Ski Touring News — RIP Adam, and Where is Safe Snow?


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 4, 2017      

Leading here with an observation about avalanche safety. Colorado is usually at the top of the list for skier (including snowboarders) avy fatalities per state. Yet last winter we had the amazing occurrence of zero skier fatals (or possibly one, unwitnessed.) I blogged about that some time ago.

While our state’s avalanche safety pros could perhaps do some sophisticated analysis of what’s created that situation, I’ve seen nothing definitive. Theories range from “the snow was better,” to “luck.”

Me, I give credit to the human side. Worldwide, I see plenty of skiers pushing limits, often in ways that appear fearfully unwise. But in North America, in my opinion, the backcountry skiing public is better informed and better educated than ever, and those who do engage the game are doing so with a lot more ability to play high stakes poker and win.

My theory is that specifically here in Colorado, and other regions with similarly extra-lethal snowpack like ours, skiers are inspired to keep their cards close to their chest. Thus despite a HUGE increase in user days (napkin calced doubling time of around 8 years!), our fatality rate, per user day, is clearly dropping. This chart seems to allude to this.

In any case, what I find difficult to get my head around is how we could have a safer winter such as 2015-2016 happen in Colorado, and at the same time see the PNW (Washington-Oregon) reporting something like 4 skier tragedies. What gets me is that I’ve always held a strong belief the the PNW snow was on the whole nearly infinitely safer than ours here in Colorado. That’s one reason I’ve made a lot of ski mountaineering trips up there over the years, and is a good part of why the younger part of our family lives up there.

What brings this home to us, and is unfortunately “news,” is the tragic death of our acquaintance and friend of many friends, PNW skier Adam Roberts, in an avalanche near White Pass resort in Washington. I’m not asking for personal details or analysis on what happened to Adam (if you do speak, please do so in generalities), only pointing out that here is another event that belies my perhaps antiquated notion of PNW snow safety.

So, beyond specifics about Adam, rest his soul, what’s going on with snow safety regarding our central Rocky Mountains (Colorado, Montana, etc) and the PNW (Washington, Oregon)? Am I making a mistake being overall less cautious about the PNW? Is our lower fatality rate in Colorado just luck? Are the statistics only showing normal ebb and flow?

Your thoughts, oh esteemed commenters?

PSA section, a few of our basic avalanche safety how-to posts.

Five Tips for staying alive in the white dragon’s home.

10 tips of the same nature.

Review of Bruce Tremper’s Avalanche Essentials book.

Our ‘Avalanche Safety’ category.

Comments

30 Responses to “Ski Touring News — RIP Adam, and Where is Safe Snow?”

  1. Jed Porter January 4th, 2017 8:50 am

    Thanks Lou for, as usual, broaching a worthy topic at a tough time in a respectful fashion. As a traveling skier and professional avalanche educator, I’ve always had a fundamental discomfort with regional generalizations about avalanche hazard. Anywhere snow falls onto mountainous terrain has avalanche hazard. And hazard is hazard. Paradoxically, there are likely many many more avalanches per season in Washington than there are in Colorado, simply due to the volume of snow falling closer to the coast. The real conversation is in terms of risk. Risk is defined as human exposure to hazard. Like you allude to, we need to step further back and look at how we are exposing ourselves to hazards. Could be as simple as a race for tracks? There are more of us. We want the fresh. We have equipment that can get us the fresh. Colorado’s powder and storm skiing terrain is pretty forgiving (I mean, Colorado has lots of gentle terrain) while Washington’s is, overall, rowdier… in “historical” times, the respective backcountry crowds could wait til the storm was over and still get fresh snow in accessible places. For those in Washington, the hazard by then had lessened. In Colorado, it doesn’t drop necessarily by the time the sun’s out. Surely other factors at play, and my theory doesn’t speak to why Colorado fatalities have dropped so dramatically… this latter point: excellent news!

  2. Charlie Hagedorn January 4th, 2017 9:15 am

    I think it’s reasonable to expect that, with sufficient local knowledge and experience, the per-user-day accident rate ought to be the same everywhere. It’s the risks we choose to take that influence our rate of consequence, and humans are the same everywhere.

    Is the PNW snowpack safer in absolute terms? Of course. One trip to wintertime Colorado was enough to convince me of that. What determines consequence, though, are the choices that travelers make in the backcountry. It’s safer, so we push harder, and things tend to even out.

