(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.
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.