Colorado Avalanche Center Publishes Sheep Creek Loveland Report — Annotated Excerpt


This post by WildSnow.com blogger  

Debris during rescue and recovery, Halsted Morris photo.

Debris during rescue and recovery, Halsted Morris photo. To humble yourself and reassess your skills, put yourself in the photo. I know I did.

((With only one survivor and issues of decency towards the deceased, this could not have been an easy report. As this is such an important and record setting accident, we publish an annotated ((with double quotes)) and CONDENSED version below. For the full report with images and such, see the CAIC website. The report alludes to human factors but doesn’t address them directly. Read on to learn and perhaps ponder if we as backcountry riders need to rethink our whole approach to avalanche safety. Also, I’d normally not take the emotional dive of this sort of commentary. But this accident is a different animal. It indicates something might be broken about how we learn and behave regarding avalanche danger when our intention is to have a short, safe ski tour (as the report implies these guys were after). Thus, I’ll take the plunge. When you comment, please be ultra respectful of the deceased and the lone survivor.))

CAIC Avalanche Comments
……. The avalanche was a hard slab, ((on April 20, at approximatly 10:15 AM)) triggered by one or more party members at the bottom of the slope. The avalanche was medium size relative to the avalanche path, large enough to bury or destroy a car… and broke into old snow layers and to the ground …. The crown face ranged from less than 1 foot (25cm) to over 12 feet (380cm) deep, with an average crown height of 5 feet (155cm). The slide was 800 feet (244m) wide, and ran 600 vertical feet (180m), and broke small tree branches up to 2 inches (5cm) in diameter.

CAIC Weather Summary
……. Periods of convectively-enhanced snowfall occurred on the day of the accident. Snowfall totals for the week prior to the accident were around 3.5 feet at Loveland Ski Area 1.7 miles west of the accident site, with over 3 inches of snow water equivalent at Loveland Basin SNOTEL site (Figure 1).

CAIC Snowpack Summary
……… By mid-April, the snowpack near Loveland Pass was 150 to 200 cm deep, but some wind-loaded areas were over 3 meters deep. The upper meter of the snowpack had stiff slabs… slabs 10 to 70 cm thick. There was a prominent layer of depth hoar capped by a thin crust, 20 to 30 cm above the ground. The bottom 25 cm of the snowpack consisted of well developed but rounding depth hoar…. The rapid, heavy load from the April storms initiated a deep-slab avalanche cycle in the Front Range and Vail-Summit forecast zones. Large deep slabs, running on the buried depth hoar layer, were triggered naturally and by backcountry travelers in the several days leading up to the accident on April 20th. This included a fatal accident in the Vail Pass area …and a natural cycle in the Straight Creek area on April 18th. All of these deep slabs, including the avalanche discussed in this accident, ran on similar terrain: north-facing slopes, 32 to 42 degrees steep, and in the near-treeline elevation band. All of these avalanche released from low down in the start zone.

((Above are the red-flag warnings that many of us are mystified about, as to how the warnings were apparently not enough of a factor to change the group’s behavior to the point of preventing or at least mitigating the accident. Extrapolating from that, we are wondering if the avalanche safety community needs to re-think the whole way we approach decision making, and how it is taught.))

CAIC — Events Leading to the Avalanche
…… A large group of backcountry enthusiasts taking part in the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering met in the parking lot of the Loveland Ski Area.

((This is where we can’t help by think that problematic human factors came into play. As in previous blog post, this is where I start looking in the mirror. How many times have I dropped my guard because of being involved with an event or semi-event, letting social interaction get in the way of cool calm and collected decision making? I’m guilty. Of course no way of knowing for sure if that’s what went on here, but we need to make a few assumptions so we can learn something from this.))

…… The event was organized to promote backcountry snowboarding and avalanche safety.

((It would be insulting to the reader’s intelligence to not acknowledge the horrible irony in the above. And, it’s not the first time. Just a few years ago a man died while taking an avalanche safety course near Aspen. Extrapolating, I’d agree that an element of luck and fate are involved in these things, and since avalanche safety courses are in the field a lot, looking for avalanche conditions to evaluate, they will get involved in avalanches. Though they were associated with an avalanche safety oriented event, the Sheep Creek group wasn’t an avy safety course, but they were indeed part of a culture that has frequent exposure to avalanche terrain due to their chosen form and style of recreation. Yet ultimately, people shouldn’t die like this when associated with an avalanche safety event or program. The fact that this happened again indicates we may need to re-think our whole approach.))

…… Several smaller groups departed the ski area parking lot between 9 and 10 a.m. for some short backcountry tours, with the intent of meeting back up in the parking lot in the early afternoon.

((Following is important, and while looking good on the surface indicates something was off. I’m having trouble putting my finger on it, but it reminds me of when I’ve dug snow pits that had some iffy data, yet somehow rationalized continuing up a suspect area. Or worse, when I’ve just simply thrown caution to the wind due to extenuating circumstances such as moving through a storm and needing to reach shelter. Or, I’m embarrassed to admit, simply wanting to reach a cozy hut sooner than later so I could have beer. Sad, I know, but yeah I’ll admit to some pretty dumb decision making over the years.))

A smaller group of 6 ((the group that would be caught))… departed the parking lot shortly before 10 a.m. and headed up towards Loveland Pass on U.S. Highway 6, intending to do a short (~1 hour) tour in the Sheep Creek drainage. The group read the CAIC avalanche bulletin together, and discussed the deep persistent slab problem. With this in mind, they decided that they would head in from the upper-most switchback (Scotty’s Corner) on the old summer road, cross the Sheep Creek drainage gully, and ascend a few hundred vertical feet onto northwest-facing slopes of Mount Sniktau.

((Ok, following is where the breakdown in safety procedure perhaps occurred. They decided to enter what they apparently _knew_ was the runout zone, ostensibly without due consideration of how dangerous the possible hard slab conditions were, the possibility of triggering a slide from the bottom, and the large size of their group. In many people’s opinion (mine included) 6 is a large group size and requires quite a bit of extra hazard mitigation and style changes to move safely.

Also regarding runout zone, as we spoke of extensively in our previous post, the concept of alpha angle is an important thing for anyone traveling in avalanche terrain to learn. (Alpha angle is simply the overall angle of the slope threatening you from above, from your feet up to the top of where the avalanche could start. Conservative rule of thumb for Colorado is if your alpha angle is at or greater than about 22 degrees you could get hit by the avalanche.) I spoke to a CAIC investigator about this, and he told me that while due to the structure of the CAIC website they don’t state an alpha angle for this slide, they indeed figured it was 24 degrees. That means if the group had sighted the alpha angle with proven techniques (inclinometer, etc.) they would have know for certain they were in range of the avalanche. It is unknown if they did this or not.

That being said, 24 degrees is perhaps on the “safe” looking side of things, so if the group was estimating their exposure they could have easily assumed they were in an area that was unlikely as a runout, or even out of danger. But the report indicates they knew they were in danger (spacing themselves out, etc.) so I might be grasping at straws here in trying to give benefit of the doubt. More, the terrain trap was also present and exacerbated any danger exponentially.

The report below states the group DID decide to cross in the “runout” zone. So perhaps they did have good concept of alpha angle and extent of run, and just chose to roll the dice. Easy for me to write that pat take, but really, you have to wonder if in a group of 6 there might have been a few people who actually did not know how much if any danger they were in.))

…… They aimed to avoid the more north-facing slopes which they recognized as a threat, by crossing well below the start zone, in the runout zone, to reach what they deemed safer terrain.

…… The group, in climbing mode, traveled a few hundred yards from the highway down the old summer road until it emerges from the the trees into the open alpine area of the Sheep Creek drainage.

…… They decided to spread out with approximately 50 feet between people as they crossed below the north-facing slopes

((apologies and respect to all involved, but 50 feet is really nothing in this situation. Even two times that, 100 feet, would have been nothing though could possibly have saved a few of the group as the resulting spacing would have totaled around 600 feet.))

…… and head for a small stand of trees on a small knoll on the far (northeast) side of the open slopes. The first two members in the group had reached the small stand of trees, with the other 4 group members close behind, when they felt a large collapse and heard a whumpf. It took several seconds for the crack to propagate uphill and release the deep slab. In those several seconds, they all ran for the far end of the slope and towards the small stand of trees.

Accident Summary
…… The avalanche was quite large and engulfed the entire group from above at approximately 10:15 a.m. The avalanche pushed all group members between 5 and 20 feet into the Sheep Creek gully. Five of the six members of the group were completely buried.

((Following is grim and hard to read, I’ve redacted, it’s on the CAIC website. Main point is the sole survivor was trapped in the snow and could do nothing to effect a rescue of his friends. Our hearts reach out to him.))

…… The survivor was third in line at the time of the accident…

Rescue Summary
…… Two highway avalanche forecasters from the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) drove over Loveland Pass to Berthoud Pass on the morning of the 20th. They noticed the avalanche around 12:15 p.m. from Interstate 70 as they were driving back from Berthoud Pass. They headed up Loveland Pass to investigate, and by 12:45 p.m. they were walking down the summer road to the edge of the debris. They turned on their beacons to search mode, but did not detect any signals. The victims were out of range on the far side of the avalanche debris.

((I’m not a big proponent of increased range being a beacon feature that we base shopping decisions on, but in this case, hmmmm.))

…… They used binoculars to inspect the debris field and look for tracks leading into the avalanche, but did not see any signs of human involvement. The CAIC forecasters then drove back down to the Loveland Ski Area arriving around 1:30 p.m., and asked participants at the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering if they knew of the avalanche and/or if anyone in their event had triggered it. At this point several people at the gathering mobilized, knowing that a group of 6 had headed towards Sheep Creek that morning.

…… The first two responders (including a Loveland ski patrol member) arrived at the avalanche site around 1:45 p.m. and initiated a beacon search.

((Remainder of this section describes the recovery of the deceased and rescue of the sole survivor. See CAIC website for this part of report. Thanks goes out to the individuals who did their best to save lives.))

…… At least two members of the group were wearing avalanche airbags, but neither were deployed. Other group members were wearing Avalungs, but no victims were found with the Avalungs in their mouths.

