CAIC Avalanche Report a Masterpiece — Learn


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 28, 2019      

Post sponsored by Cripple Creek Backcountry, now with three locations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.

Avalanche awareness and education are a big part of our mission at WildSnow.com

Avalanche awareness and education are a big part of our mission at WildSnow.com.

Axiomatic: when a backcountry skier dies in an avalanche, mistakes were made. Such mistakes are of course not always avoidable, as we are only human. But they are mistakes nonetheless; mistakes we can learn from.

First, our condolences go out to the people involved in the Senator Back Basin avalanche here in Colorado, January 5, 2019. We have no wish to over-emphasize this accident, but it had a number of educational and now well communicated aspects, thanks to the involved group having documented their entire day in a trip plan for their avalanche safety course, and the subsequent Colorado Avalanche Information Center report. Be sure to read the entire report before commenting. Below, a few highlights from the report:

Assessing and managing slope angle
The difference between a representation of the terrain and the actual terrain is a very important issue for everyone using these tools for route planning. The same issues hold for everything from paper maps to the most sophisticated digital tools. These are very useful tools, but they have limitations and they are most useful when coupled with observations of the physical terrain…

WildSnow comment: Indeed! In days of old, to assess slope angles we used inclinometers of various configurations, along with crude interpolations from topo maps. As we knew our map takes were imperfect, the inclinometer was useful. I’d suggest it would still be so — especially in an institutional setting when going by the book (and the trip plan) are the mission.

I’ve noticed a trend here in Colorado. Within the last 24 months, I’ve heard an obvious increase in skiers talking about seeking out low angled “hippy” powder, due to persistent weak layers. This is a good game to play — I’ve done it for years — but accurate assessment of angles is key.

Airbags
Skier 2 ((the fatality)) was wearing an airbag backpack. After the accident we determined that the system was functioning properly, the trigger out of the pack strap, but the bag was not deployed. Skier 3 was also wearing an avalanche airbag backpack. He pulled the trigger when he was caught in the avalanche. The airbag did not deploy…

WildSnow comment: If Skier 3 (who survived) had deployed his airbag the media and airbag company X would have been all over it. As it is, the lesson is something I’m taking a stronger stance on, as follows:

When buying an avalanche airbag backpack, get one you can practice with and test — multiple times. That could be an electric, or a gas unit you learn how to get filled. Do not simply buy any avy airbag pack, skim the instruction pamphlet, and try to remember where the trigger handle is as you tumble down the mountain in a jumble of thousand pound snow blocks or a 90 mph powder cloud.

One other regarding avalanche airbags. Relatively small avalanches such as those in this accident don’t allow you much time for triggering an airbag. More, you need to be in a moving flow for it to work. It sounds like the deceased might have been knocked over and covered by one or both of the avalanches, without a chance for the airbag to help.

WildSnow comment on the overall accident: According to the CAIC reporting, these guys were dancing with the dragon, dealing with challenges that perhaps were not appropriate for conditions that day. The large size of the group is what I’d view as most problematic. But they were also attempting subtle “micro” route finding based on a few degrees change and slope angle. All things I have done, and gotten away with. Nonetheless, lessons can be learned and we can all improve.

Again, read the report and feel free to comment. We’ve had a few years with nearly no recreational avalanche deaths in Colorado. Learn, and apply. Let’s keep the trend going.



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Comments

50 Responses to “CAIC Avalanche Report a Masterpiece — Learn”

  1. Stewspooner January 28th, 2019 7:44 am

    A detailed and fascinating report, but there’s more I’d like to know. It seems pretty clear that once the group committed to that objective, mitigating the known hazards would have required a degree of finesse in decision making and group coordination that is rarely achieved, so they were rolling the proverbial dice, and lost. So why that objective? Obviously I wasn’t there, and am speculating, but who had something to prove, who didn’t speak up, and if they did why were their concerns dismissed, and how do avoid similarly disfunctional dynamics in our own decision making?

  2. James Baugh January 28th, 2019 10:22 am

    The objective was surprising to me as well. The group was effectively trying to thread a needle.

