Absorb the Punch — An Avalanche Story

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | October 15, 2008      

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.

Backcountry Skiing

Photo of the situation.

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.)


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10 Responses to “Absorb the Punch — An Avalanche Story”

  1. Randonnee October 15th, 2008 9:24 am

    Good story, Matt. A dramatic illustration of the need for careful attention to terrain, snowpack, and current clues (re: “duh” in my story). You make a good point about having been given the opportunity to walk away from a potential fatal encounter.

    The difference between a story like this and a report of an avalanche fatality is simply a slim chance, or Grace depending on one’s personal beliefs. Such an experience does sharpen one’s focus. Glad that you walked away and can share your story.

  2. Bill Bollinger October 15th, 2008 10:04 am

    Thanks for the story Matt

    It is great to read stories like this, helping those like me to tune my decision making process.

  3. Dongshow October 15th, 2008 10:50 am

    Great Story, I enjoyed the last two paragraphs in particular. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Adam October 15th, 2008 1:08 pm

    Good story. I’ve always wondered why more avy classes don’t teach about a “lockdown” method for riding out an avalanche like that. I’ve heard a lot about “swimming” or trying to “ride it out”, but it seems obvious that as long are nearer to the crown than the runout, you may be able to dig in with your tools and the the slide rush right over you.

  5. Matt Kinney October 16th, 2008 5:58 pm

    Thanks for the comments. I have been searching for a term for this method and “lockdown” sounds great. Would possibly work if you were caught on a shallow slab by digging for the bed surface. You have to anticipate and know exactly what you are going to do and do it very, very quickly. I recall in Level One with Fessler that you must always have an escape plan. Too much to think and type about as my grammar goes south with my spelling!!

  6. Tony October 16th, 2008 10:29 pm

    Perhaps a situation where whippets could be of use? Like Matt’s encounter, it would have to be a relatively shallow slab/sluff moving on a firm bed surface – not much use digging in to a firm slab if it is the firm slab itself that is moving.

  7. Lou October 17th, 2008 7:44 am

    Indeed, Whippets can be useful for that sort of thing. But everyone, don’t get the idea you can anchor to the slope and an avalanche will wash over you. Only a small, low volume one could do that. Otherwise it’ll push you (or blast you) off your stance.

  8. Randonnee October 17th, 2008 9:21 am

    I got flipped in spite of “digging in.” In my story below, I was flat on the crust dug in with the pole self-arrest- tips dug in- and on my ski edges. I weigh over 200 lbs., and in spite of being dug in and lying down against my pole tips, I was launched end-over-end. It was very fluffy snow that avalanched a few hundred feet only to produce that force.

    Perhaps the shape of the terrain and the flow characteristics of the avalanche would be a factor to allow “digging in.” For example, one may duck behind a small ridge, roll, rock, or here in the Cascades perhaps a 3 to 4 ft diameter tree.

  9. Matt Kinney October 17th, 2008 9:47 am

    Whippets come back to haunt me!!! (smiley) Good point, but getting swept down a mountain with whippets in both hands could present a number of other hazardous issue to one’s body.

    A shallow small volume slab is not an much of an issue ti it meets a terrain trap with you in it.

  10. Vinter October 19th, 2008 2:54 am

    There are in our mountains (in Hibins, they are in the very north of Russia) every year some skiers get into avalanches. Main cause of avalanches here – warm weather and sun – and cold nothern wind and snow on the other day, as it is usually in spring. So lower layer has icy crust and over it there is new layer of snow, which easily can move down the slopes.

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