Caught! An Avalanche Story

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Inspired by Steve Christie’s suggestion to share our avalanche stories, I thought I’d tell mine, before Lou tells his. (Note from Lou, he says “everyone, got any stories? How about a guest blog?”)

I was lucky, caught in a slough. It was small and short. I was not hurt.

Skiing Snowmass (Colorado) on a day that was nothing short of epic — nearly 30 inches in 24 hours –22 overnight. Friends and I stumble across a gate I’d yet to enter during my first year in the Aspen area. We slide, legitimately, between a boundary rope and cliff band (they have since moved this rope to close our "gap"). At the top of our line we stand above a 10-15 foot cliff with lines toward other drops in all directions. Gray drops first, lands in a cloud of white, to the left and a second drop into a small chute with waist deep turns for 500 vert. Nice!

Pete and I turn our attention to the terrain below us. I see the line I want. Pete likes to poach my lines, so I ask if he wants next drop as I push off simultaneously. Oh, sorry Pete:)

Stop. Let’s look at the situation at hand.

So, I’m in bounds. Perhaps in a closed area (honestly, I never thought I was OB). But it sat perched above a fully open area. Conclusion: It’s controlled terrain. At a resort. I’m safe. I didn’t so much as question in my head about the possibility of getting caught in a slide. No beacon. No shovel. No probe. No worries.

Back to the drop in. I land, whiteroom. I pause on my next turn just long enough to see, there are two rocks in front, one tiny, one needs a look. The snow hasn’t cleared and I’m moving. Funny, haven’t turned the skis downhill yet!?!? Feel my feet leave the ground briefly over the first rock. I’m thinking I must have landed further downhill than I thought, side slipped off. Snow still hasn’t fully settled. I’m in a resort, the thought of danger has yet to enter my mind.

I feel somewhat solid ground again, but I’m still moving. Next cliff is close, I know it. Point ‘em downhill. Still can’t see.

Weightless. Blind. Exciting. Definitely getting worried.

Impact. Not big. The kind of impact you get on a 22 inch powder day. You just know you’re down. Hmmm. Must have slipped on the steep terrain somehow. I wonder what just happened, then a wave of snow washes over my shoulders. But it wasn’t a wave, more like a brick wall collapsing over me. It pile drives me head first over my skis. I tomahawk back to my feet before I realize I’m upside down. Then again, snow driving into my back, head-over-tea-kettle. "Ok", I think, "this is an avalanche." I’m supposed to swim, right? I don’t know if I’m back upright yet. Light, dark. Waving my arms frantically to "stay on top". It’s hard to swim with no direction. Light, dark. Swim!

Calm.

It’s over and I’m standing knee deep in debris. Solid debris, but not the concrete you read about. I’m 150 feet lower than before. No skis. My friends tracks from earlier covered in my one big track. Looking back I had washed over a 5 foot rock followed by a 35 footer. Lucky.

After an hour of searching for my skis, we’re sitting at lunch. My hands are still shaking a bit. Gray says to me, "That was the rowdiest line of the day!" Classic.

I didn’t even own a beacon the day that happened. I didn’t ski backcountry, why would I need one? Looking back, I haven’t changed my in-bounds practices much. But I do ski with an awareness that nothing is guaranteed on snow. I enjoy what I get, take caution when necessary, glad for every powder turn I’m allowed to make.

(Guest blogger Dave Downing and his wife Jessica live in Carbondale, Colorado, where Dave is a freelance designer and owner of Ovid Nine Graphics Lab. Dave’s ski career began due to a lack of quality skiing video games for NES.)

Comments

10 Responses to “Caught! An Avalanche Story”

  1. Patrick O October 9th, 2008 10:31 am

    Dave,

    May I ask where you were on the mountain. I also got chased by a large slide in bounds on Snowmass many years ago.

    Thanks,
    Patrick

  2. dave downing October 9th, 2008 3:03 pm

    The question is, should I name a location, does that put pressure on Snowmass patrol to potentially close sweet steep zones?