((Above is of course a core sentence of the whole report. As we put more and ever more faith in technology that could save us in an avalanche event, Sheep Creek shows us that a fairly common circumstance (terrain trap and bottom of runout, combined with fast moving hard slab) made all the technology moot. Again, this keeps me thinking that I need to reassess my whole approach to my decision making. Could one of these people have been me? You? Time for some introspection as we grieve for these young lives lost.))

Comments from CAIC

((Forecast excerpt redacted; it was a good forecast that if heeded with more care might have prevented the accident.))

…… It is rare that we have as clear of evidence of a deep-persistent avalanche problem as we did the week leading up to this accident. Some of the group likely drove by fresh evidence of the problem in Straight Creek on their way to Saturday’s event. Before their tour, the group read about the conditions in the avalanche bulletin and identified deep-persistent slabs as the primary avalanche problem. They selected terrain that was less likely to produce a deep-slab avalanche, but to get there they traveled through a dangerous area. Unfortunately, the travel technique employed to mitigate the risk was not effective for the size of the avalanche that released. At least 3 members of the group reached the “island of safety” they had identified, only to be subsequently caught and buried in the avalanche.

…… It is easy to underestimate the consequences of getting caught in a deep-persistent slab avalanche, because these slides are often much bigger than most of the avalanches witnessed by backcountry recreationalists.

((Above is where the “experienced” chimera raises up. One measure of experience is having observed numerous, perhaps hundreds of avalanches, including large destructive hard slabs. Without this true experience it is difficult to apply informed judgment. Perhaps some of the group had this experience. If so they let their guard down. If someone didn’t have that kind of experience, then again we must consider how avalanche education and current recreation style gave them the “tools” to have made such a tragic mistake.))

…… Deep-persistent slabs do not form every year, like storm and wind slab avalanches. The only effective travel technique for this avalanche problem is to avoid areas where deep slabs might release, or if the risk is deemed acceptable, expose a single group member to the danger.

…… Spreading out often does not mitigate the risk to the group because these avalanches are always large and destructive.

((Above sentence in the CAIC report is the only statement I take issue with. Spreading out actually does often mitigate the risk, provided it is done in light of accurate risk assessment. The problem with Sheep Creek is it’s quite obvious the group did not know how much risk they were exposed to. I mean no disrespect with that, it is purely axiomatic based on the outcome.))

((A bit more is redacted as are the graphics, check full report on CAIC website before you comment — but civil comments are appreciated and could save lives. Do we need to rethink our whole approach to avalanche safety education and technique? Could your normal approach to things have gotten you into this situation? Let’s see some self examination.))

Comments

77 Responses to “Colorado Avalanche Center Publishes Sheep Creek Loveland Report — Annotated Excerpt”

  1. joseph.szasz April 24th, 2013 4:44 pm

    i solo ski in the backcountry. i dont talk about it alot but in my heart of heart i know i can not stand up to pier pressure when at the top of a chute with a bunch of friends who want to drop in. my personallity is adverse to conflict within groups while skiing. i think people think “hey i got a whole crew who can dig me out if nessacary.” i spend many days meadow skipping and very few in the steep alpine. i really feel that skiing in groups is very dangerous. i would much rather ski by myself and perhaps die by myself than to be a part of a large group accident. i spent the winter in Vail and i think some people just don’t show the combination of terrain and snowpack enough respect. i think we will see fewer and fewer solo skier killed in avalanches and more tradgedies like this one.

    we could have easily had several incidents like this one in vail this season, trust me.

    thoughts and prayers for the loved ones

    as Romeo would say, LIVE to ski!

  2. Tina April 24th, 2013 4:51 pm

    A humbling example of the power of an avalanche… the pictures on the website are mind-boggling as to the size and scope of this incident. My thoughts go out to all involved (rescuers, victims, survivors, family). I know that I will be even more careful when considering terrain decisions in light of this avalanche. Danger from above, terrain traps, and deep persistent slabs were definitely a part of my avalanche education, and yet are not always the first on my mind when selecting my route. It’s a good reminder of just how many factors to consider when selecting your skin track, and that it’s the getting there safely as much as the getting down safely that matters in the backcountry.

  3. Bruce April 24th, 2013 5:03 pm

    With all due respect to the deceased and the lone survivor, the one glaring omission from this and all other reports I’ve seen is the lack of any substantive investigation prior to the accident. That is, there is NO mention of any direct investigation of the snowpack! No pits dug, no actual calculation of the alpha angle, etc. They were going merely on the report from CAIC? Taking 30 minutes to dig a pit would have clearly shown the layer of depth hoar and none of us would be talking about this tragedy.
    They knew it was sketchy, but to disregard physical examination of what they were dealing with seems overwhelmingly irresponsible.
    Given the nature of the “event” and the “experience” of those involved, I find this mistake unforgivable.
    Condolences to the friends and families of the victims, and to all of us that enjoy the thrills and adventure the backcountry offers, please take heed and think before you go!

  4. Joe April 24th, 2013 5:10 pm

    @bruce…

    In all fairness, a standard pit now adays is only 1 meter deep. If the crown ranged upwards of 8 feet deep, no a pit would not have helped. Honestly, pit study is one of the main forms of snow science that needs to be rethought. A pit dug at 10k near a road would have no correlation to 13k alpine, or even 100 yards away for that matter.

    Overall Obs need to be stressed more, local winds, precip reports, etc will give you all of the same information if you know how to use it. These guys did know how to use it, it seems they might have just underestimated the risk. As a Vail local, this hits us hard. Knowing who these guys were, it hits us harder because we all know we have rolled the dice a few times when we shouldnt have. And it is very hard to wonder why such good people were lost. So as Lou says, please use this as a learning curve, not a judgement call.

  5. SR April 24th, 2013 5:34 pm

    It actually sounds like they were aware that the slope that went was a problem, and consciously (or at least, consciously for some of the group), chose to utilize the terrain trap/runout to tiptoe around the problem, to get to the perceived safety of the NW aspects they planned to ski. So, they already seemed to know implicitly that they were inside the alpha angle, and to view the slope as reasonably suspect.

    Since they also seem genuinely to have been looking for some fun turns, nothing more, and with other options available used route selection that exposed them to some significant contingent hazards that they seem to have been aware of, there seems a cost/benefit issue here. I’m not sure if that’s an avy ed issue, though, or rather simply a bad qualitative judgement made in haste.

  6. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 5:35 pm

    Bruce, yeah, in my opinion as well, the pit was totally unnecessary and actually just as likely to mislead as help. Figuring the slope angles and such, however, would have been good solid data. It’s unclear what the group did with slope assessment, but the report indicates they did know they were in a runout zone and had done a paltry amount of spacing out.

    It’s guesswork on my part, but since they were in an area at around 24 degrees alpha angle, the threat from above probably did not appear heinous unless you had a very well trained and focused set of avalanche eyeballs.

    But 24 degrees is well within where an energetic hard slab can run… sadly…

    Lou

  7. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 5:40 pm

    SR, when I speak of avy education aspects to this, I’m referring to the decision making and judgement part of what is taught, or attempted to be taught anyway… In my opinion formal avalanche education has always been lacking in this area. It’s gotten better, way better in some cases. But still, it’s almost like what’s really needed is three hours of “how to identify an avalanche slope and read a CAIC forecast” then 60 hours of decision making tests, simulations, and behavior modification exercises. In my experience, a lot of people just don’t get it.

    Lou

  8. Xavier April 24th, 2013 5:40 pm

    @Bruce…. save your “overwhelmingly irresponsible” comments and look in the mirror as Lou suggests.

    They were a few hundred yards from the road.
    They were 15 minutes into their tour, skinning.
    They took a calculated risk in crossing a gully below an avalanche path in an area of reduced slope angle but still within the runout area. Their risk analysis and mitigation( spacing out 50 ft apart) wasn’t sufficient.

    I ,and a lot of “experienced”or high frequency tourers…whatever adjective you want to use, BC skiers have done the same, frequently and got away with it.

    That’s the lesson for me…….hard slabs= catastrophic and huge and therefore run-out zones huge= no safe place to cross.

    Condolences to the families.

  9. Chris Kipfer April 24th, 2013 5:48 pm

    I guess that it is time to replace my 30 year old Ortovox pair. But at my age, waiting for the grave, I mostly solo tour, not wanting to keep the younger legs back,and I mostly stay off of avalanche alpha. I’m not sure of the causes, but it does seem that there is considerably more risk taking in recent years. Perhaps the combination of false security given by all the new gizmos,skis and snowboards that make tackling the steep and deep much easier,and the plethera of video daredevils have in some way changed the sport. There is some sense here in Steamboat though. After our record snowfall of 34 inches in 30 hours in Feb last season no one was caught in the massive slide in Fish Creek canyon that occured a few days later in an area that very rarely slides,and is an extremely popular exit from the ski area..

  10. Chris Kipfer April 24th, 2013 6:00 pm

    I remember an incident in Europe years ago of an experienced well respected guide killed along with his client. His client was observed to be struggling a bit and the guide decided to make the climb easier by taking a much more exposed route crossing an obvious danger zone. I believe that we have all taken the easier route sometime and only if it frightened us at the time was a lesson learned.

  11. Buck April 24th, 2013 6:08 pm

    “CAIC report just above this paragraph states “smaller group of 6? perhaps implying that this was a small group in terms of avalanche safety procedure. This is of course not the case. In many people’s opinion (mine included) 6 is a large group size and requires quite a bit of extra hazard mitigation and style changes to move safely.”

    Lou, I don’t think that you have interpreted this correctly. The “smaller group of 6″ refers to a smaller group than the other groups that went out that morning. It’s just an observation relative to other group sizes in the event, not a value judgement on the safety/appropriateness of 6 as a group size in terms of avalanche safety procedure. Pretty sure CAIC would agree it was a big group in that sense.