    Does anyone know if selecting objectives that are this complex is standard for an Avy2 course? I was looking into taking an Avy2 course (I even looked at this Silverton course) but decided against it because I currently have a very low risk tolerance (determined by life commitments). I didn’t want to be the one person holding the rest of the students back. Could anyone that has taken an Avy2 course comment on whether this complex of terrain is standard?

  3. VT skier January 28th, 2019 10:55 am

    Lou, you wrote
    ” If Skier 3 (who survived) had deployed his airbag …” In the CAIC report, it says he DID pull the trigger. But the airbag did not deploy, because he had assembled the trigger incorrectly.
    Quote from the CAIC report,
    “Skier 3 was also wearing an avalanche airbag backpack. He pulled the trigger when he was caught in the avalanche. The airbag did not deploy. Later, he determined that he assembled the trigger mechanism incorrectly”
    Know your airbag.
    Condolences to all.

  4. wtofd January 28th, 2019 11:35 am
  5. Wange January 28th, 2019 12:13 pm

    Looking at the terrain around the area; assuming that they were assigned a zone on the west side of the highway it appears to be the only logical high point to try for. As well as the only pitch it would be possible to get turns on safely assuming they made it to South Telluride summit. However I tend to agree with Stewspooner in that decision making as a group, especially one of that size, would be difficult in any terrain. Let alone the terrain on the way to/from their original objective.

  6. Scott S Allen January 28th, 2019 12:26 pm

    Having skied in Senator Beck Basin just a few seasons ago at that same date, HWY 550 is always tantalizingly close, meaning you can drop from most high points back to the road within about 30 minutes. I can imagine myself at the end of a long successful day short cutting protocols in favor of a quick descent to the truck.
    I also agree the student to teacher ratio was high for this type of training in this type of terrain.
    Blessing to all involved…

  7. Scott S. Allen January 28th, 2019 12:34 pm

    I am also guilty of being an over-confident CalTopo Slope Shading user. I need to dial back and take slope readings in the field before assuming my descent plans are safe.

  8. John January 28th, 2019 1:38 pm

    I agree with Scott above. I spend a ton of time on Caltopo and should be validating that in the field more.

  9. Ned Bair January 28th, 2019 3:58 pm

    Good point on CalTopo. I’ve checked this site out and it does give a good general idea about slope angle, but the resolution is coarser than you might think. I read up on the blog and the creator is using the 10 m DEM for the US:

    http://help.caltopo.com/discussions/maps/656-slope-angle-shading-is-ok-only-with-usa-map

    10 m is the highest res available from the USGS with coverage of the whole US. When you compute slope, you need a surface, which requires at least a 3×3 neighborhood centered on the pixel of interest. ARC has nice entry on this:

    http://desktop.arcgis.com/en/arcmap/10.3/tools/spatial-analyst-toolbox/how-slope-works.htm#ESRI_SECTION1_3092513D12BB4C5D91FD590CBF5FC240

    So what you’re really getting when you look at slope on CalTopo is something on the order of 30 m resolution for slope. That’s a pretty big area that would only pick out, for example, exceptionally large convex rolls. To put it another way LandSat has 30 m resolution and I cannot even make out most small to medium avalanche paths with LandSat imagery, which is too bad because it goes back more than four decades.

    This is a really sad accident. The group was trying to be safe. I agree with everything that has been said, but keep in mind these were students taking a level 2 avalanche course. At that level, I would still expect a lot of equipment problems and mistakes, like airbags not being assembled correctly and unsafe route finding. Conversely, a good avalanche instructor needs to expose their students to some risk outside and allow students to make decisions for themselves, otherwise it’s just a PowerPoint.

    I agree completely with Lou about practicing with your airbag, just like you practice with a beacon. It’s a pain to repack them and refill the canisters, but they’ve been shown to cut mortality in half (Haegeli et al. 2014). When I started patrolling, no one had airbags. Now they are standard equipment for all the large patrols.

    Haegeli, P., M. Falk, E. Procter, B. Zweifel, F. Jarry, S. Logan, K. Kronholm, M. Biskupi?, and H. Brugger (2014), The effectiveness of avalanche airbags, Resuscitation, 85(9), 1197-1203, doi: 10.1016/j.resuscitation.2014.05.025.

