Dumb Things Done Part 2 of 3

(Last Updated On: November 12, 2013)

“Dumb things” is probably a little bit of a strong statement for what I hope these blog posts will be. Perhaps “Avalanche mistakes I’ve made and the lessons I’ve learned from them” would have been a more appropriate title, but missing the eye-catching alliterative aspects of this one. I’ve only taken one ride in an avalanche, which happens to be the subject of part 1, but I’ve had partners take a ride on two other occasions, which includes parts 2 and 3.

It is my hope that these posts will at the very least offer something to the reader, as we approach another winter season.

I have no pictures of this avalanche, words will have to do. 14erskiers is a very visual website, however, so here is a photo of the slide that will be the subject of part 3:

In 2005, I traveled to Valdez, Alaska, to go heli skiing near Thompson Pass. Those misadventures can be found here, but I didn’t say much about the slide in that post.

In my view, most slides are fairly obvious before they ever happen. That’s why the “Monday morning quarterbacking” is so easy to do- after the fact, it’s easy to see all the signs that were missed or discounted prior to a slide. I don’t want to discount all the R2D2’s and C3PO’s that can be discovered in a full scale pit, but more often than not, the monster is known- whether it’s the first big snowfall after a prolonged dry spell, or stiff windslabs after a wind event, or rapid warming with a poor freeze the night before. These things are obvious to experienced backcountry skiers, and yet we so often ignore them. Why?

Because excuses and justifications are easy to make, and so much more fun than turning around. And we get away with it all the time- until we don’t. “East faces are windloaded?”- “Oh, this is Northeast, we’ll be fine.” “Rotten, faceted snowpack on the ground?”- “Oh, it’s bridged over.” I still do this even today, though I try not to. Back to AK, where the signs were obvious and plentiful, but explained away.

We were set up in our RV on Thompson Pass, the first group of the season. Unfortunately, the weather was bad every day, and even our helicopter had not been able to make the journey from Glenallen. Finally, we had a half-decent visibility day, so our group headed up for some roadside objectives. We did one smart thing- we were a huge group, around 12, so we split up into two different groups. My group headed up, with one particularly strong skier in the lead. Now, this skier is/was a pro, if you saw a ski movie in the late 80’s or early 90’s, chances are you’ve seen this skier before.

We skinned our way up onto a ridge, and then the lead skier veered down into a large gully. At this point, to our credit, 3 of us voiced concerns about the route choice. “Shouldn’t we stay on this ridge?” we said. “The wind is really howling, I want to get out of the wind”, comes the answer. So rather than staying on a safe ridge, we found ourselves heading right up the gut while the wind loaded the slopes above. The justification? Meh, maritime snowpacks don’t slide. That was actually stated, but the real kicker, which no one mentioned, was that we were following a pro- surely he knows what he’s doing, after years of skiing on just about every continent with film crews in tow.

We were skinning up the gully when a few random snowballs rolled down the slope. Followed immediately by a noise, and a wall of snow barreling towards us- the wind had overloaded a cornice far above us and now we were in its path. Luckily, 4 of us were in a wide part of the gully, with a bit of a rise above the lowest part of the gully, and the slide went just past us. The 5th skier was a little ways behind us, in the center of the gully, and he was swept down in the slide. This was a fairly large slide, but luckily, he was only buried chest deep and right side up, and was easy to find and dig out, though one ski was never found.

There you have it. Even though the majority of us thought we were picking a poor route, we went anyway. Had the cornice broken off at a different time, it could have been a much worse situation. All because we saw the signs but didn’t heed them.

Frank Konsella

Frank loves snow more than anything... except his wife.  He ensures his food is digested properly by chewing it 32 times before swallowing.He is a full-time real estate agent serving Crested Butte and Gunnison and would be honored to send you his monthly newsletter.

Latest posts by Frank Konsella (see all)

Frank Konsella

Frank loves snow more than anything... except his wife.    He ensures his food is digested properly by chewing it 32 times before swallowing. He is a full-time real estate agent serving Crested Butte and Gunnison and would be honored to send you his monthly newsletter.

8 thoughts on “Dumb Things Done Part 2 of 3

  • November 14, 2013 at 11:07 pm

    But how many dumb things have we gotten away with, without something like an avalanche incident to tell us so?

  • November 15, 2013 at 8:24 am

    Very true, Zach. This was of course just a recounting of something that actually did happen. At the end of every ski day, I tend to look back and ask myself if I made good decisions. Sometimes the answer isn’t what it should be, but a blog post on a ski day when nothing went wrong, but maybe something could have gone wrong, is a tough one to write and hold interest.

  • November 15, 2013 at 8:01 pm

    Of course. Just interesting to think about. We’ll never know…Also, re-reading your blog from that epic trip to Valdez was worth it. You need a do over there.

  • November 15, 2013 at 8:30 pm

    Yeah, it would be nice to go again, but I’d like to go back to Europe. Or Japan for the first time. Or sled skiing in Pemberton, where I get to ski steep spines at a quarter of the cost of AK. On the other hand, send me some real estate clients and I’ll make it up to Haines and ski with you 🙂

  • November 24, 2016 at 12:23 pm

    Thanks SW

  • December 7, 2016 at 10:43 pm

    come visit La Grave and we’ll show you a good time. lots cheaper than heli-skiing and will get your attention on a daily basis. risk assessments are needed virtually every day and on most routes. these keep your mental and physical skills in-check…testing ones decision-making choices constantly. the trip will not break the bank. i respect the perspective you’ve given to the “dumb things” blog, however they are only “dumb things” if you do not recognize the lessons learned. inspire your readers to recognize the heuristic traps before they turn into mistakes.

  • December 9, 2016 at 5:29 pm

    La Grave has always been on the list, Joe. I hope it stays open after this year. As for the heuristic traps, it’s certainly my hope that readers recognized the ones that took place here, such as groupthink and expert halo.

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