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Many winters ago, I headed up to Thompson Pass (Alaska) with a new partner. We were skiing up the north side of Big Odessey, but more toward Schoolbus, when it became readily apparent that my companion and his two dogs had different ideas.
We slowly began spreading out and soon we were focused on different goals and well out of voice range. Essentially, I was alone in avy terrain. Sometimes not so wise, this day it seemed okay as the weather was stable, the snow very hard and avalanche danger rating Low.
With winds in the forecast I kept looking toward the peaks as I entered the broad avalanche slopes connecting to the rock gardens beneath a craggy ridgeline. Soon the snow was too steep and difficult to edge or skin. I stopped and strapped my skis to my pack and began booting into terrain that got progressively steeper.
Above, the two-inch dusting from the night before began blowing around on the peak directly above me. I saw the wispy wind-blown snow obviously loading on a patch of hard snow no bigger than one-half a football field, a steep section of about 40 degrees. This was the only wind loading out of a mile-long ridge or any slope within miles — and there I was below it. Imagine that.
I continued booting up thinking naturals are rare and it was from a light dusting. No natural activity occurring and low hazard kept me from turning around. But I still kept looking alertly up at that small patch of building wind slab.
After about ten minutes of booting and frequently glancing up, I noticed a faint powder cloud and quickly figured I was in the wrong place at the wrong time! The wind slab had broken and was coming at me.
Down it came off the slope, soon channeling into the micro-gully I was booting. With no time to escape, I lay down on the hard pack as flat as possible to present a low profile to absorb the punch of a quickly approaching powder blast guaranteed to knock me down, possibly hurtling me down the mountain. I kicked my boots with toes first into the hardpack, lowered my face against the snowpack and tilted a bit to the side to allow my skis, which were attached to my pack, to not stick out and allow the blast to yank me from my perilous perch.
The slide hit hard and I held my ground, clenching my gut expecting to be yanked from the slope. It was over in less that a second and I was still in the same spot. I looked down quickly and saw the avalanche continue unabated for a few hundred feet and then pile up in small terrain trap deep enough to have buried me, or at least given me a beating.
That was enough. I put my skis on and made haste back to the trailhead, all the while gazing for miles along the same aspect and elevations and seeing no other avy activity. For days I drove by the one that almost got me. The starting zone stood out like a sore thumb — taunting my poor route finding and decision making.
Reading about avalanches over the years had reinforced my concept that naturals rarely occur and catch skiers. Skier-triggered slides are more common. Somehow, I’d defied the odds and been hit by a natural.
Had I ignored obvious clues? What clues were there? Some minor wind deposition had failed to bond to the old snow layer. I saw the slab develop and then release in a period of less than 20 minutes. Naturals were not occurring. No new storms in the preceding days. The snow I was booting up was like concrete.
In this incident I could have moved over just a few feet and booted elsewhere, but perhaps I had become mesmerized by the swirl of snow on a singular spot of slope thousands of feet above. Its was a tough one to figure. All I can conclude is that I was alert to obvious clues but had not taken into account the concept of micro-terrain. In this case 99% of the slope was safe. I was under the other one percent.
The lesson learned was obvious, and for days I beat myself up mentally for the mistake.
I called my mentor Doug Fessler a few days later and whined about the incident. The avy guru listened most attentively, then told me to get my butt back out there and keep skiing. Making a mountain out of a molehill seemed to be the issue mentally, so I sucked up my lost pride and have not been in or near a slide since that day twelve years ago.
Aside from the importance of micro route finding and not ignoring the obvious, my little brush with the white tornado made another point. It goes to show that for those of us who spend hundreds of days a year over decades in avalanche terrain making critical decisions, the odds are good that someday we may make a wrong call.
In other words, perfect decisions each and every time will not happen, and that is the dark side of an otherwise thrilling life skiing the Chugach.
(Guest Blogger Matt Kinney has been skiing Valdez and Thompson Pass since 1979. He works as a guide and avalanche hazard evaluator, as well as having authored a guidebook for backcountry skiing the Chugach.)