Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Publishes Star Mountain Report


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Before we begin, I’d like to extend heartfelt condolences to those involved in this accident, especially the loved ones of those deceased. The pair of friends who died sounded like vital young men who were most surely taken before their time.

It is always difficult to write about our fatal avalanche accidents. I get nasty-grams from those involved, and indeed am uncomfortable about focusing on tragedies that so horribly impact the extended circle of those involved. That said, I can make a long list of the dead who were friends, sometimes almost family. It’s personal. Thus, I continue to be motivated to share and analyze avalanche accidents with the goal of helping us all — including myself — improve our safety and count less tragedy.

CAIC photo of Star Peak avalanche February 2014.

CAIC photo of Star Mountain avalanche February 2014. Yellow arrows indicate extent of fracture. According to CAIC 'The avalanche released the vast majority of the Star Mountain A path... very large relative to what the avalanche path could produce, large enough to destroy a railway... broke into old snow layer... force of the avalanche debris threw large chunks of ice 50 feet uphill as it ran into Lake Creek... air blast from avalanche snapped off trees approximately 8 inches in diameter.' -- Click to enlarge.

That’s why we went to the trouble of analyzing last season’s Sheep Creek tragedy, the worst backcountry skiing avalanche accident to ever occur in Colorado. Avalanche professionals didn’t like my take that “the avalanche education system is broken.” Those close to the Sheep Creek event just plain didn’t like my writing an opinion about what was done wrong and caused five deaths. But I wrote it anyway and stand by the purpose of those efforts, as well as my take. If you read those reports, you’ll see they constantly bring the focus back to us, you and me, and how we behave in avalanche terrain. That’s the idea.

Further, as you’ll see below we’re taking a “once removed” point of view here, by discussing the ACCIDENT REPORT authored by Ethan Green for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. I’m doing ongoing small edits to insure that’s our voice.

An important thing to get with all this is it’s our editorial and philosophical point of view that when an avalanche accident happens (including my own) it’s almost always the result of mistakes or poor choices. For example, even the recent event of a home being hit by an avalanche in Montana was the result of perhaps a failure in land use planning, or perhaps a lack of public education about how far avalanches can run. To call out those points is not “finger pointing” or “judgement,” it is just reasonable discussion that could save lives in the future. Likewise, when CAIC comes up with a report on a fatal avalanche, we will discuss it here. To do otherwise, to ignore it for fear of being perceived as “judgmental” or a “Monday morning quarterback,” would be absurd.

Unfortunately, an event eerily similar to Sheep Creek occurred this past February 15th on Star Mountain, just over the mountains east from here in Colorado. Star Mountain again appears from the CAIC report to have involved a number of tragic mistakes that I assume have to be the result at least in part from our avalanche education and forecasting system simply not getting the point across — as well as individuals not correctly practicing what safety techniques they may have learned. In a word, many individuals have called Sheep Creek “baffling,” and the same is being said about Star Mountain. Both are “baffling” because it appears so many critical mistakes were made that fly in the face of everything taught these days in avalanche safety — as well as what’s become basic conventional wisdom. Human nature? Human factors? Yes. Worth examining? In our view, yes.

Yesterday, Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) published their excellent report on the Star Mountain accident, hence a few ideas the report stimulates.

The similarities are haunting. Perhaps the most fearsome was both groups reported dependence on “safe areas” and “islands of safety” that turned out to not be safe. In the case of Sheep Creek, for still unknown reasons the group had decided to take a direct route up a drainage to a supposed island of safety which ended up being over-run by the fatal avalanche. At Star Mountain, CAIC reports that while the (large, in our opinion) group of 7 riders had decided to “regroup in safe areas” and “avoid open areas,” all but two of the group were taken by the slide. The two who were not caught were said to be “skiing” when the avalanche occurred, but somehow they ended up on one area that didn’t slide.

The Star Mountain event was obviously compounded by the group’s reported decision to place numerous skiers concurrently on the avalanche path they’d decided to ski (a rather dicey proposition any way you look at it, as CAIC report indicates that overall avalanche conditions at the time indicated that skiing avalanche paths was a terrible idea.)

What is more, upon reading the CAIC report I have to assume (due to the number of people involved in the slide, and the final outcome) that for some reason the skiers and snowboarders were not consistently seeking out truly safe zones for stopping or leap-frog skiing. Perhaps they didn’t feel at-risk, or perhaps some of them knew little about avalanche terrain route finding. In either case, I have to think that more experience or education would have helped — or, as always helps us all, perhaps an enhanced attitude of conservative caution.

Introspective: As shown by many close calls and deaths over the years, it appears that backcountry skiers and riders frequently do not recognize the difference between truly safe areas and hazard zones. Or, they simply don’t think about it even if they do have the knowledge. If you do choose to ski avalanche slopes during high hazard, it is IMPERATIVE that every person in your group either knows how to find 100% safe areas for stopping and waiting, and that the slope is enjoyed by ONE person at a time with the group leap frogging between those zones. Time consuming? Yes. Group of more than three makes it difficult? Yes.

Another thing that leaps out of the CAIC Star Mountain report is the group’s dependence on a snow pit and sheer testing to make a go no-go decision to ski a huge certain-death avalanche path. Apparently, the group did (correctly) do their snow evaluations in the starting zone and took turns as pairs working the pit so as not to place the whole group in the starting zone at one time. Of course, digging snow pits in avalanche starting zones is just plain dicey and has resulted in documented accidents in its own right. Often, ropes should be involved. Most importantly, as the CAIC report states “In the case of a very large avalanche path, particularly one with non-uniform terrain features and a start zone heavily affected by wind loading, it is unlikely that one profile at the top would yield enough information to make a life and death decision.”

