They Survived the Big Avalanches – Guest Report

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This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Editor’s note: A while back we ran a few guest blog avalanche stories. This one came in recently and we thought it worthy. I’ve skied out Castle Creek many times and the big ones lurking above always catch my attention. For these guys, the lurkers got a bit too close for comfort.

Guest blog by Steve Jay (photos by Charlie Noone)

Last January a group of friends and I rented out the Green-Wilson and Tagert huts between Aspen and Crested Butte (Colorado). The weather was beautiful the day we skinned in, but we knew that a storm was moving in that night. Sure enough the next morning we awoke to two feet of fresh and it was still dumping.

Backcountry Skiing

Before.

Because visibility was poor, and we had concerns about stability, we mostly stuck to skiing the trees around the hut. The snow continued for the next two days, rarely slowing down. Every morning our tracks were filled in so we were happy skiing the same trees. During our last morning at the hut the tipping point was reached and a very large slide came down across the road just below the huts. We could see the debris from the deck of the Tagert hut.

We were quite concerned because the ski out crossed several large avalanche zones. We had a group discussion about what to do (four of us had had extensive avalanche training) and decided we would split into groups and spread out for the trip out. The first group left and we were able to maintain contact with them via radios.

On the way out we received several frantic calls from them over the radio about how many slides had come down across the road. They narrowly missed one slide and watched it cover their tracks. The second group left probably 30 minutes later once we knew the first group was out of danger. The radios were alive again with the second group telling us about how many massive slides had come down off the mountain. Finally, the last of us left about 15 minutes later, we crossed several medium sized slides but we were blown away when we got to the footbridge crossing Castle Creek. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The bridge had been destroyed and trees were toppled probably 200’ or so up the other side of the drainage. We poked around in the debris for a little while in disbelief and quickly made our way for Ashcroft. Thanks to the radios we knew everyone else had gotten out ok so we put the radios away and beelined it.

Backcountry Skiing

After

At the last avalanche crossing before dropping into Ashcroft we were shocked, a massive slide, the biggest I had ever see, had come down across the road. It was probably 100-150 yards wide. One of the most amazing things about the slide was that it had hit a pond and splashed the water out of it, so below the pond the snow was waterlogged and hard as dried cement. We continued to ski out relieved that we were out of danger. We met up with the rest of the group and asked if they had seen the huge slide that had hit the pond. The other groups said that they didn’t see the slide and it must have slid between the second and third groups. We all went silent at this realizing that we had missed certain death by at the most 15 minutes.

The power of the mountains is amazing and we learned that you have to respect them, even when you’re not the slide trigger. Natural releases are just as dangerous as triggered ones and had we not made the decision to split up there could have been some deadly results. Also, without the radios we would have never known what was happening and may have even tried searching for our friends had we not known they were alright. The snowcat driver for Ashcroft said that the last slide was the biggest he had seen in nearly 30 years working up there and I believe him. I have always been cautious about avalanches but this experienced truly humbled me and I respect the power of snow now than ever.

Analysis from Lou:

First, let me thank Steve and his friends for sharing their experience. They made what they felt were their best decisions, after analysis and discussion, and that’s the best any of us can do. But we can learn from each other, so picking apart this sort of thing can be helpful. Even so, again, we were of course not there so my analysis is simply to get us all thinking, not denigrate the decisions these guys made.
 

I’ve skied this valley for more than 30 years, countless times. The number of major avalanche paths that dump over the ski route easily number in the dozens, most large enough to be certain death if they did catch you. I’ve been in Steve and his crew’s situation several times, and actually stayed at the hut another night in one instance. In the case of today’s excellent guest blog, my opinion is the group should have stayed another night at the hut after seeing that a historical avalanche cycle was occurring during the exact period they were planning on skiing under all the paths. Validation of this is that the men actually watched one slide cover their tracks!
 

I suspect the group may not have known just how many paths cross the route, nor how many other deaths and close calls have occurred in this area in the past. One good thing about such cycles is they happen big, during a short period of time. Thus, a 24 hour wait can make a huge difference in safety.
 

