Sheep Creek Avalanche near Loveland Pass, Five Dead in Colorado

Post by blogger | April 22, 2013      

This past Saturday, five men died in an avalanche near Loveland Pass, Colorado. This is the worst avalanche accident in our state since 1962 (Twin Lakes event), and is our worst ever involving backcountry skiers and riders (there have been worse in North America, such as 2003 Selkirks, 7 deceased). While no, I wasn’t there, I feel an obligation to put some thoughts down.

Sheep Creek avalanche debris field. Can you imagine coming on this scene, knowing at least five people are buried. I can barely wrap my head around it. Photo from Colorado Avalanche Information Center, used for educational purposes.

Sheep Creek avalanche debris field. Can you imagine coming on this scene, knowing at least five people are buried? I can barely wrap my head around it. Photo from Colorado Avalanche Information Center, used for educational purposes.

Above all, here at WildSnow we are deeply saddened by how tragic this is. Five vibrant human beings, snuffed in minutes while simply out having fun, leaving family and loved ones behind. When you think of the ever widening circles of grief this entails it is almost too much to comprehend. Deepest sympathy from us to all affected.

First in terms of analysis, it is sophomoric but probably necessary to say that this type of accident can happen to any of us. But hopefully not on this scale, and unlikely if we’re following what are accepted avalanche safety procedures.

It is known the group of six were split-boarding (backcountry uphill travel on a snowboard that converts to two skis) and ski touring in avalanche terrain near Loveland Pass known as Sheep Creek, under a northerly facing flank of Mount Sniktau (13,234 feet). By all appearances they were skirting the base of a suspect slope (which subsequently fell in the deadly slide). Some (or all) of the group were either in or above a terrain trap, topography that resulted in one person being buried about 15 feet deep, with other deep burials as well.

Approximate area of Sheep Creek avalanche. Looking at this map, it's difficult to ascertain why the group would have judged traveling here to be reasonably safe on this particular day. But then, micro route finding can result in good backcountry ski days even during high hazard, so I'm assuming that's what these individuals were engaged in and made a tragic error in judgment and procedure.

Approximate area of Sheep Creek avalanche. Looking at this map, it's difficult to ascertain why the group would have judged traveling here to be reasonably safe on this particular day. But then, micro route finding can result in good backcountry ski days even during high hazard, so I'm assuming that's what these individuals were engaged in and made a tragic error in judgment and procedure. Click to enlarge.

The exact goal for their day isn’t important. No matter what the Sheep Creek group was doing in the Loveland Pass zone, a fatal accident of this magnitude indicates an obvious breakdown in standard avalanche accident prevention techniques, notably, exposing fewer people at a time to a given hazard. Also, avalanche danger for the day was rated considerable and the slope the group was exposed to was the type the state avalanche center was cautioning about. In other words, due to the consequences it is fair and axiomatic to say the group was traveling too close together — while exposed to an obviously hazardous and known avalanche slope.

(In terms of avalanche safety, the terms “gang traveling” or “gang skiing” mean you are in a group and too close together to avoid exposing more than one person at a time to avalanche hazard. It has no particularly derogatory meaning, it is simply a descriptive term for a certain backcountry behavior.)

With that said, how about a look in the mirror?

None of us are perfect with how we deal with gang travel in avalanche terrain, as traveling one-at-a-time is one of the hardest protocols to maintain throughout a spirited day of backcountry skiing or snowboarding. Indeed, countless times I’ve been in a group who have, gang style, quickly scooted under a hanging wall of death or accidentally grouped together despite best intentions and inter-group discussion to the contrary.

More, the bigger your group the less practical the expose one-at-a-time rule becomes. Hence, ideal group size is one of the rules of thumb that avalanche educators throw around — and one we deal with nearly every time we get out backcountry skiing.

In my opinion, ideal group size is 3 or 4, with radios in use, and with clear goals of minimizing hazard. How often do Lisa and I achieve that ideal? Yep, our average is definitively not 100%, probably more around 75%. For example, just yesterday we had a good group size (3), but one of our radios malfed so I lost my motivation to really spread things out.

In other words, while groups of five or more backcountry skiers are a common sight, should they be an embarrassment like skiing without a beacon and and shovel? In the case of managing hazard exposure as well as other safety aspects (such as returning to the trailhead with one less person), then I’d say the answer is a loud YES. In the case of Sheep Creek, this was obviously so. Again, axiomatic.

Another worrisome thing about this tragedy is that it happened during an informally organized backcountry tour that was part of an event called “The Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering

Scrutiny of the organized event will no doubt happen. Meanwhile, my hope is this horrible tragedy will inspire self reflection on how we combine group dynamics with dangerous avalanche conditions.

Before some of you start shouting “you were not there, you can’t have an opinion,” let us step back and realize that no, we were not there, but lessons can be learned and we can all try to do better. We owe that to our friends and loved ones.

Winter Outdoor Retailer trade show 2012. Avalanche victim Ian Lamphere worked in the ski industry as a gear importer.

Winter Outdoor Retailer trade show 2012. Avalanche victim Ian Lamphere, worked in the ski industry as a gear importer.

We offer our sincere condolences to friends and loved ones of the victims. In particular, we knew Ian Lamphere from business dealings regarding Gecko climbing skins. Ian was a spirited booster of all things skiing — and a father. He’ll be missed.

Denver Post

Colorado Avalanche Information Center official report.

Annotated report.

Account from first responder.

Site visit and analysis.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


176 Responses to “Sheep Creek Avalanche near Loveland Pass, Five Dead in Colorado”

  1. SR April 22nd, 2013 8:19 am

    In this case, it may be tough to sort all of the group dynamics, but I think we’ve all been in group situations where not just the size of the immediate group, but also being part of some larger “event,” creates a different feeling than would exist if just two people were getting together at the trailhead. There are echoes here of the Tunnel Creek slide in terms of a larger group with some social objectives.

    I think larger groups are just facts of life, though. I frankly don’t like bird hunting with more than two people, myself, but an important part of hunter safety is how to safely go out in threes or fours, with spacing and geometry likewise important there. I think part of respecting what happened here is in fact acknowledging the travel protocol issue and stressing that other groups try to avoid this.

    Condolences to all affected by this terrible event.

  2. vanessa April 22nd, 2013 8:29 am

    Be careful of assuming too much…”Gang skiing” was probably not the issue here as skins were possibly found on some of the boards. I always like your write-ups but I think you’re jumping the gun on this one as far as relevant facts go.

  3. Jason April 22nd, 2013 8:29 am

    Man… this is sad. So many different factors in the backcountry. Slow down, take a breath and assess… I remind myself a lot, but the mountains are wild all the same.

    Just curious if any of them were wearing airbags?

  4. vanessa April 22nd, 2013 8:36 am

    Mitigating danger on the way up as well as the way down can be very difficult. It is so easy to forget that everyone might be skinning or booting up the same line at the same time, and terrain choices can be very complex when attempting to ascend vs descend. This is an issue I have tried to address with my partners but it can be especially difficult in certain terrain. Moving out of an avy path with skins on is almost impossible and may be part of why this was so deadly. My condolences to everyone involved, some of my friends were involved with the rescue and Jerome and Timlin were in our shop frequently. It is truly a terrible thing to lose so many great people.

  5. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 8:36 am

    Vanessa, read more carefully. I’m talking about gang skiing _up_. Same thing, really…

    I’ll edit slightly to clarify if necessary.

    Jason, preliminary reports indicate an airbag and Avalungs, but I’d not make that a definite.

    Thanks, Lou

  6. Hojo April 22nd, 2013 8:45 am

    It’s difficult to wrap your head around the fact that it wasn’t just a group of BC recreationalists but those considered expert and professional (a lose term, I agree). It’s a terrible hit to our ranks. Reading the reports, it’s difficult to get a feeling of how many factors may have played a negative role though reading the CAIC reports, it’s clear the conditions require the utmost care. I’m reminded of the Steven’s Pass incident.

    @Jason, I read they had AvyLungs and at least one air bag according to the denver post: though it doesn’t say if the bag was deployed.

  7. JCoates April 22nd, 2013 8:46 am

    Good point Lou, about the lack of real “discipline” (for lack of a better word) at some of these events.

    I went to a backcountry “fest” in Davos a couple of years ago put on by a major ski/alpine brand. I counted only one or two IFMGA guides giving lectures and the rest were what I counted as “wannabes”–young kids with good enthusiasm (and marketing skills), but they were lacking in formal experience and knoweldge. I actually lost a little respect for the brand because of it.

    I’m not screaming for government regulation at these events, but the ski brands should realize that not all of us are newbies to the backcountry and they should stress long-term safety in the BC, not just try to sell a lot of product by handing out stickers and free red-bull.

  8. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 8:48 am

    Vanessa, re your second comment, indeed it can be difficult on the way up as it’s much harder to separate people.

    The way I see it is that on the way down we can separate by a thousand vertical feet, and if it’s a group of good skiers that’s still only a few minutes between each person.

    But doing the same thing on the way up means we’d have to be separated by hours. Hence, another axiomatic thing going on here is that if a group does choose to climb while avalanche exposed, it’s quite difficult to really separate 100% effectively.

    That’s why no group is immune, and why group size is so important!!

    I can’t emphasize this enough. If your group is larger than three people, effectivly separating on the way up is difficult or even impossible.

    The best example of this is how Beglinger used to operate in the Selkirks and ended up causing the horrible 2003 La Traviata accident. He and his guides were taking large groups out (21 customers at a time!), and it was thus impossible for them to effectively separate. He has since switched to smaller groups when the situation calls for it.

    Some of our blog posts about Beglinger accident.


  9. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 8:58 am

    The press put it’s usual high word-count towards making sure we knew how expert and experienced the deceased skiers were. I still don’t totally get why Blevins and other writers they put so much energy into that, since exactly how do they quantify “experience” and “expertise?” What is more, let’s all remember that guides are not necessarily immune to errors of judgement , may actually lack deep experience, and may actually have a fairly high level of risk acceptance depending on who they work for, their own personal philosophy and world view, etc.

    What’s hard for us to admit is that the more expert the group is, the more likely it is they made grievous error in judgment rather than an innocent mistake. Come to think of it, perhaps that’s what the news reporters are trying to communicate when they tout the group’s deep experience. Instead of coming right out and saying that someone messed up, and being judged for being “judgmental.” A reporter can emphasize a person’s experience and thus imply that they messed up.

    Just thinking outloud, sorry to ramble…

  10. John Bender April 22nd, 2013 9:08 am

    From an individual’s perspective, each event with a low probability, like the lottery, is a clean slate. There is no memory of past events, so repetition doesn’t change the chance of winning. However, spectators viewing all low probability events occurring over time will certainly yield “wins” somewhere in the world. Winning the avalanche lottery is tragic and we are immediately alerted to these unfortunate accidents. The only way to make them less frequent is for participants to lower their acceptable risk level by realizing the profound cost of the low probability – high consequence combination.

    With the advent of avalanche “safety” equipment, helicopters with video cameras, skis and snowboards designed for the Big Mountain experience, instant fame on YouTube, the education required to temper testosterone fueled expeditions is fighting an uphill battle.

    Thanks Lou, for bringing thoughtful discussion to our adventure pursuits.

  11. T'dub April 22nd, 2013 9:15 am

    As someone who skis Loveland Pass regularly, let me point out that:

    The only safe way to access the terrain the victims were in IS FROM THE TOP OF LOVELAND PASS. There is nothing safe about going into this terrain from the bottom of the valley or from the switchback on highway 6.

    This is particularly true given the amount of snow and wind during the proceeding week.

    Skin up the gully in July if you must, it might be OK then.

    My condolences to the friends and family of the victims.

  12. Poach Ninja April 22nd, 2013 9:16 am

    Obviously mistakes were made. Just like most tragic accidents, it was not just one error but a bunch of errors coming together at once that caused this event.

    Perhaps their group size was too big.
    Perhaps their ascent route was not taken seriously enough.
    Perhaps they weren’t spread out enough.
    Perhaps the avy report of “considerable” is somehow not a scary enough term.
    Perhaps they didn’t feel that they were exposed since they were on a relatively gentle low angle slope below the perceived danger zone.

    At the end of the day, these guys were all experienced bc travelers and were well equipped. It could have been ANY of us! Just look at how many “experts” have been in slides (myself included).
    It’s true what they say about safe bc travel. “Beacons and avalanche training has killed more people than ignorance ever has.”
    Let’s pray for the fallen and learn from this.

  13. Clyde April 22nd, 2013 9:18 am

    Can’t help but wonder about risk homeostasis being a factor too. They had been warned about conditions the night before and there was a death just 2 days earlier on a similar aspect and elevation slope not far away. But with all the avy gear sold these days, especially air bags and avalungs, people feel immune.

  14. BrianU April 22nd, 2013 9:20 am

    Another view on the “one at a time” idea. If you’re worried enough about slope to go one at a time, might you want to rethink if you want to travel across that slope at all? Maybe another route would be a better choice?

  15. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 9:24 am

    Clyde, I’d tend to agree. Trying to get into their heads is of course crossing over into the Monday morning qbacking that I’ve been rightly criticized for. On the other hand, the whole idea of this discussion and the reason I posted is to keep us thinking and hopefully improving. In the end, to save lives and limbs. Thus, some healthy discussion is appreciated.

