Black Sunday — Avalanches Kill in Colorado & Utah


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | December 15, 2008      

Yesterday. An inbounds avalanche at Snowbird resort killed a woman, and a slackcountry avalanche on Aspen Mountain killed a man. Vail even had an inbounds avalanche that resulted in a close call.

The Snowbird avalanche occurred on hike-to terrain on the side of the resort, known as High Baldy. Heather Gross from Salt Lake City was found by avalanche probe at 1:18 p.m. and was air transported to the hospital in critical condition. Though she was amazingly found alive after an hour long burial, she subsequently died. The avalanche was reported just after noon by a witness using a cell phone. More here.

In Aspen, will known local skier and former Aspen Mountain ski patrolman Cory Brettmann was found in a slackcountry area on the easterly side of Aspen Mountain known as “Power Line.” Authorities received a call of an overdue skier at about 7:00 p.m. and the Aspen Skiing Co. mobilized 22 people to search for Brettmann. He was found dead at around 8:30 p.m.

I was going to blog today about how my wife and I spent the weekend up-skiing and riding lifts at little ‘ol Buttermilk ski area — and ended up getting a ton of excellent early season freshies. I was going to say we were there because it was obvious the backcountry around here was incredibly avy prone due to recent storms that piled up to two feet deep. But I’m not feeling like a pound-my-chest trip report at the moment.

Oh no, far from it. How about avy 101 instead?

When Colorado (or for that matter, Utah) goes through an early winter with minimal snow, the result is inevitable. Cold nights cause the snowpack to metamorphose. Instead of a foundation that holds subsequent storms like cinder blocks bedded in mortar, the older snow becomes a layer of ball-bearing like crystals that hold said cinder blocks as tenuously as if they’d been dropped on sand.

Such snowpacks do inevitably stabilize. Once the pack thickens, it either crushes down the bad layer and bonds it, or avalanches clean out the gook and a new/better pack develops. Sometimes, however, if we don’t get lots of snow the bad layer grows again and avalanches keep repeating.

This early in the season we don’t know which scenario will develop. We pray that we’ll continue to get big and frequent storms that’ll fix things. But even if the storms roll in it will be weeks before we can backcountry ski without the risk of heinous and terrifying “delayed action slabs,” avalanches that may happen well after storms, and are frequently triggered from some distance away by a skier causing a collapse in the snowpack. These massive settlements (known as “woomphs” because of their distinctive sound) may project hundreds of yards or more and trigger avalanches some distance from the skier — above the skier — or when the skier is a number of turns into their run.

Trying to play the avalanche game in this environment is like walking around with a lit cigar in a gasoline refinery.

Back to Black Sunday. Heather Gross died inbounds, depending on technology and human intervention to stabilize avalanche slopes she chose to ski. That didn’t work and she died. I’ve been recommending for a while now that folks skiing inbounds “adventure” or “hike to” terrain should always wear a transmitting avalanche beacon, and sometimes even ski with a shovel pack and a buddy. As for Cory, we don’t know the details at this time but his tragic accident appears to be the classic scenario of someone all too familiar with their backyard, and heading there by themselves not realizing just how tenuous that decision may sometimes be. We’ll update this post when details become available.

We offer condolences to family and friends of Heather and Cory, and publish the above opinion and perhaps life saving commentary as a small part of their legacy.

Update: One of Cory’s friends emailed me with the short bio I excerpt below. I’d known Brettmann was experienced, but the depth of his background is stunning — and sobering when one considers what happened yesterday.

“Lou, Cory was really focused on raising his children, and as a result had built a wood shop in his backyard so he could be close to them. He had been a patrolman at the Breckenridge Ski Area from about 1980 until 1990 (estimates) and later a patroller at the Aspen Ski Area from 1990 to around 2005. He spent a lot of time modifying his home in Old Snowmass, skiing recreationally, mountain bike riding, collecting and drinking wines, and had become a bit of an armchair mountaineer as well. He summited Mt. McKinley, Mt. Foraker, and Mt. Hunter in the Alaska Range…”

Brettman Bio in Aspen Times.



