Even the Small Ones…

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | January 27, 2012      

…can get you. The sledder in vid below is actually lucky to be alive. He was fully buried. A few inches deeper, and without a friend handy, the outcome would have been dire. For example, the tiny avalanche that killed a man at Snowmass Resort recently (second vid)… How many times have you passed under tiny steep banks over a trail, and not given them a thought? Or messed around with smaller “test” slopes? Myself, I’ve seen many of these sorts of slides over the years, and have become quite cautious with “cut banks” and that sort of thing. Check it out.


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24 Responses to “Even the Small Ones…”

  1. Brent January 27th, 2012 11:46 am

    Good post. Important thoughts in a tricky snow year, or any year. Thanks!

  2. Lou January 27th, 2012 12:16 pm

    Figured it was time for a Friday sermon (grin).

  3. Lou January 27th, 2012 12:20 pm

    The question is, how do you avoid this stuff?

    In first case, avy eyes. If the sledder hadn’t hit the bottom of that slope the way he did he probably would have had no event.

    In second case, the group should have realized how ridiculously reactive the snow was, and done a bunch of ski cutting at the top of those little things, using them as test slopes, before a skier ever got down below the slopes. Or something like that, anyway. Of course I wasn’t there, but I can intuit that the situation could have been delt with much more expertise and care than it was. I think that’s fair to say.

    My main point is these accidents with small slopes are actually quite easy to avoid, with a modicum of knowledge, technique, and preventive action.

    We all make mistakes, however…

  4. Jack January 27th, 2012 12:30 pm

    My thought is this (coming from a newbie): This type of small terrain feature was really common at Alta around 12/27/2011. I observed a couple of small (20 vertical feet) slides on similar sized gullies and very similar snowpack in the trees (top 6″ of windpack with ~30″ of not cohesive “sugar” snow underneath). This was all on avi controlled, lift-serviced terrain. Scary stuff, in that relatively benign looking conditions can be dangerous, even in bounds with good ski patrol.

  5. Lou January 27th, 2012 1:06 pm

    Jack, exactly, this sort of “micro” terrain awareness is really hard for people to grasp.

  6. brian h January 27th, 2012 3:08 pm

    CAIC had most of the state flashing red this morning. It’s a good topic before this weekend. The ‘sugar’ in the second vid is pretty scary…

  7. David January 27th, 2012 3:25 pm

    Lou, the second vid is a classic terrain trap, however small and as you say any form of slab test, even a simple probe test should have highlighted the unstable base. Anyone know what time of day the slide happened?

    Lack of experience or over-confidence at play me thinks.

  8. Johathan January 27th, 2012 4:08 pm

    Just wow. That gully looks like hundreds I’ve skied inbounds. Full disclosure: I’m an inbounds skier who’s always assumed that snow conditions as related to avalanches was for the ski patrol to understand, and that I would be safe as long as I remained inbounds. I see now what a silly assumption that is. Signing up for the next avalanche course.

  9. Lou January 27th, 2012 4:40 pm

    Jonathan, to be fair, those guys were in slackcountry not inbounds.

    An inbounds avy death happened at Vail, but details are still obscure.

  10. mtn gypsy January 28th, 2012 9:15 am

    Great stuff, should open some eyes.

    These exact senrios have happen on at least two occasions that I have personally witnessed tiny slides almost kill someone. Once while skiing in bounds I watched a friend ski over a small roll and get completely buried. We were much younger then and had little experiance, so it was very lucky I found his gloved fingers sticking out of the snow. He was convinced he was about to die as he could not move, nor breath.

    The other was a gully feature very similar to the video, and was a slack country escape route to the road. On that one there was only a foot sticking out, but the head was fully buried at the bottom of the debris. We had training and gear by this point but the skeir was almost unconcious by the time we got the airway cleared.

    I have also seen a lot of other partial burials that could have went bad, mostly they were lucky they stopped head out in a sitting position in a pile of debris. It has been almost thirty years of chasing powder but I am only one guy. What I’m saying is this happens way more than some people think, and is obviously potientially deadly.

  11. Jason Gregg January 28th, 2012 3:20 pm

    These are two very different videos. The snowmobile trigger-capture-burial-rescue sequence is almost funny since it has a happy ending. The Burnt Mt investigation one looks like a classic terrain trap and typical continental snow pack combining to kill, very sad.