    So, again, I’d agree that all things point to classic under estimating of the risk. Indeed, any thinking person can’t help but consider this when looking at everything from the terrain to the conditions last Saturday. But with respect to the deceased I’d like to emphasize that the only obvious thing going on here was the consequence, which was a direct result of the group size and location. Those two things are inarguable facts and something we can learn from now, and apply on our next backcountry trip.

  16. Kevin S April 22nd, 2013 9:29 am

    As always a balanced commentary on a tragic event and a reminder of friends lost on Peak 7, a day I missed due to the flu back in ’87! That said, you stated in a veiled and appropriate manner the main question I have about this event. How did 5 deaths occur and why were they in the position they were in to cause the tragedy? We all want to learn from this tragedy so hopefully the CAIC will put out a detailed report. As I walked my boys through this event (without much knowledge so speculation is what I am left with) I spoke of always moving through obvious danger zones or traps one by one and the potential sensory dangers associated with strong winds thereby limiting visibility and sound in the bowl. The later two factors always spook me and cause me to think hard about whether or not a few turns are worth it as the sound of WHUMP still echos in my head. RIP!

  17. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 9:33 am

    Brian, good point. But a lot of our “one at a time” travel is simply done to reduce risk down to the bare bare minimum. In other words, we’re frequently doing it at times when we deem it is very safe to be in the location, but we want to just eak out that last bit of safety.

    IMPORTANT: With deep slab instability that can be remote triggered, it’s also important that a given slope is not point-weighted by groups of skiers. This is splitting hairs, but another weapon in your Colorado safety arsenal is to not be weighting an avalanche slope with more than the minimum number of people possible. Not sure that has anything to do with this particular accident, but I think it is a VERY important concept for skiing in our state, and one that many backcountry skiers appear to have no concept of whatsoever.

    For example, when we’re doing valley tours below big slide paths that could run long, even during safer days when we’re ok being there we still try our best to not congregate.

    Another thought: Sadly, one thing I’ll admit is some of this one-at-a-time stuff is designed more with the idea that only one person gets hurt or dies, rather than several. A brutal concept and not exactly PC to put in writing. But there, I said it. The saving grace for that is if only one person is buried, they are much more likely to be dug out quickly and rendered good rescue by intact party members. That’s the positive side to the concept.


  18. Matt Kinney April 22nd, 2013 9:38 am

    Not much to say. Tragic. Like many who spend too much time working in the snow, it’s another heartbreaking avalanche story to share with our wives or husbands. My sympathies to all who knew them best.

    What is and continues to be most disturbing to me is the level of experience of those caught in this group and in other incidents over the past two season. Not sure what that means in the bigger picture.

    The CAIC is real good. Within a week or so they will have a full incident report available. There was also another fatal incident in CO last week that needs some attention also.

  19. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 9:39 am

    Kevin, the CAIC report will be really good to see. I’m guess the group might have been very close to the trailhead, and still not quite “synced” for what they were getting into. Essentially, the avalanche path runs to the trailhead roadside parking (a number of paths in the area run over the road). Not exactly a pretty situation, stepping out of your car on to an avalanche path… I mean, how do you group up and have a beacon check and safety discussion, when you should actually be immediately getting some of the people moving up the route and spacing the group out?

    If this was the case, then even selecting the trailhead for the day was a huge huge mistake.


  20. Ricardo April 22nd, 2013 9:41 am

    If airbags and avalungs were in use it would be useful to start a broader discussion on the false sense of security created by this devices. This effect has been widely elaborated with regards to helmets and the minimum reduction in head injuries after their widespread adoption (e.g. Skiing Helmets. An Evaluation of the Potential to Reduce Head Injury. January 1999. U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Washington, D.C). In avalanches triggered from below or in terrain traps, it seems that airbags would have a less likely chance to keep individuals afloat. Maybe one of the lessons that can be extracted from this tragedy is to incite this discussion among the community, but particularly among the industry who make and sell this devices. socv

  21. SR April 22nd, 2013 9:43 am

    Only one person getting hurt or killed because of one-at-a-time protocol is in fact a laudable goal. Yes, it also makes rescue far easier for the one caught. It is sad that it is not PC to address things that way.

  22. Chris Kipfer April 22nd, 2013 9:46 am

    One of the reasons that we climb Mt Werner inbounds after the season closing this time of year,aside from tradition,is avalanche danger. Solo skiing on the open slope is a bit safer there this time of year. The conversation at the best noon lunch picnic spot at the top of BAR UE on a the beautful sunday yesterday, aside from swapping Euro stories, was the Loveland Pass tragedy. The consensus was “stupid,been there done that”. But,how could these “experts” have been skiing in a close group on a wide open slope during “considerable” avalanche warning. We don’t know all the facts yet,but it’s hard to believe that a pit dug through the layers there would not have revealed the instability as this was to be a conference on avalnche science. We have had a huge number of late snow storms here this year most accompanied by the redish dust blown in from the dry plateau to the west. The Temperature extremes in each of these storms have been unusually extreme. There has been sufficient WX history this year to make an old fart like me nervous about conditions here in Steamboat.
    I apologize for posting this initially in the wrong thread.

  23. Kevin S April 22nd, 2013 9:50 am

    Lou and SR: I believe it is PC to discuss mitigating death or more importantly the opportunity to rescue a buried buddy as we should know the risks each time we head into the backcountry! After digging a pit my wife joked with me that her first call might be the the insurance company versus Search and Rescue as I was about to drop into a line below Uneva a few years ago….yes, we are still married and keenly sad about this current tragedy

  24. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 9:51 am

    Hey everyone, here is some real guesswork but it’ll get you thinking. It appears from the sat-map on the CAIC report that the runout zone of the avy would require a climb of about 500 vertical feet to get past (unless you could exit earlier, which is unknown). Guesswork, but for discussion and learning.

    So, for the sake of discussion let’s say you have a 500 vertical foot route up a creek that’s exposed to avalanche. You’ve got 6 people. Let’s say the group is of average fitness overall (some faster, some slower). But let’s say since this is the first climb of the day, folks are moving slow, stopping to take off layers, and so forth. Thus, let’s guess that it’s going to take each person 30 minutes at a minimum to climb from the car to the first safe zone. If you separated a group of 6 enough to negotiate this situation truly on-at-a-time, it is going to take the group THREE HOURS to negotiate that first quarter mile or so of the trip.

    You can see the problem. It is a bad problem and there is only one solution. Small groups. Otherwise, you’ll tend to bunch up, sometimes dangerously so.


  25. SR April 22nd, 2013 10:03 am

    The math in terms of safe travel is pretty relentless. I do think larger groups are a fact of life for social reasons, though, even if they are not my preference. One avy ed issue to flag might be how limiting group size can be in terms of appropriate objectives.

    A couple of comments have noted how experienced groups have been caught, both here and in Tunnel Creek. One thing that I hope this does is nip in the bud the idea circulating in some parts of the web that formal avy training of some sort might even need to be required for backcountry access. Formal classes are great things, but the several simple warning flags in place in both of these group incidents could have been recognized with no formal education at all.

  26. r udall April 22nd, 2013 10:05 am

    Hard slabs are a whole ‘nother animal. As b/c skiers, we don’t see
    enough of them, in person, to appreciate their power, their fearsomeness,
    and, above all, their unpredictability.

    They are like the rarest of predators.

    I’ve seen one in my life, and it scared the shit out of me.

    As a practical matter, you aren’t going to “dig a pit” through a hard slab.

    As for avalungs, shovels, beacons, any one of those blocks would kill
    you, might kill you even if hit you while you were inside a car.

  27. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 10:15 am

    SR, I’m actually getting pretty sick and tired of “experienced” being equated with “masterful.” Experienced can mean just doing the same stupid stuff over and over again. More, I’m not sure I’d call anyone highly experienced or expert until they have the following and more under their belt:

    – Twenty or more seasons of 50+ days backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain.
    – Formal avalanche training.
    – Formal first aid training.
    – Involvement in SAR either as victim or rescuer.
    – Personal study of risk management and philosophy.
    – Experience ski mountaineering on at least two continents, and in all three major snow climate types (maritime, mid continent, and continental.)
    – “No fall” expert skier or rider with exceptional cardio fitness.
    – Expert with roped cornice work, rappelling, and rock climbing.
    – At least two big-mountain human powered expeditions of more than 10 days duration.
    – 30 days of roped glacier travel as well as mastery of glacier rescue techniques.

    Anyone want to add to the list? I mean, if we’re calling someone an “expert” or “experienced” let’s use that term for the top people in the sport with the most experience? Or do we need another term?


  28. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 10:18 am

    R.U., exactly. I’ve only been involved with a few small hard-slab avalanches, and they are ridiculously dangerous. They’re essentially the same thing as a dirt and rock landslide. Airbag? Joke.


  29. hlw April 22nd, 2013 10:28 am

    There are times gear simply provides little answer, like the deepest burial of the five is reputed to have been 5 meters.

  30. Erik Erikson April 22nd, 2013 10:32 am

    Though I allready did this in another thread, I want to condolent to friends and relatives of the victims again.
    Reffering to the point that leaving some space beetween the members of a group: As Lou pointed out, it is very important not to point weight a potentially dangerous slope. Me and my buddies keep like 10 to 20 meters distance in the ascent almost all the time, except the terrain is really flat or the avalanche sitauation really secure. That´s no problem and helps to provide “triggering” an avalanche a lot. Furthermore, from my experience huge avalanches are not the majority when it comes to avalanche-accidents. Many are quite small in their extent, but still big enough to bury a skier totally. Keeping a distance of 20 meters beetween members of a group can indeed often be enough to ensure only one or two persons beeing buried. And well trained persons normally should be able to locate and save them within 15 minutes, which is fast enough most of the times.
    More problems I see when it comes to the descent. Going down one after another in dangerous situations is for sure a good idea, but imagine you are the last of lets say a group of three: 200 meters of vertical distance beetween you and your buddies waiting further down will be very common. If you get caught by an avalanche then, the time your partners need to skin their skies and ascent again, before they even can start the search will often be to long

  31. SR April 22nd, 2013 10:38 am

    Regarding experience versus masterful, that’s a pretty good tick list for elite status, and similar to what you need to tick for various types of guide training. But, there are lots of people who will never tick a number of those, who can ski or ride on a self-sufficient basis very safely, and make very informed judgments. Kind of like someone who climbs at a local area regularly but doesn’t travel and doesn’t aspire to a broader resume. The point that experience can also be making the same dumb mistakes repeatedly is also very true.

    I do think that maybe some other term could be helpful. “Experienced” as used by the press I think mainly means morally deserving of sympathy/not reckless.

  32. jed April 22nd, 2013 10:43 am

    Uh oh Lou, I think you just wrote someone’s “tick list” there with the qualifications you’d require of “expert” status. 🙂 I particularly like “Personal study of risk management and philosophy”. I started composing this comment before yours popped in. As you’ll see below, it is my opinion that we as backcountry travelers need to think of ourselves as risk managers. And seek and utilize all the tools available to us in that context. We may purchase gear, we may acquire instruction, experience, and mentorship, and we may secure professional oversight. In any case, we are managing the risk of travel in the mountains.

    Interesting thoughts, also, on why the press may be so inclined to mention the experience level of the participants. My gut tells me you are wrong, but it can serve that purpose for those of us out here continuing to learn from case studies. Everything about the avalanche hazard phenomenon is getting more and more sophisticated, including the reporting. However, my imagination doesn’t quite allow that reporters are indicating avalanche victims experience level as a gentle way of suggesting the nature of these victims’ mistakes. In the end, perhaps the most useful result of Lou’s observation here is that we can and should “read between the lines” and draw conclusions based on the experience level of the victims.

    Also, I feel it is worth mentioning that any day in the backcountry can and should serve as a “case study”. Clearly we can learn from “incidents” of all types. However, it only takes one or two follow-up questions to turn our own otherwise uneventful days into an effective learning experience. “Where could we have triggered a slide?” “What if we had?”

    As for the oft-speculated influence of avalanche safety equipment and protocol on eventual decision-making, I think that sophisticated, adult risk managers (which is how all of us BC travelers should be seeing ourselves, in my opinion) should be able to easily move past that. “What effect does having an Avalung/airbag have on the risk tolerance of the owner?” The same was said 30 years ago about transceivers. And we have been able to handily reconcile transceiver ownership with risk exposure- making any discussion of which gear victims carry a moot point.

  33. Ralph Baldwin April 22nd, 2013 11:19 am

    First, my condolences to the families and friends of those who perished in this tragic event. Second, thanks, Lou, for starting this necessary but difficult conversation. As I was driving to Talkeetna with my wife yesterday, we talked about this accident and the first thing that came to mind was how “group think” becomes different as the group size increases. We compared the mental processes of an individual making a solo backcountry tour to those of a larger group. So different. Where the individual tends to be more focused on the conditions and route selection because he/she has no backup, the group is distracted by the social aspect. And, the larger the group, the larger the distraction. At some point, the social aspect of the experience takes on a life of its own and becomes the true center of the experience.
    So, yes, a limit to group size is good protocol and not only for reasons of more physical stress on the snowpack. Another essential feature of safe backcountry travel is route selection. Can’t be emphasized enough. Putting the proposed route in context of current snowpack and weather is necessary. If the red flags are there, go someplace else or cancel. Hard thing to do when the group size is large and the mental momentum has built. Good communication and discussion a few days before, the night before and the morning of the trip regarding the proposed route, snowpack conditions and recent weather allow this to take place.
    At the bottom of my list but still important is avalanche mitigation and recovery equipment; i.e. beacons, probes, shovels, avalungs, airbags, etc. and training and practice to use them.
    I close with thoughts and prayers for the families and friends. If we learn from this tragic event, some good comes of a terrible thing. Thanks for getting the discussion going.

