TR- Weekend at Winchester lookout — Close Call on Mount Larrabee

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Every time I am in the Mt. Baker area here in Washington state, I look over at Mount Larrabee and think about how fun it would be to ski. It is a big, triangle shaped mountain, and lately it has been super plastered with snow. The peak is a bit of a chore to get to, but luckily an old fire lookout nearby on top of Winchester Mountain provides shelter, and thus incentive. I tried twice to ski Larabee last year, but was unsuccessful both times. The lookout alone was reason enough to go back, and another attempt had been on my mind all season.

Quinn starting down the couloirr

Quinn dropping into a couloir on Goat Mountain

This past weekend, with the avalanche danger low, and powder still hanging around many places, I decided to try for it again. Quinn, Skyler, and I drove up the road to Twin Lakes Friday morning. I had hoped that with the high snow line this season that the road would be dry most of the way. Alas, the snow started in exactly the same spot we encountered it last year. Wonders never cease?

I threw the chains on the Cherokee, cranked up the music, and commenced half an hours worth of fun hogging through the slush that covered the road. We barely got 200 feet, and backed down to the dry road to put our skis on. It was raining and foggy as we hiked up the road, however as we neared the lakes the sun started peeking through. We arrived at Twin Lakes much quicker than I expected, dropped our overnight gear there, and headed up toward Goat Mountain.

A peak on Goat Mountain, we skied the couloir on the right side.

A sub peak of Goat Mountain, we skied the couloir on the right side.

The weather as we hiked up was beautiful. We were on the edge of a huge cloud/fog bank, that towered above us and reached all the way into the valley. The clouds and the sun fought an epic battle as we made our way up the ridge. We aimed towards a nice looking sub peak of Goat Mountain. By the time we got to the top the sun had won, and we prepared to drop into a nice couloir we noticed on the way up. We witnessed a beautiful sunset over Mt. Baker as we made our way back to the lakes. We donned headlamps, and ascended Winchester Mountain to reach some well earned sleep and food at the lookout.

There isn't much better than skiing powder in a sunset

There aren't many things better than skiing powder in a sunset

We set two alarms for the next morning, and both of them ran out of batteries sometime during the night. We rolled out of bed at 7:30 instead of 4:00, and I was worried that we were too late to ski the south facing run we wanted on Larrabee. We opted to go for it anyway and see how far we got. Luckily it was partially cloudy all day, and that along with a light breeze kept the snow solid well into the afternoon. We ate a quick breakfast, clicked into our skis, and skied 1,000 vertical feet of powder down the north face of Winchester. We skinned the ridge to the base of Larrabee, and switched to boot packing for the ascent.

Red is ascent route, blue is descent route

Approaching Larrabee in the morning, Red is ascent route, blue is descent route

The snow climbing was fun, we followed a ridge most of the way, with a few fun sections of 65 degree postholing. We hung out on the summit for a while, staring at the mountains that went as far as the eye could see in 3 directions, and ended with the ocean in the other.

The descent was nice, a really aesthetic, consistently steep line. It would have been great, other than a few of the most terrifying seconds of my life. Here’s the story.

The first few hundred feet of the descent went smoothly, it was dense, wind scoured, crusty snow that had softened a bit in the sun. There was an inch or two of dense, wind scoured snow on top of a dense, hard crust. The dense snow sluffed a bit as we skied it, but nothing unmanageable. On the second pitch, I skied first, and headed over to a ridge as a safe zone. I traversed onto a small patch of wind packed snow, and immediately recognized it as a wind slab. I couldn’t continue off of it, as I was headed toward a really steep slope on the other side of the ridge. I still had some speed, so I made a quick turn to get off of the patch. At that moment, the slab fractured about 5 feet above me, about 6 inches thick, sliding on the dense crust. The whole patch was probably about 15 square feet. In any other situation, no big deal. But I was in the middle, in a steep couloir above some cliffs.

As soon as I saw the fracture, I instantly fell into the slope and dug my Whippets in with all my might. I was on top of the sliding snow, and jammed my hands through to the hard crust that the snow was sliding on. I was able to quickly get my Whippets into the bed surface crust, which was dense and held well. But even with that, I accelerated quickly amidst all the snow that had released. At every bump I slid over I imagined myself careening off into oblivion over the cliffs. I kept singlemindedly digging in with my Whippets as hard as I could, thinking “I have to stop, I have to stop, I have to stop.” Finally after sliding for a hundred feet or so, the snow passed me, and I ground to a halt. I stood up, shaken, and watched the snow launch off a windrow and over a cliff below me. I glanced up, and saw the two jagged lines my whippets had rent in the steep slope above. I made my way over to another safe zone, this time sans wind slab, and quietly thanked the Lord for my life. The sluff had picked up a few inches of snow as it went, and we skied this bed surface and then traversed back to our boot pack and the base of the mountain. I didn’t stop shaking the entire time.