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28 Responses to “Black Sunday — Avalanches Kill in Colorado & Utah”

  1. dave downing December 15th, 2008 9:21 am

    Sad and scary news!!!

    Highlands was a little scary yesterday. Saw an 18″ slab under lower deep temerity lift and another that looked to have run from the “knoll” between Kesler and Castle run, down Castle and into Kesler. I had thought about taking my beacon/shovel/probe in the morning as “good habit practice” but was too lazy to bother. I’m thinking I might just start doing that more often (and hopefully my friends will do the same).

  2. Lou December 15th, 2008 9:54 am

    Nick, while I agree that some of the studies probably didn’t factor in the amount people skied, I’ve observed and participated in the “familiarity” syndrome so it’ll be tough to convince me it doesn’t exist. In fact, I observe it most of every winter. Perhaps some of the studies, using sophisticated statistical techniques, actually identified reality?

  3. Todd Goertzen December 15th, 2008 10:06 am

    Sad news from Colorado. Although out of touch for the past few years – I’ve always considered Cory a friend. Super strong in the mountains, a gentle giant. I’ll never forget driving to Moab and singing John Hiatt at the top of our lungs… He was an experianced mountaineer – eye opening to once again be reminded – it can happen to any of us. Condolences to Cory’s family and sorry we didn’t get the chance to ski, bike or sing together again.

  4. Mike M December 15th, 2008 10:10 am

    Thoughts and prayers go out to family and friends of these terrible accidents. Personally, knowing Cory, i am at a loss for words. Given his experience in the mountains, i am left shattered. This community has lost a great mountaineer and friend.

    M

  5. Nick DiGiacomo December 15th, 2008 9:33 am

    Agree the pack is particularly unstable – haven’t seen as many naturals in the backcountry for a number of years (in the San Juans), and it sounds like things aren’t much better elsewhere. This stands in particular contrast to last year, so those with short memories need to recalibrate.

    In the lessons learned department – please be careful about propagating the myth that experienced skiers in familiar terrain somehow change their behavior so that they take more risks. If you look critically at the studies and surveys from which this myth derived, the increased risk is most likely due to the fact that trained and experienced people (particularly in familiar terrain) just ski more. Think about it – familiar terrain to an experienced backcountry skier means that they’ve skied the slopes dozens – or hundreds – of times. Even if their accident rate is a fraction of what less trained or experienced skiers experience, over enough time they will (on average) have more total accidents than any other group. Quite simply, they are in the risk environment more, so the odds just catch up.

    There is no clear evidence – despite the way it’s portrayed in the media and in some avi courses – that the combination of training, experience and familiar terrain make people change their behavior to explicitly take more risks (beyond, again, simply skiing more).

  6. mikebromberg December 15th, 2008 10:49 am

    Good piece considering the conditions… Lou, being one who takes time to use correct grammar. In the above example where “settlement” is used you actually mean “collapse”.http://www.avalanche.org/~uac/encyclopedia/collapse.htm

    mb

  7. Matt Kinney December 15th, 2008 10:50 am

    Women in slides ( another gal in Turnigan Pass, but recovered from a 5 foot burial) and a soloist are rare. Also another cluster of events associated with resort terrain.

    +Corey sounded like a great guy and skier. My condolences to his friends. I am always saddened to see a life ended in the mountains.+

    What I see is the “lets ski steeper” syndrome. This is where a group of skiers attack a slope, first at the lowest angles and then gain confidence on each subsequent descent.. Angles are increased (and rarely measured!) along with an urge for the untracked line just a bit further beyond and steeper than the last line This is becoming more common despite obvious instabilities in the area or from the area forecast. Folks need to be content with mellow terrain which is hard to do and even harder to teach.