  10. Tom Gos January 28th, 2019 4:06 pm

    Having done a similar hut based Level 2 course at Silverton Avalanche School six years ago I have been very interested in what occurred during this accident.

    I agree, the CAIC report is excellent but I’m still left with questions. I would really like to know why the group adopted the tactic of simul-skiing the slope which initially slid. I’d also like to know what discussion they had about the steep terrain above their chosen route from which the second slide came. And, I’d like to know if they had considered decending the more mellow terrain to the northeast of their highpoint.

    These questions not withstanding, I found the CAIC report to be quite sobering and educational. My sympathy goes out to everyone involved in and effected by this tragedy.

  11. DavidB January 28th, 2019 4:56 pm

    There are certainly questions to be asked.

    How many courses had they run this season previous to this course?
    Have they skied that terrain previously this year?
    It seems strange to be skiing into a confluence with the risk of slide so high.
    What did they find in their pit and how deep did they dig? etc etc

    While more avi education is great, the business of selling “awareness” courses is growing rapidly and the level of quality varies considerably. From what I’ve seen in some countries the level of serious education and classroom work prior to on snow time also varies considerably.

    A tragedy for sure and my heart goes out to those concerned.

  12. Lou Dawson 2 January 28th, 2019 5:10 pm

    VT Skier, yes, I’m aware the airbag was mis-configured, that’s what I meant by “failed to deploy,” (I was trying to be brief) but I see how that could be interpreted to mean he didn’t pull the trigger. Takeaway is this was yet another failed deployment to add to the disappointing airbag stats. Lou

  13. Kevin Woolley January 28th, 2019 6:26 pm

    I’ll preface my remarks by noting that I’m an extremely cautious skier with lots of winter mountain experience but less than 10 years as a backcountry skier, skiing in Colorado with our thin touchy snowpack.

    I also heavily utilize caltopo with slope angle shading for route planning. The information in the report from CAIC is extremely illuminating and I wonder if this could be the subject of a future blog post from someone knowledgeable?

    My experience with this kind of mapping is that it will keep you away from 35° slopes that are more than a hundred feet in size quite reliably. It does very well in large uniform slopes.

    It doesn’t show small convex rollovers very well, and also misses short pitches of 35 degree slope angle in heavily forested areas.

    And it seems to underestimate slope angle in places that can have very deep snow from wind loading, I assume that is because the mapping is not done in midwinter? A 100 foot slope pitched at 25 degrees with no snow in the summer would be different in the winter with a 15 foot convex snow drift at the top of the slope.

    Also I have seen a few areas where the slope angle has been overestimated, often in association with gully features.

    Regarding this particular accident, the pictures near the crown of the slide appear to show a convex rollover, and the fact that skiers 3 through 6 couldn’t see the first 2 skiers on the slope suggests a slope angle above 30 degrees. I will occasionally find myself near the top of a rollover like that above tree line, and when I do, I give it a very wide berth, regardless of what my map says, particularly if I cannot see the bottom of the slope. In fact I use that as a gauge of the slope angle, if I can’t see bottom in a hundred feet or so, it is more than 30 degrees. I try to put myself in the shoes of those skiers and imagine if I would have been comfortable on top of that rollover. I wonder if I would have been brave enough to suggest to the group that it looked too steep, and hiked back over to the route they took up to that spot, or if I would have gone along despite misgivings.

    Deepest condolences to those involved in the accident. Gratitude to those who performed the rescue operation and provided us all with this thorough analysis.

  14. Kristian January 28th, 2019 7:09 pm

    Very sad. Drove this pass 3 times a few days prior and skied. Spooky snow conditions.

    For same reasons, I had just switched from carbon bottle to capacitor BDE air bag.

    And during a CPR recertification last week, we were told about a 4+ hour effort in Alaska that ultimately allowed for a helicoptered crew to take over and revive someone. CPR is easy and quick to learn and practice.