Swinging back to our own behavior, I think the biggest take-home from the Star Mountain CAIC report is we as backcountry riders need to be able to meld avalanche forecasts, snowpack history, recent observable weather and recent natural avalanches to determine when skiing actual avalanche paths could be a poor decision. This before we even leave home. After that, if we decide to go anyway, which is our right, we need to at least practice sometimes inconvenient or downright unpleasant safety techniques.

Examples: If 7 people ski a large slope one-at-a-time that takes 8 minutes each including rest stops, falls, or fiddling with equipment, the first person down and the last person to ski are looking at stand-and-freeze wait times of around an hour! Or, break the slope up into a leap-frog scenario and you don’t get the continuous powder turns you’d fantasized about and you may even loose hard-won elevation doing traverses to safe zones.

Again, condolences to all involved in both Sheep Creek and Star Mountain. In deference to them, let’s all try to do better.

Comments

51 Responses to “Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) Publishes Star Mountain Report”

  1. SkiFast March 6th, 2014 12:10 pm

    My two cents.

    I usually classify the data I collect. Snowpit data is usually Class 2 type of data. If I see natural activity or collasping of the snowpack, that is Class 1 data and trumps anything I would collect or assess in a snowpit.

    If I have a bunch of Class 1 data I typically won’t even dit a pit and stick to low anlge terrain, thus eliminating much avalanche hazard.

    Just my own personal way of assesing the massive amounts of data we observe while tours.

    So sorry to read about another tragic avalanche accident.

  2. Ryan March 6th, 2014 12:59 pm

    I can understand how this topic gets folks riled up. It is full of emotion on all sides. That being said, this (and your Sheep Creek write up) are nothing but pragmatic. I learn as much, or more, from your write ups than I do from the accident reports. Keep it up!

  3. Andy March 6th, 2014 1:03 pm

    Thanks for your analysis and for opening up the conversation. I think that reading the CAIC accident reports and then honestly comparing your own decision-making with that of the affected party is a very valuable tool.

  4. Skian March 6th, 2014 1:28 pm

    All good stuff Lou, thanks for your personal assessment.

  5. Frisco March 6th, 2014 3:06 pm

    Thanks Lou for doing this. I support it.

    Going into an obvious avalanche path in mid winter…..?

    Better wait for spring conditions or ski low-angle terrain.

  6. Will March 6th, 2014 3:37 pm

    Thinking scientifically about peoples’ decision-making, it seems there is a need to test the effectiveness of risk awareness programs that avalanche centers perform. The ad-hoc analysis of an avalanche accident is an important discussion. For many people the accident makes them focus a bit harder about what they do than if the same avalanche happened and nobody was on it. But there is sense by those connected to the accident that they’re being picked on or being judged unduly, which is also valid. Perhaps studies like this have already been done, but I’m wondering if someone picked a test slope and systematically observed how many people got on it day after day, and correlate that with the avy danger posted and other variables. It seems like one of those wildlife cameras to log users at standard up-track point combined with some fancy statistics could do the trick. My guess is that more people jump on high danger slopes than anybody who knows better would be comfortable with. Such a metric could be used in an ongoing fashion to assess what backcountry users actually do rather than what we think they should do.

  7. Maciej March 6th, 2014 3:45 pm

    Lou,

    I commend you on writing critical analyses of avalanche fatalities. It is unpleasant for any person to have their beliefs and/or competencies brought into question, but in backcountry skiing, the lack of reinforcement (good or bad) for good or bad decisions means that we all have to work hard to nurture a culture of caution and vigilance. When nothing goes wrong most days, it takes a lot of effort to continue to be mindful of where we are and what the consequences of our actions will be in the backcountry.

    I love nothing better than skiing steep powder fast, but several years and a few close calls have tempered my ardor for ski-movie terrain. A few 20 degree laps on a high risk day can still be a great time, and minimize risk. Some days, it’s okay to bust out the nordic skis or go for a run and wait for the snow to stabilize.

    No line is worth dying for.

  8. TN March 6th, 2014 4:09 pm

    Good work Lou. Your detailed and thoughtful analysis of these types of significant incidents gives us all important food for thought. Tragedy always evokes strong emotional reactions but only through studying them can we hope to learn more and as a collective, do better in the field. I’ve often wondered if something like your efforts might be more formalized on a broader basis like the America Alpine Club does (or used to) with its annual published accounts and assessments of climbing accidents in North America. Either way, keep on keeping on….

  9. Tom Gos March 6th, 2014 5:19 pm

    Lou, thank you for posting on these significant accidents and also for providing a moderated forum where useful discussion can occur. I had initially began reading the thread on this incident over at TGR but quickly gave up when it became apparent that there was no useful dialog occurring there. I think that a considered discussion of these events is invaluable in avy education and is the best way to honor and respect those killed or injured.

    I was eager to see the CAIC report on this incident. Based on the report and on your own analysis I have the following thoughts/lessons learned:

    It seems that the group made an initial bad decision to plan a trip to this type of slope and terrain in a general sense – location/aspect/slope steepness/terrain features. Given the weather that had occurred recently it would have obviously been safer to choose different terrain. This seems simple but relates to the need to begin a tour with appropriate general planning and goal setting so as to avoid the temptation to get committed to a dangerous plan after several hours on the skin track.

    Once on tour it seems that the group could have taken note of signs indicating that a change in plan was called for – things such as the whumping and other avy activity, and specific terrain features.

    Clearly the group put a lot of emphasis on their snow pit tests, and the their test results were easily confidence inspiring. This is a good reminder to me to never bet my life on a snow pit. In the Level 2 avy classes I have taken we have had much discussion about making decisions using the total of observed and known information, not just a single data point. I need practice this.