    Be careful out there.

  8. Lou December 15th, 2008 11:01 am

    Mike, thanks, I’ll edit.

  9. mikebromberg December 15th, 2008 11:06 am

    no worries. you’d be surprised how many people send in reports of ‘settlement’ to the avy center here in cb.

  10. Lou December 15th, 2008 11:13 am

    Folks, I added a short bio of Cory to the end of the post, thanks to a friend of his who sent it in.

  11. Nick DiGiacomo December 15th, 2008 11:12 am

    Lou,

    The conclusions from any experiment (study, survey) are only as good as the design of the experiment. The studies on which the experience/familiarity myth are based didn’t measure enough to allow them to conclude that experienced people explicitly changed their risk tolerance (i.e. were less or more careful). That would require studying not only experienced people who had accidents, but people who didn’t (a control group), and no one in the avi world has ever done that (as we discussed in another thread).

    I completely agree that it’s reasonable to say “it feels like” experienced people are less careful in familiar terrain. But my point is that you can’t also say “statistical studies show” that experienced people are less careful in familiar terrain.

    The fact that we “feel like” we’re less careful in familiar than unfamiliar derives to some extent from the fact that we tend to have a more stringent routine in unfamiliar terrain (e.g. pits, protocol). But we forget about the sum of experience that we have on familiar terrain – e.g. the history of the snowpack, which is one of the most valuable things we can know in the backcountry. I’ll go back to the machinist analogy I used in another thread. A novice watching an experienced machinist make a familiar part without double checking dimensions may think the experienced machinist is being careless. But he/she is relying on a sum of experience that is much more than any point measurement or calibration.

    I apologize if my comments seems insensitive in the context of the original post, and offer my condolences to the families and friends of Cory and Heather.

  12. Lou December 15th, 2008 12:46 pm

    WildSnowers, so many of you visited this morning it shut down our server! Keep it coming, we’ll do what it takes to beef up our back end. First downtime in a few weeks, so we’re getting there.

    As always, it’s our advertisers who we depend on for revenue to pay a server company, so be sure to explore our banners!

    Lou

  13. ScottN December 15th, 2008 1:14 pm

    Thanks for the reminders Lou. I appreciate your conservative ways and the sharing of your experience and knowledge.
    It’s tempting for me to just go at things alone, but probably not a wise thing to do . Yet ironically, I sometimes feel that since I’ve gained more knowledge and skill (i.e. about snowpack, avalanches, etc…..) then I’ll be okay (or least be able to figure it out if something does go wrong) and I’ll go out alone anyways which probably just makes me more dangerous . Maybe need to rethink that one a bit more. You skiing conservatively yesterday is a great example of applying your knowledge in the right way, at least to me. So, thanks.

  14. Cory December 15th, 2008 2:01 pm

    “I completely agree that it’s reasonable to say “it feels like” experienced people are less careful in familiar terrain. But my point is that you can’t also say “statistical studies show” that experienced people are less careful in familiar terrain.”

    Did I miss something or was there an edit to the original post? I can’t find where Lou said “statistical studies showed…” It seems to me that you are applying quantitative research standards to qualitative research.

    My personal reflections on the subject are that (unfortunately) I take a more cavalier approach to my regular areas. (I am currently rethinking some of my practices in view of the current snowpack down here in the Monarch area.)

    Overall…watch out. Things are definitely moving out there.

  15. Lou December 15th, 2008 2:10 pm

    Cory, nothing in the original post about statistics, just me pondering about a guy who did go out and do something apparently pretty risky in VERY familiar terrain — by himself.

    Some of the stuff that’s been in the literature has really hit a nerve, as many people feel reports over-emphasized or mis-reported that skiers in familiar terrain might take more risks.

    In my opinion, truth hurts. Like I said, I see this all the time. It’s so common as to perhaps be unnoticed — sort of background noise.