  34. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 11:24 am

    Erudite commentary you guys. Thanks.

  35. Andrew April 22nd, 2013 11:29 am

    Lou – by the someone achieves all of the items on your expert tick-list, they will most likely get another one whether they want it or not:

    – Being involved in a serious avalanche accident and/or fatality.


  36. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 11:36 am

    Andrew, I’d like that to not be true, but by including “accident’ in your item it perhaps is (or a given, due to SAR volunteer work). I’d not say so for the fatality part. Overall, as Bruce Tremper blogged about it a while back, the vast majority of people caught in avalanches survive, and from what I’ve seen a lot of skiers go through their whole career and never get caught. I truly think a person can have a life as a backcountry skier and not be involved in a skiing fatality, I know lots of folks who prove that to be true. I also firmly believe that much of this has to do with the style of skiing you choose, and who you go with. Lou

  37. markus beck April 22nd, 2013 11:37 am

    Thanks Jed. Very well worded.

    Speculation does not provide a learning opportunity, but (as objective as possible) analysis of facts does. “Personal study of risk management and philosophy” – this should motivate to look at the facts (which are always unique and complex) and to look at oneself in the utmost honest way. Anything else is is a waste.

    Managing risk, which is what we do in the mountains (akin to what we do untold times in our ordinary daily lives), implies that 100% risk free is utopia no matter your level of knowledge or experience.

    References to expertise, especially when used by the media, is useless; regardless: “The avalanche doesn’t know you’re an expert” (quote Werner Munter). It is interesting that when “non-experts” get involved in avalanche incidents they’re called stupid, when “experts” are involved humanity is in disbelief. The difference is a higher bar, but can’t be absolutes.

    Applying travel techniques, group management protocols, terrain management skills, all these are (an essential) part of “decision making”: terrain selection and management. But unfortunately, reality is more complex than using flash-words like one at the time, spreading out, regrouping, obvious avy path, too steep, lotsa new snow, considerable avy danger, etc. If there has to be a need to be using flash words, then better ones perhaps would be pattern recognition, trigger likelihood and propagation potential, weak layer type, avy type, trigger mechanism (conceptual since not truly understood), etc.

    Please, lets get educated, gain experience, stay humble, don’t engage in armchair q’backing, listen and learn from those who know more all the while recognizing that no one is infallible and pay it forward to someone with less knowledge.

  38. Mike Marolt April 22nd, 2013 11:54 am

    It’s late April when the temperature varies as much as any other time during the year, when the avalanche conditions are being rated at considerable or worse and have been most of the year, where we are seeing the largest naturally released climax slides in recent memory, with fractures and slabs probably as large as ever in Colorado, and DURING what I believe is the largest storm cycle of the year after one of the lowest snow accumulation years on record, all statewide no less. It’s just so sad and even more, so frustrating. Our need for the perfect ski run has eliminated almost all macro analysis of conditions, even (or probably especially) at the “expert and experienced” levels.

  39. Chris Kipfer April 22nd, 2013 12:20 pm

    There is one good thing. When this number of experienced guys die tragically it gives all of us pause to think through our own behavior in the backcountry. Risk management can only go so far though.

    I remember how astonished I was,when skiing my one and only time with CMH in the late 80s,that close groups would be led down steep wide open slopes. In retrospect I believe that this risk was taken to maximize vertical for the purpose of revenue. In spite of this, by 2012, CMH had been in business for a total of 48 years, and had made 9 million group runs with only 11 avalanche fatalities. I have no idea how relevent this is to self guided groups,but it seems to indicate that avalanche death is an extremely rare event. I would bet that death from trauma unrelated to avalanche combined with tree well and sluff suffocation are far more common.

    Risk is to some extent unavoidable. We are all mortal.

  40. Mike Horn April 22nd, 2013 12:20 pm


    I wish the armchair quarterback stayed on the bench today, and Wild Snow — a site I’ve respected for many years — simply published this sincere, appropriate paragraph:

    “…here at WildSnow we are deeply saddened by how tragic this is. Five vibrant human beings, snuffed in minutes while simply out having fun, leaving family and loved ones behind. When you think of the ever widening circles of grief this entails it is almost too much to comprehend. Deepest sympathy from us to all affected.”

    Yes, as you stated above, you are entitled to your opinion even though you weren’t there. But what good comes from this kind of conjecture? We haven’t seen the final CAIC report; there are so many things to be learned still.

    All we know for sure is that five beloved people died in an avalanche this weekend, and their families and friends are hurting in the worst way. Let’s take this time to support these folks vs. speculating about the victims’ “mistakes.” There are lessons to be learned from this, I have no doubt. That will come. Let’s start the healing process first.

    A fundraiser is underway to help Ian’s family through this ordeal:

    If anyone else has information about how we can support the rest of the victims’ families, please share.

  41. brad April 22nd, 2013 12:32 pm

    One thought came to my mind after reading about the individuals caught in this slide, were they operating together as a close-knit and coordinated group, or was it more of a casual, happenstance gathering and tour plan? This for me echoes the Stevens Pass accident, big group came together, many of them meeting for the first time that day, many of them without local knowledge and experience, and following someone into a tricky spot with a horrible stack-up in the snowpack. One media report seemed to say that these men were old friends and ski partners, but there’s pretty wide geographic dispersion among them now. How often did they still get together? What was their knowledge and experience with Loveland Pass and the local snowpack? I am completely Monday-morning quaterbacking here, but these thoughts are making me take a really hard look at the groups I go out with. Condolences to the families and friends, a bad, bad day in Colorado.

  42. Halsted Morris April 22nd, 2013 12:39 pm

    It will take me awhile to read through all these comments.

    The whole accident is still close to home for me. I was with the Loveland ski patrol on the first team into Sheep Creek. The photo from the CAIC is actually my photo I sent them Saturday night.

    On Saturday I was having fun skiing Loveland, when the call came. Since I used the Sheep Creek draniage as a study site when I worked for CAIC I was asked to go along.

    I have seen a number of things on the web and in the media, that obviously came from pure uninformed speculation. I would ask that folks wait until the CAIC finishs its report.

  43. Klemens Branner April 22nd, 2013 12:39 pm

    Would it be too much to ask that you all wait to have your little masterful circle-jerk until after the CAIC has had a chance to issue their final report? I guess it’s axiomatic that you just couldn’t wait that long. It’s been amazing to see how a tragedy like this brings out the best in some people, and the worst in others. Have a nice day.

  44. ffelix April 22nd, 2013 12:43 pm

    Thanks for the post, Lou. Very sad, and we’ve all survived dubious decisions, especially in big groups.

    Like you, I am annoyed by the fashionable insistance–not just by the media, but by the survivors–that every avy victim these days is actually “experienced” or an “expert” and did nothing wrong. Tunnel Creek is a glaring recent example of experienced people who made incredibly bad choices over and over again until several finally died…then we had to hear all about how “expert” they all were.

    Defending this bad decision-making is a useless way of looking at things that offers no hope of helping the next group. SR’s comment about this attitude really meaning that the victims are “morally deserving of sympathy” is very insightful.

    But the implication of this prevailing attitude is that these incidents are like karmic cannonballs that couldn’t possibly have been avoided. I’ve personally been involved in incidents where the injured parties insisted they’d done everything right and done everything that they could have done, despite the fact that there were clearly many red flags stacking up against them. In fact, I’ve done it myself.

    There is just something deeply flawed about the decision-making process in these cases: bad habits that we have gotten away with long enough for them to become reinforced as correct and ideal.

    I think that there is widespread refusal to accept the concept that sometimes–maybe often–you have to be willing to say no to your first choice of agenda. Since low-angle powder skiing is no longer fashionable, it’s perhaps to be expected that we will see more and more of these group accidents.

    Though generally aware of the avalanche forecast, many–even most–backcountry travelers truly ignore the conditions unless there is an actual avalanche warning in effect. FIRST, they decide where they want to go, THEN wear all the rescue gear they can afford, pick the safest available line of ascent, do a few ski cuts, drop one at a time, ski from one island of safety to another, and act shocked, shocked (or worse, resigned) when something still goes wrong. Yeah, they did everything right… except the most important thing.

    I’ve always found Doug and Jill’s metaphor of Red light/Green light applied to terrain and snow conditions to be a really useful way to help take the emotion out of go/no go choices. It’s just not up to me, it’s the combination of lights that makes the call about where (and whether) we go.

    In fact, I think this philosophy is very powerful when applied to all the red flags you encounter, especially the human factors. Big group? Red light. High powder jones? Red light. “Experienced” group? Hmmm.

    Pilots are extremely vulnerable to accidents at around 250 hours when they are experienced enough to feel comfortable, but haven’t had enough scares to be humbled.

    Maybe backcountry travelers are the same. We need to find a way to remove our desires and confidence from the decision-making process.

  45. Brian April 22nd, 2013 12:44 pm

    Ralph- I think heuristic traps are one of the most overlooked aspects of backcountry safety. These decision making problems are glossed over in classes, and no one really seems to talk about them in backcountry circles. Whether they played a role in this accident, I do not know. But I sometimes wonder if a greater emphasis on social dynamics is justified.

  46. Chris Kipfer April 22nd, 2013 12:48 pm

    I plead guilty to the “fighter pilot syndrome”. One of the squadron dies tragically. At the O-Club later, awash in alcohol, the post analysis is hashed through by all. Each participant will preface his remarks with how wonderful a friend has been lost .and then find some error in judgement or technique that was made. Of course making the implication that the tearful speaker would not have made that error.
    We have all at one time or another made the same errors and survived. There is no accounting for the dumb luck that has allowed us to survive.

  47. Tom April 22nd, 2013 1:04 pm

    Thanks for not taking the PC angle on this Lou, you have said what needed to be said. Maybe these somewhat critical (realistic) articles will save someones life. What I know for sure is that being quiet while waiting for the proper (?) grieving period to pass will save no one but will allow some to take the useless but self justifying moral highground. Waiting for CAICs report to come out won’t change the fact that the conditions NOW are scary.

    Thanks for not putting on the kid gloves for this one.

  48. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 1:14 pm

    Tom, indeed, any caring person who’s observed what’s happened over the past few days (two accidents in the same region on the same bad snowpack, 6 dead) should be shouting anything from the roof tops they think could save lives. Really, to namby pamby around is inappropriate and distasteful. This is an extreme and very unusual situation.

    Mike, though I understand your concerns, in this case I think it’s appropriate to use the event as a point of departure for discussion. I stand by my decision to editorialize on it. Doing so is not my favorite activity, but I feel doing so is important. If I’m wrong, that’s mine to bear and I’ll take it.

  49. Pete Weaver April 22nd, 2013 1:34 pm

    Condolences to all involved!

    I hope the survivor can shed light on what they were thinking skinning up an exposed slope like that. There is a more gradual ridge line rising from the road hairpin that looks to be the obvious route up (depending on the destination).

    Complacency is a killer in avy terrain and that must have played a role here.

    I was skiing alone in the Stevens side country when the Tunnel Creek tragedy happened. I had no illusions about it being safe and skied accordingly. I would have been nowhere near the break-over that took their lives that day. Everyone knows that goes big, but group stoke somehow over came common sense.

    Failure to follow simple protocols is why these tragedies occur to experienced people. Route selection is the #1 way to prevent being buried. It’s almost impossible to be un-exposed 100% of the time but those exposures should be kept to a bare minimum and done one at a time with spotters, awareness and caution. A route that exposes a whole party for any duration is not a viable route.

    I hope the full story here can be revealed so we can learn what went wrong and how others can use this information to avoid the same fate.

  50. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 1:37 pm

    All, I’ve gotten some facts via email and from Mike Bennett’s press release. Nothing in the blog post above is inaccurate. Mike related to me that part of the group may have been using a stand of trees as an island of safety, and not anticipating how big the avalanche could run based on the trees and topography. He also related that the group was probably (or perhaps certainly) very close to the road when they got hit.

  51. jRossman April 22nd, 2013 1:40 pm

    These comments and perceptions on how backcountry enthusiasts view safety have been eye opening. Every year I grow as a person, I realize how much less I know. This pertaining to my life in general and my life as a skier.
    I have found, through my “experiences,” not everyone is viewing the terrain through the same lens. Communication can often be clouded by a pack-mentality. This especially is common in larger group sizes. Simply put, people get on different agendas, but the group treks on.
    I am guilty of traveling alone (dumb) and with large groups in avalanche prone terrain. I am also guilty of ascending on the heels of my partners in dangerous terrain. Luckily I am still alive. Taking an honest look in the mirror can be difficult realization.
    I am still a young man and have much to learn. This tragic event has taught me to ask questions, many of them. Whether I am internally mulling over my own decision or asking my partner(s) about their perspective, I should be asking questions before I leave my front door.
    I am deeply saddened by this event and my prayers are with those effected by this tragedy.
    In addition and not associated with this event at all. I concur the term “experienced” is too loosely associated with masterful or expert. Backcountry travelers have been growing at an almost laughable rate. Being experienced and having experiences is very different. I have seen (way too many times) “experienced” skiers backseat wiggling down terrain they have no business riding.