    The pit test results did confirm what the avy forecasts here had been saying for some time, that is the potential for difficult to trigger but large propagation and very large resulting avalanches. I have been easily wooed by stable pit tests that also showed me the same sort of potential, and this is a good reminder to be considerate of the problems associated with persistent slabs.

    Although the stability test was confidence inspiring, the snow profile by CAIC was very revealing. Pit profiles are time consuming and kind of boring to do, but in this instance an application of the Lemon criteria would have contradicted the stability test and perhaps changed the decision making.

    I think we all need to forget the concept of islands of safety when dealing with a persistent and/or deep slab problem. What appears to be an island of safety is often a trigger point for a persistent slab. Our avalanche education has been too vague with respect to islands of safety, but this is changing.

    The CAIC report doesn’t reveal much about the human factors involved in this accident, and it would be great to see a report similar to the the NY Times piece on the Stevens Pass accident a few years ago. I certainly respect the right/desire for privacy on the part of the surviivors, but perhaps they may eventually speak about the human factors that day. It could greatly benefit us all.

    Peace to the victims and survivors.

  10. Lou Dawson March 6th, 2014 6:56 pm

    Thanks Tom, good thoughts. The main thing here is to be gentle, and always turn things back to introspection. There are people out there who think what we’re doing here is useless or even bad (though most of them seem to like the New York Times article). Just ignore them, and proceed with self examination. Lou

  11. Mike March 6th, 2014 7:21 pm

    Selecting unsafe safe-zones is the key to both of these avalanche accidents. With the deep instabilities we’ve experienced the last few years, avalanches are ripping much bigger than people are expecting. Huddling next to a few small trees is insufficient when a massive slab avalanche releases. It is hard to comprehend little old you triggering a MASSIVE face to release and destroy everything in it’s path, including those little 8 inch thick trees you are hiding behind.

    Route selection, and safe zone selection need to be emphasized much more than scientific pit digging and tests that give very little information on the actual slope that you are looking at.

  12. Bar Barrique March 6th, 2014 9:30 pm

    Thanks for reporting on this tragedy, the lessons learned are an opportunity to teach, and learn that will potentially save lives in the future. I would hope that friends/ relatives of the victims would appreciate that reporting, and, learning from this tragedy is the best legacy of the victims.

  13. Jernej March 7th, 2014 4:45 am

    Another big thanks to Lou for doing these. There’s a good reason air travel accidents get researched to bits, unfortunately the attitude with avalanche accidents seems to be the opposite. I still strongly believe these kinds of analysis and introspective points of view are the best way to learn and avoid repeating mistakes.

    Re: Will

    There have been studies exactly as you describe and the results were exactly as you presume. We have one camera here (http://www.natural-hazards.eu/xx/zelenica.html) where you can frequently see people going up&down both slopes in view during level 4. Not to mention skin, walk or sled down a closed access road, passing signs warning of avalanche danger often without beacons or any sort of avalanche gear. It’s a road so it must be fine…they simply ignore the ropes, signs & everything…

    And I’m also guilty of all those stupidities. I’ve skied those same slopes alone at who knows what danger levels since I was about 12, blissfully unaware of everything.

    PS Montana University is currently doing a study on avalanche terrain travel behaviour. Everyone is welcome to contribute: http://www.montana.edu/snowscience/tracks

  14. Will March 7th, 2014 9:20 am

    Thanks Jernej! Very enlightening.

    With regards to being sensitive to the friends, families, and survivors of accidents, I think while a rigorous but respectful analysis of the particular event is beneficial, but more needs to be done to put the event in context in order to have the analysis not seem like we’re all smugly raking someone over the coals while their hurting, making them feel guilt, etc… That may not be our intention, however well meaning they may seem to us, but that’s the effect often.

    The nature of avalanche accidents is low probability high consequence and focusing attention on the small region of the risk landscape that leads to serious consequences may not provide a full picture of the risk landscape—the consequence here is that, as Lou put it, the accidents seem “baffling.” I think one corrective is citing evidence like the studies you mention above, that the accident in question actually had a (estimated) probability associated with it, and based on research there are an (estimated) X number of people jumping on slopes in a similar zone of the risk landscape, and this party got unlucky. This puts things in context. This way our discussion focuses on the backcountry user population as a whole rather than focusing solely on a particular party and a particular event, which is very singular and has the unintended consequence of turning tragedies into morality plays.

    I’m a statistician, so thanks for geeking with me.

    -w

  15. Mike Marolt March 7th, 2014 9:21 am

    Outside of the level of warning on the front page, the CAIC gives technical data and then people are interpreting it based on their circumstances. But what people are not seeming to interpret is that snow science is so ambiguous and new that they are latching on to the positive and not reading between the lines. Especially in what in my life living in Colorado is an anomaly type snow pack, are the ramifications of a release? The CAIC says there are thick island slabs that are difficult for humans to impact, and while I see that as a major risk, others are seeing it as a positive. It’s tough for me to make it release….. Despite the snow science and thought going into this notion of “managing the snow pack”, we just don’t have a lot of experience with this kind of snow pack to fully understand it. Slides this year are wider, thicker, and longer, despite the fact that a 180 pound skier can’t get a 4 foot slab to release. My interpretation is if it goes, and it obviously is, look out. The CAIC and all the studies are super, but it boils down to the decision you as a skier will make out there. Take the science, but think out of the box a bit and analyze your day not just based on the snow under your feet, or the snow pit you dig, or even the avalanche reports. Two weeks ago, after a period of virtually no slides, suddenly natural releases started for a 24 hour period. The CAIC “had no explanation for what was making these monster sized slides release and then suddenly stop……” Think about that and add it to your thought process when attempting to manage the snow pack. The good news is that with this anomaly snow pack, there are places to ski that are super safe, and rarely skiable in normal years. It’s not the steep you may be looking for, but with the thick slab and how it has settled, the skiing is off the charts good and offers an experience you may have to wait decades for to get again…..