  16. Matthew Brown December 15th, 2008 4:30 pm

    Really sad to read that. We have had some great snow over here in Innsbruck this winter and are awaiting the glut of avalanche tragedies that hit the Alps each year. So far the stats seem to have been kind but it is very early season and with a bit more new snow and the crowds over New Year I am sure that the news will turn bad. Hoping that the tragedies in the mountains all over the world remain as low as possible – greetings from Innsbruck.

    mat

  17. Chad December 15th, 2008 5:49 pm

    These conversations brings to mind a recent conversation myself, and a few buddies had while skiing our beloved backcountry zone. We talked about complacency when skiing in familar backcountry zones, and how becomming to complacent could inevitably cause us to make poor judgements. This is a sober reminder of that conversation.

    I had met Cory one day at Highlands with my friend, who is Cory’s cousin that lives in Summit County. I was lucky enough to share some lunch with Cory, as he shared some of his life experiences in the mountains. His passion was contagious. I was looking forward to skiing with him again. I’m sorry to say that will not happen. My condolences to his family….

  18. Kate Howe December 15th, 2008 6:08 pm

    Hey, Lou,
    Thank you so much for posting this. WE are terribly avalanche prone here in MT, as well, and I can’t tell you how many young kids get out and ski things like Sacajawea peak in the Bridger range without any avy education. I posted a blurb of this post to my blog, and a link to our Avalanche education center here in Montana. Thanks very much for the important post!!
    Kate howe

  19. Geof December 15th, 2008 7:13 pm

    Well, with all, condolences to the families involved. These kinds of accidents are never easy. To the Utah situation, it sounds like the hills were primed there too… I would guess MOST (90%) of hike access terrain skiers have no clue when it comes to avy/knowledge. While is is easy to take “inbounds” slopes for granted, snow loading is snow loading. If she had some real awareness it might have saved her life.

    To Cory’s situation, there is no doubt that experience and familarity with the area breeds a bit of complacency. It should build a bit of prudence, but sadly it generally doesn’t. It is suprising to hear that with his “backround” he went into the scenario he did. Especially alone. Sad…

    Hope this isn’t a harbinger for the rest of the season! Be safe out there gang!

  20. Kate December 15th, 2008 7:25 pm

    I was at Snowbird yesterday. Thank god I broke my binding and couldn’t find a replacement or it’s possible we’d have gone up to Baldy. At the time, I was peeved about my binding…now I realize there’s a time and place for everything. Very sad day for Heather’s family. My condolences.

  21. Heidi December 15th, 2008 8:58 pm

    That is so sad and so sobering of how dangerous it can be in and out of bounds on a powder day. Last winter I spent three days at Mt. Baker, WA and was fortunate to experience a North West powder day. The thing that impressed me the most about that small ski hill was the seemingly never ending hike able terrain both in and out of bounds that would dump you out at a chair lift. The other thing was the amount of respect everyone who skied and worked there had for avi conditions.

    Everyone I saw there skied and rode with a beacon, probe, and shovel. If any employee or fellow skier saw a person without a pack ducking rope lines to ski some out of bounds lines they were immediately told to come back or loose their pass. Patrol was even stationed at the more popular accesses points for back country terrain to scan your beacon before you left the ski area to make sure it was working and that the batteries were strong enough. The buddy system was also strongly enforced and a person was not allowed to duck lines unless they had a buddy along with their avi gear.

    I also know of ski schools in the northern Rockies that will loan out avi gear to their clients if they are going to be skiing in high risk areas during their lesson. I live and work in the Eastern Sierras which is known for our occasional in and out of bound avi’s and I have never seen anything like this enforced. This is very disappointing and frightening considering the increase of inbound slides we have had in the last few years. I now wear my beacon and my probe and shovel when teaching on high avi danger days just in case one cuts loose or my student gets buried or stuck in a tree well. Better to be over prepared than wishing you had your gear when one cuts loose.