  15. Nate Porter January 28th, 2019 8:38 pm

    I agree the CAIC report is excellent. The comments and thoughts here are great too, thank you all for that. It’s a tricky game we play out there. Mostly it’s one of the most rewarding ways a person can enjoy nature, in my opinion. But when it goes bad, it can be really bad. It seems like in the last three seasons in CO we’ve gone from a rare pretty stable season to an almost non existent season, to this season full of weak layers and lots of avalanches. Best wishes to all involved.

  16. Lenka K. January 29th, 2019 3:38 am

    Digital terrain models are a good way of checking the route from home, but confirming the angles in the backcountry is only practicable if you actually climb the route you’re going to descend. Otherwise, you’d have to expose one of your group to avalanche hazard, as you can only get an angle-reading if you’re actually on the slope in question.

    In Austria, we’ve had several pretty bad persistent-weak-layer-winters in 2014-2017 and the one thing that was always emphasized in the avalanche forecasts was the fact that triggering is more likely to occur in areas with shallow snowpack, or — as seems to be the case here — in the areas transitioning from shallow snowpack (grass sticking out on the spot where the group was waiting) to thick snowpack. So — although it’s counter-intuitive — in a persistent-weak-layer-situation you’re not necessarily safer choosing a shallow-snowpack route.

  17. Lou Dawson 2 January 29th, 2019 6:33 am

    Lenka, good point! Another mistake is this thing about skiing “next to the trees.” Much safer nearer the middle, away from things that can break you, and less likely to hit a trigger. Lou

  18. Tim Case January 29th, 2019 7:19 am

    Regarding the non-deployment of the bag that was functioning properly, I had often found myself wondering why someone wouldn’t pull the trigger but then recently found myself in a non-avalanche slide down bulletproof snow, didn’t pull the trigger (not sure if this would have helped or hurt) and really just found myself struggling to maintain awareness (slid head and foot first about 1k feet) while also being very aware that I was going to either get very hurt or very dead…walked away okay but it opened my mind to realizing that the most aware, trained and studied may still fail to deploy in the moment…

  19. Shane January 29th, 2019 12:24 pm

    I was recently on a group trip where a person’s devoted attention to Caltopo caused something of a mutiny. In our case, the electronic data seemed to consistently overestimate slope angles, causing that member to continually resist objectives that the other, more experienced group members felt were safe based on looking at the actual terrain and measuring slope angles. This resulted in a lot of wasted energy. Eventually the group split into two.

  20. wtofd January 29th, 2019 1:41 pm

    Thanks to all who have shared their thoughts. Kevin W, I especially appreciated your words. One of the few upsides to this accident, it seems, is we are now in agreement that the map is not the territory. Condolences to all involved.

  21. Paul January 29th, 2019 4:22 pm

    I carry and use an inclinomter in the field. I am all about terrain avoidance, as a solo skier. When i first got the thing i found my guesses on the angle of any slope were way off. This despite the fact that as a carpenter with decades of experience i can look at a roof and eyeball its pitch pretty darn well. I think one should not rely on eyeball estimates of slope angle, ever. Too damn easy to measure it. Not a comment on this particular incident, but felt this would be pertinent to the discussion.

  22. Jim Milstein January 29th, 2019 8:05 pm

    To correct Lenka’s assertion that you have to be on a slope to measure it, a slope angle can be measured from the side. I have done it many times from an adjacent slope.

    For several decades I used the Suunto PM-5 mechanical clinometer, a fine instrument. It can measure slopes both by sighting straight up or down them or by aligning the instrument sideways across a slope. No batteries, one moving part, 104g.

    However, recently with the acquisition of an iPhone I mostly use the Theodolite app. It is truly great for this purpose and it takes photos with all the data superimposed, including GPS and azimuth. An iPhone is not so reliable as the Suunto clinometer, but the iDevice has yet to fail after several hundred days in the backcountry. At the end of a long day’s outing the battery is seldom at less than 90%. Airplane mode helps a lot. The later GPS chips use little power. I carry an inReach too and spare electrons.

    I am usually a solo skier, and I think this makes me a more cautious skier. So far, so good.