    The 16/17 snowpack in Washington is atypical, compared with the last decade. It has stayed cold, and we’ve had none of our usual rain-on-snow events. It’s only our prodigious quantities of snow that have generally sheltered us from the evils of faceting. Surface hoar layers persist longer. I’ve pulled back on tour destinations simply because this snowpack is outside of my usual experience; the skiing in safer places, though, has been wonderful.

    Adam’s accident is a sad one – the inspiring images in which he so often starred touched so many people. His tiny-house ski-often way of life was an inspiration, too. May his accident the last major one of 16/17. 17/18 will be along soon-enough.

  3. Kristian Woyna January 4th, 2017 9:56 am

    Really good short video I came across yesterday about Adam Roberts.

    http://www.bellinghamherald.com/news/local/article123387829.html

  4. Eric Steig January 4th, 2017 10:29 am

    Regarding your question, Lou

    ” Am I making a mistake being overall less cautious about the PNW? ”

    I would say, yes and no.

    Yes, because avalanche danger is really high in this area, pretty much whenver it snows, because it almost always snows a lot. No, because it’s easy to make the decision I’ve made for the last 35+ years: don’t ski anywhere that’s even moderaly exposed immediately after a storm; wait a few days. Except in the rare times when we have weather like we do right now — cold and clear — the avalanche risk drops off quickly, compared with Utah or Colorado for example.

    The thing that I really love most about this area is that the season of spring skiing, during which the avalanche risk can be as near zero for weeks on end, in nearly all places. I think it’s this, more than anything, that contributes to the idea that PNW is “safer” than Colorado.

  5. Matt Kinney January 4th, 2017 10:43 am

    Bummer about Roberts. It sound like the ” ignoring obvious clues” thing again. Jason Hummel wrote a good piece about the incident and his pal. Same with the incident in Montana earlier. What I am concerned about is the out-of-bounds incidents.. When resorts started doing this years ago, I was pretty much against it for this exact reason. These incidents can be reduced with a stricter protocol for who can ski out-of bounds and a more conservative approach as to when to open out-of-bounds. Tough call for sure.

    There is the recent video of ski star(Rice?) getting swept off a Valdez peak doing stuff for “Dead Bull”. Not sure why he wasn’t wearing an airbag while helisking steeps? That whole party of guides and experts missed obvious clues and even admit it in hindsight. Unfortunately most of us can’t afford to have a rescue team/EMTs hovering overhead. That’s a related issue for the industry to address on many levels including how they present the sport to the public. Most the non-skiing public thinks all of us as stupid anyway!

    The only stability that matters is right now. I keep hearing how stable the Chugach is, but I think that is a hyped myth. Or maybe it’s true, but I ignore that impression and dig anyway. Coloradians see “obvious clues” everywhere so it’s hard to ignore. Their instability is wickedly famous which make is simpler to deal with.

    Avalanche Centers are getting better with their forecast and using social media. Cell phones make the info available to the masses. There is no excuse to not read a forecast..

    Avalanche centers are showing pit profiles in a more understandable format. Bob Athey’s artistic pit profiles were shunned by professional 15 years ago, but now seem standard in forecastst at least by the CNFAIC in AK. They are easier to comprehend than the standard pit profile of old. Simplifying the science behind stability is working.

    How many Level One course are offered today across the US and Canada compared to 15 years ago? That might answer some questions as to the rate of incidents. Hopefully we are not saturating the skiing public into complacency.

  6. Paul Diegel January 4th, 2017 12:14 pm

    Karl Birkland at the National Avalanche Center published a report last summer showing that avalanche center public contacts have increased between 15 and 60x since 1995. If you used those contacts as a proxy for number of backcountry users and assumed that the per-user-day fatality rate remained constant, you’d expect to see between 420 and 1,680 US fatalities per year, while the actual number has stayed flat at about 28, so I think we are doing something right as a community. Probably a lot of things.
    When the actual numbers are that low, we need to be careful about drawing conclusions. Would 6 fatalities in Utah this year mean that the backcountry is 50% more dangerous than it used to be? And does that reduced per-user-day fatality rate make you any safer when you are considering dropping into a risky line?
    What we know about human factors, risk tolerance, and risk homeostasis leads me to believe that differences in the relative hazard level between regions is a pretty small factor in regional differences in the fatality rate, if a factor at all.
    I think we work and play in a risky and uncertain environment and to expect avalanche fatalities to go to zero is a great goal but an unrealistic expectation. Every single fatality is a tragedy and it makes me feel good to think about how many fatalities our community doesn’t experience.
    Deepest condolences to Adam’s friends and family.