Looking back, I’m feeling pretty schooled by this incident. I definitely should have noticed the wind slab before I got onto it. It was small, the entire thing was only about 15 square feet, but in exposed terrain. Getting caught like I did is of course unacceptable. As I supposedly learned in avy classes, “look at the consequences.” What makes me feel particularly embarrassed is that the slab was fairly obvious: a typical patch of wind-compacted snow on a slope that was otherwise wind scoured. If I had been paying more attention, and perhaps looked closer at my safe zone from far away, this whole thing could have been avoided. As for once I was on top of it, I don’t know if I should have done something other than try to get off of it as quickly as possible, which didn’t work. If it wasn’t for the Whippets, I would have slid through some pretty steep rocky terrain. I can honestly say Whippets saved my life. Thanks Andrew and BD. Even so, if the slab had been even a few inches thicker — I don’t know.

I was pretty shaken up the rest of the day. We traversed back to the base of Winchester and skied some nice powder along the way. We hiked to the top, retrieved our overnight gear, and skated the road back to the car. I wasn’t sure about sharing about my close call, but talking about mistakes in public is a good way to drill the learning in and stay humble, so I went for it.

Skyler booting up some nice 65 degree snow

Skyler booting up a steep section about 1/3 the way up Larrabee

Quin skiing off the summit of Larrabee

Quinn skiing off the summit of Larrabee

We found some nice powder on the apron

We found some nice powder at the base

The last 1,000 feet to the lookout were a little tough

The last 1,000 feet to the lookout were a little tough.

Comments

31 Responses to “TR- Weekend at Winchester lookout — Close Call on Mount Larrabee”

  1. rob stokes February 8th, 2010 10:12 am

    scary stuff, good work gettin the whipets in quickly….
    …on a lighter note, second last picture=awsome.

  2. Smokey February 8th, 2010 10:15 am

    Well done Louie…everyone makes mistakes in the mountains. Thanks for sharing as it helps all of us stay a bit more ‘intune” on our tours. Glad everything went well…looks like a awesome descent.

    Cheers

  3. Andrew February 8th, 2010 10:30 am

    Hi Louie – I’m glad to hear you are alright and the Whippets worked like they were suppose to. I ski with mine all the time for exactly that type of scenario – instantly being able to jab them in, whether it is a bed surface, a small unexpected fall or whatever.

    Whip it good (<– an old Devo song),
    Andrew

  4. Kerry February 8th, 2010 10:38 am

    Lou, thanks for sharing your “schooling”. The more we, who haven’t experienced the same decision, can visualize the possible decisions, hopefully the smarter we’ll ski.

  5. Caleb February 8th, 2010 10:53 am

    Wow Louie! When I saw the first pic I was thinking how jealous I was of your maritime snowpack. Goes to show that Low and No are two different things. Glad you are okay. We kind of need you in Alaska so we can find the summit :biggrin: .

  6. harpo February 8th, 2010 11:55 am

    Glad you are ok Louie.

    One or two whippets? What hand positions did you use to arrest? I have arrested with one whippet before and used traditional ice axe technique to arrest. I only carried one whippet so I could concentrate on arresting as with an ice axe if it needed to be used. I think I read Andrew saying he prefers to ski with two, and if he needs them he drives both into the snow without changing his grip from when he was skiing with them. Seems to me it would be hard to control your whippets with only one hand on each in ski postion, but I have not tried it in pratice or anger.

    What are peoples thoughts on this?

  7. Nick February 8th, 2010 12:03 pm

    Harpo – I have always wondered that. I have 2 whippets, and to be frank, they stay at home 99% of the time because I always equated them only necessary during Spring coolie skiing down in the Eastern Sierra. From Louie’s story (p.s. glad you are OK Louie), sounds like I should consider always skiing with these.

    The rare times I have taken them out, it was with 2. But I always tended to think using one and going with the traditional axe self arrest may be more effective. No real practical experience to share, however.

  8. Cameron February 8th, 2010 1:17 pm

    Interesting read Louie and thanks for sharing. Did you get a bit of a temperature inversion during the day? I was near Whistler and set off a small slab on Saturday in “low” hazard and wondered if the high temperatures are what changed the hazard so much. 6 people skied the same line before me and some sluff triggered a 10cm deep slab below me. Size 1 and no consequences to anyone involved but definitely a humbling experience.

