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.
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.