  7. Wookie2974 January 5th, 2017 3:25 am

    I think we’ll only be able to tell this story once we’ve gotten statistically relevant data meaning, numbers over years and years.
    My best guess is that a combination of “good” snow, avi education, information and Safety equipment has reduced the avalanche death toll.
    The caveat here is that in other areas (seat belts for example) the advantages of improved safety equipment disappeared after a decade or so as people adjusted their risk tolerance to account for their higher survival rates – unconsciously of course.
    Only time will tell – but the number of times I’ve met guys carrying a second canister in the bc doesn’t make me hopeful.
    And regarding “Dead Bull” (love that!) I do take issue with their normalization of extremely risky behavior. If they want to do it, then fine, but don’t patronize us all with admonitions to “stay safe” and long soliloquies on the meaning of death in the mountains. Too many people actually believe it. You can either be an OLD skier or a BOLD skier, but not both.

  8. Aaron Mattix January 5th, 2017 6:54 am

    It seems that G3 is taking things in this direction with their “Unepic Days” campaign, but perhaps some more media hype on the joys of low-angle tree skiing and meadow-skipping could help counteract the “Dead Bull” buzz of steep ridge lines and sketchy conditions?

  9. jerry johnson January 5th, 2017 8:49 am

    The drop in avalanche accidents is really quite easy to explain – avalanche education, the easy access to good forecast information, and better equipment are all important factors.

    Why there is still any question about the efficacy of education is a mystery. We have good data on drivers education, aviation, etc that shows a well designed system of teaching “right” behaviors results in a higher incidence of those behaviors. I have some of that data for level one avi students before and after.

    Karl’s data on the use of forecast centers is good evidence that as more people get to the BC they look for good information. The forecasts centers have done a spectacular job of delivery of complex data in easily to understand form via a full range of media. Not only that – we have data that shows people act on good information.

    More people carry and know how to use beacons, shovels and probes. Air bags make a difference. If one reads the literature on risk compensation you will find there is actually very little evidence for it – safer equipment and practices reduce accidents.

    These are all good trends and the ski/sled community should take a good part of the credit for stepping up and embracing the above.

  10. Sky January 5th, 2017 12:23 pm

    Personally, I have encountered a far greater number of avalanches per skier day in the Cascades and Coast Mountains than in the Rockies. Part of that is due to experience and evolution of risk tolerance. But in the same vein, I *see* many more natural avalanches in the Cascades and Coast Mountains. The snowpack is more alive and dynamic in that part of the world. You can’t get an eight foot crown with a four foot snowpack! But a six inch slab can be fatal. Risk homeostasis seems like an applicable concept.

  11. Jim Milstein January 5th, 2017 3:23 pm

    Aaron’s comment reminds me of the “Know Before You Go” video for avvy ed. It looks like a beverage (Dead Bull!) commercial with people doing wild and crazy things in the snow, yet counsels prudent behavior. Mixed message. What were they thinking? You can do wild and crazy things in the snow if your have a team of cinematographers and rescuers with helicopters lurking behind the scenes?

  12. Shane January 5th, 2017 4:44 pm

    One thing that I notice, at least amongst my touring partners here in MT, is that the snow conditions have been so obviously crappy that we don’t bother with steep stuff until much later in the year, in some cases not until springtime. The past 4+ years have been the same – a couple feet in late Oct / early Nov, brutal cold and clear skies for a few weeks, and then terrible persistent depth hoar with some wind slabs.

    To my memory weaknesses in the snowpack used to be less obvious and less widespread. 20, even 10, years ago it seemed to make sense to go out and evaluate slopes, maybe you could ride something steep. These past few years I feel like it’s not even worth digging a pit – I know the snow sucks so I’ll just ride something mellow or stay inbounds until spring.

    Maybe I’m just getting old. The cold is bothering me more lately too.