  12. Robert April 24th, 2013 6:27 pm

    Reading the CAIC report, it does seem like there is a considerable amount of overhang risk. The island of safety seemed largely non-existent. How filled in was the gulley? From the report it appears that two of the deaths and the survivor were all in the island of safety but if they had continued another 50′ or so into more favourable terrain they would not have been caught? It’s hard to tell from Figures 5 and 14 just how close they were. The report leaves a number of questions unanswered such as this, where the group was planning on skiing, and what was the overhang risk from the slope on the opposite side of the gulley? Here’s what the CAC’s Avaluator 2 card has to say:

    Avalanche Conditions:
    Regional Danger Rating Considerable or Higher? Yes, +1 point
    Persistent Avalanche Problems? Yes, +1 point
    Evidence of Slab Avalanches in the Area? Yes, +1 point
    Signs of Instability, such as whumpfing? Unknown, 0 points
    Recent Loading of the snowpack within 48 hours? No, but lots of snow and wind in last 96 hours — 0.5 points to be conservative.
    Critical Warming, to near 0^C? No, 0 points

    Terrain Characteristics:
    Slope Steepness: 41 degrees, +2 points
    Terrain Traps: Yes, gully, +1 point
    Slope Shape, convex or unsupported: No, 0 points
    Forest density, i.e. anchoring: No anchors, +1 point

    Total Avalanche Conditions score: 3.5 points
    Total Terrain Characteristics score: 4 points
    Avaluator 2 says: Travel not recommended (red)

    Using a plastic card to make your decisions for you has issues, but in this case would have been illuminating. A properly scared newbie who knows he knows nothing about avalanche hazard would probably not have gone into that situation.

  13. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 6:35 pm

    Robert, excellent.

    Buck, I’ll look at that. If confusing perhaps I’ll just delete that whole section from my annotated version. Later on, CAIC does imply that the group was spaced apart, at 50 feet. That is not spaced apart in any significant way for that situation. To us, spaced apart can easily mean a few hundred feet at the least, though it varies with the size of the exposure area and what we’re doing. And sometimes we don’t do it very well. Lou

  14. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 6:40 pm

    Buck, thanks, I edited that. Lou

  15. Barrows April 24th, 2013 8:25 pm

    I think Xavier hits the nail on the head here: most of us have probably made similar mistakes in our careers, and gotten lucky. I know that I have. Unfortunately, this group was very unlucky. To me, the primary mistake here was the large underestimation of the potential size of the slide, they though they were spacing far enough apart to not be exposing multiple individuals to the danger, they thought the small treed knoll on the far side of the path was a safe zone.
    I can understand how one could easily underestimate the potential size and magnitude of a large HS avalanche, and how many individuals may not have had a lot of direct experience of seeing such slides in action. Maybe this is where we need to better educate ourselves.

  16. r udall April 24th, 2013 8:45 pm

    Lou

    There’s another factor here that I think comes into play.

    Until you’ve actually experienced, in a weak snowpack year, the phenomenon of remote triggering avalanches, the notion seems counterintuitive, physically implausible.

    I’m sure some of these skiers had certainly experienced the whoomp of a settling snowpack as one wallows through willows of on a thin base above depth hoar.

    But that’s one thing. It’s entirely another to setlle a meadow and then see a hillside 200 yards away slide.

    I can remember a single day in upper Cement Creek 40 years ago where we triggered many slides, maybe 6 or 8 while safely traveling on the valley floor. We weren’t in the runout zone; we weren’t in the starting zone, we weren’t anywhere near what the mind would recognize as a trigger point.

    If the slide ran 600 vertical, as this one did, on a 40 degree starting zone, it started 1000 feet from them. That’s more than 300 yards.

    Until you’ve actually seen this, long-distance propagation, it’s difficult to credit it could happen.

    My best guess of how they might have been thinking: yeah, I’m not too happy being under this slope, but let’s tiptoe across this runout. The starting zone is up there, high above us where it gets steep.

    The idea that the runout zone could be a starting zone, that they were in the Hurt Locker and going to trigger a distant IED….

    You don’t see these sorts of slides in maritime climates. And you don’t see them in Colorado every year. And frankly, in my experience, in the infrequent years when you do see them in Colorado they are more likely in mid-winter than in late April, when the snowpack begins to gain strength….

    So, they were dealing with the tag end of the snow physics bell curve….

    I’m remembering now all the times I was in places on slopes where I really didn’t want to be, that dry feeling in the back of your throat, where your mind is going let me just get across this SOB, and your breathing is shallow and tense.

    I don’t think any of them wanted to be there. And perhaps some of them fully knew the hazard, but I kinda wonder if they didn’t understand that through strange acupuncture, putting ski boot down here could press trigger point 300 or 400 yards away.

  17. Bar Barrique April 24th, 2013 8:49 pm

    My condolences to the families of the victims. Good time to contemplate our occasional lapses in judgement.
    My personal take is; when conditions are “right’ for “big slab” events, avoid all avalanche terrain.
    We often get avalanche forecasts of “considerable”, but if we are familiar with the local snow pack, we often make estimations of risk (perhaps not so accurately).

  18. Pete Weaver April 24th, 2013 8:58 pm

    If they had crossed 100ft below where they did it probably wouldn’t have triggered. and propagated. They also wouldn’t have been exposed for as long because it is narrower. That would have required going downhill on skins, something I hate doing.

    I would like to hear the survivors explanation of what they were thinking crossing exposed like that. They clearly didn’t realize the danger they were in. How that state of mind came to be is what caused this.

  19. Kevin S April 24th, 2013 9:23 pm

    Lou: Your commentary along with the report is sobering. To your request for self-examination, I’ve been a BC wimp the last two seasons after digging a pit on Uneva in Dec 2011 and which time I told my wife people would die once it starts snowing based upon the rotten layer we observed. Unfortunately a kid died inbounds at Vail once it started snowing in Feb 2012. As for this year, my early season observations and subsequent snow pack again left me cold on the BC experience but I will go out Sunday morning. I will tour this area (8:30ish) as I want to see the remnants for myself and pay respect to the victims. Thanks for providing a great learning opportunity in the face of a devastating event.

  20. Kevin S April 24th, 2013 9:39 pm

    A question possibly worth debating and I struggle to ask it knowing the terrain: What was their objective and what was the logic behind their route in the bowl?

  21. Jim April 24th, 2013 9:45 pm

    Here’s one decision making tree they use in Alaska using the three-strikes rule for skiing in avalanche prone terrain applied to the Colorado accident as a case study.

    Strike 1: Storm cycle in days prior on weak snowpack. “clear of evidence of a deep-persistent avalanche problem”

    Strike 2: Wind during storm cycle with recent natural and human triggered avalanches evident.” Some of the group likely drove by fresh evidence of the problem in Straight Creek”

    Strike 3: Entering a terrain trap with a large group below a 35 degree slope.

  22. George April 24th, 2013 9:48 pm

    This is a superb After Action Report (AAR) in military terms.
    My commitment is to do the following:
    1. Buy an inclinometer/clinometer.
    2. Print the CAC Avaluator 2 card.
    3. Print the lessons learned from this tragedy (Paper is light)
    4. Pack 1-3 in my pack.
    5. Commit to more avi training and be humble.
    Thanks Lou

  23. Ed Graef April 24th, 2013 9:51 pm

    The times have changed in mountain sports. People can climb 5.11 after two seasons in the gym and because of easily accessed info that would otherwise take a lifetime to learn, people are often in terrain they have no business. To master any discipline of mountaineering takes many, many years, but because of technology, advances in training and easy to access info the learning curve is shortened. The median level of mountain savvy is much lower than it used to be. I Don’t know anything about the people involved in the most recent tragedy and am not speaking directly to this incident; but there is an unsettling trend emerging from the last decade. The reality is: “The leader should not fall” is not the rule any more, subsequently a more reckless mountaineer is the result – in all disciplines of mountaineering.

  24. Mitchellskis April 24th, 2013 10:15 pm

    One additional factor that CAIC does not mention, but I believe may have played into the triggering if the slide is that this creek bed/gully/terrain trap is filled with willows. These willows typically exacerbate the faceting of the snowpack at the bottom and thus are prone to be an area of collapsing and in this case triggering a slide from below. I hate travelling through willow areas as they will collapse and cause wallowing even in he absence of a slope right above to be triggered.

  25. sooki April 24th, 2013 10:24 pm

    I feel bad that people died that day. I feel terrible for the one’s left behind. I was at Loveland pass that day. One of my novice group members suggested that slope and I immediately vetoed. I didn’t think it was not a good day for that aspect or anywhere near it. The hill covered in snow is a heavy system.These guys had a high tolerance for risk in this system even crossing the bottom of that path, and may have seen themselves safer because of their gear and experience. That day, all the red flags were waving and screaming at me. These guys must have seen something else. Conservative terrain choice on high (considerable) risk days with all the signs is the foundation of what these guys likely preached to others. Its bizarre that at 10:15 when they set it off we were hitching truck rides having a great day. I saw that truck parked at the switchback several times, didn’t know about the slide. Thought about why they were skiing that today, but didn’t think too much.

    Side note: If anybody comments on this with a reference to cars or gun laws I will get you, this is not the same thing.

  26. Collin April 24th, 2013 10:43 pm

    Lou, great comments and very useful insight. You’re never one to pull punches (as I learned in you ode to Romeo) but I think that’s important. After these tragedies I think there’s a tendency to chalk it up to accident or bad luck, but this limits our ability to objectively look at the situation and learn. I agree with you – with all due respect to those involved – mistakes were made. I am far from perfect, I’ve caused slides and got caught a few years back In a doozie I was lucky to walk away from. This hits hard because this could’ve been me, or any of us. But I’m one of the lucky ones who got to learn. And one thing learned by my group was that last weekend was a week to ski the resort. We called off our planned trip. One only needed to see the massive slide on Bachelor gulch to deduce the consequences were just too high with this snowpack. But I guess that comes down to one’s own risk tolerance. Still, after I saw the google image shot of where the slide occurred, I was stunned at the chosen route – as I gather you were – given the conditions. I’ll say it again, I’ve made plenty of mistakes and have been lucky. Unfortunately my heart aches when I think of these great guys and what happened. It leads me to answer yes to your question, perhaps we need to re-evaluate how we are educated on these things. But what sort of change I do not know.

  27. David B April 25th, 2013 1:14 am

    Please accept my comments below as an observation only. In no way am I questioning the actions of this party. This is a tradgedy and I respect that.

    There did appear to be enough red flags in available data to suggest that wasn’t the place to be.

    Recent local episodes, aspect, angle (50/50)?? and terrain trap just for starters should have been enough information to realise they were pushing the envelope.

    I’m not sure about the rethinking our decision making Lou with particular respect to avalanche avoidance. Based on the information available and within a reasonable risk assessment matrix this accident should have been avoided. The event component is the bit that worries me. I think this is your argument as well.

    My heart goes out to the families.