  16. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 9:47 am

    Mike, yes, that’s exactly what’s going on around here, the thick layered snow makes for danger, but if you “think outside the box” it creates good skiing in all sorts of safe zones. That’s essentially how we’ve been dealing with it, along with just staying out of the backcountry at times and uphilling at resorts. Lou

  17. Skier March 7th, 2014 9:57 am

    There would be fewer avalanche fatalities if the CAIC would stop issuing avalanche forecasts to the public. These people already had disengaged their brains before they left the parking lot. They ignored whumping sounds, they waited too long to do their beacon checks, they placed all their bets on a stupid snow pit…all before making the first turn. Nobody should ever need a CAIC report to know that going on a heavily wind-loaded moderate angle slope after a big storm cycle is a bad idea. You don’t have to dig a hole to know that there is always depth hoar in Colorado at this time of year. This season is no worse than many others, despite the hyperbole of those making excuses.

  18. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 10:30 am

    Harsh, but apparently true… Easy does it on the tone, Skier. Some of the mistakes those guys made are pretty common… Lou

  19. jernej March 7th, 2014 2:59 pm

    Very harsh. I see your point but I`m not sure I can agree with you. Ideally people would be capable of all those decisions, observations etc. but they are not. I see the advisory/bulletin as the starting point to learn, the basics of awareness most people don`t have. Yes, you are putting responsibility in someone elses hands but for most people it is an unrealistic expectation to make properly informed decisions either due to lack of knowledge or time. So we rely on someone else to come up with some guidelines we can follow. Yes, we are dumbing it down but how is that worse than nothing at all? People going out of bounds with little or no awareness is a fact no matter how you look at it. We just try to increase their chances. Whether increasing someones awareness increases over reliance by others can be debated. Might even be studied at some point. Cant imagine publishing those results though if your opinion turns out to be right :)

  20. Tom Gos March 7th, 2014 4:54 pm

    I greatly value the CAIC reports – I’ll take all of the information I can get to use in the decision making process. I’m not able to be in the backcountry everyday observing snow pack and weather conditions and that’s why the CAIC forecast is valuable to me. I read it everyday and this allows me to maintain a general season long awareness of what’s happening even though I’m stuck in the valley most days. Its true that the CO snowpack has some predictability and that I should usually expect depth hoar in February, but I’ll still use the daily avy forecast. That said, I’ll never base my decisions on the CAIC report alone.

  21. Matt Kinney March 7th, 2014 5:16 pm

    “a series of mistakes”…deja vu.

    Never thought opening backcountry gates to the masses was a good idea when that started, but locals rule and don’t want the hassles of “restrictions.” Totally understand, but it’s been a serious problem the past few years. Personally, I think everyone who intends on exiting gates should attend a safety meeting with area ski patrollers in the morning to be briefed on current conditions for 15 minutes or so, regardless of your residency or AAIRE badge. Then you get a pass, and a trespass ticket if you don’t. Some lift areas are more pro-active in this regard than others.

    Their’s a domino effect that begins with good intentions and ends in bad decisions in nearly every accident. Avalanche just don’t fall from the sky. When to recognize that cascading effect is really hard to nail. I stop at 2-3 red flags, of which the human factor is always considered along with your typical indicators of stability, Like group size….5 skiers on the same slope in different groups would be a red flag. You never want to look for the 4th, even though you think might be good enough to outsmart the mountain.

    I read the CAIC bulletins almost daily, not because I need to, but because it’s really good. You can learn much from a final report. Same on UAC.

  22. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 8:34 pm

    In Colorado, I’m doing a personal “red flag” of more than 4 people in a group. I pause and take stock at every red flag, but if in familiar terrain often just adjust the route to what I know to be appropriate, to the point of meadow skipping if necessary. Also am very big on not going too close below big loaded paths when we’ve got our typical deep-persistent-slab conditions. I used to make up for it all by going crazy during spring corn season in Colorado Rockies, but dust layers nearly every year have shut that down to a faint shadow of what we used to do. Lou

  23. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 8:41 pm

    I want to address what Skier wrote. I’ve spent literally decades skiing in the “Twin Lakes” environment out of Leadville, Colorado. The depth hoar problem over there is heinous due to the area being generally in the precip shadow of the highest portion of the Colorado Plateau, thus having a thinner snowpack combined with still higher/colder elevations. It is simply not a very appropriate region for mid-winter Colorado backcounty skiing. This is not to pass judgement on anyone, I would have stated that same take 20 years ago. For example, working winter Outward Bound courses out of Leadviville base was heinous. Only thing that saved us was the wind, which scours off the high ridges and forms safe routes that at least work for getting to the summits, sans skis. Sure, there are some safer places to go that the locals utilize, we met some guys the other day who described a few of those zones. But overall, an incredibly difficult environment if you’re seeking out mid-winter backcountry powder skiing that’s beyond meadow skipping.

  24. Jim D. March 7th, 2014 8:55 pm

    Lets just talk about inbounds skiing/riding for a minute. Look at how many people have met the end inbounds. Fairly high numbers. Trees, collisions, and even a few avalanches. Those pockets of trees kill.( terrain traps, etc.) The numbers are probably comparable to the numbers in the backcountry or less than the BC. Skiers and riders, snowmobilers not included. So why the drama. Because we do are best to save ourselves from what might kill us. We attempt to predict conditions and dangers by reports, digging pits, trusting people we ski with. It is ourselves in the moment that is responsible, period. Make that choice.