  13. Tom N January 5th, 2017 7:32 pm

    I think an interesting item to note in regards to the PNW is the much more broad and less local avalanche forecasts. Take Central Oregon/Bend area for instance, they don’t even have a daily avalanche forecast and have to rely on Mt. Hood, which has a very different snowpack. Compared to Inter-Moutain regions, our avalanche forecasts are not as “localized” and I wonder if this contributes to less information when heading into the backcountry in the PNW. My comments are not negative toward the PNW avalanche reporting groups that do a great job, just something I notice when coming back to this region after skiing in the Inter-Mountain regions and getting daily avalanche forecasts.

  14. Kristian January 5th, 2017 11:54 pm

    Most of us, if we have been at this or climbing long enough, have know tragedy.

    I believe that if you are a seasoned experienced veteran, you might want to quietly confront the commercial forces that glamorize risk and minimize the consequences.

    Most recently I spoke with a famous North Face solo climber. I gave a specific example of the horrible consequences to an impressionable inexperienced teenage climber who believed the “go for it” hype. The solo climber apologized, but said that was how he made money. He was not smiling.

  15. Jay January 6th, 2017 8:44 am

    In terms of snowpacks and overall risk, you’re talking a very low number of fatalities and therefore need a very long period to make regional assessments. And you are dealing with distributions that are decidedly non-normal. The really big tail events haven’t really happened yet. Overall my money would be on this being normal ebb and flow, and for the safety conscious who want to get out fairly regularly the PNW overall being a more predictable environment.

  16. Rob Mullins January 6th, 2017 11:12 am

    Tragedy often occurs after false perception of personal skill is enlarged.

    Snow is inherently stable, and unstable generally less of the time. This may lure mountain travelers onto terrain which they do not understand. Some, I think most, travelers on avalanche terrain do not understand why or why not a slope will avalanche. Since snow is usually stable, a false perception of expertise is established. Sadly, then, with an actual lack of understanding during the few periods of instability- obvious to knowledgeable folks- avalanche entrapment occurs and is treated as unusual or surprising commonly. It is unlikely to find one accident report of an accident in which previous avalanche probability could not have been forecast.

    Time on snow. Eg, if Sky above is the famous chute skier, he has developed high expertise from actual time on snow, given his choices of ski terrain, and his long term survival.

    Most of the time snow (especially in PNW) will avalanche during a small and specific period of time (PWL etc obvious exceptions). Therefore, perhaps those who expose themselves to avalanche potential repeatedly, often, I think usually, have false positives from safety and success. Thus their false perception of personal skill is enlarged.

    Beware the commercial avalanche retail and retail education complex! The exponential enlargement of the avalanche ‘world’ of education and gear seems ineffective. How many who travel avalanche terrain can define and recognize even the basics about required angle and amount of snow (old and/or new snow)? I think few can. Further, temperature trends, windspeed and duration related to wind direction and aspect, slope aspect- how many understand and follow this, rather than pit data bla bla etc. I find most folks who have attended formal training cannot answer my question of “what angle and how much snow is required for an avalanche? Or what angle is this slope?” It seems the same folks are conversant especially about their fantastic avalanche transceiver, shovel, etc., and will talk about pits and layers and symbols, yet leave the impression that they cannot actually use the basic foundational concepts to evaluate avalanche potential. Avalanche hazard may be and as a practice is accurately characterized with some previous knowledge of the snowpack and careful observation of hourly weather data; this added to on snow time and observation can be- with self control- close to 100% accurate for safety..

    This evaluation is not enhanced in the least by any of the avalanche related retail purchases- gear, and it seems not enhanced by much of current formal education. Lack of careful evaluation based on knowledge and time on snow, and self control, are the weak links to this problem. Beware the commercial avalanche retail and retail education complex!

  17. Bruno Schull January 6th, 2017 11:27 am

    Rob, I get what you’re saying. At the same time, it seems like many very experienced back country skiers, guides, and so on–people who have the kind of knowledge you are talking about–get caught in avalanches frequently. Of course, its possible to explain these accidents with various biases, pressures, decisions, and so on. But I think a more realistic view might just be that avalanche danger and human decision making is often too complex for even experts to negotiate accurately–maybe the best approach is to recognize how little we know, and to remember that we almost surely understand less than we think we do. Humility seems like a good starting point.

  18. Rob Mullins January 6th, 2017 12:11 pm
  19. Michel B January 6th, 2017 1:15 pm

    WA lost another skier yesterday. A 64-year-old woman was found buried in avalanche debris in the backcountry near Crystal Mountain. Her name has not yet been released.