  23. Lenka K. January 30th, 2019 4:34 am

    @Jim Milstein

    That’s an interesting idea, but don’t you still need to get quite close to the slope you want to measure? In other words, do you think your method would be practicable in this particular accident, where the uptrack was way off the descent route?

  24. Lou Dawson 2 January 30th, 2019 5:57 am

    Lenka, if you can see down or up a slope, or see it from the side, the angle can be measured without needing to stand on the actual slope. In a practical sense, one can get pretty good at identifying slopes suitable for “low angled” skiing. On the other hand, if you try to parse route choices based on just a couple degrees difference in steepness, that can be asking too much.

    I’ve been thinking quite a bit about this accident report. The size of the group just keeps leaping out at me. Large groups are incredibly hard to manage in avalanche terrain, simply because of the time it takes to stagger the group in situations where everyone can not move simultaneously. For example, if a group of 6 has to stagger themselves 5 minutes, that’s an entire half hour added to what could be a 5 minute crossing or descent. Some of the scariest situations I’ve been in over the past decade or so have been with large guided groups that simply could not be staggered correctly due to time constraints. Lou

  25. wtofd January 30th, 2019 7:48 am

    Paul, what brand do you recommend?

    Lou, did you think they might have simply retraced their ascent route or was there as much hangfire on the climb as their eventual descent?

  26. Ned Bair January 30th, 2019 7:53 am

    I agree with Lenka, to get slope angle measurements within +/- 1 deg, you have to be standing on the slope. I own a Suunto sighting inclinometer and have it used it many times in the field for snow avalanche research. You cannot sight a slope angle sideways. You need to be looking up a slope and to pick a point with some contrast, which can be a problem in 100% snow cover. Then, what you get from the sighting inclinometer is an average slope angle from the point where you are standing to that point. They are great for citing alpha and beta angles, which are average slope angles over an avalanche path.

    In any case, the group was in the runout of a 35 degree slope that one of the avalanches released on, and on slopes above their 29 deg limit, so the threading a needle analogy that James Baugh writes about is apt. Also, I apologize for repeating some of what’s written in the accident report about slope angles and DEMs. Obviously I hadn’t read the report carefully enough! The CAIC report has better insight than anything in my not there armchair analysis, but it’s such a spooky accident, which is why I think there are all these comments.

    From reading the report more carefully, the moderate danger rating seems a little low to me given the number of recent avalanches, the propagating ECTs, and the poor structure throughout the forecast zone. Still, the danger ratings are subjective and only provide general guidance, and the group didn’t read about the problems, which are often more informative than the danger rating. A good thing to note is that there is no cell phone reception at Red Mountain Pass, so the only way they would have been able to read the report is if someone printed it out and brought it to them at the hut. Apparently this didn’t happen, rather a verbal summary was provided. To me there is no substitute for having an up-to-date avalanche forecast in front of you. I wonder if the drop from Considerable on 1/4 to Moderate on 1/5 encouraged the group to be more exposed.

  27. Kristian January 30th, 2019 8:34 am

    Here is a cranky old guy comment.

    Waaay back in the day, it used to be that many backcountry skiers spent most of the Winter months meadow skipping and resort skiing to get into condition for skiing these types of objectives AFTER the Spring thaw/melt cycle consolidation and would target to be on the descent after the initial morning thaw at typically about 10am.

  28. Jim Milstein January 30th, 2019 9:28 am

    Good point, Kristian. That is still my practice . . . mostly (no more resort skiing for me, though). There is plenty of good skiing to be done on safe terrain.

    As for clinometer rec’s, the Suunto PM-5 can’t be beat. It has a machined alu case and is accurate to ½º in use. The problem, of course, is deciding what to sight on; so, your overall accuracy is less.

    On the electronic side, I recommend the Theodolite app. With a large, bright smartphone, you can zoom in and really see what you are measuring, and it records what you see with all the relevant angles and time and position data. The nice thing about using a smartphone is that it is multi-useful: one easy to reach device that does it all. Carrying backup devices, like clino, compass, map, and altimeter, adds only a few ounces to the backpack.

    Lou is right about group size. Big is bad. Does this imply that a group of one is optimum? Zero even better?