    I think the snowmobiler probably could have breathed air through that snow, When a slide is that small I guess it doesn’t setup so hard. Judging from the dig part of the video it was still 90% air which if you keep your mouth closed you can extract air from using your nostrils. I know that one from experience. This may give you time to dig yourself an airway, it did me once.

  12. John January 28th, 2012 7:05 pm

    The slide the killed the 28 year old at Mary Jane last Sunday was a similar situation. Small slide into a terrain trap/gully…glove sticking out…..five feet either side would have been ok….be careful out there the snowpack is scary.

  13. Mark W January 28th, 2012 9:33 pm

    Truly stunning. Thanks for illustrating how such small slides can be devastating. Makes me want to ski with an airbag pack even more. I’d like to think that skiing in the trees is another answer, but not altogether. Sobering.

  14. Joe January 28th, 2012 10:15 pm

    I saw several small inbounds slides in the Aspen area just yesterday morning after a recent snowfall. “Snowpack” is not a word I would even use as every small instance that slid left behind “sugar” snow, dirt, rock and ice.

    Patrollers can only do so much, education and practice is what we all need to consider.

  15. Matt Kinney January 29th, 2012 9:16 am

    Not sure if an airbag would have been nearly as helpful as having an avalung mouthpiece in place, beacon and a partner in some of these recent incidents. Airbags work in most avalanche scenarios, but things are never perfect and #@$ happens real fast, thus avoidance rules.

    Sidecountry or slack country? It is still a “resort-based” incident IMO. These classification seem to direct responsibility (and statistics) away away from the resorts who provided the lift ride, opened up areas that have little or no control, and then open the gates to anyone who wants to “experience” the backcountry. The avalanche does not care that it is slack or side-whatever. The fact that kids or adults uneducated about avalanches should be all the more alarming to those running lift areas. .

    10 years ago, avalanche incidents at, near or next to resorts were extremely rare. Now they seen to happen weekly across the west. There is a correlation between the rise in avalanche incidents and when resorts began stumbling over each other to see who could open the boundary gates to the most “marketable” terrain outside their borders. When you do that skiers are going to get caught.

  16. Jack January 29th, 2012 7:20 pm

    Many small slides inbounds at Vail this week, even where they did control work, all it takes is to just tick it in the right place and it brakes to ground. Stress cracks on just about every rollover

  17. Zeb January 30th, 2012 7:34 am

    Lou (or anyone), do you have a sense of how often these kinds of events occur. The consequences of their occuring is clear and scary; but do we have any sense of the probability? Seeing these videos can change one’s view of skiing. But so, too, might videos of a people being struck by cabs crossing the street in Manhattan; those might create an excessive perception of risk. (See Kahneman, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” for a nice discussion of how we are really bad at assessing risk.) I guess I’m trying to get a sense of how risky it really is to be out there.

  18. Lou January 30th, 2012 9:32 am

    Zeb, you’re asking the wrong question. It’s not how “often.” It’s that they are directly related to things like how unstable the snowpack is, how you’re hitting the terrain, and the consequences if they do happen involve how well trained you and your companions are, your own self awareness (getting an Avalung into your mouth can be very effective for these types of events, but how fast can you do that?) etc. If you blunder around, they can happen pretty often. For example, I know of a group of school kids who were doing snowplay and a cutbank came down on them, luckily it entrained minimal snow… could have been bad. The person in charge blundered, and such blunders happen more often than you might like to think.

    As for how risky it really is to be out there? The coroner here once did study, and said that in our area you’re more likely to die in an avalanche than in a car wreck. Does that make it clear? It’s risky, especially if you blunder around.


  19. chris blatter aka silvertonslim January 30th, 2012 9:33 am

    Imagine if the snow that buried chuck in the first video had set up; instead it was soft / unconsolidated enough for him to move his right arm to clear away the soft snow.
    This past weekend I was down at the Last Chance and saw some big aves…one was triggered by a snowmobile as they shuttled skiers/boarders up to the ridge…(Upper Prospect Basin / Red Mtn Pass)…after the first one ran (due east aspect about 11,900′) I watched the snowmobile dude ride all across the rest of the basin…looked like he was trying to get other aves to come down….and there were some other sympathetic slides….although I kinda like the idea of triggering aves in order to eliminate the hazard, doing it solo on a snowmobile is a real russian roulette game.
    Skinned up to my cabin, dug pit to ground (9′) on a south facing aspect and found the usual suspect layers…still a long ways to go before the snowpack is stable.