  20. Bruno Schull January 6th, 2017 3:01 pm

    Rob, thanks for the link to that article, and glad you and your friend survived. Of course, it’s silly for me to even comment on this, seeing as I have so little experience skiing–I am still working on trying to recognize what a 30 degree slope looks like! What I wrote–that experienced people get caught frequently, and therefore we should all be more careful about what we think we can manage–was not my idea. I read this in a blog post from Will Gadd, who clearly has a huge amount of experience in the mountains, as well as a practical, no nonsense take on things. He basically said that if you have to start analyzing and questioning and digging pits, you should probably just go do something else (ski somehwere else, climbing another route, and so on). I thought it was a great example of knowing when you don’t know enough. I also thought that if Will Gadd admits that he just doesn’t know enough to consistently make safe decisions in avalanche terrain, what chance do mere mortals have? That’s where I was coming from, although I do regret my somewhat holier-than-thou statement that, “Humility is a good starting point.” True though it may be, it sounds a bit superior, and I apologize. I only felt really scared about avalanches once in the mountains (which does not mean I wasn’t in danger other times). My partner and I were climbing up a steep slope below a bergschrund, a short ice face, and a ridge. There was thigh to waist deep unconsolidated powder on the slope. It started less deep, and then got more deep, as we got higher, and the slope got steeper. By the time I started getting a strong spooky feeling, we were closer the the bergschrund than the starting point. Pushing through those last meters to the bergschrund, where we were able to sink some ice screws and get out the rope, were tense, and frightening to look back on with hindsight. We were lucky that day. All the best, and have a safe season.

  21. Rob Mullins January 6th, 2017 3:40 pm

    Bruno you are very thoughtful. YES- “ski somewhere else, climbing another route, and so on” is great advice if one cannot rule in safety completely.

    My slogan, characterized arrogant by some, is ‘get it right or die.’ My experience tells me that I have very accurate evaluation of avalanche potential. BUT my experience also tells me that I am alive solely by the Grace of God with close calls and near misses. But the close call thing also occurs in life generally.

    To repeat my views above, most folks I encounter in backcountry cannot always estimate slope angle and avalanche terrain, cannot state what angle may be required to avalanche activity, nor state how much old and or new snow is required for avalanche hazard potential. Too much is discussion about pits bla bla and avalanche gear and a lot that has nothing to do with the decision whether avalanche terrain may be entered safely.

    My professional experience ended decades ago now. But I continue to skitour, often solo. I always have treasured solitude- often ski cutting avalanches- solo (not recommending anything for anyone else). That is just my habit and level of comfort. I am more conservative in regard to exposing myself to hazard, in my mind, than nearly anyone that I meet. At this point I have been skitouring sometimes solo and skicutting solo in the backcountry for perhaps 35 years. Well over 1200 days in backcountry on avalanche terrain, and as much in area on avalanche terrain. That said, the day that I get it wrong and die may discredit my views…?

    There are times when all sort of folks are skiing avalanche terrain that I will not get near due to hazard. As well are times that I ski steep and deep confidently and sometimes solo because I believe that I understand the state of the snowpack and likelihood to avalanche at that moment. This leads to my view that most backcountry travelers really have no clue why or why not a certain avalanche path will or will not avalanche!

    My slogan, which you may understand given my solo habit, is ‘get it right or die.’ I believe that, in spite of whom is watching you and what is their perceived avalanche rescue capability.

  22. Lou Dawson 2 January 6th, 2017 4:24 pm

    Rob, “…beware the commercial avalanche retail and retail education complex!”

    Excellent point. I’d add, “beware the Dead Bull”

    I’d agree that for those of us who want to significantly reduce risk while still getting out there and having nice days of touring, we need much more than gear, and much of what is taught places all too much emphasis on fine grained decisions that can be difficult, if not impossible for inexperienced skiers to make in a way that exceeds the same results they’d get if they simply rolled dice.

    On the other hand, credit where credit is due. Some of the decision systems taught actually work fairly well for inexperienced people, provided they’re followed.

    Further, I know a lot of avalanche safety educators, and to the man, or woman, they all agree in discussions that everything turns on human factors and decision making, and they’re always striving for ways to help everyone improve in those areas.

