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Nov 21 2011

Caught! Avalanche incident

With a new season just begun, and the first high-profile avalanche fatality already recorded, it’s probably worth revisiting how dangerous conditions can be at the beginning of a ski season. This was underscored for me through one of the editors for Couloir magazine, Matt Samelson. His brother died in an avalanche in early December on Diamond Peak, at Cameron Pass, Colorado.

Aaron and Laney enjoying fresh on Donner Peak's E side.

Besides the morbid mood the sick thing within the office was we had just published an article about the dangers of an early season snowpack. With cold temperatures and a not so deep snowpack depth hoar forms easily at the ground level, especially in the intermountain ranges like the Wasatch and Rockies. Add to that a fresh dump with a lot of mass and the ever eager skier to trigger it and you have the perfect formula for an avalanche fatality.

Reality suggests that it isn’t only early season snowpacks that are the problem. It is our individual failures to engage our brains or to back away from known danger. Let’s not confuse what sort of danger should be avoided because we all know danger is part of the thrill, but the danger we seek we have some control over, like the steepness of the pitch and our skill to negotiate it, preferably with some style to boot. Avalanches, on the other hand defy control. The only skill one can reasonable practice with them is avoidance, or at least some ‘semblence of restraint. Either that or full on engagement with explosives.

This was underscored for me last season. I got caught in one. Again. I am guilty as charged of ignoring a huge red flag. The problem was, it wasn’t announced in plain English but I must admit the warning was spoken.

When Aaron and I left the trailhead that morning it was cold and the snow was dry. Our first run down the North side of Donner Peak was the stuff of dreams. The fact that the sun was hidden behind clouds was a good thing. It was so good we decided to go for Tressel Peak. But on this second skin up, the clouds parted and the sun began to broil the snow. Our brains, however, were musing on clips from the run we just made, coloring our anticipation of the next one.

The thought of repeating this was all the filled out minds. Meanwhile...

While we changed gears and had a bite to eat Aaron’s dog Laney tried to tell us.

“What are you whimpering for?” Aaron asked Laney.

It occurred to me she was trying to tell us something wasn’t right. Like, mmmmmmmaybe an avalanche? But I didn’t say it, maybe ’cause I thought it would jinx us. We had tasted the fruit of fresh snow and we wanted more. We knew it was changing fast, but we didn’t or wouldn’t let that register.

However, avy danger was definitely in the back of my mind as our tips hung in space off the small cornice while an untracked slope beckoned beneath.

The first pitch on the NNE side of Tressel Peak is nice and steep with widely spaced trees. If this let go, and it was indisputably steep enough to do so, it would not be pretty. This is one of those slopes that should be avoided if there is even a hint of an avalanche because of the consequences. It would let loose a slab that would gain speed as the pitched rolled even steeper before it launched off the 30 foot cliff defined by the train tressel 500 feet after gaining momentum, then down an 800 foot slope with cascading ledges, brush, and finally come to rest as it plowed into a dense forest in the runout at the bottom.

If caught here you would be ragdolled through all of that then be summarily bludgeoned or skewered to death in the trees. Death by asphyxia would be if you were lucky.

I pushed off anyway and made six fat GS powder turns and stopped. The snow did not feel right. It was heavy and every turn set off pinwheels that grew to four feet in diameter. I pawed down through the snow til I felt the base the recent snowfall rested on. It was smooth. Not glazed, but not well bonded either. It wouldn’t take much to make the whole 18 inches of fresh let go and it was getting heavier by the minute. I swear I could hear gravity’s slow relentless tug coaxing it to let go.

All this went through my mind but before I could say “wait!” Aaron pushed off and, thankfully only did three turns before stopping. The snow held.

I shouted up to Aaron, “Y’know….I think this is getting a bit heavy here. I think we should traverse.”

He agreed.

We traversed as quickly and gingerly as possible until we were skier’s left past the section that hung above the tressel and on to a less exposed, colder aspect. The pitch was just as steep, and the waiting limbs of the trees still awaited if anything should let go, but the bonding to the base layer was better here and there was no cliff. We made a few turns on a rib. The snow felt good, and the pinwheels were a lot smaller.

Two more quick pitches brought us to the last section, a tree-lined run formed by the mowing action of regular avalanche activity. More of those cascading ledges of granite formed the underlying structure making for some natural bump action with air possible if you wanted it.

The slope disappeared from view for about 100 feet, indicating a roll over, or perhaps a small cliff jump if the snow had melted back a bit from earlier in the season. Aaron chose left where I knew there would be a series of small cliffs for sure.

I didn’t want bumps, I just wanted steep, so I bore right. Within two turns the hidden line came in to view. The third turn was right at the point where the slope rolled over. One and a half turns later I realized that turn had cut the snow loose and knocked me off my feet as the snow pulled out from under me. As I fell I looked up and could see that the snow above the cut was now cascading down, pushing me down the slope.

Instinctively I pawed with my hands to dig in to the slope, to hold on to it and hope the snow would pass by and stop pushing me. It didn’t appear to be enough. I kept getting pushed down and the snow was building up against my chest so I fought harder and was finally able to hold and the snow passed and I stopped.

My conscience screamed in silence, “THAT WAS STUPID!!!”

There are any number of things I could have and should have done differently, but fortunately we were lucky. Aaron and I made a bad call at the top of Tressle but we got lucky, re-evaluated and made a correction. Even so we failed to stay on the alert or fully acknowledge the growing danger. Aaron triggered one on the same slope, but was able to ski out of it. It was as if we dealt with the avy lizard and then he was gone. Except that he wasn’t, he just waited for us up around the bend.

That’s what Norm Wilson meant when he said, “The avalanche doesn’t know you’re an expert.”

It is too easy to cast judgment on others who have been caught and killed. The reality is it could just as easily have been you or I. Be careful out there folks. When you go out with your boots on, you don’t get to say goodbye or set wrongs right.

© 2011