Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Every time I am in the Mt. Baker area here in Washington state, I look over at Mount Larrabee and think about how fun it would be to ski. It is a big, triangle shaped mountain, and lately it has been super plastered with snow. The peak is a bit of a chore to get to, but luckily an old fire lookout nearby on top of Winchester Mountain provides shelter, and thus incentive. I tried twice to ski Larabee last year, but was unsuccessful both times. The lookout alone was reason enough to go back, and another attempt had been on my mind all season.
This past weekend, with the avalanche danger low, and powder still hanging around many places, I decided to try for it again. Quinn, Skyler, and I drove up the road to Twin Lakes Friday morning. I had hoped that with the high snow line this season that the road would be dry most of the way. Alas, the snow started in exactly the same spot we encountered it last year. Wonders never cease?
I threw the chains on the Cherokee, cranked up the music, and commenced half an hours worth of fun hogging through the slush that covered the road. We barely got 200 feet, and backed down to the dry road to put our skis on. It was raining and foggy as we hiked up the road, however as we neared the lakes the sun started peeking through. We arrived at Twin Lakes much quicker than I expected, dropped our overnight gear there, and headed up toward Goat Mountain.
The weather as we hiked up was beautiful. We were on the edge of a huge cloud/fog bank, that towered above us and reached all the way into the valley. The clouds and the sun fought an epic battle as we made our way up the ridge. We aimed towards a nice looking sub peak of Goat Mountain. By the time we got to the top the sun had won, and we prepared to drop into a nice couloir we noticed on the way up. We witnessed a beautiful sunset over Mt. Baker as we made our way back to the lakes. We donned headlamps, and ascended Winchester Mountain to reach some well earned sleep and food at the lookout.
We set two alarms for the next morning, and both of them ran out of batteries sometime during the night. We rolled out of bed at 7:30 instead of 4:00, and I was worried that we were too late to ski the south facing run we wanted on Larrabee. We opted to go for it anyway and see how far we got. Luckily it was partially cloudy all day, and that along with a light breeze kept the snow solid well into the afternoon. We ate a quick breakfast, clicked into our skis, and skied 1,000 vertical feet of powder down the north face of Winchester. We skinned the ridge to the base of Larrabee, and switched to boot packing for the ascent.
The snow climbing was fun, we followed a ridge most of the way, with a few fun sections of 65 degree postholing. We hung out on the summit for a while, staring at the mountains that went as far as the eye could see in 3 directions, and ended with the ocean in the other.
The descent was nice, a really aesthetic, consistently steep line. It would have been great, other than a few of the most terrifying seconds of my life. Here’s the story.
The first few hundred feet of the descent went smoothly, it was dense, wind scoured, crusty snow that had softened a bit in the sun. There was an inch or two of dense, wind scoured snow on top of a dense, hard crust. The dense snow sluffed a bit as we skied it, but nothing unmanageable. On the second pitch, I skied first, and headed over to a ridge as a safe zone. I traversed onto a small patch of wind packed snow, and immediately recognized it as a wind slab. I couldn’t continue off of it, as I was headed toward a really steep slope on the other side of the ridge. I still had some speed, so I made a quick turn to get off of the patch. At that moment, the slab fractured about 5 feet above me, about 6 inches thick, sliding on the dense crust. The whole patch was probably about 15 square feet. In any other situation, no big deal. But I was in the middle, in a steep couloir above some cliffs.
As soon as I saw the fracture, I instantly fell into the slope and dug my Whippets in with all my might. I was on top of the sliding snow, and jammed my hands through to the hard crust that the snow was sliding on. I was able to quickly get my Whippets into the bed surface crust, which was dense and held well. But even with that, I accelerated quickly amidst all the snow that had released. At every bump I slid over I imagined myself careening off into oblivion over the cliffs. I kept singlemindedly digging in with my Whippets as hard as I could, thinking “I have to stop, I have to stop, I have to stop.” Finally after sliding for a hundred feet or so, the snow passed me, and I ground to a halt. I stood up, shaken, and watched the snow launch off a windrow and over a cliff below me. I glanced up, and saw the two jagged lines my whippets had rent in the steep slope above. I made my way over to another safe zone, this time sans wind slab, and quietly thanked the Lord for my life. The sluff had picked up a few inches of snow as it went, and we skied this bed surface and then traversed back to our boot pack and the base of the mountain. I didn’t stop shaking the entire time.
Looking back, I’m feeling pretty schooled by this incident. I definitely should have noticed the wind slab before I got onto it. It was small, the entire thing was only about 15 square feet, but in exposed terrain. Getting caught like I did is of course unacceptable. As I supposedly learned in avy classes, “look at the consequences.” What makes me feel particularly embarrassed is that the slab was fairly obvious: a typical patch of wind-compacted snow on a slope that was otherwise wind scoured. If I had been paying more attention, and perhaps looked closer at my safe zone from far away, this whole thing could have been avoided. As for once I was on top of it, I don’t know if I should have done something other than try to get off of it as quickly as possible, which didn’t work. If it wasn’t for the Whippets, I would have slid through some pretty steep rocky terrain. I can honestly say Whippets saved my life. Thanks Andrew and BD. Even so, if the slab had been even a few inches thicker — I don’t know.
I was pretty shaken up the rest of the day. We traversed back to the base of Winchester and skied some nice powder along the way. We hiked to the top, retrieved our overnight gear, and skated the road back to the car. I wasn’t sure about sharing about my close call, but talking about mistakes in public is a good way to drill the learning in and stay humble, so I went for it.