    The challenge, I’m told, is that indeed it’s super tough for some folks to even learn to identify an avalanche slope, estimate slope angle, or even memorize a logical process such as Alptruth. Not to mention problems folks get themselves into by following other people around who may not really know much more than they do.

    I see it all the time. The fittest and most enthusiastic person in the group often wears the expert halo, by default, with no real reason to do so in terms of safety.

    I linked to an Alptruth video in this blog post:

    https://www.wildsnow.com/21339/5-tips-avalanche-safety-2/

    Lou

  23. Rob Mullins January 6th, 2017 9:44 pm

    I’m my mind, a simple list to decide whether to enter an avalanche path..

    1) Is it steep enough? (differs per snowpack type, but easily defined).

    2) Is there enough snow to avalanche? (Weather data last 2 weeks or as needed. New, old, layer that will fail. Evaluations must be done in the exact starting point- crown fracture- or are worthless).

    3) What are the consequences of a failed estimate? (die for sure, busted up, swept off a bluff, wrapped a tree, or can I ski the edge and escape as avy workers often do, or nothing since the moving snow is insignificant- beware this assumption!).

    4) Jump on it (ski cut). If afraid, have a belay rope attached, then jump on it- where it would fracture. Learn how to jump on it safely, learn how to create force with skis, speed and whip the tails. Jumping on it can effectively test the evaluation- evaluation which is simply theoretical- a guess!

    5) Go or retreat. Did jumping (ski cut) initiate an avalanche sufficient to reduce the hazard? No effect from ski cut/ jump and confidence in the snowpack- perhaps go- again, consider consequences. Think it should go and cannot make it- retreat- do not get caught out in mid-slab and suddenly discover your fears are confirmed!

    My habit is, when there is Considerable hazard, I ski my stashes that will not avalanche due to angle. The truth is, with all my personally perceived expertise and experience, I usually dodge the question- decision- by skiing low angle slopes if significant hazard exists! Go big only on days of little or no consequence and proven stable 100%!

    In regard to avalanche education, my comments are based on observing classes and their instructors, and most importantly listening to and observing individuals behavior who state they have been trained. In my mind, a person capable of understanding avalanching will have performed avy control (yep, the term dates me) for two years at a Class A area. Such a person should have traveled in complex dangerous avalanche terrain in high hazard, bombed and kicked avalanches. That person actually has observed what makes an avalanche release, what does not, has felt the exhilarating quick drop of your skis as the slab breaks beneath. Find a person like this who can teach and relate, that is an avy instructor. Too many without a real feel or real experience are socially elevated as experts, and are not.

  24. Mark Donohoe January 9th, 2017 12:30 pm

    I think the biggest factor in the west coast snow is that it stabilizes pretty quick. We do have the rare early snow and then no snow, but the buried layer will transform in a couple of weeks usually. At least in the Sierras it gets warm after storms and things can settle out quickly. BUT, up high there are still windslabs and unpredictable snow. And I know of a group that got caught in a large spring time avalanche. No on was hurt, and it was a guided ski. Still pays to be careful and keep your wits about out. Winter in our high country is still a bit risky.

  25. Lou Dawson 2 January 9th, 2017 4:36 pm

    Rob, your comment reminds me of a discussion we had here some years ago about who is really an “expert” in ski alpinism. IMHO the standard is pretty high. I can’t find that discussion, but similar one is linked here:

    https://www.wildsnow.com/9629/ski-mountaineering-backcountry-learning-how/

  26. Rob Mullins January 11th, 2017 4:43 pm

    Thanks, Lou for the discussion. My hope is to share something useful.

    I am certain that the avalanche question is basic and simple. Sadly, it seems that the modern avalanche milieu has diluted and omitted the foundational basics and replaced with frivolous, esoteric, pedantic, high complexity, catering to the fringe of the question only.

    Is it steep enough to slide?
    When it slides, is there going to be enough snow to cause harm?
    What are the consequences?
    Jump on it (test it)- at the exact likely crown fracture.
    Decide go or no go. Go only if 100% certain of safety.

    In recent years in the backcountry it seems many, including ‘instructors’ cannot complete that sequence competently. It seems too many travel on avalanche terrain without knowing why it will or will not avalanche. Since snow is stable more often than not, false positives lead to tragedy.