  28. Justin April 25th, 2013 1:45 am

    Sometimes, you have to call a bad decision a bad decision. It is not disrespectful to be honest, it is disrespectful to lie in the face of obvious truth. This wasn’t a freak occurrence and a random accident. The fact that there were people there at the time, they triggered it, they got caught in it, and they died was unfortunate, but from all the information everyone has given about the area and what was easily observable from other similar aspects, this sort of avalanche was happening consistently enough that this wasn’t some 1 in 1,000,000 occurrence. It is always hard to accept loss of life. I am thankful that you (Lou) and CAIC are skirting the line between respectful and brutally honest so well.

    This is the beauty of knowing when you are a novice (for me). I am a damned good skier, and I grew up in the mountains, but I am a BC skiing novice. This incident scares the living hell out of me. I am scared of things I don’t need to be, and MAYBE that prevents me from sneaking in that one extra epic day. But damn, I get so many powder days in. I am trying to understand the logic that says, “Today has to be the day.” I honestly think the EVENT ITSELF played a role. First, there were a ton of guys there for the event so it is quite possible that they took this route instead of finding another area because of the sheer volume of people there. The grizzled veteran guys that knew the area stayed away from it for good reason, but because perhaps a more preferred location was taken, they took a little more risk. Everyone was going to meet up after the event and it was going to be an epic day with everyone talking about what a great event it was. Who wants to be the group that says, “Nah man, we got 500 yds into our ascent and we called it and turned back around.” Spent half the day walking. The commenter above said he had noobs that were with him and everyone else declined to take this route for a reason. Everything about this indicates that the very dynamics of not only the small group decision making of the six, but also the gathering itself and the desire to get THAT DAY, that one single solitary day that meant more than the other 50 before it of potentially 50 after it was more important than safety.

    So you come back down and say, we got too far in and checked the alpha angle, looked at the area we got into had a dangerous area to cross, and lost 3 hours doing all of it and that cuts into the time you spend getting faceshots… Damn, shouldn’t the even for BC skiing and Avalanche safety be actively encouraging THAT KIND OF BEHAVIOR? The sheer size of this is unbelievable. Seeing the pictures of the terrain trap just blows my mind that they were there.

    I don’t want to generalize too much about the event or this particular group. I want to make a statement about the entire dynamics of the sport in general. Calm down, slow down, relax, make good decisions. The mountain will still be there. You’re in a hurry, you are part of an event, the recent storm is gonna make these turns epic, you have told the wife you are going skiing/riding this weekend, you’ve spent the money on gas, you have $5k worth of gear…

    There will be another day. I am so sad that for these five men, there won’t be.

  29. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2013 6:40 am

    Very nice comments you guys. Again, this is a major major event (perhaps THE major event) and we need to talk it out. I think it is affecting us all deeply because many of us have been so close to the same dragon, or have considered entering the mouth of the dragon cave to see it it was there.

    To Udall and others, thanks for focusing in on the remote triggering aspect. Super important. Indeed, until you’ve remote triggered a few avalanches it is counter intuitive and not that easy to integrate this concept into your intuitive decision making.

    Remote triggering is weird. The delay is what really gets you. You’re standing there, feel the settlement under you or hear the wumpf or crack sound, and you have time to kind of look up and around for a moment, then something some distance away and above you liquefies and races down the hill like so much water and rocks in a landslide. If it comes towards you, you have a few seconds to move and that’s probably not enough.

    I’ve seen so many incredibly scary things happen during deep slab instability “depth hoar” snowpacks here in Colorado. It’s really somewhat ridiculous how dangerous it can be. And despite a lot of years of observation I get surprised.

    For example, a few years ago we were touring up a ridge, in a safe zone. Below us was a dense conifer forest. I mean unskiable dense. As we stepped along the ridge the snow settled and the snowpack in the forest totally liquefied and fell in a large slab avalanche that cleaned the hillside and left the trees with avy debries packed 5 to 6 feet high up their uphill side trunks. If we’d been a few feet lower down and caught, certain injury or death would have resulted. We had a vague sense that we needed to stay close to the ridgeline, but no real idea that dense forest could avalanche like that. It was amazing. And it wasn’t slow moving, it made some noise, wagged the smaller trees, etc.

    I think I’d add another thing to my controversial list of what it takes to make an “expert,” and that would be having triggered and observed at least a dozen slab avalanches, including several remote triggered. Hopefully all in controlled or semi-controlled circumstances…

    Like some of you have said, during this type of snowpack the only thing that works for safety is to really dial it back, including route finding AND SPACING OF THE GROUP on the ascent. You can still ski backcountry, but you have to pick lower angled terrain, with attention to slope aspect, loading, that sort of thing.

    I’d also add that’s it’s not splitting hairs to say keeping the group at 3 people or under has so many advantages.

    Just the fact that a group of 6 quickly weights a sensitive slab with around 1,000 pounds should make anyone stop and think. Look at it this way, if you were touring on Loveland Pass area that day, and on a slope like that, would you be comfortable quickly lowering a 1,000 pound weight from a crane onto the slope, and standing next to it to see what happened? Of course not!

    But instead you might just march 6 people onto the slope. That’s what makes me wonder about today’s avalanche education and safety culture…

    What is more, as I’ve perhaps belabored in previous writing, if the group had been adequately spaced out it might have taken them more than an hour just to negotiate that 600/800 foot danger zone due to simple math. And this on top of a late start along with desire to have a short day and get back to the event.

    Wow. Their situation was just so bad it starts to get uncomfortable simply thinking about it…

    Again, I’m really really wondering if our system of avalanche education needs some changes. Or our backcountry skiing culture.

    And yes, some of this group’s mistakes could have been made by any of us, but with all due respect I think there are plenty of people who would NOT have made the choice to ski that route that day, including some of you commenters as well as the people on Loveland that day who in reality chose to go elsewhere.

    Lou

  30. Ron Rash April 25th, 2013 6:55 am

    There has been a strong focus in avalanche education in the past few years on the human factor. I believe using words like luck or fate in reference to this incident or the fatality in an avalanche course near Aspen takes away from the process we hope to achieve by education.

  31. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2013 7:10 am

    One other thing to add before I race out of here for a few hours: I’d like to commend all of you for having the obvious experience and knowledge to not focus on airbags, Avalungs, and snowpits. The human factor and decision making were the nut causes of this accident.. Snowpit was not important, airbags would have done nothing, and while perhaps Avalung use would have saved someone that’s a remote factor at this point in time, in terms of discussion. And look at how useless beacons were other than for fulfilling a social contract and helping with a speedy recovery…

    So again, thanks for focusing on what is important — the human brain.

    Lou

  32. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2013 7:18 am

    Ron, I didn’t mean to get too adamant about that, my point just being that after a certain number of hours exposure of any human population to risky situations, luck is going to intersect with action and human error. In other words, we’ll never be perfect with all this.

    That said, there was another more recent incident when an avalanche safety course got involved in an avalanche.

    Seeing that made me wonder if some of the instructors teaching these courses are where they need to be with risk management. So again, leading to the thinking that perhaps our whole system of avalanche safety education needs to be redesigned from the ground up.

    Lou

  33. Forrest Gladding April 25th, 2013 7:56 am

    I’ll admit I have crossed under major avalanche paths numerous times, even on considerable days thinking to myself that this slide path is a once in a 25 yr event and the odds it is going to slide from above on me is very nil. The very idea of remote triggering something this big is not something people deal with on a regular basis. How can you comprehend something like that if you have never seen it yourself. Also how many of us have had the experience of dealing with and seeing massive hard slab avalanches in person and even grasping the size of this avalanche. Past experience has shown me that in the past 20 years there are very few late April conditions where I am worrying about depth hoar and sugar snow from November storms. Everyone likes to Monday morning quarterback, which is good, but I don’t look at that group as being careless or not taking things seriously. It is easy to point fingers but I would dare say that most of you making comments would have had made similar mistakes. I know I would have! My heart aches cause usually one learns from their mistakes if given the chance. Lou I believe your close call when you were younger enabled you to learn and have new perspectives. I will take these deaths and learn from them, but I wont personally criticize those involved to make me feel superior, because I am not. Those were good people that were lost. What I learned from this, take deep hard slabs super serious. Low Probablity high consequence is scary conditions. This will make me forever reconsider what that really means. Also if you look at my blog, yes I live in utah, but I have many years living in Colorado and dealing with Colorado’s unique snowpack versus other areas. Love to all that enjoy the backcountry, be safe.

  34. Dave Field April 25th, 2013 9:15 am

    Lou,
    What do you think of the value of mapping typical avalanche paths and runout for areas where good local knowledge exists? It seems to me that this would be a good resource to supplement basic avalanche skills training as a means of conveying known hazards to those evaluating where to tour given current conditions? Obviously, unmapped areas also present hazard; however looking at a map and seeing the big red swath you should consider in your travels is one more piece of data in proper terrain selection. When you ski in an area for years, you get to learn which paths go big and under what conditions and see the runout firsthand which tempers future decision making.

    Mapping would appear to be a useful means of transferring that local knowledge or at least reinforcing what should be blatently obvious after learning about avalanche hazard and topography. I can envision a web based product that incorporates current snowpack information and history (maybe high hazard paths blinking red with skull and cross bones!) as being another tool to help consider where to ski or where to stay away from. The downside would be people relying on that mapping as the sole means of route selection as its just a coarse screen.

    http://www.avalanchemapping.org/IMAGES/lovpaswebv2.pdf

  35. Erik Erikson April 25th, 2013 9:26 am

    Really sad to read that CAIC-report – and hard to imagine how the survivor must have felt, beeing trapped in the snow, knowing his buddys are buried and having no chance to help.
    As far as I understood, the survivng person had one hand free and managed to whipe the snow away from his face so he could breathe. What comes to my mind when reading this are two accidents here in the alps, where persons partly buried by an avalanche could not move their hands because these where trapped by the loops on their ski-poles (ski-poles buried in the snow). So they froze to dead. Having put their hands out of the loops in time would have given them the opportunity to free themselves.
    I know quite a lot of guys who even cut away the loops on their skipoles, so such a thing can never happen to them.
    / @ Lou´s example about triggering an avalanche in a dense tree-covered area: Quite disturbing. Where I live they say, a forest too dense to ski in would be save concerning avalanches.

