Dancing with Avalanches

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 19, 2007      

Out the past three days in the Raggeds subrange of Colorado’s Elk Mountains. Snowpack up there is chock full of weak layers — with recent wind loading we rated the danger as at least “Considerable” before even hitting the trail. When the big paths came into view we could see at least one large natural release, so we ramped our assessment up to “High.” Even so, we knew we could poke around on our favorite moderate tree runs and get some goods, and perhaps head for higher terrain that wasn’t too “big.” But we got schooled. Read on to find out how the lesson was learned, but first a few shots for the sake of blog design.

Colorado backcountry skiing.

Colorado backcountry skiing.
One of the best skis out there for human powered vertical on Colorado’s variable snowpack is the Black Diamond Verdict (light and wide). Here, Louie proves that the Verdict has been read and the jury rests. I know, I know, blatant advertiser product placement. What can I say. Good skis. Good company.

Day one involved a fairly lengthy ski to the cabin, then an evening stroll over the hill to see friends who we made plans with for the next day’s tour (this is an area with a number of private cabins). After a beautiful ski by headlamp back home, we stoke the fire and get a good nine hours of sleep. Nothing like being up in the mountains where cell phones and DVD players are not part of the sport plan… Sometimes I can’t believe how good I sleep.

Backcountry skiing expert?
For three days I tried to do my best Bob Athey (Wizard of the Wasatch) imitation, as I’ve got a lot of respect for Bob’s avalanche smarts. But the lichen wig didn’t seem to work that well, as we had one near miss.

Day two. We team as a group of nine and charge up the mountain, trying to gain some quick vertical that would put us above a fairly moderate descent. Problem is, the crux of our climb is a small but potentially serious avalanche slope that doesn’t slide often, but exactly matches other slopes that have dropped in the last 48 hour or so.

Normally, 48 hours would mean things would be settling down in terms of avy danger, but the wind is blowing (we can see the snow being moved) and lurking depth hoar is still creating settlements (whumphs) we can feel.

Before we reach the decision point we’re already a bit spooked, as the route involves climbing up the runout of a massive slide. Though this gets my attention I’m not worried enough to turn back, since part of this big one has already dropped, and the rest is wind hammered. Nonetheless I’m glad when we turn uphill to a tree island — after all, a wrong call about this could result in certain death for all of us…

Problem is we’re now below another smaller avalanche slope. This is the infrequent slider that’s used as a route when things are stable. Today you could be half blind and still see it’s loaded and dangerous. It just doesn’t look right to me. The conversation doesn’t last long — I’m incredibly gratified when everyone quickly agrees to simply turn around. What a good lesson for my son, I think, when he can see a bunch of adults agree so quickly to take the safe option. Confirmation would come soon.

We take a safe ridge route that places us at the top of the slope in question. Friend walks the ridge out ahead and remote triggers the slope, which runs to within twenty feet of where we’d been an hour before! Indeed, confirmation doesn’t get much better than that. Confirmation that we made a good call in turning around, and confirmation that we made the wrong call with being there in the first place.

Avalanche decision making.

Our highpoint is behind the tree island. Avalanche that almost reached that point is indicated by obvious fracture (it happened after we left — but we were thinking of climbing that exact slope). Click for enlarged annotated version.

What a strange mix of smarts and mistakes. Yes, we shouldn’t have been going for that slope in the first place. Bad. Yes, a group of nine people were able to make a quick unified decision to turn around, then see their decision confirmed within the hour by a slide that could have badly hurt or possibly killed someone. Good.

Lesson for me: if avy danger is assessed as high, be careful about going and “looking” at possible routes. Doing so can get you in some uncomfortable and potentially deadly situations. We still got a bunch of good skiing this day, but on slopes that were unlikely to slide, and were more easily managed.

I got an email from one of the folks on the trip who’s got a ton of experience. His take:

Lou, I was thinking some more about yesterday – really a good subject for your blog. While we made the right decisions, it reminded me of how close we often get to screwing up. A little more hubris or ego in the group dynamic could have led to a bad call. So, a few lessons learned:

1) No matter how familiar the terrain, always pay attention to the obvious signs of instability.

2) Always ratchet the risk acceptance way down when any risk factor is present.

3) Always default to lower-risk terrain and routes that have decent escape possibilities.

4) Check in with every person in the group when making risk assessments; if a single person is uncomfortable, turn around and/or take the more conservative route.

5) Every day is a chance to learn something new.

A few more photos from the trip:

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Lisa cruises to the cabin.

Colorado backcountry skiing.

(Note, my mother pointed out that the 19th is the anniversary of my big avy ride back in 1982, a little irony, could have been more than a little…)


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7 Responses to “Dancing with Avalanches”

  1. Mark February 20th, 2007 5:04 am

    Glad you made the right call, Bob. And make sure Louie keeps working on getting that BD logo up for the photos.

  2. BJ Sbarra February 20th, 2007 9:46 am

    Great example of making the right call, Lou. I know the group dynamic can sometimes swing the other way, and peer pressure wins out over good judgment. Sometimes it’s hard to objectively weigh the risks when you are looking at that sweet slope of untouched snow, but it’s not worth the potential consequences, in my opinion.

  3. Brittany February 20th, 2007 6:12 pm

    It’s always good when you can reflect on experiences like that and learn from them, and help us learn in the process as well! Thanks!

  4. Tim Carroll February 21st, 2007 10:51 am

    Lou, I like the Bob Athey disguise. Did anyone tell you you looked like Pappy Parker, the mascot/logo icon for Jr Hot Shoppes fried chicken… or maybe Mountain Dew’s mascot/logo icon?

  5. Lou February 21st, 2007 11:57 am

    Hmmm, perhaps I’ve got a career as a male model?

  6. Clark February 21st, 2007 8:09 pm

    Nice – I was almost fooled until I noticed the imposter is not wearing WOW’s classic WPG one-piece *romper*

  7. Barry February 21st, 2007 8:11 pm

    There is much to be learned from your experience. The heuristic factors or “rules of thumb” are often what lead experienced people into avalanches.
    Things like “Normally, 48 hours would mean things would be settling down in terms of avy danger” and “This is the infrequent slider that’s used as a route when things are stable” are thought processes that can and unfortunately frequently do catch people.
    Fortunately your group was smart enough to realize that the actual danger was higher than the posted forecast – the first really important point. You then recognized the whumpfing and wind loading and chose to use only safe terrain.
    An excellent example that it is possible to travel in avalanche terrain under high danger conditions and that the only important conditions are the conditions in the area where you are skiing.
    Well done. Thanks for posting this experience.

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