  52. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 1:58 pm

    Self check for everyone: Do you know what “alpha angle” is regarding an avalanche slope, how to obtain it in the field, and how to apply to your route finding?

  53. Mike Marolt April 22nd, 2013 2:09 pm

    To refer to the discussion on Wildsnow as a masterful circle-jerk until the final CAIC report comes out is indicative of the problem. What makes anyone think the final CAIC report on this tragedy will have any more impact than all the ones that preceded it. You don’t get discussion at CAIC like you do at Wildsnow. So editorialize, discuss, get people to think. It only enhances anything you can and should get from the CAIC, but the discussion is warranted immediately. It has nothing to do with bringing out the best or worst in people. If we limit or inhibit the discussion, we all lose….

  54. Paul April 22nd, 2013 2:09 pm

    Good commentary in this thread. Yes, it is tragic. Yes, we all make mistakes. Yes, we can try to learn from them.

    Group dynamics are tough in the backcountry. I used to be on a backcountry ski patrol (Diamond Peaks) and one of my colleagues, Shay Bright, did a masters thesis on the topic. One conclusion? “communication worsened and groupthink increased as groups got larger.” You can find the full study here:

  55. Brian April 22nd, 2013 2:18 pm

    I know alpha angle, but not a practical way to find it. Maybe a future wildsnow primer on it would be warranted?

  56. Gwen Cooper April 22nd, 2013 2:31 pm

    First of all, I would like to say how sorry I am to hear about the deaths of these young men and how I wish there was some consolation for their families. There are never answers when it comes to this sort of thing. I am truly sorry for the loss.

    With all due respect to those unfortunate gentlemen who died this weekend, ,back in the day it was common knowledge that the drainage those guys were traversing/climbing, whatever , is a huge slide area.. Let’s just put it this way…that entire drainage used to run out, clear to the bottom to the east of Loveland Valley ski area. The only thing I can think of which would get someone to risk their life there is because the lack of knowledge because the lack of snowfall in the past several decades did not establish enough snow for that area to slide and for them not to have known. (Although I have to say, after watching skiers race the avalanches in Valdez and elsewhere, I really couldn’t say. From all I have read. I think they were just ignorant of the terrain.)

    My knowledge is gained firsthand. My first run on the Pass was at age 5. I did not have a helmet, avalungs nor did I do a risk management assessment or macro analysis of conditions. Was just glad to make it down the hill with my feet frozen. I was skiing with men and women who skied the pass their entire lives. Not to denigrate the pissing contest you guys are in the middle of with your upper management analysis data driven ski plan and experiential hoha to determine who is the back country SAR stud, but this is not controlled by 0 and 1. ..Its just skiing, guys. Lungs full of sweet snow and air where the goddesses gather.They don’t care about how much money you have, how much your gear costs, how many continents you have climbed into thin air. If you are lucky,y they allow you to make it to the bottom, drink your hot tea and whiskey, take a bite of sandwich on homemade bread and ride back to the top to do it again. There is no app for it.

  57. bill h April 22nd, 2013 2:43 pm

    Alpha Angle and how to use it? Sure we can take a whack at that one.. alpha angle is the max run-out angle of a slide path. It varies from mtn range to mtn range especially based on snow climate, but around maybe 22 degs or so might be considered ‘ok’ for Colorado. Using your inclinometer (a compass-based one works especially well) you site up to the start zone and stay beyond this runout angle when traversing below slopes or choosing a safe zone to wait in. Can be trickier to implement on longer/complex slopes with multiple benches which might all be start zones or allow a slide to regain momentum lower in the path, (and this sort of path is common in CO, thining East Vail and Marble area for instance) but you goal is generally to provide yourself an estimate of a max runout in a climax slide and stay beyond that while below the slope. Looking at the satellite photo, that might have been hard to implement from this gully (to which I would also put myself on the side of the back-seat QBers and question the ascent of the gully in general).

    I understand no one enjoys internet forum speculators, but perhaps folks need to accept thats inevitable in this day and age? CAIC can take on the order of days to weeks to put up the full investigation and its probalby not too reasonable to expect anyone will wait that long to start talking. They have lots of people to interview and tasks to finish before they can put up an official report. That said, reading through other investigations, its evident that CAIC, as a government organization, usually respectfully refrains from making super-blatant judgements on human choices, they will usually point out mistakes with a more indirect longuage(and thus non-offensive) and tone.

    If we look over to the whitewater world and read through the old River Safety accident Reports published by American Whitewater/Charlie Walbridge, or perhaps back to the older Snowy Torrents, sometimes its more helpful to provide a direct and forceful assessment of mistakes, even when it potentially hurtful. Its okay to call a spade a spade, if it gets the point across. While we certainly don’t know anything as far as group dynamics, a lot of information is inherently available in that satellite photograph of the slide path and burial locations: for instance, a steep northfacing slope funneling into a terrain trap gully.

    One context to consider this slide is it’s similarities to Cameron Pass earlier this year, in which a former ski partner and friend of mine died, and his partner nearly did too. In context of these two slides, in addition to route-of-travel choices for the snowpack of 2012/13, it clearly seems that tourers are repeatedly underestimating the extent to which that slopes might rip, and not choosing safe zones which are truly safe zones.

    Also, referring back to the early comments about ‘experience’ and the definition there-of. Has anyone noticed that the first thing reported is often ‘they were wearing beacon’s and proper equipment’. I find that a little troublesome and distracting of larger issues. It seems so commonly quoted, but obscures the larger point that wearing a beacon is more analagous to the seatbelt in your car: it might save your life in the right circumstances, but having beacons and shovels surely doesn’t prevent avalanches, just as putting on your seatbelt might keep you in the car but the whole goal of driving is to not wreck in the first place.

  58. Justin April 22nd, 2013 2:56 pm

    So to Klemens Branner–what is the best in people or the worst in people? To look introspectively at our bad habits that put us at risk and wonder if one of our own bad habits and those we have seen contributed to this–or to use being the next victim? To look at ourselves in the mirror and talk openly about how we EACH can be safer? This serves as a wakeup call to everyone out there–an expert takes as close to zero risk as possible. That threshold is different for everyone. I think because of all the new technology, the risk assessment piece is broken because the device makers sell these devices as a way to reduce risk so people feel safer and consequently everyone takes more chances.

    I want every single one of us left to have a spirited discussion of the dangers RIGHT NOW when it is fresh in our minds. I get that we mourn the dead and we respect them, but let’s face it, they went into the BC because it is what they did and this tragedy is something they signed up for. It is a risk, they knew it, and they accepted it. They made an assessment–an informed assessment–that they had minimized the risks sufficiently. Let’s cut the PC part out of it. Their deaths serve as a reminder. Every time an inexperienced skier dies on Bunny Hop like the dude at Wolf Creek this year, we need to take a look and discuss helmet safety and all the things we can do to prevent the next death. That was just as tragic, just that it was only one person and he was not part of our community.

    I have not seen a single thing on here that is not good advice, good discussion, and useful towards those ends. These were dangerous conditions and the ultimate cause is they did not sufficiently minimize the risks. Does everyone agree that the report will show that? I think the OUTCOME showed that. What the risks were matters *SOME*, but next time it could be other risks so any discussion of how to minimize any and all risks, even in the wake of a tragedy like this, is good discussion. Just my $.02. Maybe this is “the worst in people” that is coming out in me.

  59. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 3:00 pm

    Bill, thanks for rising to the alpha challenge! Yeah, it’s pretty simple. In my experience, after a person does it for a few years with an inclinometer as well as learning how to read terrain, the inclinometer isn’t essential. But I used to go with people all the time who seemed to have no idea how far a given avy path could run. If CAIC doesn’t give us an alpha angle in their report, one of us should go up there and sight it ourselves. Result would be instructive.

  60. SR April 22nd, 2013 3:10 pm

    There’s also using ski poles to find alpha angle, though that is less accurate. The need for accuaracy is situational in part, though.

  61. Mike Horn April 22nd, 2013 3:11 pm


    I’m all about getting accurate information out there so we can avoid another accident. That goes without saying. We should all be “shouting from the roof tops” to get the word out on this spring’s unusually dangerous conditions.

    As you well know, these stories evolve quickly, especially early on. Inaccuracies and misinformation abound, give false hope, and have other painful and potentially dangerous implications.

    What I took issue with in today’s post is editorializing on the details of this particular accident, and the group’s actions (or lack thereof), without having the facts before us. Disclaimer: Yes, I have friends involved so my attention to this is particularly acute.

    And Tom, regarding your comment:

    “What I know for sure is that being quiet while waiting for the proper (?) grieving period to pass will save no one but will allow some to take the useless but self justifying moral highground.”

    There is no higher ground in this situation. Nobody wins. That’s not the point. I’m not asking that we stay quiet; I’m asking that we respect these people and their loved ones enough to keep our judgements to ourselves.

  62. AndyS April 22nd, 2013 3:33 pm

    My condolences to the loved ones. I think the group dynamics talk is important, but the most important lesson is to spend a lot more time carefully route planning and part of that is to consider correct routes for the group or correct groups for the route. There are tons of safe routes where a large group could skin together without crossing any avalanche terrain. It might not be the sickest skiing, but if you are out for a fun time with a big group, skiing mellow meadows and snow shoeing around on skins is a lot of fun. That sounds like what these guys meant to do, and they just didn’t plan the route carefully because they failed to realize they were crossing a slide path ready to go. The other take from this and the Stevens Pass story is that some times when everyone in the group thinks everyone else is “experienced” nobody speaks up when it doesn’t seem right, and suddenly one person’s poor judgment becomes everyone’s. Each member of a group when worried should start from the assumption that they know more than the others and when they are not worried that the others know more than they do. And it should be clear to everyone in the group that they have the right and responsibility to speak up and stop the trip without any judgment or hard feelings.

  63. Dan Moroz April 22nd, 2013 3:56 pm

    A point of interest from this tragic accident. Several days before the incident CDOT had released a sizable avalanche further up Loveland Pass where the topo map in the article indicated a bench mark (BM on the map). CDOT regularly shoots this small path as it empties directly onto the highway. This previous avalanche was sizable and full depth for the path even thou it had been shot all winter. The distance between the avalanche accident site and the CDOT (BM)path is probably less than a half mile. If the group had only driven slightly higher up the road they would have seen a great indicator of the current instabilities and might have chosen a different route. One of the great PEARLS of wisdom for avalanche prediction and hazard evaluation is to look at all surround areas for avalanche activity that might mirror your route in terms of aspect, slope angle, elevation, and loading characteristics. One last observation is that CAIC had published great pictures last week of very similar terrain on the west side of the tunnel north aspect where 6 major natural releases had occurred. This terrain was probably less than 3 miles away as the crow flies and was very similar in aspect, elevation, and slope angle. Unfortunately the clues where there to possible instabilities but observations were not potentially made. Hopefully a lesson will be learned by your readers concerning observation either in person or via electronic media.

  64. Larry Grossman April 22nd, 2013 4:10 pm

    the mountains beat down the “experts” every time. Incredibly bad decisions were made by this group considering the weather patterns of the previous days. There were natural releases all over the pass in plain view for everyone to see, and they were to the ground. This group drove right past two of them which were just hundreds of yards from where they parked to start hiking. Are toxicology reports ever done on avalanche victims? Just wondering if there was anything that may have gave these experts a false sense of security despite the plain and simple signs of danger that were all around them. These stories suck, and they are so tiresome. RIP.

  65. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 5:11 pm

    I just listened to a radio interview with Ethan Green of CAIC. He made it clear that part of this accident was due to a deadly terrain trap at least some of the riders were swept into. Apparently one victim was buried more than 15 feet deep according to Ethan. I mention this for obvious reasons, regarding just how highly consequential this whole situation apparently was. Terrain traps give me the creeps even during low hazard days, remembering this will reinforce that feeling and that’s fine by me.

  66. jamie April 22nd, 2013 5:19 pm

    I heard they might have been done skiing and at the bottom but not out of the way. Through FB

  67. TK, Vail April 22nd, 2013 5:24 pm


    I remind you (and other posters) of your own words from the Highlands B1 incident that broke your leg all those years ago:

    “Our knowledge of slide danger was tuned to a fine pitch. Yet success would be my fall. I had lost my fear and replaced it with downright stupidity. A mountaineer with no fear has no judgment and stupid reigns supreme.”

    Words to live -or die- by. Condolences to all those these lost young lives touched.

  68. Mitchellskis April 22nd, 2013 5:26 pm

    This incident has it all from an avy education standpoint. I don’t mean to impugn these unfortunate guys, but upon reflection many mistakes were made.

    Group Dynamics – large group and all or mostly new together. I think, but could be wrong that they all just met at the event the day of. I would rather travel solo than travel in a group of people that I did not know and know that I work well with. Decisions often get de-facto made without due consultation in groups like this. Communication breakdowns and Group Think.

    Terrain Trap – This gully is a classic terrain trap and this is the primary reason that despite its close proximity to the road, it is very rarely done. The only people in 25 years of skiing at the pass that I know of came in from the top or near top of Sniktau during stable corn season. Any slide will bury you very deep if you’re at the bottom of this gully.

    History – There have been at least a couple other incidents over the years in this area.

    Deep instability – This north/NE aspect with a substantial westerly exposure was almost devoid of snow as recent as a few weeks ago and what snow was there was faceted crap due to its lack of depth. Many front range northerly aspects are still characterized by facets at the bottom.