    Anyway I can post a photo or two on this blog?

  20. Lou January 30th, 2012 9:38 am

    Hi Chris, if you email me a photo or two with some caption text, we could probably post them as a guest blog. Sometimes we don’t get to those as quickly as you’d expect, but we try. Lou

  21. Skidmark January 30th, 2012 9:43 am

    The situation of “Getting in over your head” is probably more prevalent with Slackcountry as these guys are just poaching stuff from just out of bounds and somehow feel safer from the proximity. They are also often less prepared for avalanche situations than somebody in the backcountry who assumes all risks from the first step.
    It also reminds me of all the latest tow-in surf wannabes out there who believe that if they are able to tow behind a jet ski, they can handle the hazards of big wave surf when it all goes wrong on their heads.
    Water – the playground and deadly enemy – in all its forms.

  22. Brian January 30th, 2012 10:11 am

    The first guy was near Cameron Pass, and there is some debate as to where exactly they were sledding (looks an awful lot like Michigan Ditch, where sledding is prohibited). The next day at the pass, a boarder remotely triggered a slide on himself from 100ft away. As of this weekend, still cracking and whoomphing all over. Scariest year in recent memory!

  23. bill January 30th, 2012 2:55 pm

    @ Zeb,
    if you’re a numbers guy these are two places to start…


    as the CAIC page mentions, stats are wildly biased towards fatalities b/c non-fatalities and near-misses are rarely reported by skiers… also, basic problem is that beyond the proxies of increased equipment sales, parking lot surveys etc, there are no real good numbers on total backcountry users to compare across years (except for maybe a few locales in UT). so while its easy to see that absolute accidents have increased over the years, the stat of interest to you is probably per capita accidents, (# accidents/total participants) and unfortunately theres not a good way to arrive at that number. i suspect that has actually gone down in the last decade and that Matt’s 3rd prgh assertion may not actually be supported by the numbers, although it seems like logically reasonable. as for resort-based accidents, they are extremely rare, but still happen regularly. in the last 5+ years there are notable in-bounds slides involving public on open runs all over the place: snowbird (woman in baldy chutes), jackson (toilet bowl), squaw (poulsens), a-basin (tree chutes beside pali face), bridger, i think there were some out-of-bound slide paths that slid in-bounds and killed a skier at both Canyons and Las Vegas snowbowl… also many near misses: vail had a near miss on lover’s Leap in bluesquare basin a few years ago, slope went to the ground for 150 feet across, left 1 guy at the bottom buried thigh deep. when i patrolled at Moonlight, there were several near-misses at big sky on Lenin/Marx/Libertybowl and Challenger, and by ski area standards those are huge paths. the most recent one at vail was in a closed area with a fuzzy boundary (kids entered a lower gate then hiked uphill to access other terrain, so they never technically crossed a rope), a similar early-season conditions fatality at snowmass awhile back in not-yet-open area, Rayburn chutes (?).having patrolled in both CO and MT, i noticed that people in MT around bozeman generally are beeping and rolling with probe/shovel when they are inbounds if they are skiing avy terrain (and most good expert terrain inbounds fits that description, even at places that arent known as steep), while in CO i don’t see that as much, at least in the I70 corridor areas. perhaps in the more touring-centered communities like t-ride and cb thats different. if anyone wants to send me a lift ticket i’d be more than happy to investigate that 🙂

  24. Jim February 7th, 2012 7:29 pm

    A friend on ski patrol at Alta recommended to me to use a beacon even inbounds. If you’re injured on slope or in trees the patrol guys can ski fast down the groomers and find you fast with their beacons, rather than have to go slow, do the pattern, and try find you with eyes in often bad visibility or in a crowd. Say you fall in a tree well inbounds, no one can see you from the surface. That 15 minutes could make a difference. Also consider the human factor, with multiple injuries, the patrol rescue is going to make the easy save first, ie the guy with the beacons gets first rescue. Good advice.

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