  9. Nick February 8th, 2010 1:30 pm

    Thanks for sharing that Louie, a learning experience for us all. Great photos by the way, looks like an otherwise awesome time.

  10. Sky February 8th, 2010 1:57 pm

    Glad you’re all right, Louie.

  11. Louie February 8th, 2010 5:02 pm

    Harpo- I was carrying two Whippets, and used both of them with the same grip I used while skiing. I was able to get them all the way into the bed surface, which was fairly hard. I didn’t really get a chance to think about hand position too much as it was happening. However, since I had the wrist straps on, I think it wouldn’t have been a good idea to waste time repositioning my hands and then have a second Whippet dangling from my wrist.

    I feel like the reason to use a ice axe style grip would be to get your weight behind the Whippet if you couldn’t get the pick in all the way. Since the picks on Whippets are so short, the snow has to be super hard to be unable to get two of them in all the way. I think that if I would have only used one Whippet I would not have been able to stop as quickly.

    Just my thoughts, perhaps someone should do some kind of tests to see what is the best way to arrest with whippets?

    Cameron- Didn’t really notice much of an inversion, it was partly cloudy, and t-shirt temps for most of the day. The snow was super stable for the most part, except for wind slabs I guess.

  12. Douglas Kraus February 8th, 2010 7:10 pm

    Louie,
    You know your Mom is going to read this…

  13. Mom February 8th, 2010 8:39 pm

    Douglas – I hate to admit it, but Lou and I had a close call just a few days before Louie. It’s been a tricky winter.

    Louie dear,
    I appreciate your courage for sharing this frightening experience, and your humble honesty. Thanks for being careful. It makes me happy that you are getting out in our beautiful world and I know you are trying to use your smarts to figure out how to come home safe. Berg Heil. I love you, Mom

  14. Thomas B February 8th, 2010 8:49 pm

    experience is a lantern that shines on your back.

    Thanks for sharing, mistakes should be shared so that others may learn, we all make them.

  15. Chris Pemberton February 8th, 2010 8:53 pm

    Thanks for sharing – probably not an easy experience to process, let alone share. And great photos.

  16. David February 8th, 2010 9:18 pm

    Good on ya for sharing. Looks like a great trip and learning opportunity.

  17. Michael Kennedy February 8th, 2010 9:28 pm

    Glad you are okay, Louie.

    Great job on getting out of a bad situation, and kudos for having the courage to share. We can all learn from each others’ mistakes, and an honest accounting of what happened and what you learned helps the rest of us make better decisions in the future. It’s never too late to gain a fuller understanding of the world we travel in!

    Michael K.

  18. Lou February 8th, 2010 9:44 pm

    We do need to learn lessons in any arena, and this was a good one for Louie. He was hesitant to share because he’s seen so much chest pounding B.S. in certain places on the web, but we encouraged him to do so. Writing honestly about an experience is such a great way to fully learn from it.

    And yeah, of course the parents figure one lesson like that is enough!

  19. Lou February 8th, 2010 9:47 pm

    P.S., the close call Lisa refers to actually wasn’t really a close call, just a trigger of an avy close from our safe zone on a ridge (we were doing correct micro-routefinding. But it definitely woke us up, and was good to see as it was a super unstable depth hoar caused slab that ran through REALLY dense conifers for about 300 vertical feet. A killer or maimer for sure.

  20. Mammam February 8th, 2010 9:54 pm

    Louie, thanks for sharing your story. The photos are wonderful. Your experience brought back memories of your Dads great adventure and brought some tears to my eyes. Continue to LIVE LARGE, but be safe.

  21. Matt Kinney February 8th, 2010 10:40 pm

    Beat yourself up over this. You should do that. Then get yourself back out there and rip it up. Forget about the whippets(after the fact) and be more concerned about the mistakes that got you there in the first place. If you think too much about how you can survive a slide, then you may be convinced that it is possible and increase your risk level in the future. It becomes a deadly spiral. Soon you are the guy who is talking about all the avalanches they have been in, which are the folks I ( and others) am least likely to ski with.

    In the meantime … .avoid skiing with a packs of 20 yo males. Find some old farts to mix in with your group or better…..women.

    Nice TR and thanks for the analysis. Big AK is coming soon to a dynafit near you and that is a TR worth being very careful in preperation for…….:smile:

  22. Mark February 9th, 2010 8:45 am

    Super report Louie. The Cascades never cease to amaze. And I’m glad you handled your incident so well as it transpired–no time to ponder, just act.