    New Snow/Wind Loading – the snow event Sat-Tuesday of this past week both dropped a lot of snow, but there also was a notable Southerly wind in this area, depositing a deep slab over the aforementioned garbage.

    Natural/ Other Activity – as someone mentioned several of the identical aspects over the road below and above this access point slid in the past week. Also similar northerly aspects at/just above treeline near Butler Gulch and on the west side of Eisenhower tunnel slid naturally and big.

    Travel protocol – Expose One at a time. They were basically all together and exposed to the same path. I am always MORE afraid of traveling up and or beneath avalanche terrain than I am to ski down it. Your impact on the slope is significantly greater when busting trail uphill and the consequence is at least as great in most cases. There are safer ways to access this bowl if you were determined to ski it. From the Pass on the Continental divide or on the ridge immediately to the west.

    1st to test an area – if you’re the first person in to an area you are more likely to trigger something. While previous ski and/or hiking travel is no guarantee of any safety, being the 1st one into an area is more dangerous IMO. I’m pretty sure no one else would have been wallowing in the creekbed prior to this unfortunate group.

  69. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 5:32 pm

    Watch out for the conjecture boys and girls. A bit is ok for helping the discussion, but keep it tame. Much will be revealed when CAIC files. Lou

  70. Colin April 22nd, 2013 5:34 pm

    Lou, with regards to your comments about “experience” and ‘expert’

    About ‘experience’; I fully agree with your list. But if someone had completed your list I think it would be more appropriate to say they are much more than experienced, actual masters.

    The media reports that say ‘experienced’ are only trying to indicate that the victims have some level of experience (more than the reporter).

    It seems to me that in in common ski vernacular the word ‘expert’ is used to simply describe someone who has more or less mastered the basics of the downhill part of riding. Surely there are lots of great riders and ski racers who almost never touch the backcountry who are still ‘experts’ with plank on feet. (but obviously we wouldn’t take avy Advice from someone with a gold medal and less experience, this is why the word ‘expert’ in the media’s accounts of avy accidents seems so totally trivial and irrelevant to me.)

    But anyways, thanks for promptly putting out some of the only readable analysis of this tragic event so far. People should learn to appreciate a little armchair QB’ing when the QB is basically John Elway

  71. Warren Shadowboxer April 22nd, 2013 5:37 pm

    My thought is this..
    Those who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones. There are no steps you can take to keep your self from circumstance. You can take all the knowledge, wisdom (aka Luck) you can garner in a lifetime of doing anything, but reality states you are at the mercy of mother nature at every moment. To say that all of this wouldn’t of happened if, this, or that ,is not necessary, or true in any manner. If you go at all you are at risk.
    The Definition of Insanity by Einstein states: Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So if you have almost died in an avalanche 30years ago and were saved by mere luck and five minutes, does that mean 30 years later you are a master of anything, or just an insane addict of the same feeling we all love.
    To my fallen friends I open my heart to you for your path and know you are in a good place as always… RIP

  72. Kevin S April 22nd, 2013 5:56 pm

    So many interesting posts today and to Warren and TK, many of us have had to call Search and Rescue, been in slides, dangerous sluffs or heard the “whump” in the BC. But we learned and somehow survived the backcountry world of the ’80s with Silveretta, Hagen and Dachstein gear, and not much else, of that era. Many of us have also learned from bad experience, close calls and from the stories of others. Lou’s posts are a great resource to voice respectful commentary, conjecture (yes, it is educational to debate without full knowledge as we do it in every aspect of our lives) with the hope of being better armed the next time we push the limits in the BC. Lets all raise a glass or two to the fallen comrades and hope we all learn from this tragedy and be thankful we have the CAIC, Lou and others to keep this conversation going.

  73. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 6:12 pm

    Warren, I don’t say this often to commenters as most of you guys are smart and well written, but that is total claptrap. First, it is juvenile to state “if you go at all you are at risk.” Of course you are. But if reality proves anything, throughout the history of mankind those who used their brain and brawn for self preservation (or dominating others, sadly) have been able to change their circumstances. To say that principle doesn’t apply to mere recreation in avalanche terrain is specious. I can find you any number of skiers who can state many instances when they’ve turned around because of their knowledge and judgement and seen something happen that would have killed or maimed them had they continued on.

    Perhaps what you are saying is that fate and luck exist. Sure they do. But we are not puppets.

    As for the cliche about stones and glass houses. I’m a writer. The glass shattered a long time ago. Duh.


  74. Lou Dawson April 22nd, 2013 6:26 pm

    Colin, my list was just off the top of my head, however I thought it a chuckle when I went back and calced my time estimate and it turned out to be 10,000 hours based on 10 hour days… but yeah, the semantics are probably as you say, and yeah, the reporter is probably just trying to categorize the people in terms of how much they know. I read back through some Denver Post articles, and they seem to use the words “experienced” and “expert” interchangeably, but they don’t seem to have a word for someone who is at an exceptional level, as apparently some of the guys at Sheep Creek were.

    What’s really interesting is if you use the Denver Post search box to look for “avalanche inexperienced,” you’ll get a bunch of hits for mentions of Avalanche Hockey team rookies, but nothing I could see pertaining to snow avalanches. Hmmmm…

  75. Matt Thaner April 22nd, 2013 6:50 pm

    As someone who skis the Colorado backcountry on a regular basis there seems to be something people don’t understand about avalanche danger scales in Colorado. everyone keeps asking why these experts went out during “considerable” avalanche conditions. however, in Colorado that is about as low as you will ever see the avalanche danger level anytime past Christmas. even during “extreme” avalanche danger(2 levels above considerable) there are a lot of people in the backcountry, particularly on the high alpine pass’ where some avalanche blasting is done by CDOT and there is considerable traffic, I.e. lateral skier compaction. that being said, rest in peace boys, you brought education experience to so many that had already saved lives I guarantee.

  76. Scott Nelson April 22nd, 2013 7:29 pm

    Good comments and discussion. Thanks Lou for providing a place for them to occur.

    When I first heard about this utter tragedy, I was saddened but also upset. One of my first reactions was simply wondering why this group was even in that terrain in the first place, given the obvious poor conditions (judged by others’ comments who know the area). Then, I thought of similar conditions I’ve put myself in, in the past and fortunately, nothing happened, so I can’t point a finger so to speak. But still, I’ve had some avy education, I’ve skied with experts who helped me learn what to look for, but I still ended up on occasion somewhere I probably shouldn’t have been. Why?

    I’m all for education, but why is it that, even in spite of all the avy education available out there, that educated and apparently experienced skiers / riders continue to fall victim to avalanches? I really wonder if its something else going on in our brains that results in us seeking that adventure, almost some sort of an addiction? I’m speaking generally to all of us, not specifically to this group of riders. But does that thirst for adventure tend to overrule our educated sense?

    My sincere condolences to all the friends and family of these victims.

  77. Barrows April 22nd, 2013 7:54 pm

    It is too soon for armchair analysis of this very unfortunate tragedy. Without knowing the particulars of where the group was actually traveling, and what their decision making process was, we are only left with mere speculation.
    I have toured with deceased guide Rick Gaukel, and I can confirm that he is very experienced, and makes very considered decisions when traveling in the backcountry in regards to avalanche exposure and risk tolerance.
    I also try to avoid groups sizes larger than 4, but, as is likely true for most of us, sometimes group sizes do grow to 5, 6, or even more. At this point, the only thing I think it is fair to take away from this terrible accident, is that group size needs to be very carefully considered, and if traveling in a group larger than 3, I would suggest the group always state outright that the group size will make the decision making process more convoluted, and that each individual in the group will need to be even more forthright than usual in expressing their points of view during the decision making process.

  78. Chris Kipfer April 22nd, 2013 7:55 pm

    Lou,Do these new super wide skis put any more or less load or shock on the snow pack. How about split boards or snow shoes.This silly thought just came to me as I seem to be the last guy here on more traditional skis.

  79. Justin April 22nd, 2013 7:58 pm

    “There are no steps you can take to keep your self from circumstance. You can take all the knowledge, wisdom (aka Luck) you can garner in a lifetime of doing anything, but reality states you are at the mercy of mother nature at every moment. To say that all of this wouldn’t of happened if, this, or that ,is not necessary, or true in any manner.”

    This is insane on so many levels, the least of which was the overused cliches. It ABSOLUTELY is true that there are two major things that make it such a deadly accident. The first is that they we in an area in conditions that were avalanche prone. People take that risk all the time in varying levels. You always have *some* avalanche risk. The second is that they were in a position where all six were caught in the avalanche simultaneously. Now imagine if two of the six were in the avalanche. The other four did like hell and maybe they both make it out, maybe two of them die… but regardless, there is HOPE. According to Warren’s logic that there is nothing you can do, why wear a beacon or carry a shovel? You manage the risk and realize that at any second, bad things can happen, but even if bad things do, you are prepared to save a life.

    It ain’t luck bro. Tiger Woods doesn’t win Majors based on luck. He doesn’t win them on raw physical skills alone either. He is smart, measures every step, prepares for every shot, and then sometimes he hits a flagpole. That flagpole was luck. But he had 72 other shots for four days that were about preparation and skill. Based on every single thing in the posts above, there were multiple danger signs and their actions exposing the entire group at once were a major mistake that made this more deadly than it had to be. Bad luck, 2 or at worst 3 deaths. Bad luck and bad planning were why this was so deadly.

    We damned sure better learn the lessons from this. Because no one that reads this thread should ever depend on Luck or Wisdom (from being lucky) or on Mother Nature. Don’t build your house in a flood plain and then blame mother nature when you drown.

  80. Justin April 22nd, 2013 8:02 pm

    That last sentence was to warren, not to the victims. Not in any way meant to say that we know why and how this happened yet. Just that we don’t see fatalities like this hardly ever. We see one or two at a time but it is so rare that such a large group is caught in it.

  81. Cameron April 22nd, 2013 8:04 pm

    The snowpack in the Sawatch and Summit County has been terrifying this year. I’ve seen some of the biggest, most destructive natural and remotely triggered avalanches in 9 years in Colorado.

    Every time I drove Highway 91 and saw a big slide I wondered if one of my friends was dead.

    A big slide path, called Question Mark Bowl or Avy Bowl, not too steep but long and exposed, slid last month. I went up to investigate (as did CAIC) and observed that the avalanche decimated many of the “safe zones” I have traditionally used while ascending and descending the slope.

    This winter, like last, has been unusual. I can see how it would be easy to get caught in a slide like the one on Loveland if you are not thinking “extreme danger, massive consequences”.

    This was the most boring, and probably safest winter, of backcountry skiing I’ve ever done.

    Am I masterful? Hardly. Observant, yes. The advantage of living in the mountains is in being aware of the snowpack throughout the year and making many careful observations of it.

    RIP fellow travelers. I’m sad it ended for you the way it did. I hope I remember the lessons of this winter and that Wildsnow readers and others do too.

  82. Kahn April 22nd, 2013 8:32 pm

    The general consensus among regular Loveland Pass skiers is that Sheep Creek is a not a good choice most days of the year. I have skied around the pass countless times, ascended via car, boots, and skins, and in no way shape or form would I have skied – or recommended to ski – that area. There were many other options that day, from fun meadows to long and mellow north facing gullies off the divide.

    To me, these individuals were not experts or experienced, at least in terms of skiing at Loveland Pass. I’d rather skin and ski in terrain that won’t avalanche, alone and without a beacon, shovel or probe, than expose myself to the types of risk these individuals did.

    I showed my wife the terrain they exposed themselves to. She has 5 days of backcountry skiing in her back pocket. Her reaction? “Are you kidding me, why did they do that?”

    This is not a harsh assessment. These individuals made decisions that directly lead to their death. We all need to be frank and upfront about this and make sure we do everything we can so it never happens again.

  83. gary sawyer April 22nd, 2013 8:41 pm

    ” Still the last, sad memory hovers round and sometimes drifts across
    like floating mist,cutting off sunshine,and chilling the remembrance of
    happier times. There have been joys too great to be described in words
    ,and there have been griefs upon which I have not dared to dwell:and with
    these in mind I say,Climb (Ski) if you will,but remember that courage and
    strength are nought without prudence,and a momentary negligence may
    destroy the happiness of a lifetime.Do nothing in haste;look well to each
    step;and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

    Edward Whymper, 1871 Peace,Love

  84. timber April 22nd, 2013 10:16 pm

    Condolences to those involved either directly or indirectly. There is nothing that can be said or done that will replace the empty space left by the sons/brothers/fathers/lovers that have been lost.

    The tendency for something to go wrong in the backcountry is a combination of probability and frequency. We have absolute control over only one of those variables and once we choose to venture out, all we can do is minimize the risk.

    There are still details here that none of us know. Some will end up being important. For example, does the timing seem off to anyone else? For the other group to finish their tour on the other side of 70 and still be the first ones on the scene, either there was a long delay in burial vs. report, they were doing multiple laps or they were doing something other than ascending straight up the gully. The latter could explain some of the previously observed “big questions”.

    I ski a couple dozen days a year, usually with only my dog, so by any sensible measure I am hardly one to judge. Definitely no “expert”. My thanks to Lou for making this a learning experience and a forum open to all.