  25. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 10:15 pm

    I’m not thinking perfection with all this (least of all with myself), but I think it’s fair to ask why we can’t just up our “standard of care” a bit. For example, say you’ve got a big avalanche path above you, and you have two choices of routes. One route is exposed to the path. A hundred feet to the right is perfectly safe. Which route? I can tell you that over and over again I see people take the left hand route, for what reason I have no idea. I just can’t figure it out. Lou

  26. Twin Lakes skier March 7th, 2014 10:48 pm

    The obvious warning signs changed the groups decision- from the temptation to ski an open chute (dangerous) to skiers right in the trees (moderate) towards thicker trees.

    Hard to guess your effect on persistent slabs (obviously stayed away from crossloaded chutes, etc.) but the safest decision was a retreat. You decide your risk tolerance, keep judgment out of this.

  27. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 11:19 pm

    In the existing avalanche conditions as reported by CAIC and indicated by other avy activity, along with slope steepness and aspect, the trees would have to be incredibly thick to make much of a difference. I’ve skied that general route, and other lines on Star, for what that’s worth… Main thing is that once you’ve seen a 4 foot thick slab basically liquefy and flow through a dense conifer forest, you tend to tread pretty carefully. It’s something everyone should see, hopefully at a safe distance. It is axiomatic that these guys thought they were safe. I thought I was safe when I was caught due to my total blunder idiocy back in 1982. Self examination is uncomfortable. I was told to my face back then that I was an idiot, and that take was true. But I’m optimistic that most if not all folks in the backcountry skiing community are intelligent and seeking to constantly improve on avalanche safety. If we’re in accidents, folks need to learn from our mistakes. Or? Lou

  28. Lou Dawson March 7th, 2014 11:21 pm

    I’d also add that the worst thing about these deep persistent slabs is that you could actually be safer skiing out in the open on the thickest and strongest part of the slab, then seeking out apparently safe areas that are actually trigger zones. Not saying that’s what happened here as CAIC report doesn’t get specific about that, but overall, it’s an amazing and rather disconcerting (if not incredibly scary) concept.

  29. Adam Olson March 8th, 2014 7:05 am

    Matt,
    I feel the better idea is to close parts of the inbounds skiing for exactly what you describe. Bridger Bowl in Montana has a great system that both keeps the in bounds avalanche terrain free of the uneducated and teaches respect for the mountain. In order to acces the Ridge at Bridger you have to have an operating beacon AND a partner. You will be checked at the gate once you get off the lift. I wonder why the ski areas are not more proactive in teaching respect for avalanche terrain? Why not close the Wall at Snowmass to everyone except skiers with beacons and badges proving they are qualified to be out there? Teach the skills necessary at the resort patrol shacks, sell some beacons, give some lessons and maybe make a few dollars too.

    On another note why does the ski patrol NOT give out their own snow observations? They are doing the science every day on public land? Hearing from them may hep to spread the word, good or bad it might be.

    But more importantly keep the ski boundaries OPEN! The last thing we need is for the backcountry to be regulated by some fascist type ski operator trampling all over our rights to be enjoying the National Forest just because they think they know better than you. This already occurs, as the local ski areas have annexed our safe, moderate, and easily accessible slopes for their own profit.

    This is a very sad accident. I have not heard much talk about their timing. My one observation of the avalanche deaths that occur is the time of the day. Most people die in the afternoon. The day this group chose to ski was the hottest of the season to that point. And starting late should have been the first red flag.

  30. Lou Dawson March 8th, 2014 7:55 am

    Thanks for the civil discussion everyone. Our automatic comment moderation says it blocked some comments due to excessive profanity, if you have something to say, you’ll more likely have your comment seen if don’t enter the conversation by dropping f-bombs. TGR is always available if you want to take that tone. Some of the comments get blocked without our moderators ever seeing them, as we use automatic black listing due to the volume of spam we sometimes get. We value every legitimate comment, and especially value feedback and criticism, so please please if you disagree with something here try to enter the conversation in a friendly way so you’ll be seen and heard. Lou

  31. Lou Dawson March 8th, 2014 8:35 am

    Adam, I do a lot of tours starting late and go on into the evening, sometimes even finishing by headlamp (those happen more in Europe). I don’t think starting late is necessarily a red flag in of itself. Instead, I’d call it a “mitigating factor.” For example, with a larger group a late start would have more effect on behavior and outcome as time would be limited. In a smaller group, say with a pair of fit skiers getting in a quick lap, it’s somewhat of a non-issue. We were out yesterday in a group of 4, radios in use, felt perfect. Today and tomorrow we’ll be in a group of six at a hut, which is a red flag so our goals and behavior will adjust accordingly. Rules are for fools — sometimes I’m a fool so the rules come in handy (grin).

    I used to be a lot more uptight about starting early. It’s still a good thing, but it’s just amazingly hard to get more than a couple of people on the snow very early. Instead, I focus more on things like everyone having a radio, a headlamp, and an extra pair of mittens, among other things. Buddy system is important as well, but difficult if you’re really doing the one-at-a-time system in big terrain.

    Lou

  32. Lou Dawson March 10th, 2014 8:35 am

    Back to thinking about CAIC accident report, as we just got back from backcountry ski trip. How to keep “judgement” out of this, as Twin Lakes Skier suggests?

    Easy, please everyone, we are discussing the ACCIDENT REPORT written by Ethan Green for CAIC. We are using it as a point of departure for discussion.

    Yes, we were not there on that fatal ski tour,. but we can read an accident report and discuss. Thanks to CAIC we have the opportunity to do so, and examine our own behavior. I, for one, can say that due to this discussion we implemented some more consistent safety measures the past two days. Am always trying to improve.

