Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Editor’s note: A while back we ran a few guest blog avalanche stories. This one came in recently and we thought it worthy. I’ve skied out Castle Creek many times and the big ones lurking above always catch my attention. For these guys, the lurkers got a bit too close for comfort.
Guest blog by Steve Jay (photos by Charlie Noone)
Last January a group of friends and I rented out the Green-Wilson and Tagert huts between Aspen and Crested Butte (Colorado). The weather was beautiful the day we skinned in, but we knew that a storm was moving in that night. Sure enough the next morning we awoke to two feet of fresh and it was still dumping.
Because visibility was poor, and we had concerns about stability, we mostly stuck to skiing the trees around the hut. The snow continued for the next two days, rarely slowing down. Every morning our tracks were filled in so we were happy skiing the same trees. During our last morning at the hut the tipping point was reached and a very large slide came down across the road just below the huts. We could see the debris from the deck of the Tagert hut.
We were quite concerned because the ski out crossed several large avalanche zones. We had a group discussion about what to do (four of us had had extensive avalanche training) and decided we would split into groups and spread out for the trip out. The first group left and we were able to maintain contact with them via radios.
On the way out we received several frantic calls from them over the radio about how many slides had come down across the road. They narrowly missed one slide and watched it cover their tracks. The second group left probably 30 minutes later once we knew the first group was out of danger. The radios were alive again with the second group telling us about how many massive slides had come down off the mountain. Finally, the last of us left about 15 minutes later, we crossed several medium sized slides but we were blown away when we got to the footbridge crossing Castle Creek. It looked like a bomb had gone off. The bridge had been destroyed and trees were toppled probably 200’ or so up the other side of the drainage. We poked around in the debris for a little while in disbelief and quickly made our way for Ashcroft. Thanks to the radios we knew everyone else had gotten out ok so we put the radios away and beelined it.
At the last avalanche crossing before dropping into Ashcroft we were shocked, a massive slide, the biggest I had ever see, had come down across the road. It was probably 100-150 yards wide. One of the most amazing things about the slide was that it had hit a pond and splashed the water out of it, so below the pond the snow was waterlogged and hard as dried cement. We continued to ski out relieved that we were out of danger. We met up with the rest of the group and asked if they had seen the huge slide that had hit the pond. The other groups said that they didn’t see the slide and it must have slid between the second and third groups. We all went silent at this realizing that we had missed certain death by at the most 15 minutes.
The power of the mountains is amazing and we learned that you have to respect them, even when you’re not the slide trigger. Natural releases are just as dangerous as triggered ones and had we not made the decision to split up there could have been some deadly results. Also, without the radios we would have never known what was happening and may have even tried searching for our friends had we not known they were alright. The snowcat driver for Ashcroft said that the last slide was the biggest he had seen in nearly 30 years working up there and I believe him. I have always been cautious about avalanches but this experienced truly humbled me and I respect the power of snow now than ever.
Analysis from Lou:
First, let me thank Steve and his friends for sharing their experience. They made what they felt were their best decisions, after analysis and discussion, and that’s the best any of us can do. But we can learn from each other, so picking apart this sort of thing can be helpful. Even so, again, we were of course not there so my analysis is simply to get us all thinking, not denigrate the decisions these guys made.
I’ve skied this valley for more than 30 years, countless times. The number of major avalanche paths that dump over the ski route easily number in the dozens, most large enough to be certain death if they did catch you. I’ve been in Steve and his crew’s situation several times, and actually stayed at the hut another night in one instance. In the case of today’s excellent guest blog, my opinion is the group should have stayed another night at the hut after seeing that a historical avalanche cycle was occurring during the exact period they were planning on skiing under all the paths. Validation of this is that the men actually watched one slide cover their tracks!
I suspect the group may not have known just how many paths cross the route, nor how many other deaths and close calls have occurred in this area in the past. One good thing about such cycles is they happen big, during a short period of time. Thus, a 24 hour wait can make a huge difference in safety.
Staying another night has other implications, of course, such as triggering a rescue. Solution is the use of communication devices such as sat phones and Spot Messengers. Using such, you can check in from the wild to let folks know you’re ok, don’t need a rescue, but for some reason have delayed your return. How ironic it would be to get in an accident because you were trying to return before your loved ones got worried — or to get back to work? Don’t let that happen.
I was happy to read that, one, Steve’s group did split up during their exposed egress trip. And two, they made good use of 2-way radios. It’s interesting, however, that the first photo shows the group gang skiing through the runout zone of that huge avalanche path. That was their judgment call and I respect it, but the photo does beg questions we should all ask ourselves about travel style and decision making. As for me, I always spread the group out during this whole section of the trail, even during fairly low hazard days.