  23. Lou February 9th, 2010 9:40 am

    Good points Matt!

  24. sherryb February 9th, 2010 10:05 am

    Wow, Louie! You da man! You’re certainly not that little kid in the front of your dad’s guidebook anymore. I hope you enjoy the change of scenery and the more stable snowpack while you’re up there in school. I am envious of your youth and your opportunities. Rock on, young man. Great report! :biggrin:

  25. Sal Paradise February 9th, 2010 11:54 am

    As an eastern skier I am somewhat jealeous of the western terrain, but obviously it comes at a high price…like climbing, it seems that sooner or later if you backcounty ski for long enough in avalanche country you are going to have a near miss (or worse), even if you are highly trained and experienced…thanks for sharing Louie, glad things turned out OK.

  26. mtraslin February 9th, 2010 11:52 pm

    Good area!

    Thanks for sharing…..

  27. Jason Hummel February 10th, 2010 1:06 pm

    Louie,

    Awesome work. That is a great peak for sure. I’m glad you are okay. Wind slab is no fun.

    On a side note, I’m also excited to see someone ski this line. Many years ago my friend ben and I climbed and skied Larrabee in a whiteout. The huge face had always attracted us. During that trip we ascended your descent route and descended directly to the valley (rather than cutting over) through tight couloirs and cliffs. It’s a very cool place. Thanks for your report. Stay safe out there.

  28. Mark February 11th, 2010 1:50 pm

    Louie,

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

    I hope you realize how hard your parents rock.

  29. mark February 11th, 2010 2:08 pm

    hey nice work, great fotos and thanks for bringing up this open discussion.
    i have to agree and disagree with mr Kinney.
    yeh you oughtta focus on how you got into that situation and how to avoid in the future.
    no dont forget about the whippets or refrain from considering other escape strategies.
    everybody makes mistakes and some of the most dangerous terrain actually looks dangerously similar to eezy open friendly terrain. If Matt Peters, a very safe and conservative (by all accounts) and professional ACMG certified guide can get trashed by a slide, while working, it can happen to anyone, anytime, even you mr Kinney. my bouy the Brazinator, one of the strongest alpinists in Canada, no not afraid to toe the line but smart enough to ride it careful, disco’d his shoulder last week, self arresting when hit by a freak sluff from above… he’s pretty happy to be alive still.
    escape strategies may save your life.
    your story Louie is proof that you can fight and win.
    personally i avoid skiing with peeps who think they can tour thru gods country and maintain absolute ‘safety’, get reel, there are no guarantees in the alpine.
    but to contribute to the discussion, i wonder Louie, if the slab was quite small and shallow, as you said, and you were carried 100′, it sounds like the snow must have been pulling on your feet quite hard, against the resistance of the 2 whippets?
    perhaps focussing also on your feet might help you get out back faster, treading water so to speak, not letting the snow drag on your skiis so much. im a snowboarder and i find that if / when snow, sluff, slab pulls on my stick it helps to jump on it, like when im sliding off a high traverse track and i gotta hop back up as i slide along. also, very counter intuitive, is not putting the stick across the fall line, which exposes surface area to the snow to pull on. especially shallow slabs, when you can still get an edge into the base, a steep traverse line might minimise your anchor coefficient while moving you to the side.
    obviously alot of variables in effect but im pretty sure that considering potential situations will provide more options if / when shiz happens. you dont get much time to think when it goes down.
    i think this is a hugely neglected area in avalanche safety, as if ‘Avalanches’ are isolated, predictable and completely avoidable. Real safety in tiger country involves recognising that snow flows downhill in a million different ways and if youre on a hill you oughtta think about your involvement with the medium.
    sorry for the long rant.

  30. Pete February 19th, 2010 12:15 am

    Please don’t post your lines with red/blue showing other people how to ski these lines. What’s up with claiming lines? Be humble. Whey are we giving people a guided tour?

  31. Lou February 19th, 2010 7:04 am

    My take is that the one of least humble and most selfish attitudes I’ve seen among backcountry skiers is that of trying to keep lines “secret,” as if they are only for the elite few. I guess there is more than one way of looking at a line on a map or photo, eh?

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Welcome to Louis (Lou) Dawson's backcountry skiing information opinion website and e magazine. Lou's passion for the past 45 years has been alpinism, climbing, mountaineering and skiing -- along with all manner of outdoor recreation. He has authored numerous books and articles about backcountry skiing and is well known as the first person to ski down all 54 of Colorado's 14,000-foot peaks, otherwise known as the Fourteeners! Books and free back country news and information here, and tons of Randonnee rando telemark info.

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