Staying another night has other implications, of course, such as triggering a rescue. Solution is the use of communication devices such as sat phones and Spot Messengers. Using such, you can check in from the wild to let folks know you’re ok, don’t need a rescue, but for some reason have delayed your return. How ironic it would be to get in an accident because you were trying to return before your loved ones got worried — or to get back to work? Don’t let that happen.
 

I was happy to read that, one, Steve’s group did split up during their exposed egress trip. And two, they made good use of 2-way radios. It’s interesting, however, that the first photo shows the group gang skiing through the runout zone of that huge avalanche path. That was their judgment call and I respect it, but the photo does beg questions we should all ask ourselves about travel style and decision making. As for me, I always spread the group out during this whole section of the trail, even during fairly low hazard days.

Comments

24 Responses to “They Survived the Big Avalanches – Guest Report”

  1. powderjunky December 9th, 2008 10:16 am

    Man that’s crazy, I visited colorado last april and did the same hut trip, those avalanche paths are no joke! Luckily we were with mostly locals and they were well aware of the area’s slide potential. Glad everyone made it out okay!

  2. Snodge December 9th, 2008 11:04 am

    Wow,

    Those two pics are from about the same location, No?

  3. Andrew_L December 9th, 2008 11:20 am

    Those photos are terrifying. Hard to imagine missing something like that by 15 min.

  4. Dongshow December 9th, 2008 11:51 am

    I’ve never been to the area but that is frightening. Another reminder that there are certain days when you just shouldn’t be out in the mountains.

    Are there safe spots along the route? And how safe would they be? I’d be very nervous letting one group get too far ahead, as it’d be hard to deem what happened or how to respond from radio silence. I’d imagine waiting between calls would be extremely stressful, but it sounds like had the right strategy.

    Another reminder that I need to ski with radios more often…

  5. David December 9th, 2008 11:57 am

    Interesting report and analysis.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Mike M December 9th, 2008 12:26 pm

    Skiing that chute in the spring gave perspective to the mass at the bottom. There is a lot of real estate up there that you can not see from the road. As the elks go, there are not many paths much bigger if any.

  7. Steve Jay December 9th, 2008 1:08 pm

    Thanks for the analysis Lou. We did consider staying another night and let everything settle down a bit. Unfortunately prior obligations (some people had to work, I was leaving for Canada) and a lack of supplies for another night made us choose to head out. We waited as long as we could and spread out as far as we could and still stay in contact.

    As for the safe spots, you could easily use safe spots and we all did use them crossing the avalanche paths one at a time. However, the very large slide that missed us, would have definitely moved into the adjacent vegetation far enough that a “safe spot” was not really that safe. This trip changed a lot about how I now approach crossing avalanche terrain and how important it is to consider all options and choose the most appropriate.

  8. Lou December 9th, 2008 1:38 pm

    Dong and all, there are safe spots, but one section in particular is quite long and actually gets hit from either side! Really hairy. And like Steve said, with slides that big your “safe spots” may not be all that safe. The wind blast can easily kill you even if you don’t get caught by the slide. Really serious stuff.

    Steve, knowing what you know now, would you have stayed the night even without much food or beer? Sounds like you cut it REALLY close.

  9. Lou December 9th, 2008 1:41 pm

    BTW, yes the photos are the same place, right Steve?

  10. Steve Jay December 9th, 2008 2:03 pm

    Lou, given the circumstances I would have preferred to stay another night and it was suggested several times during out discussion about what we should do. However, like you mentioned it would have probably triggered a search (SAR was already at the trail head when we got out) potentially putting others in danger(?). Looking back on the situation better decisions could have been made but we also had no idea what had slid already or how much snow would fall overnight, potentially loading the snowpack even more making it even worse the next day and it was decided the sooner we can get out the better.

    It’s funny how the decision process works when you have very limited information (i.e. no weather or avalanche information for 4 days, only an idea of the snowpack at lower elevations, etc) and at the moment and with the information at hand (things were starting to slide) we decided to get ourselves out of a dangerous situation as quickly as possible. Looking back, yes we should have stayed another night but we couldn’t fathom how close we were to those slides.

    I believe the “after” picture is a little farther up the road than the “before” picture.

  11. istgahiran December 9th, 2008 2:28 pm

    very nice & interesting . good luck .

  12. harald b December 9th, 2008 3:45 pm

    Guidebooks reference an avy safe route that uses the Ashcroft nordic trail rather then the road.