    Lou

  33. SR March 10th, 2014 2:34 pm

    Regarding group size, I think the size of the red flag is in part dependent on the political/social skills and local standing of the group leaders. In a group of 6 or 7, I think most people need to be honest that if someone they defer to as an experienced leader pronounces Russian roulette to be safe, the whole group stands a fair shot of going along. So, for me, I generally avoid a group larger than three unless I truly think the group leader(s) would rate as true guides. I don’t want to guide and certainly not guide a large group of bumblies, so I don’t want to be the sole guy people are deferring to, either.

    There are so many accidents where the party encounters whumpfing and…continues. That’s one big huge flag, there.

    As for pits, I think they’re important for avy forecasters, but for bc users I think they often are both too little data (they can’t give an overall snowpack picture) and give a false sense of safety. Rotating everyone into the snowpit in teams of two so that everyone can “examine” the snowpack is a good way to get social consensus, but in my view also a red flag. I honestly think avy ed people may want to give some thoughts as to whether most bc users would be safer if they never dug pits, as they’d have less chance to justify things as safe because of the fact of having dug a pit.

    Finally, the gang skiing. It seems from the CAIC write-up that the group ascended with at least contemplation of staying together as one large group, and viewed splitting into groups of two using 20-second intervals as a safety measure. Obviously, this is not safe travel protocol…but go back to group size, and Lou’s point about how inconvenient safe travel protocol would have been in terms of time involved. If I had been there, would I have backed out from the gang skiing, assuming the whumpfing hadn’t made me retreat earlier? The normal scenario for backing out is the group you back out on is fine, no one gets slid, and you are less likely to go out with the same group in the future. That’s not a bad outcome safety-wise, but you do have to be willing to write off some partners by doing this.

    I do agree also that many people can’t understand how powerful large slabs can be. Probably even more so than big surf in terms of lack of a reference point based on prior experiences. There may not be a ready way to give people a visceral awareness of this.

  34. R Kil March 10th, 2014 4:10 pm

    Thanks Lou for hosting this discussion. After reading the article and the comments I’m definitely reconsidering when a “safe” zone is actually safe.

    Also, I have of a question regarding the CAIC reports in this revised format. The other day the Avalanche forecast was lvl 2 after which a front came through which dumped 18 inches on Berthoud Pass and a day later the forecast was still lvl 2 but a Special Aval Advisory has been issued. How is it that a significant snowfall occurs and a special avalanche advisory was issued but the aval forecast remained at lvl 2?

  35. Lou Dawson March 10th, 2014 4:47 pm

    R, in my opinion the avalanche forecasting system used by CAIC is still in the stage where multiple improvements will hopefully be made in coming years. For example, I was extremely surprised they got rid of the graphic that showed different exposures. That seemed to dumb down the system at least at first glance. On the other hand, overall the CAIC seems to be providing much more information and a real “take” that a person can use. Especially regarding slope angles and recommendations for what is actually safe. In the end, it’s an imperfect science so no way the forecasts can be perfect, especially if they get more fine grained.

    I think the worst flaw is to to use the word “Moderate” for conditions when people are sometimes likely to trigger killer avalanches. Not sure what would be better, but that’s always seemed strange and misleading.

    It’s not PC to criticize CAIC (grin), so I’ll leave it at that. Ethan?

  36. SR March 10th, 2014 4:59 pm

    Re: moderate with big consequences, either “spooky moderate” or stealing the climbing R/X designations I think are good options.

  37. Lou Dawson March 10th, 2014 5:56 pm

    IMHO The ratings should be something like:

    Low, Moderate, Possible, Possible+, High, Extreme, Extreme+

    That gives 7 divisions, with the ends of the scale being only used at extreme. Also, the ratings should always be given for three or four different exposures, as in:

    “South facing corn slopes above timberline: Moderate until thaw, then upgraded to Possible.”

    “Northeast facing slopes below timberline: Possible + due to persistent slab.”

    Or, “All slopes and elevations, storm dropped 48 inches in last 36 hours on 24 inches of depth hoar, for the first time in six years we have issued an Extreme+ forecast along with an Avalanche Hazard Alert for the next 72 hours, meaning no travel is recommended that would expose you below or on slopes over 30 degrees with snow cover.”

    I’m sure 500,000,000 words of emails have been written on this subject withing the avy forecast community. Sounds like something we should start some WildSnow thread about…

    “Moderate” would be defined as “Human Triggered” unlikely but still possible in unusual circumstances.

    Lou

  38. Lou Dawson March 10th, 2014 7:37 pm
  39. Chris Horley March 10th, 2014 8:03 pm

    Another expert killed in an avalanche, patroller Colin Sutton from Wolf Cr. A certified Level III Avalanche Technician. Bottom line, you are fooling yourself and everyone else to try and make so many graduations in the danger level. I have seen trained people dig a pit or two on a slope and make a definitive statement about the risk. Nonsense. Way too many factors involved: Wind conditions at the various locations up and down the slope, the amt of sun exposure/shade, the surface conditions, big rocks or smooth slope, amt of trees to actually control the tension in the snow slab, the true moisture content of each slab. We all know their lots of variables and they change throughout the day.

    My recommendation would be to go for just three levels: (the caveat that you can get killed by an avalanche under any of the three levels)

    Low – very unlikely. Kinda like the Perfect Storm scenario where you would need a 40 to 50 degree south slope in the afternoon on a very warm day triggered by several skiers cutting across a slope.

    Moderate – depth hoar, event triggered, with the right seasonal conditions. Caution advised on all slopes greater than 30 degrees.

    High – The conditions that exist for the first 48 hours after a big dump on slopes over 30 degrees. Basically, don’t travel on slopes under these conditions. You could also issue this for the Spring conditions when lots of slabs are self triggering.

    My definitions may need some revision, but I strongly favor the concept.