  29. Lenka K. January 30th, 2019 11:07 am

    @Ned Bair

    The problem with a persistent weak layer is that you’re in a “low probability-high consequences” situation, that simply does not warrant a “considerable” rating according to the definition.

    This was heavily discussed in Austria in the persistent-weak-layer winter of 2016-17, especially after several highly-mediatized accidents involving multiple fatalities that occured when the avalanche hazard rating was “moderate”. However, the presence of a widespread persistent weak layer was constantly highlighted in the forecasts, along with the possibility of remote triggering and very wide fracture propagation.

    It was also interesting to see how this persistent-weak-layer-situation took ever more space in the avalanche forecasts in the course of the several weak-layer-winters (2014-2017), as skiers, including experienced guided groups, kept getting caught in massive avalanches. An impressive video of one of these from 2016: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ex3GNHmLIhI, 1:05-2:10. The guided French group was incredibly lucky and was left standing on pretty much the only slope in the whole bowl that did not slide. A year later, at exactly the same spot, a guided Swiss group was swept and four skiers died, with burial depths up to 12! meters.

  30. Darren Jakal January 30th, 2019 11:10 am

    Very sad and only confirms some of my beliefs.
    Propagating layers = crap-shoot.
    Terrain features are as important as slope angle (terrain traps, convexities, deposition zones, overlapping run-outs, cliffs, timber).
    Safety cannot be purchased.
    Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.

  31. Matt Kinney January 30th, 2019 11:42 am

    This was a L2 course so I am assuming that those who are teaching or signed-up for the course are a bit more skilled than most. Lots of egos to control compared to a L1 course. All that knowledge and so many clues ignored. I’ve taken two L2 courses over the years and there was a heightened need to complete the route problem. On the way up we moved slowly, digging, and learning. When it was time to ski down, it was impossible to control a gang of 12. Everyone scattered seeking good, steeper snow and protocol quickly broke down. We arrived at the trailhead at various times. So this is what happens more often than professional instructors want to admit at the end of the day or in their logs. Not sure how you control this except by placing more emphasis on “downhill protocol”. I also appreciate Lou getting this out there quickly with his comments and others.

    I’ve never used computer generated angles because a slope-meter is more accurate. Even after a rather convincing presentation at ISSW in Anchorage, I found it un-reliable other than for gross estimates. When I wrote my guide book, it was the first to put slope angles on maps and photos in specific areas I had measured. It’s a good thing to be obsessed about. Future instructors could ski up and map these areas with their inclinometers before guiding or teaching a course in the zone.

  32. Bryn January 31st, 2019 1:33 pm

    @Matt Kinney. You’re spot on here, Matt. I’ve used the CalTopo slope angle digitization for macro trip planning stuff, but certainly don’t rely on that info once on the ground. Carrying (and USING) an inclinometer needs to become as ingrained in one’s backcountry habits as beacon checks and one-at-a-time skiing. Speaking of that, if you’ve got 12 people in a L2 course, all primed to rip skins and gang-rush a slope, that’s a problem. The field component for a group that size should be broken up into 2 (or better yet, 3) groups. I know, the dollars don’t pencil out as well…
    RE: your guidebook. I’ve used it every time I get up to AK, and it’s excellent! Wish to heck you still had the Chalet up on the Pass!

  33. DavidB February 1st, 2019 12:00 am

    I agree with Lou & Jim’s point, you don’t need to be on the slope to measure it. Actually at times I find I get a better read when not on the slope. It’s more objective if that makes sense.

    I mentioned this earlier but I have witnessed and discussed the avalanche awareness courses with many people over the years. They’ve become far more prevalent over the past few years. Which on the surface seems like a great thing. But after discussing the content of some of these courses with people who’ve taken them, I’m in two minds. I have commercial avi qualifications from NZ which requires many hours of classroom work, indepth snow study and weather station analysis combines with on mountain work. The more I learn the more I realise I don’t know.

    These courses are running over two or three days mostly on mountain digging pits in sometimes questionable locations with a quick run through on course selection then away you go with a certificate. I sometimes feel this is arming many people with a false sense of awareness and could be adding to the problem not helping it.

