I saw the avalanche start when a pillow-cornice fell from a rock face beside our safe crossing. We were just minutes from zero hazard — but on the wrong side of safety.
We were climbing on randonnee skis back up a ridge in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness (North Central Cascades, WA). The morning of powder skiing had been wonderful. A safe zone and quick ski run down to the car were within reach about 300 vertical feet of climbing above us.
For years, this quick trip had literally been my backyard tour; a quick trip to and from the cabin where I lived (red flag = familiarity with the area). More, I’d done quite a few years of nearby professional avalanche control work, so in theory I knew what I was doing. (red flag = those with higher skill levels get caught at a higher rate).
Wind was near zero this fateful morning. It was snowing nearly an inch per hour, and cold. Snow conditions were four to five inches of fresh cold snow on a strong supportive crust that had formed in the now frozen and formerly wet Cascade snow. This is a common occurrence, setting up awesome avalanche cycles with surface hoar forming on the strong crust, followed by the next snow dump once the tension in the new snow exceeds its bond with the crust.
Thus, in the north central Cascades, sometimes you have to get the powder turns before the next warmup in a few hours, or before it builds up to certain avalanching.
In this case, it had been cold and clear, and the light cold snow falling at about one inch per hour on the hard crust would certainly sluff and avalanche when 7 inches of new snow accumulated, by my estimate at around noon. In the meantime the 20 to 30 degree slopes should hold the new snow when skied and offer nice powder turns, correct again as it turned out.
I had spent a lot of years chasing powder turns in this fashion. When we topped the ridge and were at my favorite chute between the rocks above a bowl I explained to Jim that the 40 degree-plus entry slope would clean off to the crust when I ski cut, down as to where the angle lessened to about 30 degrees. It did.
To the left was a cliff and also some 50 degree-plus snow-covered faces, so I told Jim “do not ski left of my track because that will go naturally anytime.” It did. As we walked past on the way out later, we saw avalanche debris from a natural avalanche that fell 400 vertical feet about 10 feet to the left of my downhill ski tracks.
So, there we go, me all flush with my superior understanding of the terrain and snowpack, climbing up after a nice ski tour, minutes from safety. The snow continued to fall, probably increasing in intensity. Jim traversed up the slope 75 feet ahead of me and my avalanche dog. I waited, as was my habit under a small tree for safety (red flag = not enough safety spacing for that terrain, small tree was a joke for protection).
At this point we had traversed a “safe route” toward a pass, unlikely to avalanche, away from the chute and bowl that we had descended earlier. I had been blind to the short, steep starting zone beneath the rock beside our route. It had never been a concern. I do not believe that the slope below the starting zone would have gone with ski cutting, but it went with a small cornice drop.
Jim does recall the conversation that we had seconds before the avalanche hit, as do I.
I said to Jim, “it’s a good thing we are almost out, this new snow has piled up enough that when it goes it will be big enough to knock you over.” Jim, being Jim, argued, “I don’t think so.” Immediately as I looked up, I saw the cornice-pillow fall, and the white cloud that I anticipated to be a loose-sluff was coming toward us.
Jim now complains that I yelled “look up” which was logger-speak for “you’re about to die.”
I braced, leaning with both pole tips dug into the crust and on my ski edges and expected the loose sluff to flow around me. I had experienced this a few times, a foot of fluff flowing on a crust around me feeling much like a fast-flowing river.
Jim said that he did as I had yelled, and looked up just in time to get slammed in the face by the whirling white wall of snow. Just before the maelstrom hit me I ducked my head and braced. Then I was surprised that this loose sluff was a bit more, as I was chucked end-over-end three times, black, white, black, white as I tumbled under and out. On the second tumble I caught a glimpse of my black lab avalanche dog swimming downhill with the avalanche, and it seemed that she was wagging her tail.
Everything stopped, I was sitting on debris without skis or poles, hands braced to my sides, feet downhill, looking at the small trees 30 feet lower that could have killed me (as had occurred with a snowshoer about a mile away over a decade before.)
I had gone perhaps 75 feet in the avalanche, Jim had gone 150 feet to a transition. While in the avalanche, Jim’s trajectory had threaded a few small trees, and he was in a heap. My memory is that he looked almost as if he had been shoved in headfirst with skis sticking up. My trusty avalanche dog, without a command, flew by in front of me in a black blur and went to Jim. He basically self-extricated, more of a heap than a burial.
We screwed up. I, a terrible safety nag, had been too confident and complacent. With full understanding of increasing hazard and observed avalanche activity (red flag = duh), I continued ski touring for powder turns. In my former work I had thrown perhaps 300 hand charges on avalanche paths each season and had ski cut countless avalanches. Thus, what a ridiculous failure this was on my part.
By a slim margin or Grace we had been spared wrapping our bodies around the slender (and knife-like when you’re moving 40 mph) mountain hemlock trees as we rode the avalanche. I thought to myself after that, “every safety rule, every time, Rob. Dumbass.”
Jim continues to argue with me about nearly anything, however he has never argued with my avalanche assessment since that day. But he has since been strong at emphasizing “every safety rule, every time.” After Jim reads this, he will probably add the ‘dumbass’ part. Good.
(Guest blogger Rob Mullins lives in the Washington Cascades with his wife, daughter, and a young black lab avy-dog-in-training named Blackie. His life has included a succession of careers that allow him to live in the mountains and ski tour a lot.)