    In this instance, would the alternative route still be safe??

  13. Amos December 9th, 2008 4:45 pm

    Lou,
    I headed out of the Mace Hut at the inception of the storm. The previous week I hosted a group of locals that got turned around just below Pearl Pass because of visability and avalanche concerns, so I knew conditions wern’t good and kinda knew a big cycle was comming. A couple of days later I heard about the Kellogg pond slide, it made the cover of the Aspen Times. I actually know that some Ashcroft employees were a little to close for comfort to the slide, 6″ of powder blast snow deposited on Ashcroft’s snowcat was what I heard. I skinned up and looked at the Footbridge and Kellogg Pond slide, then at my father’s request I decided to stay away until spring. I’ve only seen a handful of cycles like that one, and good ol’ boy sources say Kellogg Pond hasn’t run that big since before 1995! Frankly, I’m amazed nobody got killed in Castle Creek last year. Won’t say any more about that. As a solo part-time resident of the valley I can say I’ve always been scared of those types of cycles. I keep multiple days of extra food at the hut just in case. Glad to hear everyone made it our o.k. I knew that some groups were rolling the dice up there last year.
    Amos

  14. Lou December 9th, 2008 5:25 pm

    That “avy safe route” is just a small part of the whole route. It bypasses one runout out of the dozens. There is no bypass for the majority of others. But it’s definitely a good route to follow as it eliminates a 5 or 10 minute exposure to a really wide zone where a woman got killed some years ago.

  15. Lou December 9th, 2008 5:38 pm

    Hey Amos, thanks for dropping by. Yeah, probably wise to stay out of there during the big storms. The big winters tend to be more stable during certain periods, but then produce huge slides because of the deep pack build-up. The winter’s that are considered more active sometimes produce more slides, but many of them don’t even reach the trail beacuse the snow on the paths doesn’t build up as deep. As always, another reason this stuff requires a lot of thought and experience to judge correctly.

  16. Evan December 9th, 2008 7:40 pm

    It was cool to hear the full version of that story, Steve. (and sweet Lou posted and analyzed it!) Maybe it’s not the worst luck you’re CO hut trip is full up already and I’m “missing out”. :P
    Cheers man!

  17. Jake T December 10th, 2008 12:14 am

    Steve, great to read your account of our near-miss(es) that day and Lou, really appreciate your analysis of our decisions. I know everyone involved has gone over the decision-making that day hundreds of times, and I feel lucky to be alive, quite honestly. Lou, I agree with your criticism of us gang skiing up the runout and I think we’ll be a bit wiser next time. I think we made a mistake not staying at the huts and were guilty of letting what now seem like arbitrary time commitments dictate our schedule. In hindsight, not the best choice. Judging from the weather and slide danger in the days following, however, I don’t think we would have been able to safely leave after one extra night. The storm continued well after we left the huts and avalanche danger was high for the next several days. From the safety of Tagert/Green-Wilson. we had no way of knowing which paths had already slid and which were prime to run. I think a a Spot Messenger would have greatly affected our decision making but am glad we had radios. Along the lines of powderjunky’s comment, all but two of our group are Roaring Fork Valley natives and had traveled the area before, and we were well aware of the danger. Still, our ‘safety zones’ by the footbridge and before South Kellogg, located in dense, mature timber, were decimated by slides and we were lucky none of us got killed. I was greatly humbled by the experience and the feeling of powerlessness brought on by the big natural slides and plan to err on the side of caution from now on.

  18. Lou December 10th, 2008 6:57 am

    Jake, thanks for chiming in! You guys indeed came pretty dang close. From an outsider perspective, I still think waiting 24hrs after seeing that big slide would indeed have been wise, since once those paths run that big you’ll generally not get another slide that size till spring, or possibly never again in that season.

    On the other hand, your point about not knowing which paths had run is a good one. Perhaps this is a sort of no-win situation when it comes to the decision making.

    But just think of the tree skiing you guys would have had if you’d stayed up there (grin)!

  19. Isaac December 23rd, 2008 4:26 pm

    Lou,

    I am part of a group scheduled to approach the Goodwin-Greene hut on Christmas morning. We have been monitoring the avy situation closely, and it has been more worrying than reassuring. It sounds like there may be a break in the storm this evening, but forecast has it starting back up at some point on Christmas day.