  85. JG April 22nd, 2013 10:34 pm

    My prayers and Heart go out to the subjects and families of this tragedy. Big Kudos to you and the rest of the rescuers Halsted, it was a tough job you undertook.
    My only reminder to all of us that will continue skiing the backcountry: plan your entire ski route going up as well as down, before you leave the road. Use all your knowledge (including the CIAC report) about the snowpack while making your plan. Put into your plan all the “what if’s”, don’t assume you know the snowpack today just because you were in the same Bowl, aspect or run yesterday. Anticipate all the changes in snowpack on your route, even the new changes from your 1st run an hour ago. Tell everyone in your party what you anticipate. Always keep in mind that our snowpack can change like a gecko going across a mosaic and almost as fast. It’s our job to notice and anticipate the changes, so make your plan dynamic. Luck favors the prepared mind.

    OK I’ll bite Lou, “Alpha Angle” Is that equal or greater than the angle of repose?
    Just remember to give me a break, I’m no expert, I’ve never left our continent. JG

  86. JG April 22nd, 2013 10:52 pm

    Sorry, just found your answer to “Alpha Angle”on second pass thru blog

  87. Erik Erikson April 22nd, 2013 11:42 pm

    @Chris Kipfer: yes, there seem to be much evidence that riding on wider skis puts less load on the snow pack and has further advantages. First and most important, you put less weight per inch on the surface, so it is less likely to reach a “hot spot” somewhere down in the snowpack, where an avy could be released.
    Second, normally you develop a smoother riding style on wider planks. Its more like snowboarding and not so hard load changes occur.
    Third: You are less likely to fall when you get into an avalanche and have a better chance to escape a small one by riding straight and fast, because you have more stability on wider, longer planks. But that third point I would see very criticall.
    all above is not my personal opinion, I heard two speeches here in Europe, held by “Experts” (here is the term again..) who did some research on that.
    Excuse my poor english!

  88. Erik Erikson April 23rd, 2013 12:14 am

    As for the “Expert-discussion”: I see that differentiated. I think it is important to know in which fields you are an expert and where your abilities end!
    First, one can be an expert in his local area, but not “worldwide”: I, for example, know my home-mountains for almost 30 years. Have seen almost every slope also in summer, know therefore the surface under the snow, keep trace the development of snow and weather every winter and so on. Combined with theoretical knowledge and practical experience thats a lot (though, like most of us, there where instances where I escaped by only luck). But if I would come over to the US for example I would of course never rely on that and feeling more like a novice.
    Second, and important! One should become an “expert” in knowing where his knowledge and capabilities end. In other words, an expert in knowing when to turn around where maybe even more experienced persons would have ways and tools to make more differenciated desisions (for example, one can be very good in calculating the general risk by snowfall, wind and so on, but having little experience in digging snow-profiles and interpreting them).

    And for the Alpha-angel: Never heard of that – learned something new. Thats one of the reasons why I think it´s good to start this discussion here . I truly also understand the writers here who feel that to be irreverent at this time, but almost no one here has been showing lack of respect for the victims. Learning from and talking about this tragedy in a respectfull way is also a way of beeing with and thinking of the persons lost I think. And I quite know what I am talking about cause me too lost persons I knew in an avalanche.

  89. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 5:22 am

    Chris, indeed, I totally believe that the fatter skis are allowing us to ski sketchier slopes and get away with it. I think the fatter skis have saved lives, perhaps even mine and my loved ones. On the other hand, fatter modern skis allow us to ski some conditions that in the old days of skinny skis we simply would have not gone after unless by necessity. This especially true of a depth hoar snowpack that the skinny skis tended to collapse in to. I see this every winter, day after day, people riding snow conditions and slopes that in 1981 would have been unskiable for nearly anyone.

    The whole situation has totally changed due to cultural and gear factors. Overall, I doubt more people per backcountry skier day are dying in avalanches, it might even be less. There are a lot of people out there, a lot of skier days. Still, I’ve done some studying on the numbers over the years and unless you’re pretty careful with what you’re doing in the backcountry it can get real dangerous real fast, statistically. For example, a few years ago the county coroner in Pitkin County did a study and stated that you were more likely to die in an avalanche in Pitkin County than in an automobile accident, or something to that effect. Wow.

    As for the Sheep Creek accident, by all accounts the group was on their way up and the type of gear they were using can in no way be construed to have anything to do with the outcome

  90. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 5:39 am

    Erik, exactly, we can respect the victims of these tragedies while discussing. One way to do that is by showing we can have civil discourse, without shouting profanity and without personal attacks on each other or just plain rude, anonymous jabs. So far we’ve done ok here with that, and I appreciate it.

    Spirited discussion is a good thing and we do have some of that here.

    Many of us backcountry ski a lot, and it can get real dangerous real quick. It is super important for us to stay on top of what’s happening out there, including accidents. There is no “right or wrong time” to discuss these things. I’d also add that the “right time” is different for everyone, including me.

    No one is required to comment here at WildSnow, or even read it. I’d submit that if you are reading these comments, or commenting about us being wrong for having this discussion, a mirror might come in handy.

  91. Phil April 23rd, 2013 5:52 am

    On Mitchellskis comment on wether “your impact on the slope is significantly greater when busting trail uphill”, several studies have shown that the impact is much greater on the way down. Formal avalanche training here in Austria generally teaches that walking uphill adds 1-3x the load while skiing down averages 3-5x (and falling 6-7x).

    I second Erik on how wider skis generally encourage a smoother (albeit faster) style with less curves and less impact on the snow while also providing a faster/straighter escape, if possible.

    Regarding the group size discussion, I think that with the increasing popularity of the sport, you will inevitably end up in some situations/terrain where a small group size won’t play a role, as you’re climbing along several other parties, where som people will always want first lines and sometimes disregard the most elementary safety measures. It is especially the case here in the (sometimes crowded) Alps.

    At the same time, proximity of other skiers/groups can greatly help SAR, as was proven here by Mike Benett, who’s party was skiing not too far and could quickly get there.

    In the end, almost every b/c accident is a mix of misjudgment and bad luck, in various proportions. I welcome Wildsnow’s decision to launch a sad but necessary discussion and join my voice to the others who hope we will at least learn from and reflect about this tragedy. My condolences to relatives and friends of the victims.

  92. JCoates April 23rd, 2013 6:32 am

    Lou, et al,

    I saw a online appology from “The Westword” for reporting in their article that the individual killed in the Vail Pass avalanche was found to be carrying marijuana. It sounds like the individuals involved didn’t smoke while backcountry snowboarding, but I know I saw it a lot while in the US (not ever here in Europe).

    I am emphatically not implying that this was a factor in the Sheep Creek avalanche, but It seems like a pretty important subject that I don’t know if I have ever heard addressed. I would be interested to hear how many readers actually do light up in the backcountry.

  93. Paul April 23rd, 2013 6:39 am

    All this talk about ski size, group size, philosophy, avalanche bags and avalungs, experience is all crap. There is no reason to ever be in a slide, ever. If they were that experienced, they wouldn’t have died. Any experienced group wouldn’t have got caught, there are too many signs to list. They were not paying attention, they didn’t follow simple rules, didn’t assess anything and broke all the rules..simple. No avalung,airbag,fatter skis would save their asses. Be smarter then the snow. Sorry, harsh, but it is what it is. No more simple excuses for stupid behavior, it doesn’t do anyone any good to excuse their behavior. Learn from it and live.

  94. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 6:41 am

    Regarding alpha angle: When you’re first starting out with learning backcountry safety, this is one of the most important concepts imaginable. It’s a very easy and effective way to teach/learn when you are exposed to avalanche hazard from above. The fact is that a lot of backcountry skiers are running around out there without a good concept of how far a slide can run. Slides don’t run particularly far unless circumstances are exceptional, in fact they stop remarkably quickly when they hit low angled runout, but I’ve seen many people who just don’t have a concept of how far they _can_ run on a given path. In other words, lots of backcountry skiers appear to not be equipped with a basic concept that allows them to skirt the bottom of avalanche slopes in a safe manner. Sheep Creek obviously brings up this concept, but how relevant to the actual accident I have no idea. Again, the idea is to discuss these concepts as they come up.

    Main thing, if you are learning or brushing up your skills, how good are you at judging the extent of an avalanche slope so you can skirt it safely? For some of us this is second nature, but…


  95. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 6:53 am

    Paul, on my gut level I tend to agree with you, and I think many others here do as well. But we do need to wait and see if there was some sort of extenuating circumstance that made the group’s mistakes have such dire consequences. What is more, as I said in my blog post, it’s possible they just made some mistakes we all make from time-to-time, only their mistakes were too numerous to recover from (which perhaps is what you’re saying).

    At any rate, until we have more information, please realized that all our discussion here is intended to help us follow the rules. Some of us need the intellectual underpinning, hence the chatter….

    I’d also offer (and agree with you) that one of the BIG things accidents of this sort teach us is that all the “after avalanche” gear junk is indeed so much junk. Airbags, beacons, blah blah blah. What we need are more methods of not getting caught in the first place. And main one of these is to learn to recognize hazard and stay away from it.

  96. Scott Nelson April 23rd, 2013 7:08 am

    Which begs the question, what were they doing there in the first place?

  97. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 7:32 am

    Scott, exactly. And that is where we’ll not do any guesswork. We’ll have to wait for info to come out. Could be they were just …………………. Lou

  98. Klemens Branner April 23rd, 2013 7:35 am

    Okay, that was way too harsh, I apologize. It was a long, rough rollercoaster of a weekend and I consumed way too much mainstream media misinformation and sensationalism.

    I guess what I am having a hard time with here is that when something like this happens, we get divided into two camps: those that did not personally know the people who died, and those that lost a friend. And it just always seems like some people in the first camp are awfully quick to want to look for any mistakes that may have been made, often with a holier than thou tone that can come across as more than a little bit insensitive. Of course we all want to learn from it so that we can try to avoid a similar situation in the future. But what’s the rush? We are talking about a matter of days here. Why not wait until all the information is in?

    You will have to forgive me if I am oversensitive because I am in the second camp right now. But, I do think it would be nice if we could all focus a little more on the fact that we lost 5 people that we all have something in common with and maybe take just a little more time before speculating about their actions.

  99. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 7:43 am

    Klemens, you hit the nail on the head. If you know someone who died, these discussions can seem or be very inappropriate and it’s best to stay away from them. For example, when Steve Romeo died all I did other than a short initial blog post as a friend was eventually file an obit that alluded to some of his decision making, but didn’t open up for extensive discussion. It was just too close to home for me to handle so I chose not to go there. With this, I don’t really know any of the guys so I’m removed enough to instigate and moderate a discussion.

    As for waiting til all the information is in, it’ll never all be in. So timing the discussion might as well happen organically. No way we can set a certain day or month when we’re supposed to start talking about it.

    On a more personal note, condolences on your loss and please know that most of us here have already lost friends or loved ones to avalanches, hence our deep interest in discussing and trying to do better. This is not just a bunch of armchair holier than thou chatter, this is the trenches. Many of us are out there several days a week dealing with these exact issues, trying to stay alive and keep our friends alive. Timing, yeah, right now.


  100. joseph.szasz April 23rd, 2013 8:35 am

    Thanks for everything lou!

  101. Erik Erikson April 23rd, 2013 9:06 am

    @ Klemens: I totally understand your feelings and am very sorry for you as you lost friends out there. I can imagine the way you feel from personal experience.

    / regarding Lous explanation of the Alpha-angel: It is so obvious a very important issue, that I am surprised I never even thought about it. I always calculated how far a slide can run just by experience and guessing.
    Even more remarkable is the fact, that at least in europe I never heard of that alpha angel concept and no avalanche training I ever participated in would tell about it.

  102. Halsted Morris April 23rd, 2013 9:32 am

    Thanks JG, there were a lot of folks involved.

  103. Halsted Morris April 23rd, 2013 9:40 am

    Alpha angle is usually covered in Level 2 avalanche courses…

  104. Dave Field April 23rd, 2013 10:13 am

    I’m glad to have this moderated discussion in the wake of such a tragedy. I believe we can respct those that perished as we struggle to try and understand the factors that led to the slide. It ignorant to assume that we would never make a similar mistake in judgement or terrain choice. Obviously the safest way to manage travel in avalanche terrain is to stay out of every single runout zone and dial it way back. The fact is, most of us who go out a lot will eventually make a mistake in judgement and find themselves in a bad situation. Maybe we have been close to precipitating failure and never realized the danger? Hopefully the goal should be to recognize our own mistakes and try and learn how to best avoid getting into that bad situation again, not to dismiss others as being incompetant or willfully ignorant which accomplishes nothing but self-congratulatory back patting.

  105. Hans April 23rd, 2013 10:28 am

    I appreciate reading the discussion here. It’s given me a lot to think about in a week that has already had a lot of thinking. I know that one thing I will do is continue discussing this with the people I BC ski with.

    To all those who lost a friend, it’s the worst. As useless as it is to say, I know how numb you probably feel right now. Cherish your memories of your friends and next season when your skiing, take a moment to feel their spirit join you in those turns.

  106. Rich April 23rd, 2013 10:30 am

    It has bothered me as well that the term “expert” is used so quickly when describing this group as it seems far from the truth.

    The primary snow experience of Gaukel was minimal, despite being quoted by many sources as: “an instructor certified by the American Mountain Guides Association, one of the most educated snowboard backcountry guides in the world. Only a couple of other people have tested through these different levels to get where he was at.”