  36. g April 25th, 2013 9:52 am

    I agree with Mr. Gladding. I don’t take issue with the decisions that were made. I have done it, any of you who have skiied in the backcountry for 20 plus years has done it. I was horrified to see figure 5 of the caic report. I might have made the same decisions they did, figuring that i could get away with shooting the gap of the runout to the lesser angled tree area. i have been reading these incident reports for many years, and this one had the most effect on me, and I probably learned more from this report than I have ever learned from the review of any other incident. I will probably forever reconsider undercutting [in the runout zone] a large path like this after reading this report, and will always remember this incident when considering the realities of what might really happen if a deep monster slab releases in the area I am touring. This truly sucks. Anyone that attempts to get on a high horse about how the victims made questionable decisions, or how “I would not have been in that situtation” is either full of shit, or hasn’t skiied very many days in the backcountry through the years. I am sure Lou would tell us that he has likely been in similar positions in his lifetime. Nothing is more telling than Lou’s comment at the beginning picture: “Put yourself in the photo, I know I did.” Yeah, that is what I did also, right after I saw the caic pictures and report, and before even coming to this site.

  37. Chris Kipfer April 25th, 2013 10:23 am

    Dave Field April 25th, 2013 9:15 am Lou,
    What do you think of the value of mapping typical avalanche paths and runout for areas where good local knowledge exists?

    In the alps where sport ski touring originated almost every route up every mountain has been mapped and described,unfortunately mostly in french or german language. Similar publications to Alpin of Bergsteiger magazines here will probably develop as the sport grows in numbers. It is certainly a big help to read a good description of a tour and, especially,the potential dangers. There is no substitute for a knowledge of he terrain beneath the snow.

  38. Mike Marolt April 25th, 2013 10:31 am

    We don’t need to reevaluate how we approach avalanche safety and technics, rather we need to reevaluate why this kind of skiing is so appealing. It is appealing because of the respect that it demands to do it safely. It is appealing because of the satisfaction you gain by respecting it enough to take is seriously enough to apply the technics and safety in all regards to experience successful days from time to time. Backcountry skiing is a process well beyond powder turns, snow in your face, and a cold beer at the end of the day and posting the photos on face book. There is this notion that avalanches “are just part of the game”. Well what part of the game is it for us? The part that we plan on avoiding at any cost IE turning around (or not even going as could have been the case here), or the part that is something we will just deal with if an when? If we can’t learn to appreciate that making a good decision even at the cost of the day (or even an entire expedition) is a massive reason why the days were it all comes together are so appealing, then then no amount of safety and technique or education will ever matter. Think about it. Without this understanding, all the education and techniques only serve to be a pain in the ass that gets in the way of a good time. The web sites, all the education, all the tools, the techniques are super; they work. The problem resides between our ears.

  39. Lisa Dawson April 25th, 2013 10:39 am

    Mike, nicely put. Thanks for chiming in.

  40. Dave April 25th, 2013 11:11 am

    Lou –

    While it seems appropriate to address the human brain factor, I think the technology plays into the thought process of BC skier heavily. I don’t think I’d go so far as to call them crutches, but plenty of BC travelers adjust their risk tolerance upward when they have Avalungs and airbags.

    The problem is twofold:

    a) an airbag isn’t going to help when you’re already in a terrain trap and debris is coming down on top of you, not moving you down the slope; and
    b) no one tours with an Avalung in their mouth.

    Maybe the inclusion of those devices in the incident report is a bit of a red herring, but I think it could have played into the overall risk assessment of the travelers and contributed to their route choice.

  41. Colin Lantz April 25th, 2013 11:12 am

    I have to agree with some of the earlier comments pointing to the group’s connection to the event itself AND the larger group size being significant factors in this tragedy. Interesting also to read the solo skier’s comments. I’ve been gravitating toward this style the last few years and have found that when I do get into groups now how clearly I am able to recognize the negative impacts groups can have on the decision making process. When I solo ski I am incredibly cautious, conservative, laid back and observant. I just like being outdoors, quiet, just me and my thoughts. Yes, I know this doesn’t guarantee that I won’t someday get caught by surprise or make a stupid mistake, but at least it will by just me and not involve others. I’m willing to live with that. I’ve taken friends to ski some of the things that I solo ski and been laughed at because the terrain is so low angle and “boring”. Whatever, I’m still here and I feel like it’s letting me hone in my own avy safety ethic without the peer pressure that group dynamics always seem to exert, and rarely in a good way.

    About the conditions: Being a CO front range local I do have to say that the whole week prior to the Sheep Creek event was spooking the hell out of me. All the snow, the wind, then warm, then more snow, with the brown layer, and then more snow… I turned around twice that week just because I had a bad feeling in my gut. The day the 5 died I started to head out of the parking lot, solo, telling myself I’d just go for a little tour and look around staying away from anything remotely steep. Walking up the summer road I got to where you could start skinning, dropped my skis and went to click in. I realized I forgot to adjust my bindings to fit the different sized boots I had that day and I didn’t have the right tool to make the adjustment there. No problem, I was 10 minutes from home and I figured I just run home, adjust the bindings and head out again. As I walked back to the car I thought about the bad feelings I kept having in my gut and decided to heed the warning signs and bail for the day. Instead, I went home, filled a cooler with beer, grabbed a snow shovel and headed over to help a friend with a bum knee dig out his driveway. Would I have listened to my gut and bailed that day if I had been in a group with 5 others? I think we all know the answer. Group dynamics seems to be a very common thread in many avalanche stories.

  42. Adam Olson April 25th, 2013 11:13 am

    As an avalanche survivor my heart pounds every time I read about the unlucky victims of any avalanche. My arms and chest get heavy and I visualize myself being swept up then spit out left standing there with both skis on and my sunglasses still on my face. I feel both blessed and lucky to be alive today. My heart goes out to everyone who knew the deceased and will send as much positive energy to the survivor. He will be battling his own demons from now on.

    It seems like they should have known the terrain better. This was only rated as an R3 D3 avalanche. Imagine an R5 D5, this type of slide has occurred in the same place.

    Why did they not tackle this from the top of the pass?

  43. Tim April 25th, 2013 11:18 am

    condolences to the victims’ friends and families. i’m not familiar with this area – does anybody know whether the route they were following (an old summer road perhaps, according to one report?) is a commonly used skin track?

  44. Jim April 25th, 2013 11:38 am

    +1 on the pole straps. I’ve taken my pole straps off completely. Much easier skinning w/o straps flapping. I don’t even know what they are for really.

  45. SR April 25th, 2013 12:06 pm

    In terms of the posts noting that many others have likely crossed under major slide paths, I think that’s likely correct, but also points to a broader social context. Many people push it with staying out during the summer lightning shows in CO, too. Risks tend to be evaluated in social contexts, and if everyone (or lots of people) do it, it tends not to be viewed as risky. An event like this may change for a few years the perception of the risks of this type of route selection, though many already have been aware of it.

    Noting that this was a “mixed” group gear-wise does raise the question as to whether this influenced risk tolerance. Because airbag packs are now in a steep curve of adoption and use, it may actually be tough to have this kind of social event with active BC users and NOT have mixed parties, so it can be tough to sort whether risk homeostasis really was at work, or not. Because there are still airbag pack naysayers out there who take the view that they are not proven effective yet, one thing I hope does not happen is that people use this to say airbags don’t help. They don’t help in a number of cases, including rides down cliff bands, and including the case at hand; and they are definitely no substitute for for good judgment. But, they can still overall be a very helpful piece of gear if used wisely.

  46. snowbot April 25th, 2013 12:12 pm

    Lots of good comments here, especially regarding group size. Udall’s comments in particular resonate.

    As a professional forecaster and educator, one of the hardest things to communicate to people is the difference between surface avalanche problems – wind slabs, storm slabs, sluffs – and deep, hard and persistent slabs. The latter require very, very different behaviors and choices to ski and travel safely, even at the same danger rating. But the unpredictability and consequences are just so far outside most peoples’ experience, and they’re not easily convinced; they don’t see the problem as different, and use the same strategies that have worked for them with surface problems. It’s exacerbated by people mistaking time in the backcountry as skill. In actuality, most of us have experienced very little of the full range of possible conditions in the backcountry, even when we work there. Learning to recognize when conditions are outside our previous experience is hard; it goes against our brains’ resistance to ambiguity.

    My heart goes out to all the people who’ll feel the loss of these people.

  47. Clyde April 25th, 2013 12:27 pm

    I’ve long argued that the word “Considerable” does not carry enough impact when describing avalanche conditions. It just doesn’t set off the alarm bells the way it’s intended. Sure the people who post it and check the reports daily know the real meaning. But for the more casual backcountry skier, who may never check the web sites and just hears a tv news report, “considerable” doesn’t sound that bad. Alas, I’m told the avy community will never change the wording.

    Agreed that pole straps should at least be releasable, if not removed entirely for backcountry. Though probably not a factor in this case, it’s a shame that the CAIC refuses to track whether bindings released or not. The backcountry industry wants everyone to buy hyper-priced packs and fancy beacons yet there is no attention given to giant anchors permanently attached to the feet. IMHO, most of the bindings sold for the backcountry are dangerous. Of course there are no statistics because nobody even asks the questions.

    Regarding group size, I disagree with Lou on 3 being the best number. To me, that’s either 2 too many or 1 too few. If you go solo, then you’re more intensely aware of your situation. With a group of 4, you have someone to care for a victim and enough manpower to get help or even do a simple extraction.

    Personally, I hope I’m never an expert at anything…that’s when you get cocky and it bites you in the butt. Better to stay a student for life and keep learning.

  48. Erik Erikson April 25th, 2013 12:42 pm

    @ Clyde: Regarding the likelyhood a binding might open when you are in an avalanche: An at least in Austria quite well known mountain guide wrote a few years ago that he would not like Dynafit bindings for that reason. In uphill-mode these type of bindings will release much harder than other types, cause they are locked in the front piece…
    I for myselve love Dynafit bindings and did not use another since almost 20 years I guess. But there is some truth in this critique.
    On the other hand you could ensure that a Dynafit binding in uphill mode almost for sure will release in an avalanche by just putting down the lever of the front piece while skinning, when you feel you are in some danger. But of course nobody really does that for the risk of stepping out all the time while skinning

  49. Seth Hyman April 25th, 2013 12:48 pm

    Reminds me of incident near south diamond/ cameron pass area 7 years ago, and I mention this because I think many people are discounting the CAIC’s advisories at the risk of diluting them. The series of behemoth avalanche in EVERY surrounding forecast zone for many days, if not more than week beforehand, demonstrated the absolute necessity of taking this type of event into consideration. I regularly need to remind myself when reading CAIC advisories that Dr. Ethen Greene & company do not use words like persistent, likely, and dangerous just because that’s how we talk. Unfortunately, that is how we talk, and consequently people don’t really have the focus or desire to effectively engage each other in these terms all the time. This isn’t an excuse for people to use poor judgement. It just something everyone needs to become fully appraised of when going BC.