  22. Andre December 15th, 2008 9:22 pm

    What a shock. Just a couple of weeks ago I chatted with Cory as we both topped out on the Snowmass rim trail at the Yin Yang platform. The view was stunning. We talked of the winter past, and winter to come. We talked of our kids. We talked of the past. It was good to re-connect.

    This weekend’s snow seemed like such a harbinger for another banner year. The memories of last spring’s bomber conditions are still fresh in my mind, but this snow pack is an entirely different beast. Saturday on Highlands bowl was incredible, but I have to say I was a bit sketched after skiing some of the deepest snow i’ve been in, with nothing under it for base. Though still in bounds, I felt as though I should have had beacon and gear. We all should have. You just never know.
    Sunday on Aspen was glorious. Once Walsh’s was skied off, where does the powder addled mind turn to? Pandoras and Powerline of course. Many locals effectively consider these runs to be part of the area. Of course they are not, and are not controlled, but the temptation to ski them is strong; the overconfidence of familiar terrain misleading. It can be hard not to get sucked in to such a trap. We have all made mistakes, Cory paid for his dearly. How can we all learn from this and most importantly, remember the lessons of all the tragedies that have hit us. It is like every season we need a refresher of all the things that have gone wrong in the past. A reminder of how fragile the balance between fun and doom can be. We will all miss Cory. Condolences to his family.

  23. Randonnee December 15th, 2008 10:45 pm

    Sincere condolences and prayers for family, friends and all involved with the avalanche victims. How very sad for all of us to hear of these tragedies.

    Rob

  24. AK Jack December 15th, 2008 10:55 pm

    Heart felt condolences to the family, friends and rescuers.

    Alaska’s Turnagain Pass buried a skier Saturday, but the skier’s buddies dug her out and she survived.

    Jack

    http://www.cnfaic.org/advisories/current.php?id=

  25. David Clark December 16th, 2008 12:09 am

    Dear Lou:

    Cory was a friend and my wife’s cousin. He worked ski patrol on Ajax since 1990. He’d spent a year patrolling at Chamonix and had an impressive climbing resume. He was a pro with tons of avi experience and always preached safety. And both Kate and I are at a complete loss as to why he showed such an error in judgment.

    So I guess my question to you is this: what goes through someone’s mind, with that much experience, when they make that decision to ski an out of bounds run like Power Line – alone – on a day when avi danger is super high? Why do it? He’d skied a million runs, he had to know the danger was high, and he absolutely knew the danger of sking out of bounds alone, so why do it? What compels us to throw caution to the wind and take that mad plunge? What is it that entices us to chase a powder run on an avi prone slope by ourselves, in complete defiance of our sanity?

    Your old NOLS student,

    David Clark

  26. Markian Feduschak December 16th, 2008 12:26 am

    The title of the post, Black Sunday, is most appropriate. I have known Cory for years, like Todd, out of touch the last few years. We shared mutual friends and a few adventures together and unforutnately I learned of his passing on this Blog. His good humor and love for the mountains where infectious. I will always remember fondly the few hut trips we shared in younger years.

    The analysis is emotionaly difficult at this point, important in the long run. As an avid backcountry skier and father of two, like Cory, I never really want to believe that it can happen to me or any one else I know. The fact is that it can happen to anyone who is willing to take the risk in CO in midwinter and venture in the slack or back country in avalanche terrain.

    I’m sure many of us recall those times when we believe we made a solid, complex decision and all turned out well. Does this reinforce our knowledge and skill base or were we just lucky? The greatest lesson for me at this time is the unpredicatabily of our CO snowpack calls for deeply conservative decisions- and how much it hurts those that are left behind in an accident such as this.

    My deepest condolences to Cory’s family and friends.

  27. Lou December 16th, 2008 8:28 am

    Thanks for dropping by David! See today’s post.

  28. Pete December 17th, 2008 5:03 pm

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