    Have you heard anything about the conditions along Express Creek? Are the paths still holding on or have they gone through a cycle? Any local knowledge you or other readers have would be greatly appreciated!

    Cheers

  20. Lou December 23rd, 2008 7:49 pm

    Isaac, if you’re a strong group why not just go via Richmond Ridge? Start by riding the gondola, stick some nordic wax on your skis and go go go.

  21. Francisco Tharp December 27th, 2009 11:20 pm

    I’m weighing in a little late on this, but i guess it’s never too late to share learning, right? I was on that trip with Steve and Jake, and one thing I haven’t seen mentioned yet on this thread is the fact that we could have chose not to go on the trip at all. We had access to accurate weather forecasts that could have sent our radars off. One thing I learned about myself was that at 23 years old, even being a “local” and having avalanche training (Level 1) and having skied for 7 years in the back country at that point, I was naive to the catastrophic potential of these slide paths. I simply had never seen a cycle that big and that energetic before, so I didn’t experientially know it was possible. I knew, theoretically, that those slide paths go that big, but theoretical and experiential knowledge are different things all together. Like Steve mentioned, I gained a huge amount of respect for the power of snow and gravity. Skiing away in a whiteout from a powder blast was one of the scariest experiences of my life. Now I am much more tuned in to weather forecasts before a multi-day trip, and I am much more willing to call the whole endeavor off, if that’s prudent. I agree with all the other analysis and assessment on this post. Thanks Lou, Steve, Jake, and others for chiming in.

  22. Chris Buckley January 15th, 2010 12:54 pm

    Thanks for the valuable insight on this forum. My crew is planning a Friend’s Hut trip (via Green Wilson) next week. I’ve already cancelled this trip in the past due to unstable avalanche conditions. After reading the disturbing trip report and keeping an eye on the snow pack and weather reports, we are seriously considering rescheduling until late spring when it is next available. I’d like to add some analysis for all to benefit and we’re hoping for more local information and guidance.

    Snow pack:
    According to CAIC, the snow pack has weak faceted layers in the Elk Mts. We’ve been watching it and it appears to be healing on S, SW and SE aspects below timberline.
    http://avalanche.state.co.us/pub_bc_avo.php?zone_id=5

    Does anyone have information on the current snow conditions in the Castle Creek drainage? Is there enough windblown snow in the upper gullies for big slides to come all the way down and cover the road at this point? It doesn’t look like it has been warm enough to stabilize the snow pack up there.

    Weather:
    According to the CAIC forecast “The long range models promise a change in the weather next week as we enter into a stormy period.” This is our catch-22. No one really knows how much snow is predicted and it might not start until we get back in there. We may very well be in a similar situation as last year’s crew with a dilemma to stay put for a few extra days or get out quickly.

    We have a relatively experienced crew but none of us are avalanche experts nor have been to that area in winter. We want to enjoy this trip but safety is a priority. Has there been recent slide activity in that drainage? Is the most dangerous part the slides below Green Wilson or equally bad on the way up and over Pearl Pass? We will bail if the 5 day forecast calls for any significant amount of snow.

    Our team welcomes additional input…thank you!

  23. Chris Buckley January 27th, 2010 3:58 pm

    Trip Update – Due the the weather forecast, we changed our trip plans. A good thing in retrospect with all that snow in the Elk Mts. Several of our crew went in to the Skinner Hut instead. It was a much safer route (though long!) and we easily avoided the one slide path near the trail. We heard one crack/whoomph on the way out but no visible slides.

  24. Chris Buckley May 10th, 2010 10:06 am

    Second Trip Update – Most of our partners bailed but Chris Wilson and I finally put this trip together in early May. It was the perfect hut trip: mix from a snowy start to great weather and skiing conditions. The snow up high was firm and stable in the a.m. We did hear lots of cracking below treeline in the afternoons. The decriptions of Pearl Basin are true – it reminded me of the Classic Haute Route from Chamonix! Get up there if you can but be patient…make sure you have the BC experience and wait for spring or a window of stable snow and good weather. This adventure is Colorado at its best…

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