  50. Scott Nelson April 25th, 2013 12:56 pm

    ” The problem resides between our ears.” Thanks Mike for saying that. We gotta start with our brains, and on a deeper level than just mere intellectual knowledge.

    The whole brain process thing while making decisions is what confounds me the most regarding this whole issue. One can have all the knowledge in the world, and yet still choose unwisely. To me, that is where we need to examine ourselves and those we are with. Learning how to keep our human nature, ego, or whatever it is (which to me says, “I’m gonna be okay, even if there are ten red flags around me telling me I may not….” ) in check, is the crux issue. If I can’t do that, then whatever education I have is probably pointless and not worth the dime I used to pay for it.

  51. Marquis April 25th, 2013 12:57 pm

    The CAIC report mentions the red dirt being in the snowpack in Sheep Creek. I am curious as to the red dirt’s role in this slide. In the West Elk Mountains I feel like the dirt in the snowpack seems to alter the melt-freeze process as well as add other sets of variables.

    Where I ski, I feel like once the dirt has arrived in the snowpack, the snowpack becomes noticeably more volatile. Especially with new snow, wind and the seasonal temperature swings.

    Had there been no red dirt in the snowpack, or just a trace amount, would the snowpack have behaved in a more predictable manner? As in a more solid bottom of the snowpack that would not have stepped down so easily.

    Just a thought.

    My heart goes out to everybody involved.

  52. Jim April 25th, 2013 12:58 pm

    Lou, Do you think deployment of an airbag may have helped any involved in this type of terrain trap situation?

  53. Matt April 25th, 2013 1:22 pm

    On thing that has been on my mind the last couple seasons is safe zone identification. In particular this season, with the widespread persistent slab, there are a few “safe zones” in my typical tours that I have tried to avoid because I am fairly certain that an R4 or R5 sized slide would overrun those locations.

    In this case, one of the things that stands out to me is that if the designated “safe zone” had truly been out of the avalanche path, 3 of the 6 victims would not have been caught. How often on my standard tours could that have been me caught in a slide where I thought I was in a safe zone.

    Frequently we consider a fairly small stand of trees to be a safe zone. Lou, I think that your sharing of the slide in heavy timber clearly illustrates that the presence of trees does not indicate the absence of avalanche danger.

    I really appreciate the approach shared here, to try to learn from these incidents and attempt to apply systematic changes if the need is identified.

  54. Tom R April 25th, 2013 1:23 pm

    Lou, Why does the avy report list the slope angle at 41 degrees?
    Most of the comments mention 22 to 24.

    Site
    Slope Aspect: N
    Site Elevation: 11800 ft
    Slope Angle: 41 °
    Slope Characteristic: Planar Slope,Gully/Couloir

  55. Zeb April 25th, 2013 2:02 pm

    Tom–I’m guessing that the 22-24 is the Alpha angle; the slope angle where the slide occurred would be greater.

  56. Colin Lantz April 25th, 2013 2:55 pm

    I’m curious about that reported 41° slope angle. Is that average angle? Steepest part of the slope? In Lou’s original post on the avy two days ago (Sheep Creek Avalanche, Five Dead in Colorado) Halsted Morris posted: “Looking through my old snowpit books at my study site in Sheep creek the slope angle was 32 to 34 degrees. I used the slope slightly to skiers left of what avalanched on Saturday. So, it might be a little steeper out in the center of the fractureline, but I don’t think by much.” I know a few posters said they would head up to the accident site this weekend. Please let us know what you find in terms of slope angle.

  57. andrew fox April 25th, 2013 3:13 pm

    Id like to learn more about the triviality of digging pits for recreational BC skiers. As a recreational Colorado BC skier who gets out into the BC once a week or so and reads the CAIC report almost daily during winter I feel that pits do little to improve my safety in the BC. Some of my BC partners disagree with me. Even heading out once a week I know when there are rotten layers of depth hoar, suncrust, etc. If that were not enough the CAIC employs professionals to dig pits and informs me of the existence of weak layers in its daily report. Furthermore, I feel that there is way too much spatial variability and too little time in a day of BC skiing to dig enough pits to make my experience safer. On some of my tours I encounter almost every section of the avalanche rose. Contrary to making my BC skiing safer I feel like good pit results may instill a false sense of confidence in the snowpack. Focusing on terrain, weather, and group dynamics seems like a better way to stay safe.

  58. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2013 4:50 pm

    Guys and gals, we just got back from a site visit moments ago. The slope has a steep section where the avalanche fell and is what they report as 41, but the overall angle from top to debris toe and burial sites is the reported alpha angle of 24 degrees. Alpha is sighted along a straight line, it is not the slope angle.

    I’m working on my report, but let me say several things: The slope is obvious and scary, a perfectly safe route up the drain exists just twenty or so feet to climbers left of where the avalanche piled up and killed, but just even getting to the site from the parking is dangerous and was dangerous today due to a loaded 31 degree NE slope above you and deep terrain trap below. If you’re going up there to check it out (which I do not advise), bring a buddy and your full avy rescue kit. We saw some real bozos tromping around sight seeing, once guy snowshoeing solo up on to the avy slope under a freshly wind loaded slab. Scared the heck out of us.

    The whole situation is grim. I was impressed, but in a very negative sense.

    Lou

  59. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2013 5:06 pm

    Andrew, you are probably correct on all counts. The only way a pit comes even close to working for fine grained decision making is if it is dug on the exact same exposure and elevation of the avalanche starting zone where you might be skiing. How often do we see people do that, safely? About as often as cows fly.

    Now, know that a pit can indeed inform one of the general nature of the snowpack, but I’d totally agree that avalanche reports can do that as well. Argument against that being that the avy report is for too large an area… meaning again that if you are going to dig a pit, again, you’d better be doing one that’s very specific to what you’re going to be skiing. And you’d better dig more than one.

    Snow pits are an artifact of snow scientists from the 1970s who tried to develop avalanche safety procedures — with mixed results. Pits are great for science/research, but questionable as a decision making tool.

    I know above means I’m shooting at a sacred cow. But whatever. I’m fed up with the lame stuff going on in avalanche education that’s led to this tragedy.

    More later.

  60. Pierce Oz April 25th, 2013 5:09 pm

    Lou, thanks for your considerate approach to this post. Again, to the survivor and loved ones, our hearts ache for you.

    @ Marquis: I don’t think the dirt layer played much of significant role in this at all. It may have resulted in a more dense and heavier layer than a normal storm, but I doubt it had much of an affect based on the remotely triggered, deep-slab nature. I was in the Steamboat Zone that day, and we were having all the new snow failing to bond to the dirt layer, even in protected trees, which made for some sketchy surface slide conditions, but nothing like this. If anything, another poster’s comment about run-out zone being heavily willowed likely played a much bigger role that would be very hard to quantify during the winter.

    Regarding CAIC ratings, we spend almost the entire season in CO with Moderate or Considerable rating, almost always with mention of the deep slab instabilities. It can be easy to let your guard down through “risk fatigue”, if you will. You are seeing the rating every day, but not any real direct evidence (major deep slab avis running from human triggers) for most, if not all of the season. This is an awful reminder that the danger is so real, and hard to accurately account for by most. To me, beyond terrain selection, weather events like the ones preceding this accident need to be a glaring indicator for everyone.

    I do very little touring any more above treeline in Colorado during the winter snow season. Frankly, the conditions all of last season and the first half of this one precluded much touring for me, whereas I’m normally spending 50 or so days touring. Snapping a leg on deadfall isn’t too far behind avalanches in terms of BC risks. I find it too hard to manage the risks, and I’ve had enough close calls to simply cross it off my list. Terrain selection seems to be one of the few things we have direct control over that makes a serious difference in safety from day to day. @ Andrew Fox, I totally agree with pit digging being a hugely inaccurate determining factor of safety, in this vane. I was nearly caught in a slide released by someone above me who had just dug a pit and determined the slope safe, even though we had felt a collapse on the approach. Group dynamics also played a big role that day. There is so much variability and room for error in pits and associated tests that I hardly ever use them. You basically need to be ON the slope you want to ski to get an accurate read, in my opinion, which certainly takes the whole point out of it, unless you are on belay. Even then, it doesn’t take too much calculation error for a belay to be of no use if the slope goes. They certainly have a place in snow science, but my thought has been that if I feel like I have to dig a pit to make me feel safe about skiing something, it’s not safe.

    I keep coming back to familiarity with an area with this one. I think that played a big role. There are places I ski that have low-probability risk factors like this, and I just hope this helps me keep those in ebough perspective. I’ve regurlalry skied a BC run that empties into the lower third of a long run-out zone that clearly hasn’t gone big enough to reach our exit in many years (decades?), based on the size of the new trees. You would just have to be there on that one wrong day, which would be very hard to predict. I’m sure Sheep Creek felt the same to some of the riders that day.

    Finally, please, everyone, especially those touring the BC in COLORADO, GIVE OUR ABOVE-TREELINE SNOWPACK SOME MORE TIME AND TONS OF RESPECT this spring. Sorry, I had to cap that. If for nothing else, do it out of respect for the ones we just lost and the ones who love you. We are (finally?) going to have some sunny days this weekend, and high peaks are going to look so amazing and inviting with all this new snow. This should be a stark reminder to everyone here that this isn’t a “normal” spring, and snowpack is still very much a spooky winter one at 12, 13, 14K feet. We will need many more sunny days and cold nights before we can let our guard down. Stay safe out there.

  61. Kihm April 25th, 2013 7:54 pm

    “No matter what the avalanche danger is there are safe areas to play in the mountains.”

    When backcountry skiing in Colorado it’s less about weather or not an avalanche might release and more about where you are standing when one does.

    The recurring theme in this years CAIC reports has been to give yourself a wider margin of safty than you normally would.