    As I said, I keep vacillating as to whether some knowledge is better than none. These courses are also selling an experience and touting for new students which is quite a different dynamic to a guiding business.

    My 2 cents worth.

  34. Jerry Johnson February 2nd, 2019 3:34 pm

    @ DavidB: I agree that intro type courses seem like they (mis)arm students with a false sense of awareness but our 700+ GPS tracks and accompanying analysis do not show that – much to my own surprise. Rather, we document (in an upcoming paper) that it is the level one graduate that seems to be overconfident and spend more time on potentially hazardous slopes (35-39 degrees). This was especially true at low and moderate ratings. The gap closes at Considerable but oddly, when the rating goes up to High, we see it increase again.

    I think what happens is relatively less experienced people take an awareness course and get a good dose of reality – this may be especially true if the KBYG program is part of it. Then, after some time skiing they take a level one and figure they have things dialed. The other thing I sometimes wonder about is if those with less experience confuse Considerable and High?

    Best
    Jerry Johnson, MSU

  35. Aaron Mattix February 4th, 2019 10:43 am

    As a newcomer to backcountry skiing, I’ve focused exclusively on “low angle hippy pow.” A recent conversation with a fellow newbie backcountry skier revolved around how rewarding we have found the enjoyment to effort / investment ratio of such relatively mellow skiing.The price and specialized nature of avy airbags highlight the nature of the risks of traveling in avalanche terrain. How much more reward we would find in seeking out terrain that requires specialized equipment, and training for life or death decision making, all the while increasing the risk that you will not make it out alive? It broaches an interesting topic of how one measures “fun.”

    The information about the variability of CalTopo is rather sobering as it has been my primary source of information for evaluating new areas to explore. I have a Sunnto clino for trailbuilding; I’ll be sure to take it out with me touring to educate myself more.

  36. Jim Milstein February 4th, 2019 11:06 am

    Yes, Aaron, use the clino. The more you use it, the better you educate your eyeball. After a while you can estimate a slope angle like a carpenter estimates a roof, as we see in a comment above.

    Aaron is completely right that fun is to be had on moderate slopes, but sometimes conditions require steeper than moderate just to slide downhill. That is where judgment is needed. I substitute dice for judgment. Don’t leave home without them, and they are cheaper than an airbag.

  37. Aaron Mattix February 5th, 2019 7:54 am

    Jim – I’m fairly decent at eyeballing angles in the trailbuilding realm (5-10% grade), but the steeper angles of ski slopes are new to me. I’ll do some further eyeball training with the clino.

    As obvious as your statement is to more experienced skiers that “sometimes conditions require steeper than moderate slopes just to slide downhill,” it was something of an “aha” moment for me as a newcomer to the world of winter play. This is what drives my interest in avalanche education – to be more aware of situations that are too good to be true.

  38. Jim Milstein February 5th, 2019 9:14 am

    A little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and so is a lot, apparently. That leaves ignorance. It too is dangerous. Snow stability is hard to predict when you leave the snow zones of very unlikely and very likely.

    The dagger of danger draws some to dangerous doings, I among them. So far, so good.

  39. Dave H February 7th, 2019 11:59 am

    Cranky old guy #2 comment: I am really sorry to hear this accident happened. I’m hesitant to say anything because it’s all been said before in other places and more eloquently; but I will to I echo Kristian’s statement and would underscore Darren Jakal’s statement to readers of this column: “Don’t make it more complicated than it needs to be.”

    I do not understand why people chose to have fun on snow with bad structure (even though it might not seem to have release energy in tests, bridging, blah blah). If there is bad structure, don’t be on them or in the runouts or in concave bowls with any serious angles. The answer should be an easy no, debate over. Trying to be really smart and find little exceptions for a survivable line is more like a combat decision or maybe a necessary high altitude mountaineering decision than what to do for fun on a day off.

    I had the valuable lesson and straight dumb luck to miss being in the big 1987 Peak 7 slide in Breckenridge by about a minute or two. This was a full depth, full slope, deep release on a moderate day with basal facets and probably 75+ tracks in the lower portion of a slope. There are other places and people to be with then hanging out on or near bad-structured snowpacks. Discipline, self-denial, and patience are probably the hardest parts of the picture to teach.