  40. Lou Dawson March 10th, 2014 8:45 pm

    Hmmm, thanks Chris, you’ve really got me thinking…

  41. JCoates March 11th, 2014 5:30 am

    Thanks, as always Lou, for starting these (ongoing) discussions. I think the avalanche reports are important in assessing “what went wrong” but it’s also important that we openly discuss it in a forum where we can try to learn from other’s experiences as well.

    After reading the report I’m seriously wondering about the way we teach snow-pits in our avalanche courses in the US. Granted, I think they are really useful in learning the mechanics of snow stability, but I am starting to think they should only be taught with the caveat of: “By the way…you shouldn’t ever be doing these.”

    Let’s face it, the vast majority of ski tourers should never be making their “go/no-go” decisions based on a pit. If the slope angle and snow pack is so sketchy that you don’t know…well then you really do know (look for something safer!!!).
    I think pits use should be limited to education courses, avalanche forecasters, sponsored athletes (with a small army of film crew/potential rescuers standing by), and possibly if you really get yourself in a life or death situation and have to choose between 2 different slopes to get out alive.

    Besides, it’s hard to glean what the general feeling was during this particular avalanche, but unless it was a training course (was it???), it didn’t seem like much fun even up to the slide. Who wants to dig pits and walk through 2 at a time looking at it when you could be skiing?

  42. Adam Olson March 11th, 2014 6:16 am

    Lou, you might prove my late start point a bit truer with your comment about how hard it is to rally for the early start. This natural selection will keep your group small. Thus lowering the potential red flag.

    Your groups are the exception when it comes to skiing late, it sounds like you do take extra precautions though? The closer you get to dark the further you are from the witching hour.
    I have been keeping tabs on the time of death for avalanche victims here in the Roaring Fork. I am not sure there are any pre-noon fatalities. The vast majority are after 2:00 pm. There is a witching hour by my perspective and I am always weary of late starting groups. Perhaps this lack of discipline to start early shows loose protocol and an open willingness to take risk right out of the gate that I am not comfortable with.

  43. Dale March 11th, 2014 8:05 am

    Chris H
    The 3 level system is functionally what CAIC is using right now. How often do you see green (low) or black (extreme) during the heart of the season?

    Adam O
    I agree that it’s hard to tease out correlation vs. causation when it comes to groups starting late, and the time of day that accidents seem to occur. In either case, though, if you get in trouble with a slide, the closer you are to sunset the smaller your margin.

  44. Jernej March 11th, 2014 8:30 am

    First off regarding late starts… no idea about NorthAm but in Europe such post work tours on weekdays are very common. For obvious reasons they’re not very long and usually to places you’re very familiar with, most likely also not very (objectively) dangerous as you don’t want to complicate your life too much in the fading daylight. I’m purely speculating but I’d say hardly any end in avalanche accidents. People get in accidents on their days off, when they go for bigger tours in bigger terrain. I haven’t seen any statistics on time of day though…

    Second, I’ve been leaning towards the 3 level ratings ever since I talked to a guy (with no formal avalanche training) who told me his regular group of freeriding buddies ignores levels 1&2, starts considering their options at level 3, and stays home at level 4 (who doesn’t?). Basically your common variety traffic light principle. Now try getting that heresy past EAWS and other governing bodies :)

    And finally… the avalanche rose. In my usability trials it became very clear that people with no previous experience with the rose find it incomprehensible (and don’t bother looking for the explanation). It does the job once you explain the concept but the bulletin cannot be aimed exclusively at people with an avalanche course. That obviously implies there need to be different levels/tiers to the bulletin with various ways of presenting content. But that might not be viable for all the understaffed avalanche warning services. And on top of that… how often do you have such complex situations that a simple compass and elevation icon don’t suffice? How often do you see something like “moderate with pockets of considerable on SW slopes above tree line, considerable on N slopes above and at tree line, moderate on all other slopes”? Why wouldn’t you just describe that as considerable above and at tree line, moderate below? If you’re willing to hunt those safer pockets/aspects you should also be able to figure this out on your own from the text description and own observations. For everyone else simply communicate the worst case scenario.

    Great stuff in this thread… I like it. If only we could get some other (important) people involved :)

  45. John Raich March 11th, 2014 9:06 am

    Lou,

    I appreciate your efforts to look at avalanche accidents from your perspective of many years of experience on lots of different types of terrain. I also appreciate how difficult this is for you.

    In addition to avalanche courses provided by AIARE, AAI, NSP and others, there are numerous avalanche decision tools available for backcountry users (Avaluator, Nivo Test, SnowCard, Swiss and Austrian Alpine Club guidelines). Applying the various decision tools to the most recent avalanche scenarios in Colorado would have mostly put participants in the ‘not recommended’ zone.

    Perhaps some participants weren’t aware of the risks. But statistics show that many avalanche victims had taken avalanche courses and were aware of the danger. One reason may be that avalanche courses and the various decision tools tend to be a bit too conservative for some. So you push the envelope a bit beyond the ‘extra caution’ limits. I’ve been there myself. When you don’t get punished severely for that, you are reinforced to do it again and again. When the probability of an accident is only once out of a 100 or 1000 trips, even under ‘considerable’ or ‘high’ avalanche warnings, it isn’t easy to learn by experience.

    John

  46. SR March 11th, 2014 10:32 am

    @JCoates, re your point about rotating people through the pit two at a time seeming perhaps pointless and not much fun unless this was a training course, I hadn’t thought about the possibility that this was a course before. I assume it wasn’t simply because it likely would have gotten prominent mention after the fact, but certainly if it were to have been a course, having everyone get in the pit would make more sense.