    The truth is closer to this: Mr Gaukel had three seasons of experience in the CO snowpack for three seasons total of backcountry sliding that were primarily in RMNP. Including a four year outdoor leadership degree from North Carolina constitute his 7 yrs. of outdoor experience.

    Seven total days of avalanche training since 2011 (L1 & L2) plus a two-day AIARE L1 instructor course and one season of teaching Level 1 courses in RMNP with the Colorado Mountain School. A week of experience as a client in AK and a few days of sliding at a snowboard festival in Rogers Pass. Part of a summer of guiding beginner terrain on Mt. Shasta. AMGA training limited to a basic certification in Single Pitch Rock Instruction (5 days total). Minimal if any experience at Loveland Pass.

    This in now way should be construed as a dismissal of his experience or wonderful personality, but Lou’s description would be more appropriate when describing someone with “backcountry expertise”.

  107. SR April 23rd, 2013 11:24 am

    Maybe we should simply say that Gaukel had enough experience to be a reasonably solid guy, at least on snow if not rock? I do agree that the limited Loveland Pass experience feels like it should be relevant, but the the Tunnel Creek incident involved people with significant local experience.

    I agree with Rich’sand others’ point that there are different levels of guiding experience, and that maybe there’s been a bit of loose if well-intended language in the reporting. How relevant that all is to the actual incident may be impossible to say — would more miles under the hood have mattered in terms of the actual judgments and decisions made, in the face of very clear red flags? There was an accident in another state recently where the victim was clearly very experienced, but still somewhere where conditions suggested he was pushing it more than a bit.

  108. mark April 23rd, 2013 11:26 am

    imo some of this discussion is quite valid but it seems to me that a LARGE part of it is ego stroking and denial. i don’t mean denial that some brothers made a mistake, clearly it happened, it’s heartbreaking and the best we can offer to those affected is our support, solidarity and love.

    But some of these posts really lack a minimum of respect… most of the time when we’re pointing the finger, it should be clear we’re just trying to distract others from the fingers tucked away that are pointing back at us.

    But yah no i think alot of you folks are in denial, putting up smokescreens of righteous indignation, experter-than-thou proclamations, and techno-weenie hair splittings.

    C’mon now Lou, you diss some cat in the other thread about how selfish he is, not sharing an incident report, while you let armchair qb’s here spew with NOTHING in rebuttal?
    What exactly did Larry Grossman contribute to the potential future safety of ski tourists? or more recently, Paul… be smarter than the snow?!!

    I totally agree btw, be smarter than the snow, clearly, but honestly everyone cuts corners. Underestimating the destructive potential of a possible event hanging over our heads??
    Every single one of us does that almost every day we ski.
    Are you Coloradans generally spaced out 1000’+ between your partners….? keep a ridge between ya? ski separate bowls?? yah no this clump of trees is a bit of pro, good enough for what? 90% of events… Just don’t be unlucky!!!

    Honestly i think of anyone around, you cats in the continental snowpack should have some appreciation for how unknowable all the trigger points are, and how much luck has to do with it.

    If you want folks to share their mistakes you gotta change the atmosphere around here. Larry can go ride a bike. Kahn your wife’s criticism proves she could just be a parrot, you want her to learn something? give her a map and tell her to come up with a handful of day tours, ID each hazard and present management strategies for each of them. Then are ya gonna cut her down, see how long your marriage lasts…? Try some respect, and try having some for the brothers down too.

    I mean why would anyone need to put their mistakes on here when you ‘experts’ would never do that anyway…? (apparently… !!!)

    No man is an island entire of itself; every man
    is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
    if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
    is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
    well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
    own were; any man’s death diminishes me,
    because I am involved in mankind.
    -John Donne, 1624

    Rest in Peace, shredders.

  109. robanna April 23rd, 2013 11:39 am

    One thing that I didn’t noticed anyone mentioning (that’s a lot of comments so far) that may have contributed to this tragedy is that this was an ‘Event’.

    Did it cause that group, and other groups there that day, to take risks that they would not have otherwise? Would they have changed their route to something more mellow based on the recent weather but the fact that it was an ‘Event’ raised their ‘stoke’, making them want to go bigger than if it was just another ski day? It sounds like this group was skiing together for the first time; did that cause them to want to impress the others?

    We may never know the answers but it was the first thing that came to my mind when I heard about it.

    One of the first things our group explains to someone new with us is that anyone can ‘call it’ at any time. No questions asked.

  110. Justin April 23rd, 2013 11:43 am

    I don’t know man. I don’t see the ego stroking. I see a bunch of guys that go into the BC all the time and them sharing their experiences and mistakes and trying to learn and/or teach so they don’t end up being another statistic.

    We were talking about group SIZE above, but I want you to really think about group DYNAMICS and what happens when you get over 3-4 people. You have five of your buddies and you sit there and are like, “Dude, this doesn’t look good…” but none of your buddies are saying it because everyone just wants to be out with the group. The bigger the group, the harder it is to be the voice of reason that says, nah, man, I am tapping out on this one. It isn’t that other people in the group aren’t also thinking it, it is that you assume if no one else says something, no one else is thinking the same thing. And so you don’t say anything. If everyone else is cool with it, then you defer to their judgment instead of voicing your own.

    So I don’t want to point a finger at ONE PERSON. That is just crappy. It wasn’t that so and so wasn’t a safe guy. It is just fact that THEIR GROUP made this decision. So we don’t just need to look at our individual decision making, we need to look at how the size and composition of our group changes how we think. Maybe that is a more philosophical thought than we need right now, but the bigger the group, the more you depend on the decisionmaking of others.

  111. TK, Vail April 23rd, 2013 11:53 am


    You are on point with your criticisms (esp. with regards to posts like Larry’s- worthless chatter as per usual threads).

    We all make mistakes, we can’t assess everything correctly all the time (continental snowpack, maritime snowpack, alpine rock routes, etc. etc.), we’ve all cut corners or ‘uped’ the ante knowing what consequences might result.

    If there is one lesson to be learned from this and other tragedies this year it is simple: the snowpack has deep instability that goes beyond the ‘typical’ year out here- it requires extra caution. There are always unknowns as you point out, but you are oversimplifying the point of ‘luck’ in this unfortunate instance.

    Ask any Summit and EC locals about the backcountry this season and I guarantee you that they have ‘passed’ on many regular outings this year b/c of these very conditions. I’ve turned back and skied lesser slopes more than I want to recount this season. If you haven’t and survived, then you can say you are truly lucky.

    I really think that is what folks are reacting to – it was so tragic and un-necessary that this major disaster happened mostly b/c the signs were so obvious, at least to me and my ski partners, this year ranks among the last 20+ years of dealing with ‘expected’ instabilities and hazards.

  112. robanna April 23rd, 2013 12:01 pm

    Justin, Agreed.

    Do you think that the fact that they were ‘new’ to each other play into it as well?

    I can say from personal experience that 2 or 3 guys usually go out with we can speak our minds and voice our opinions and concerns more easily that with strangers or people we don’t know as well.

  113. Justin April 23rd, 2013 12:11 pm

    It would be huge in my mind. You always defer to the person that SOUNDS the most experienced.

    This is the sad part, we won’t really have an accurate gauge of what they were thinking, what their discussion was, and how the other five of them thought this through beforehand. Because unless they were IDIOTS, you know they had a quick discussion of their ascent, the conditions, and the situation and that somehow their group arrived at a unanimous concensus otherwise we would hear a story of how, “I said no way and came back to the car and then heard the whomp.” But no one left the group.

    How can a group of six not have one guy at very least that says, whoa, this is a bad idea when every single indicator we discussed shows it was a bad idea. I can almost guarantee you that everyone of them was experienced enough to have doubts. Just that they arrived at a concensus and that AS A GROUP, they underestimated the risk. I am sure as individuals, they let the decision of the group override their own personal assessment.

  114. mark April 23rd, 2013 12:13 pm

    Justin sorry i didnt mean ego stroking in the blatant ‘me me me im rad!’ terms
    slightly more subtle but still egotistic, statements around:
    -they arent really experts
    -experienced people wouldn’t get caught like that
    -i wouldn’t have done that

    maybe one of them was the first clarinet in the Philedelphia Philharmonic, that would make him an expert. Who cares if he was or wasn’t, or what the media calls them??
    experienced people often get caught in avalanches, experts do too.
    maybe you, he, she, i wouldn’t have done that, but we’ve probably all exposed ourselves, knowingly or not, to similar, potentially fatal consequences.

    i didn’t mean none of the commentary has value,
    alot of it is valuable, and respectful
    some of it is valuable, and lacks some respect
    some of it is trash, and should be called out as such, if a useful, honest, considerate, professional atmosphere, conductive to learning and teaching, is actually the goal of this commentary.

  115. mtsplitski April 23rd, 2013 12:41 pm

    Lou et al… Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center hosted a forum earlier this spring. Many of the speakers, themselves avalanche professionals and “experts” in the most literal sense (avalanche forecasters of 10+ years) spoke on the theme of “being smart, acting dumb”, or why experienced folks keep getting into accidents. Interesting insights from a handful of pros including Doug Chabot, Karl Birkeland, Eric Knoff, Rod Newcomb, Lynne Wolfe, and others. Here’s the GNFAC’s Youtube page:

    The top 9 films are from this conference.

  116. Chris Cole April 23rd, 2013 12:54 pm

    I wanted to get a feel for the terrain. Were there obvious mistakes or an understood risk? From the ridge top, there was a huge pillow of snow created from exposed expanse of south to northwest high mountain openness, not a cornice as much as a huge roller blinding the slope below. The northeast line gathers and protects the powder well, but the line is short, maybe thirty turns, and funneling hard to the left in a tree scattered ravine.
    Did the group ski the line first? CAIC ( will have a through report in a few days. Because we do know they were climbing up at the time of the avalanche, I expect they did ski it or a spot close to it. Why else would they be underneath it. The approach is not under it, but the ridge next to Hwy 6.
    From the top ridge it seems feasible, without knowing the death trap like bottom, recent large hard slab releases at similar elevations (11,000 ft.), or Sheep Creek’s history as dangerous. But even if you ski it, I’d think of getting out from under its exposure immediately. The news has reported they were climbing up.
    My suspicion is with the special group of six, together due to an event, reminding me of the accident at Stevens Pass Wash ( in 2012. Would each individually have been in that spot while skiing with only their close mates? Did the gathering make them a bit more bold?

  117. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 1:06 pm

    Mark, we are actually pretty careful about what ends up getting published here, but I’m not going to shut down a useful discussion by being some kind of ayatollah of moderation. Anyone with any intelligence can sort through the dust, and I think if you take this thread as a whole it is incredibly valuable and overall respectful, especially for newbies for whom we’re bringing up concepts they might be totally unaware of.

    As for being disrespectful, some of the stronger comments delve into that, but this is an incredibly extreme, record shattering event that has left many of us (including me) intellectually and emotionally stunned. If as a result we don’t take the time to couch our prose in ways that make it easier to read and gentler, I’ll apologize in advance for that, but I believe the alternative (silence) is worse.

    We don’t need some sort of false prudery or embarrassed silence when it comes to avy accidents. And the victims themselves, provided they’re committed backcountry skiers and riders would I’m certain welcome any analysis or discussion the community brings on regarding their misfortune. That is respect. To whisper and wink-wink, that is disrespect.

    Now, with that off my chest I can say that there is indeed a line, and again, as I stated above it does get crossed. But again, we have to let the crossing of the line happen to some degree if we’re going to have a meaningful conversation. What is more, one person’s perception of “disrespect” is another’s of “substantive respectful discussion.”

    Another thing I’d like to point out is that you guys who are bold enough to comment in a respectful yet substantive way here are setting a trend. I’ve been seeing a shift in this conversation elsewhere, where people are bringing up the same concepts about how it’s ok to talk these accidents out, rather than yelling and shouting each other down as “disrespectful” as soon as concepts such as “mistakes” and “judgment” are brought up.

    As for myself, if I ever screw up to the point where I’m not around (or still am, for that matter), feel free to rip into me. I’ll be watching and I’ll be glad you are doing so.


  118. Ivan DeWolf April 23rd, 2013 1:24 pm

    Reading Lou’s intimidating “tick list” to be an expert, I realize that I am now too old to ever achieve this, yet I still intend to go into the back country, and I wouldn’t automatically refrain from going in a group that lacked any single individual that has reached all those milestones.
    Without 20+ years of over 50 days annual BC experience, at what point should I trust myself without an established guide? yes, I was involved in a large slide in the 80’s, (nobody died) but I’ve been very aware of the realities since then. I am cautious, but I also want to get closer to that 50 days annual, and gladly accept opportunities.

    should every single backcountry outing require a member of elite status?

    if not, how does one know how far to push it?

  119. Justin April 23rd, 2013 1:35 pm

    What bugs me is how people determine an “expert.” We now have a system that “tests” people and gives them a certification that says “Whatever Whatever rated Expert Whatever.” Part of the problem is a lot of the certifications folks can get are just worthless paper if they do not put them into practice.

    You want an expert, it is probably a 55 year old guy who is a little sun damaged from too many bluebird days without sunscreen in the 80’s who has been doing this for 30+ years. He doesn’t need some rating agency or college degree to confirm that he knows the conditions, terrain, etc. I am not trying to imply that anyone in this group falls into this category, but our world asks, “Is there an iPhone app I can install to tell me where the avalanche danger is?” Or “Where can I take a training course and get a certification for that?” Then you get out there and all that expertise goes out the window.