  3. Patrick O October 9th, 2008 4:51 pm

    Nope notice how I did not mention the location where I was chased. I think it begs the question if in Snowmass steeps or other areas if they should require you to beep in like up here at Bridger. At first I was kind of stand offish to having a beacon, shovel and partner required to ski the Ridge but it really makes sense. Especially on a really deep day. Might as well be prepared- right.

  4. Halsted October 9th, 2008 5:42 pm

    You two should get in contact with each other, is what I’d suggest..

  5. dave downing October 9th, 2008 6:11 pm

    @Halsted: I agree…Just thought i’d present the idea to the class to see what they thought :)

    @Patrick: Again I agree. Though it would be a financial burden for some to need a beacon in-bounds, I would not argue the idea. I believe it was only a few seasons ago someone set a slide off in Highlands Bowl. They had crossed a rope, but skiing was open right next too it. That same spring ABasin had a mogul run slide. And I recall Lou’s reference to this in-bounds incident : http://www.telemarktips.com/FSneverSame.html

    Heck, if all resorts required beacons, then maybe there’d be some demand to make the thinks more pocket sized. I mean seriously, at least as small as an iPhone…

  6. Matt Kinney October 9th, 2008 7:17 pm

    Like I have said before, the best way to deal with the immediate rise in injuries and death by avalanches in North America is to close “Out of bounds” areas. Not going to happen, but obviously its a serious situation and gets worse every season around ski areas as they all want to open areas to “compete”. They have no choice. They have to open it up. Seems we are following the “European Model” of daily death and injuries by avalanche by giving every skier a lift ride not to the top of contolleds slopes, but to deadly avalanche terrain. Go figure…go skiing.

  7. jerimy October 10th, 2008 8:16 am

    I don’t think that you have to have closed boundaries to reduce the injuries and deaths from backcountry gates at resorts. I think that the European policies are more in line with responsible skiing. They put the burden entirely where it belongs, on the person(s) choosing to ski uncontrolled terrain. In Europe, it is common place to purchase rescue insurance from an alpine club to cover the high cost of a potential rescue.

    In North America, I believe skiers rely on ski patrol from the resort coming to bail you out. I guarantee that less people would venture outside resort boundaries and the ones that do would be more prepared if they knew they would have to fund their own rescue.

  8. Chase October 11th, 2008 11:57 am

    I totally agree with Jerimy. People should take more responsibility
    for there actions in the backcountry. I have gone for some short rides
    myself at Snowmass ski area. I wear a beacon and carry a shovel pack
    all the time wheather inbounds or not. You just don’t know what the day
    will bring.

  9. Miguel Soria March 22nd, 2011 7:02 pm

    I was caught in some slough yesterday at Homewood at Tahoe. There has been some serious dumping out west, about 90 inches in four days. We were skiing an inbound hike on a steep section and I stopped in a BAD place midway down to watch, and my buddy cracked off some slough above me. At first some light snow dusted me and then a milisecond later it was like being hit with wet cement. It threw my downhill ripping both my skis off and poles and pushing me down into the snow. I ended up about 100 yards from where I was hit Poles lost but skis found after a 45 minute search. Pretty scary moments! Need Helmet, shovel, probes, and a transceiver even for inbound steep patrolled deep snow conditions. I felt overconfident because it was a patrolled area. Even with bombing and pit digging, a steep pitch loaded with snow can be very dangerous, and needs to be approached with respect. Very humbling experience for me and I was lucky to not be hurt. Be respectful out there but get some open turns for sure. BTW the top of the run was some of the best powder turns ever.

  10. Lou March 22nd, 2011 7:08 pm

    Miguel, thanks for sharing. Indeed, where you choose to stop to watch a run is critical to avy safety. Sometimes very tempting to stop in bad places when a few more minutes of skiing can result in 100% safe zone…

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