. I sewed one up, loaded my shovel into the prototype, put the thing on, tightened everything up and Eureka!!! It worked! Fit like a glove and was so stable one could turn cartwheels and the whole load wouldn’t budge.  I called the invention the Lumbar Pack, because it rode on TOP of the hip shelf, in the lumbar area of one’s body. And I dubbed the suspension system that allowed it to work the Delta System after the triangle formed by the waistbelt, the sides of the pack and the adjustable stabilizing straps angling down from the top edges of the pack body to the waistbelt. And I patented it.  The very first Lumbar Pack was built specifically for toting a Ramer Avalanche Shovel. I soon designed smaller, and even larger, sizes. The Delta Suspension System controlled the loads on all of them. The market was quite leery of the price I had to put on them (due to the complexity of getting them to perform as designed compared to a simple fanny pack). The phrase circulating around the industry was that these packs were “the world’s first and only sixty five dollar fanny packs”! Despite the price all one had to do was strap one on to see the light. Absolute stability AND no weight whatsoever on the shoulders. (I have been designing with the goal of weightless shoulder loading my entire career—Lumbar Packs were the first design to hit the mark.) The market rapidly discovered they weren’t just fanny packs, they were a whole new ball game in day packs. In fact, the Original—the one built around the Ramer Shovel--was named The Day Pack. Sales soared. And kept soaring. Throughout the 80’s and 90’s the things were ubiquitous everywhere--at concerts, on the trails (trail runners loved ‘em), among bicyclists, in offices (the Adventure Briefcase saw to that) and in every airport in the world. (Sarah and I personally saw them in airports from Johannesburg, South Africa to Athens, Greece; indeed, everywhere we traveled.) Larger Mointainsmith packs—the extremely popular Frostfire, the Bugaboo, and all the rest were solid in the market. But the Lumbar Packs could have supported a sizable company all by themselves. Word is they are still a mainstay for the latest owners of my original company. I suspect the Lumbar Pack is the longest lived continuously produced pack design ever created. Not bad for being born out of a near fatal incident. Makes that old avalanche even more memorable. Something very worthy came from nearly buying the farm. Pretty good outcome.

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