    A better way of approaching the zone these souls were seeking would be to descend from the switchback 100-200 vertical ft to denser timber and then skin up the other side.

    Condolences to everyone who has been touched by this accident.

  62. matthew krane April 25th, 2013 8:13 pm

    Lou-

    This forum is so vital, so necessary in the wake of such a tragic accident….the feedback I’ve just read in the last hour is impressive.

    I’ll never forget my first multi-day avalanche course in Mammoth, 1978. Never mind that I’d never even heard of Ed LaChapelle-he was leading the course-or that I thought it was silly to get up in the middle of the night and go outside with a headlamp and ice-cube tray to look at snow crystals…

    …But the one thing that staggered me after the first long, stormy field day was hearing this life-long avalanche forecaster/educator insist that we can arm ourselves with data until we’re blue in the face, but it all comes down to a decision. Seemed awfully simple at the time. Still does.

    A decade ago, one of our avy-techs on the Breck Patrol began to talk about decision-making in terms of individual dynamics, peer pressure, smaller/larger groups. This word appeared on the power point screen: “Heuristics”.

    An online dictionary defines it:

    Heuristics are simple, efficient rules learned by evolutionary processes that have been proposed to explain how people make decisions, come to judgement, and solve problems typically when facing complex problems or incomplete information.
    These rules work well under most circumstances, but in certain cases lead to systematic errors or cognitive biases (deviations in judgement arrived at illogically, influenced by outside situations or people).
    Heuristics are also described as experienced-based techniques for problem solving, the processes for finding a satisfying solution via mental shortcut, speeding up the decision-making process by educated guesswork, intuition, common sense.

    I’m no psychotherapist, and i apologize for the lengthy definition above, but I’m sure we’ve barely touched the surface in decision-making. How can you make your decision based on snowpit data if you’re not digging near your start zone, or on a representative slope ? ECT test? Temp. gradient? Doesn’t it all boil down to the decision to go or not to?

    If the interpersonal dynamics between you and one partner are interesting, triple that in a party of six. Here’s hoping we can learn tenfold from Jerome Boulay in time. As Lou wrote above, I’m almost ashamed at some of the decisions I’ve made or not made in the past, letting the group dictate…even, how could I still be here.

    Dan Moroz was interviewed on network TV not a day after the Loveland tragedy. He ended it by saying, “Before you decide, think about the people you might be leaving behind.” I feel so terribly for all the family and friends of the five-and i appreciate that those of us who did not know them are getting warm glimpses of their lives, their friends, and family through the generous media feed.

  63. Lou Dawson April 25th, 2013 9:57 pm

    Matt, thanks, we’re really trying to keep this on the up-and-up. It’s saying that way because all you commenters are doing such a fine job. In fact, I’ve been getting more feedback than ever and readers are telling me they’re simply amazed at how useful and enlightening these comment threads have been.

    Indeed, in the end your comments and discussion will save lives. Beautiful.

    Amazingly, we have not had to moderate one comment. Keep it going. Be substantive and clear, but avoid the temptation to attack instead of discuses. If you want to get rowdy and profane there are other places on the web that welcome that. Please not here.

    BTW, I did a bone head move and got the date wrong at the beginning of this post. Fixed.

    Lou

  64. Marquis April 25th, 2013 10:13 pm

    @Pierce Oz : Yeah I wasn’t implying that the red dirt made for poor surface bonding or it’s weight caused the slide.

    I was implying that the red dirt already present in the snowpack makes a kind of thermo dynamic layer deep in the snowpack that significantly retards the melt/freeze process. In that the snow between the accumulated dirt layer and the ground isn’t able to complete the freeze part of the melt/freeze process and therefore is quite a bit more susceptible to deep instability.

    Sorry for the misunderstanding, the surface bonding and new snow weight don’t really have much to do with what I was trying to communicate.

    In my view of the last 5, 6, or 7 years or so corn skiing in colorado, the western part at least, has all but disappeared due to the red dirt killing the melt / freeze process. To me this is most obviously viewed on the high elevation steep lines.

    In addition to ruining corn season, I think the red dirt is a contributor to sketchy snowpacks and very much ignored in avalanche discussions. With the amount of late season avalanche accidents over the past couple few years it seems like maybe people don’t realize and understand the possible implications of the dirt in the april snowpack.

  65. Chris Kipfer April 25th, 2013 10:24 pm

    Since we have this wonderful internet it would be possible to have an onlline library of tours made by members and recorded with abreviated maps indicating significant terrain features and hazards. This might go against the grain for those who prefer to keep there favorite routes to themselves,but it might save lives as the information acumulates.

  66. Brent S April 25th, 2013 10:27 pm

    Lou,

    Thank you for this forum. So much to be learned from all of the experience gathered here. Very rare that you can find all of this in one place. I’ve read every response in your two posts regarding this tragedy, and will do so multiple more times. Hopefully the spirits of the deceased, and sole survivor, can have peace knowing that the loss of life on Earth will save many more from a similar fate.

    Absolutely amazing information!!! Thank you all.

    -Brent

  67. Justin April 25th, 2013 11:05 pm

    Heuristics are also why the cylons are eventually going to kill all of humanity. I am just sayin…

    “Heuristics are also described as experienced-based techniques for problem solving”

    Think about that for a second. Right here, we have an excellent opportunity to significantly add to the data set a vast amount of experience and learning. Sadly, it took the death of five individuals, but this drives the point home in a way no avalanche class can. Every time someone dies climbing Everest, the next series of climbers get smarter and they are less likely to die because of it.

    The problem is when the learned behaviors actually become counterproductive. Because of all the accumulated knowledge about Everest and all of the successes, more and more people venture there than should or would if it was still a gigantic death trap. So maybe, maybe we are an optimum with Everest where we are approaching the maximum number of climbers and they have the maximum amount of knowledge and everything is fine. But I submit that everything is NOT FINE, it is just that we haven’t had a major accident in a while. Just like the farmers that build in a 100 year flood plain and think the dams and levies have changed the dynamics and tamed the river. Maybe in 99 of the years. But that 100th is a real bitch.

    My point is the a heuristic system involving nature provides two opportunities for learning and one is good and one is bad. A system where success indicates that we are learning and where we learn based on the 99 times out of a hundred that nothing bad happens is not heuristic at all. It is dangerous and it is the kind of learning that occurs in low feedback / hit the lottery environments. The only time a heuristic system learns with nature is when nature proves all of our assumptions wrong and sadly that usually involves death and destruction. Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, tsunamis… and for that matter the nuclear mess after the tsunami.

    I submit that this avalanche was the only input that allows a heuristic system to actually work. This experience. This data. And if we ignore it or don’t analyze it fully, completely, and with absolute brutal honesty, we cannot learn from it at all and it will happen again.

  68. Justin April 25th, 2013 11:15 pm

    Now, the question naturally becomes A. How do we maximize the amount of data we capture B. How do we put it quickly and efficiently into peoples hands C. How do we get people to use it D. How do get people to utilize it in their decisionmaking…

    CAIC provides such a limited set of data points. I am not knocking them, but as a systems engineer, we can design far better databases, forecasting tools, combinations of google earth, topo maps, historic avalanche data (NOT INVOLVING DEATH OR HUMANS) in any traveled area, etc. I can design a cell phone app that allows people to send pictures of even small slides, geotag them with dates, correlate that data back to the CAIC data, and push this back to the cell phone app to color mark red, green , yellow warnings.

    But who funds that? A bunch of ski bums and 20 something backcountry addicts? The resorts that lose revenue when people go into the BC? The state of CO? Some private company that things they can recoup their investment by selling that as a $.99 app for your iPhone after investing probably a million bucks on it? Give me a business model to help codify the heuristic system that does this and I can make it sing. But ultimately, the human decision to both use the app and to actually listen to its advice is what matters.

  69. Justin April 25th, 2013 11:18 pm

    But then my app becomes the avalung / airbag that makes people feel safer and when my data is incomplete and people die, as a system engineer, I say it is a “bug” unless I am Microsoft and then I say it is an “unintended feature that we will correct with the next patch.”

  70. RobinB April 26th, 2013 12:13 am

    Three things come to the top of my mind as I read and follow this thread.

    1) The concept of residual risk and managing it. Even on days when the hazard is low, it is possible to die out in the mountains. We need to keep after ourselves and our partners to practice (in the do sense, and in the get better sense) safe travel protocols. If they are ingrained in our thinking, our planning and our doing, then hopefully we will see less of these multiple victim incidents. I know for me group size is a huge red flag, and these days I quickly find myself dropping out of trips when the person organizing starts mentioning that so and so and his friend are coming too…

    2) The idea of route and terrain ratings etc is somewhat addressed in the Canadian Avaluator system. It is based partly on the ATES (Avalanche Terrain Exposure Scale) that is a pre-determined rating for terrain, and is published in some guide books and maps.

    3) One thing that stuck with me after reading the book Snowstruck by Jill Fredston is the idea that we are so new in this world. When somebody says that they “have never seen that path slide this far,” what does that really mean? Have they been skiing this range for three hundred years in every avalanche cycle? No? Then they probably are working on incomplete information. This is reinforced for me almost every winter when one of the old timers (25+ years) on our patrol says almost exactly that after some natural slide near our ski area boundary. Our knowledge, even collectively, is so miniscule compared to he scope of the system we are trying to predict.

  71. Erik Erikson April 26th, 2013 12:40 am

    I want to pay all of you respect for the way the discussion is lead here. I know other blogs or forums (mainly in Europe) where people who do know nothing at all and have nothing to say actually take such an opportunitiy to “hear themselves talk very loud”, and thats really all that it´s about – not content and respect.
    Here it is totally the other way round – so many really usefull contributions, so many of you are obviously really very well experienced. But no one goes the way to state “I am better”, posts are written almost always with respect and symapthy for the lost ones and those who are close to them. Great – and thank you for that. I think many of us have allready learned really important things by the postings here or came to think about some issues. At least I did.
    / It has allready been posted something like that, but I feel it is important to repeat: I guess that quite a lot of “newbies” will read this thread, cause it is about such a major tragedy (though at least most who write in here seem to be very experienced): Do not come to the conclusion, an airbag is useless anyway! It probably was in this tragedy, but it does help in many other avalanche situations. Reffering to the avalanche-accidents reported in the Austrian alps this year, it was amazingly often reported, that the persons who deployed an airbag stayed on top, while the one who did not were buried (in the same accident). That may not comply with scientific standards, but again it strongly suggests to use an airbag

  72. JCoates April 26th, 2013 4:47 am

    Justin,

    In Europe most of the Alpine Clubs (DAV, SAC, etc) have already mapped out most of the ski routes. Switzerland does a particularly good job with their “Swiss maps” which allows you to overlay slope angles greater than 30 degrees on the map and then print them out whatever size you want:

    http://www.swisstopo.admin.ch/internet/swisstopo/en/home/products/maps/smonline.html

    Austria also has a really good ski touring App that is similar and shows the “usual” (safest) routes but doesn’t show the slope angle on the map. Obviously there are probably a lot of folks on this site who would be opposed to mapping everything out, but in my opinion—especially after seeing how well it works in Europe—I think it’s the right thing to do.