    You know the Pucker Face accident earlier this season, when after a late start, with obvious signs of instability, and apparently being warned by guides, the group apparently had a big “comfort level” talk, and then proceeded to task one member with calling ski patrol if something slid? I can’t articulate when collective consultation is healthy, and when it’s a big red flag that the group is trying to get shared responsibility for assuming a risk they don’t really want to take responsibility for individually. But, at some point, needing express buy-in from a party of 5 or more does seem over the line, particularly for something like a pit that doesn’t supply that much information anyway. Maybe one rule should be to talk about red flags first for that type of consultation: e.g., have everyone say, Well, we’ve heard whumpfing… to possibly make it harder to shift the focus to go signals that you can always find, such as one pit seeming ok.

  47. Lou Dawson March 11th, 2014 11:34 am

    One concept I’m really supportive of is that in a group, any person has 100% veto power — before the group sales talk, during, and after. Yep, the consensus building can be like a sales meeting, with stronger personalities dominating, and the expert halo messing things up… been there.

    Stepping back, I think any situation in the mountains that requires these types of discussions is getting close to the red line. In my view, the normal ski tour is done in conditions and with style and route finding that do NOT require big discussions, veto power, or even snow pits. If we’re going out and making life-death decisions on a regular basis, we will get it wrong eventually. That’s one reason why folks like myself who have done this stuff for years tend to get cautious to the point where it can look kind of dumb to a younger more aggressive skier. Sure, I still ski in situations that require all the bells-and-whistles of detailed group decision making and tricky hazard assessment, but I try my best to NOT need all that.

  48. Tom Gos March 11th, 2014 2:44 pm

    Lots of good thoughts and ideas here.

    Regarding time of start, I generally find that in all ways an earlier start makes for a better day. I prefer to have daylight on my side in case anything goes bad. But specifically with regard to avy safety I am really only concerned with an early start when weather conditions are such that the risk will increase as the day goes on, like with warm spring conditions.

    With respect to the avy risk ratings, I agree with the poster above who pointed out that in Colorado the CAIC is basically using a 3 level rating most of the time. We rarely see a Level 1 rating, and infrequently see a Level 4 rating, and I don’t recall ever seeing a Level 5 rating. I think the verbal descriptions of the ratings can be a bit misleading to the uneducated – “Considerable” doesn’t seem to carry the weight that it should for a lot of people. I’m not sure what the solution is, but more and better education will help.

    I did prefer the old style CAIC bulletins that used the rose, but I understand that the newer style is intended to be more easily understood by the uninitiated and also maybe better complies with some sort of international standard. I can work with the new style report. For those of us who prefer the rose, perhaps a good exercise is to have the group sketch up a quick rose in a field book at the trail head? Would only take a few minutes and would be a good exercise to get everyone discussing the hazards of the day.

    And I wholeheartedly agree with Lou’s comment that a normal tour shouldn’t have to involve heavy decision making and snowpack analysis. If it does, then you are probably headed out for the wrong reasons and to the wrong terrain. Backcountry skiing should be about a great experience and good snow – it seems that in the U.S. at least too many people expect backcountry skiing to be all about steeps and extreme terrain. We need to shift this mindset.

  49. Chris Horley March 11th, 2014 11:07 pm

    Lou, I also want to thank you for hosting this blog and adding your wealth of experience on the subject. Your record speaks for itself.

    You are spot on regarding when big discussions start. It is a clear signal that we are near the red line. It should remain an individual choice, but to me no line is worth an uncertain risk of an avy. Too often, group dynamics take over and lead to unacceptable risk taking. Often the more expert the group, the more likely a higher risk level will be accepted.

    In my previous post I tried to state the case for using just three hazard levels. A few subsequent posts tried to state that the existing CAIC system really only uses three levels so no need for change. Huh? I see five levels. How they are used and interpreted is very subjective depending on the experience of the user.

    The very heavy snowfall that proceeded the Star Mountain accident resulted in only a level 4 rating and then it was downgraded to level 3 (considerable) before the date of the accident. Sorry, I cannot find a record of that forecast and interestingly the CAIC report on the accident does not list the rating that was in effect for this area at the time. Should this not be tracked for feedback to the forecasters and end users of the information? I just happened to be following this area and the forecast reports during that time as friends were going to Skinner Hut. This area had around 40 inches of snow in less than a two week period. To quote from the report:

    “The two snow events (ending February 4th and 12th) each produced significant avalanche cycles. Avalanches caused significant tree damage in the area between Loveland and Fremont Passes and destroyed a mining-era structure near the town of Montezuma. The Monarch Ski Patrol and CAIC/CDOT crews reported several very large (D3) natural and triggered avalanches in the Monarch Pass area. There were several snowmobile avalanche involvements during this time period.”

    To my knowledge, not once during this period was the avalanche danger listed as extreme. (I would welcome any correction to this). How many potential avy deaths does it take to get an extreme rating? If three levels were used, the obvious rating would be HIGH. Maybe this would have caused the group to rethink riding/skiing an avalanche path. Maybe not. They obviously had some avy ed class to know about digging snow pits. Unfortunately they thought snow pits would validate descending a 40 degree slope under high avy conditions (or level 3 as I believe it may been at that time).

    I would also like to ditto a previous comment on the questionable value of snow pit interpretation given in standard avy courses. I believe it is misleading at all skill levels to assume you can make a positive assessment of slope that is near the red line. Interpretations can give a false sense of security. Granted, a highly skilled assessment is probably right nearly all of the time. But is that enough? Take the line but know that you are playing Russian Roulette, albeit at 1 to 100 odds (give or take and extra zero).

    Maybe the avy education community is trying too hard to make it into an exact science when what we really need to do is dumb it down because it has too many variables to make it an exact science to forecast.

  50. David April 1st, 2014 6:30 am

    Lou, I thought some of your East Coast readers might be interested in this recent event on Mt. Washington…

  51. David April 1st, 2014 6:31 am

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