    Second, it seems like most business models related to bc touring create ideas and pressure that things must be done in the snow in a given window of time with a weakened emphasis on what is lying on the ground. Riding moderate and steep terrain is not an on demand sport that you can schedule for a number of days in the winter. This is a hard activity to be passionate about when it isn’t in your backyard and you can more freely pick and choose your days.

  40. DavidB February 7th, 2019 6:47 pm

    @Dave H, I agree 100%.

    Commercial pressures and the need be providing an experience for your students/guests is a hard task master. But not as hard as a slope with poor structure.

    I’ve pulled people from avi debris and worked on them to hopefully bring them back. These experiences make the decision making process a little easier. It’s not worth the momentary thrill. It shouldn’t be a roll of the dice it should be a calculated decision.

  41. Jim Milstein February 7th, 2019 7:54 pm

    Local knowledge of the terrain and of the season’s snowpack history where you are skiing should top the list, though these two things are seldom mentioned. Digging a pit here and there and reading the regional avalanche report is no substitute, though they may be the best you have. Thinking that an avalung, a beacon, and an airbag will protect you is counterproductive. They might or they might not. Often they are no better than amulets. Good judgment protects best.

  42. Bob February 13th, 2019 6:22 pm

    I believe it is better to estimate slope angle while NOT on the slope to avoid exposure to overhead or on slope avalanche potential. For example, I normally skin up the trim line in the trees or a ridge to avoid overhead exposure or triggers. I use the iphone to estimate slope angle of the chute or bowl from the side before committing.. I know if the general slope is over 30, any roll over will be approaching 38 and be a potential danger area. I don’t want to bend over and find that the slope angle is 38 in a dangerous situation.

  43. Lou Dawson 2 February 18th, 2019 1:51 pm

    Yet another instance of a triggered airbag not deploying. I’d call this situation silly, if it was not so dire. I always thought the “difficult to test and practice” model of airbag design was flawed. Now we know that’s the truth. Get an airbag you can easily test and practice with to full inflation. And practice a few times a winter, along with perhaps doing an inflation before a trip if you’ve not triggered it in a while. Lou

    https://avalanche.state.co.us/caic/acc/acc_report.php?acc_id=703&accfm=inv

  44. Jim Milstein February 18th, 2019 3:26 pm

    Airbags are still for early adopters –– and with money to spend. They need to become much more demonstrably reliable, cheaper, and more convenient to use. They need to be more like shovels, probes, and beacons.

  45. DaveH February 18th, 2019 4:35 pm

    Still, Xavier de la Rue (with snowboard attached) and Elyse Saugsted’s survivals were both fantastic and pretty amazing outcomes. That said mine has been hanging on the peg on the wall in favor of weight and speed so far this winter. Maybe a short rope is a safer extra piece of gear to carry/use.

  46. Jim Milstein February 18th, 2019 4:46 pm

    I am mystified, DaveH, by your comment.

  47. DaveH February 18th, 2019 4:54 pm

    Point 1. Lots of ways airbags won’t help you.
    Point 2. Some amazing examples of them working
    Point 3. I’ve been enjoying leaving the extra 4lbs at home,
    4. I’m probably the safest when I rope into a tree and do a full check in the starting zones before starting to play. That’s all

    I get cryptic writing on the phone, sorry

  48. Jim Milstein February 18th, 2019 5:13 pm

    Thanks for the clarification, DaveH

  49. Kristian February 18th, 2019 7:46 pm

    Like others, I went to CAIC to read about the 2 recent fatalities near Crested Butte.

    Ended up spending time reading through many recent avalanche and also accident reports. Much much more than is reported in the news.

  50. Lou Dawson 2 February 19th, 2019 8:30 am

    Kristian, they upped their reporting game a few years ago, during and after Sheep Creek, it’s been quite good ever since. I’d like to see a few improvements such as a formalized recording of airbag data, helmet use, and that sort of thing. But the overall gist has been excellent, especially the honest essay style analysis. More power to CAIC — they are saving lives. Lou





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