  27. Rod Garcia January 14th, 2017 3:37 pm

    Hello Lou and Lisa,

    Unfortunately I’m posting on this thread because of an avalanche death of a Flathead native, Ben Parsons. I thought it pertinent to the subject of this thread, and possibly add to the knowledge base. For those not familiar with Ben, he was a member of the US Nat. Ski Mountaineering team and all around top athlete in this part of the country.

    Ben and friends were skiing in Glacier Nat. Park earlier this month on Mt. Stanton, a small unassuming peak by GNP standards. Here’s the link to an article about it. http://flatheadbeacon.com/2017/01/06/accomplished-kalispell-athlete-killed-glacier-park-avalanche/

    The article notes the avalanche conditions were listed as moderate at the time. As Shane mentioned above, snow conditions here have been evolving over the years and at least from my anecdotal experience, appear to be getting colder and dryer, more similar to Colorado conditions. We’ve had a good bit of subzero temps and dry snow fall with Big Mtn Ski area experiencing a base of over 140″s of mostly dry and sometimes wind driven . I could see how these different conditions, ie not resembling the standard PNW snow we “normally” have could be tripping back country travelers up with disastrous results but may be too soon to tell.

    Anyways, thought I’d throw up the link, say hello and add a couple pennies worth of info.

    Rod

  28. Lou Dawson 2 January 15th, 2017 8:26 am

    Hi Rod, we heard that sad news… thanks for chiming in. The current avalanche rating scale is lame, in my opinion. I’m not sure how it can be improved but calling conditions “moderate” when people can still easily perish has never sat well with me. Mostly, I’ve felt that a simple number scale would infer much less spurious impressions, such as 1 through 6 without the confusing and annoying adjectives is seems the creators just can resist appending to the numbers.

    In particular, the “Moderate” part of the scale in my opinion needs to be split into two numbers, one which would be more the type of “moderate” when human triggered slides are more likely, and another type of “moderate” that’s just above low, thus allowing “low” to be reserved for times when there is pretty much no avalanche danger.

    Moreover, we have a problem in our area of Colorado in that the forecast regions can be too large, due to funding etc., and the region names are confusing. Example is our “Aspen” zone, which has very little to do with Aspen.

    It also might be good to add yet another number to the scale, a zero, rarely used, to express when there is 99.99 no possibility of avalanche human triggered or otherwise. This would allow number 1 (Low) to express what it actually means.

    Clearly, it’s an ongoing process to refine all this.

    Lou

  29. Drew Tabke January 16th, 2017 9:53 am

    Thanks for the respectful discussion… A few articles and FB shares about Adam’s passing were followed by negative comments that made me absolutely sick to my stomach, so I find a lot of support from the tone of the virtual community here.

    Though Lou kept the question specific to snowpack/avalanche safety in the PNW versus intermountain or continental areas, I think it is useful here to broaden the thought experiment to include all winter mountain hazards. Tree well hazard in the PNW was severe this year and the region saw deaths due to non-avalanche snow immersion. Cornices can grow to enormous proportions. The terrain’s complex and rugged topography can be more manageable (ridges, high points, couloirs vs. big open 38° bowls) but also more consequential (gullies, creeks, unsupported slopes). And though perhaps the high alpine sees far fewer user days than the near-highway/near-resort zones, we also confront icefall and crevasse hazard.

    So while the long-standing theory that the maritime snowpack stabilizes more rapidly than the continental seems rock solid, I guess the question your post brings about is how much does that matter in practice? Training anyone other than professionals to identify crystal types and understand vapor transfer in an avalanche class seems to be highly questionable, when decision making matrices, terrain management, spatial awareness, general mountain hazard identification, route planning etc seem exponentially more effective for keeping recreational users safe.

  30. Lou Dawson 2 January 16th, 2017 10:24 am

    Drew, I’m glad we could approach this in a way that was ok by you.

    As most readers know, we do sometimes pick apart an accident, with the greater goal of saving lives and at the risk of being considered harsh.

    Adam’s event didn’t sound that nuanced, and since Louie knew him well and he was also acquainted with Lisa and I and many mutual friends, it just didn’t feel right going into specifics here in an “analysis.” Instead, I’d offer that if you’re new to the avalanche safety routine and do desire to learn from what happened to Adam, just read the news reports and the NWAS accident report, then relate what you learn about the situation to some of our safety checklists.

    https://www.wildsnow.com/category/avalanches-awareness-safety-rescue/

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