  73. etto April 26th, 2013 9:33 am

    Whether or not airbags would’ve helped in this situation I still find it interresting that those with aribags did not deploy them, especially if the information about them having several seconds to scramble for safety is correct. One would think that it couldn’t hurt, when it’s already too late to get out of the way.

    As to any doubts about the efficency of airbags, there is good statistics on this, and the physics is sound. It works. But as has been mentioned by several here, in certain terrain it won’t help you. I have yet to hear about incidents where airbags made the situation worse (But of course freak accidents where the seat belts in you car actually make things worse have happened).

    There is one more important thing about airbags, they are the only piece of equipment that doesn’t rely totally on others helping you out! Even when taking precautions and doing your best to stay safe, you might err. Yes, the rest of your group should be able to help you, but there’s several requirements for that to work out: 1. They must themselves not be buried/injured. 2. They must be able to get to you (in time). 3. They must know what to do, have the equipment, and not panic. It might sound simple, but that is quite a lof of things that all of them need to work out!

    Regarding snowpits, as has been stated, they are valid for exactly one spot, where you dig them. That being said, IF you do find weak layers in your pit, you can decide to err on the side of caution. You should however never do the opposite, and declare a big area safe on the basis of missing weak layers in your pit.

    I’ve done stupid things in the back country before, and I’ve paid dearly for it. But just recently I was in the Alps, finally about to do the Haute Route. We started off in great conditions, beatiful weather and avalanche risk 1 (2 in a very few places). About one third into the tour conditions changed dramatically. Fortunately we were at a point where we could end the trip, and return home safely. It was quite sobering to see the avalanche bulletin for the entire Switzerland having turned into 3-4, basically turning recently safe parts of our intended route into lethal terrain. We had planned this trip for a long time, and had to buy new flight tickets going home, but we were happy nonetheless, having made the right decision. I’m very glad my entire group agreed on the decision, and I hope we will remain as responsible in the future. I implore the rest of you to be cautios too, we have no one to loose. That extra run is simply not worth the life of you or your friends…

  74. Andy April 26th, 2013 9:45 am

    This comment is from a complete newbie to BC skiing. I am here to learn, to hopefully keep me and my companions safe in the future. It is so unfortunate that this is the learning material, but it would be foolish not to learn from it. I also got myself caught in an avalanche this past winter, out of sheer ignorance, so know that this question comes out of humility rather than finger-pointing…

    Why did this party not travel on the opposite side of the creek drainage from the slope in question? I have been studying google earth in the area (again, trying to learn everything I can, seeing what they saw, etc), and it looks like the high switchback on the summer road is at 11,600ft, and if they had descended straight down from there the bottom of the drainage was at 11,575, only 25 feet down (Kihm above mentioned 100-200ft, but it looks like much less to me). Then they could have been on the north side of the drainage (thus on a south facing aspect), and out of the terrain trap. Then from there it is straight up onto their target slopes on Mt Sniktau. Seems like a very minor detour to me, but please educate me: what am I missing?

    Also, in response to the questions about mapping slope angles and such…have you folks seen hillmap.com? Seems like a really good resource. Maybe the developers there would be amenable to including a data layer about known slide paths too.

    Thanks for the commentary, all – this is a valuable contribution to my education.

  75. Matt Jacobs April 26th, 2013 10:06 am

    JCoates -

    The slope angle part already exists for the US : http://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=39.675,-105.87&z=15&b=t&o=r&n=0.25&a=sf. Obviously mapping user-driven data like safe travel routes and known/frequent slide paths is a different beast that comes with its own set of issues, whether crowd sourced or done in an organized fashion through a club.

    Of course I think it’s a great tool seeing as I built it (Lou, I’m a lurker not a talker, so I hope this doesn’t cross any boundaries for a first post), but one of the questions I always ask myself when reading accident reports is “would these kinds of tools have changed the outcome?” Often the answer seems to be no, especially for slides triggered on descent. In this case it sounds like the party was well aware of the terrain above them, they just misjudged the risk. It has started me thinking about automatically mapping runout zones for all slopes above 30 degrees based on alpha angle, but I think the end product would probably be a wildly inaccurate representation of reality.

  76. rüf April 26th, 2013 10:22 am

    I’m really appreciative of these posts. my heart goes out to those suffering now…

    lately, I’ve been reading and thinking about our “second brain,” or, our enteric nervous system, the home of what some think to be our “gut instinct.” after I took avy I & II, I definitely went through a period where my “logic” over-rode my thinking, and I could barely get out for a tour — fear, of the real and imagined variety. as some other folks have mentioned,

    I also find myself usually touring alone, which logic tells me, is not the best idea. I long for that perfect touring partner(s): one whom I can speak my mind with openly, and they the same. one that is satisfied with just being outside, for the sake of being outside. one that has no qualms with not achieving an objective if it doesn’t “feel” right, and doesn’t have a problem saying so. but, on the other hand, also doesn’t have a problem pushing it when it does feel right, and can articulate, in open conversation, why it is right, and why we should “go for it,” even if I might have hesitations.

    I’ve been “navel gazing” (interesting term when you consider the two- brain theory) too much this winter. injuries have sidelined me for 2+ months of this winter. in between these injuries, I got out for a tour, that ended up with me as the fifth wheel. the first words out of my mouth when I pulled into the lot were, “guys, 5 is too big of a group. I’m just going to head to red and do something super mellow.” as I work with these guys in an on-snow-safety setting, and I feel comfortable voicing my opinion, we decided that I’d come along. I’m actually glad I did. I haven’t been out with a group that big before, and I’ll avoid it in the future, but I learned some invaluable lessons from that day. the communication over the options for descent we’re, by no means, super clear. but, after 15 minutes of back-and-forth with 5 guys that have a certain degree of operational familiarity with each other, we were able to come up with a plan that 5 people had, at the very least, given the verbal green light to. we all gave eachother the podium to speak up, and through that, came up with a game plan that seemed to bring everyone onto the same page. but, had there been other folks in the group that didn’t work with us, and have that same sort of comfortable banter, I’m not sure that all 5 folks could have honestly said they were involved in the actual decision making of which bowl to drop into, on a sunny “considerable” day in feb, off a peak that had 270 degrees of options, that all drain back towards our cars on the highway.

    asking the least experienced person in a group what the think, and really letting them speak up, can be super telling. maybe they say something pretty ignorant, but someone else with more knowledge can politely educate them, maybe even ease some anxiety from the newbie. or, maybe the opposite: the neophyte points out something glaringly simple and obvious, that for whatever reason, the “experienced” persons weren’t thinking about, or because of social dynamic, failed to mention.

    anyway, when it comes to people successfully doing shit together like playing, working, loving and deciscion making; it seems to boil down to how well those people were able to communicate. that brain in our stomach seems to have much more to do with decision making than we give it credit for.

    I hope some folks with lots of bc touring/expedition/snow safety forecasting and practicing/war/other intense environs, will chime in about gut instinct, gut checking, speaking from the gut and gut wrenching in relation to this accident, and/or how it factors into “staying alive in avalanche terrain.”

    something I read earlier in this thread i was hoping to clear up: it was mentioned by someone that the sheep creek avy was initiated by remote trigger. my understanding was that this was not a remote trigger, but an “unintentional release” from below, as they were in the falline, and in the path. anyway…

    thanks for this, Lou, I’ve been coming back to these posts multiple times a day to follow the comments and commentary. keep killing the infected sacred cows!

  77. Matt Schonwald April 26th, 2013 9:59 pm

    I think one issue around this particular group is their experience in relation to the confidence curve. The curve relates to acquiring a skill, becoming proficient then experiencing an event that results in possible injury and calls into question one’s judgement due the surprise circumstance out of the realm of the individual’s personal experience. While they all were educated and industry professionals, they like Lou alluded to had not reached the point along the confidence curve where their mortality and judgment were called into question.

    As a patroller I was caught during my fifth season breaking the safety rules because I thought I knew the snowpack and terrain better. I was buried with no injuries. That event reset my confidence curve and it has never risen that high since.

    I teach avalanche safety courses and I had an assistant instructor get caught and hospitalized after teaching several courses and then break most of the rules he taught. The most grievous failure was the telepathic communication most professionals and experienced bc riders feel with their partners.

    The belief that trust replaces actual communication via dialogue ala Avulator style is one of the core issues after education and experience grow. After almost 30 years I still find myself forcing the safety conversation with my partners.The actual conversation with the basic premise, what is wrong with our plan resets almost every heuristic trap once asked since it cuts out the B.S. and forces everyone to actually examine what they are doing right there.

    The idea that we don’t need a checklist or a script to ask the right questions after Stevens Pass and now Loveland needs to die. Each one of these experienced groups broke the rules they learned and taught by believing their experience would count for something in the face of extraordinary odds. I struggle as an educator to teach this in confines of a 24 hour period, yet the public almost convulses when faced with the need for more education.

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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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Backcountry skiing is a dangerous sport. You may be killed or severely injured if you do any form of ski mountaineering, skimo randonnee and randonnée skiing. The information and news on this website is intended only as general information. While the authors and editors of the information on this website make every effort to present useful information about ski mountaineering, due to human error the information, text and images contained within this website may be inaccurate, false, or out-of-date. By using, reading or viewing the information provided on this website, you agree to absolve the owners of Wild Snow as well as content contributors of any liability for injuries or losses incurred while using such information. Furthermore, you agree to use any of this website's information, maps, photos, or binding mounting instructions or templates at your own risk, and waive Wild Snow its owners and contributors of any liability for use of said items for backcountry skiing or any other use.

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