    When the media reports that so and so had this or that certification and they add course work and college classes as “years of experience” they do us a huge disservice. We equate a course or a degree or a certificate with the in depth knowledge that only years of experience can grant. I am not minimizing formal training. I am saying that often times we think the guy with formal training and certifications is less likely to make mistakes. The guys that are writing the courses and that are the 55 year old experts that teach the seminars didn’t have some classroom or certification to live to be 55. They watched, observed, learned… And them writing things down and doing an occasional lecture and building a course is not the same as them taking you out and saying, “See Sheep Creek, it looks epic from above, but there is a natural trap which is why people don’t ski it. Look here and here and here…” Would the guy writing the training course or the certification exam or that is in his mid-50’s ski that area? Answer–HELL NO. That is why he is 55 and teaching the course.

    So the folks hosting the event and the folks writing and teaching the training courses that these guys took better look hard in the mirror and realize that this is a failure on their part too. Not that they killed these guys. But that their training needs to be more effective. More rigorous. That this was a hosted BC event where it happened… we can dance around “intentions” or “judgment” all day long and each have our own assessment, but the mountain assessed their actions and said they were wrong. It assessed their training and said it was insufficient. It addressed our equipment that manufactures sell to make you safer and it said when you are 5m deep, nothing helps.

  120. Gerry Haugen April 23rd, 2013 1:42 pm

    My most sincere condolences and best wishes to the friends and family of those fine people lost Saturday. And my deep felt thanks to Lou for having the courage to offer his opinions and moderate these discussions. Although I myself have been skiing, and skiing in the backcountry for well over 50 years also, have done this, that and the other thing in skiing recreationally and professionally, and am still actively involved in avalanche education, I still felt gut shot when I heard the news Saturday after a wonderful day of backcountry skiing in the central Cascades.
    I too feel that talking about and discussing this tragedy, sooner rather than later, is important. Those preceding me have all offered valuable opinions. There is obviously a huge need to understand an accident like this, as well as huge value if positive comes from it. I’ve got to think those lost would want us to, would demand it of us, to learn from their tragedy. i would.
    I think we all have a pretty good idea what happened, but struggle with the why. That is, why were they in the wrong place at the wrong time, in the face of what seems like obvious reasons to not be there. I believe that scientist and researchers are just beginning to understand some of these whys. It is because of the way our brain hardware is wired and our software develops. Recent research suggests that whereas our decision making logic may be well developed and correct, that instead, the incoming data, upon which the decisions are made becomes overlapped, conflicted or misprioritized – unbeknownst to us while its happening. And when such noise, overlap and prioritizing happens, wrong decisions are inadvertantly made, by an individual or group. I’m only a layman when it comes to knowing of this brain science, but it helps me understand why intelligent, healthy wonderful people sometimes do things they otherwise wouldn’t – whether in a large or small group. I think in another 10 years or so we’ll have a much better understanding of these processes.
    So, having said that, and as a backcountry skier, and educator, I’ve become convinced that using checklists – specifically, the AIARE’s blue Field Book as introduced in the Level 1 Classes, can be a significant tool to aid group planning, communication and action. Not unlike pilot preflight checklist or any other professional endeavor involving risky or complex decision making and actions. Separately as individuals, and together as a group, using such a checklist of avalanche, weather, terrain and human factors really helps to clarify a tour and communicate as a group. And it doesn’t need to turn a spontaneous, fun day into a dour joyless tramp. It just helps us keep our eyes open to recognized and potential hazards, and chose the safest route alternatives as our day unfolds. I have to say that skiing Colorado’s sidecountry and backcountry nearly everyday for a winter gave me a life long respect for soft slabs, hard slabs, little roll-overs and glades in the trees …. and thankful for an occasion or two of good luck.

  121. Mike Marolt April 23rd, 2013 1:57 pm

    @ Mark, I would not get caught up in the concept that “experienced people wouldn’t get caught like that”. We have examples, even more tragic than this terrible event that would contradict your belief. 12 people died on Manaslu last year in an avalanche while sleeping with no better places to camp, and all but a few were being guided by extremely experienced people who also died. I backed off that peak a couple years before for the exact-to-the-same-serac-and-slope reasons that ended up killing those folks, to be greeted by scoffs and laughter from extremely experienced guides despite the fact that that same serac and slope have been sliding the exact same way for hundreds of years. We have all seen the photos of 300 people tied into a single fixed line on the Lhotse face at the same time. Most of them were being guided and with extremely experienced people and yet 10 people died last year on Everest. And what about the 10 people on K2 that were killed when an avalanche took out their fixed line and they couldn’t descend without it. They were guided as well as very experienced, and some died from nothing more than exposure. And even the 96 tragedy on Everest. 10 people were killed including arguably two of the most experienced people ever to guide Everest. I could give you a dozen examples right here in Colorado as well. Experienced people are not immune.

    Along these lines, I positively wouldn’t defer to the most experienced person in the group. Listen and learn from experience, but if you are dependent on any particular person for much more than showing you the way, you run the risk of falling into the cow-mentality of mountaineering which per the above is a serious problem. Not only can experienced people make mistakes, sometimes, as Lou pointed out, experience is derived from years of doing something wrong with success. Read the books, take the classes, take on small objectives and work towards large ones. Learn to accept that experience is derived in terms of years, not outings. It’s a natural progression of taking the base of knowledge you can get from before you get in the field and applying it in small steps year after year and building on prior experiences. We live in a society that needs to “go for it” to “get to the top” by any means. No one is happy being a novice so we see the obituaries littered with the terms “expert and experienced”. Anything less, especially when death is involved is construed to be an insult. Be experienced enough to handle where you are, and expert enough to do it right and safe, and enjoy the journey with a patient and humble attitude that hopefully never leads you to refer to yourself or anyone else as experienced and expert. As soon as you get to that point, whether it is yourself or your buddy, you lose humility, and you begin to believe you have this shit wired. You begin to believe you can take on anything. The problem is, even if you can’t, I guarantee you will try.

  122. SR April 23rd, 2013 1:58 pm

    @ Ivan, Ii every single bc outing required someone of “elite” status using the tick-list in these comments to be present, there wouldn’t be many tracks out there. And I don’t think that “elite” status is at all necessary to safely negotiate this type of terrain.

  123. Gerry Haugen April 23rd, 2013 2:32 pm

    A couple of adds to my previous comments: ‘Experienced’ when it comes to avalanches is a well overused adjective. Local knowledge is extremely important. Taking the time (days, months, years, storm cycles, avalanche cycles, etc) to learn about the terrain, weather and snowpack of your local area of choice can be hugely informative and educational. To say nothing of being critical to your long term survival. By seeing and recognizing how your local slopes and their snowpack develop over the winter, how the avalanche danger develops and subsides, how your local stability compares with forecast stability, and having safe test slopes on all aspects which allow you to ski and snow test during differing weather events. All of this contributes to your local experience – which you can then take to new areas and gingerly begin to extrapolate, applying your experience. All of this experience should be augmented with some good avalanche education, preferably an AIARE Lvl 1, maybe followed by a Level 2 & 3. However, just taking a class or classes without accumulating good local knowledge, gained over time, might just prove to be a waste of time, or worst, an dangerous illusion.
    Which brings me to another aspect of ‘experienced’. Does one have any real experience with avalanches, been up close, felt them, seen them release, watched them washover and through the trees, or heard trees snapping and waving in the powder cloud. I think one of the biggest shortcomings many backcountry skiers suffer, is a lack of real avalanche experience, which then stunts their ability to perceive risk. If you can’t imagine or visualize a slope going, of the fracture initiating, settling, cracking and disintegrating into a flowing mass of increasing speed devouring the slope below, then how can you even begin to have a sense of the risk you might be taking? I think it is critical for all backcountry skiers to do everything they can to develop their perception, their ability to visualize and imagine a slope in front of them breaking away. By doing so you can better step back and reassess, and ask yourself one last time, is this slope stable. Or better yet, if it is unstable, is the runout short and small enough for me to survive it it if it rips. I’m confident in my airbag on small test slopes or where the consequences might be moderated by a little such insurance – but don’t have any illusions about avalungs, airbags or transceivers saving me from terrain traps or a tree sieving, let alone a big, spring, full depth climax avalanche.
    Some years ago we asked a guide to lead our volunteer backcountry ski leaders into avalanche terrain, so that we might learn from him. The weather, forecast to intensify, pushed the avalanche danger from moderate to high in just a matter of hours. The guide continued the trip, despite worsening conditions. Half the group turned back. The guided contingent continued on, and demonstrated safe travel, ascending through dense trees while avalanches cut loose on more open slopes nearby. That guide was roundly criticised by some for taking people into those conditions; he countered by saying that those leaders should in fact be competent to make decisions and travel in such conditions because they just might find themselves in those conditions someday. He was half right. All of those who continued on with him learned several invaluable lessons: 1) Heed the weather forecast (a convergence was forecast, possibly enhancing the snowfall), 2) don’t be afraid to turn around when conditions worsen, and 3) with good travel skills and conciousness you can stay alive in active avalanche terrain. Unfortunately that day, a young woman unwittingly, unknowing of the rising hazard, followed the groups tracks, snowshoeing along someways behind. She was caught by a small avalanche which released above and ran out down through the very creekbed she was crossing, burying her deeply beneath some giant boulders. She was only found after several days of searching. .

  124. Skullydave April 23rd, 2013 2:38 pm

    I have read all the comments here. I have read all the accidents reports in NA for the last ten yrs+… I am a backcountry splitboarder and have spent time in many ranges in lower NA. continental and inter-continental riding and i ski too. worked at many ski areas. met many and know many avy savy people still living and past… I am know expert… anyone that claims they are….? We all fu.. up!! I have training and field ex.. but so what….. every day is different. and gear don’t mean sh..t!! we all love the stoke!! kayaking, climbing, skiing, some of my best friends have died fishing… go figure.. i have seen people live through extraordinary circumstances.. it is not up to us, science.. gear luck or not .. it runs out .. fate is fate.. live long and lucky and make the best choices u can.. I am so sad.. so many i have known died.. i know loveland and CO. the people are great.. the worst is car wrecks and suicide.. imo!! well to my point! Look at the Utah Avlanche Forecaster “Craig Patterson” ( as I am sure he would want people to learn!) .. Pro, expert, nice guy.. callit what u may. was alone and 12 inch slab 45ft wide truma,airbag.. no partner could have save him.. another sad del.. you lose control on the pass driving to ski and kill u and six others.. was it the tires?the road conditions? speed? weed? doesnt f-ing matter after the fact1 control is minimal.. do your best .. don’t blame and love every minute. and care for all.. good luck with all the over- analytical BS and take care… no one here is getting out alive!! peace with u!

  125. Pete Weaver April 23rd, 2013 2:41 pm

    This tragedy hit me hard because I still haven’t come to terms with the Stevens Pass/Tunnel Creek slide. That was different than this one because several of the skiers were very familiar with the slope they were skiing. I’ve seen boxcar size crowns on the break-over that took them out. The aggressive line Chris Rudolph took being first in haunts me. He had a light enough touch and the skill to somehow not trip the release point, but the protocol should have been to start skiers left next to the thick trees and farm out to that point (at least 6 tracks.)

    The NY Times article Chris Cole posted is excellent and gives good information about all aspects of how it went down including the group dynamics that caused people who knew better to ignore the conditions. Highly recommended!

    I thought the trees they were swept from were a safe place to stop/spot until this happened.

  126. mark April 23rd, 2013 3:25 pm

    Mike thanks for the post. i’m not sure you read what i wrote, that you replied to, or perhaps my post to wasn’t written clearly, part of my point was actually exactly what you said, ‘Experienced people are not immune’.

    Lou, thanks for your reply. i appreciate that the interweb is a filthy place and i respect the level of debate on your site. i never suggested you play the fascist on this discussion, i did not suggest winking, nudging nor silence. i’m not suggesting that mistakes were not made, or that poor judgement did not occur. Clearly, they did.

    My main point to you, which again maybe wasn’t well stated, was that: If you as moderator are going to criticize someone for not contributing an accident report (due to fears of being judged harshly by others), you should (imo) also criticize (i.e. comment, not censor) those who’s comments do NOTHING more than contribute to the judgemental atmosphere which makes others afraid of sharing their learning experiences.

    TK, cheers. i do realize you cats have had a tough winter there. I did focus that post largely on the brutality of bad luck; i thought other people had addressed a lot of the other factors at play quite well (and some quite poorly).

    i understand the question of expertise has some relevance: was this situation caused by an expert making a rookie mistake, or an ‘expert’ making a typical mistake, or 5 peeps of varying experience somehow making a small but consequential mistake???
    Thats mostly academic, but the learning outcomes could be different in each situation. For example in the Tunnel Creek tragedy, the focus turned to how influential group dynamics are, in allowing knowledgable folks to do something reckless. It seems to me that people are assuming this is what happened at Loveland Pass also, but we don’t know that. Maybe the take home lesson here will be just what TK said, give deep slab instabilities a wider margin of safety. And then some. And a bit more than that….. ok good, but 5 more big steps back now.

    The argument that this needs to be discussed NOW with little (or no) consideration for the feelings of family and friends is also questionable. If you are skiing in that zone of the continental snowpack today, your greatest hazard is still same same as it was last Friday (plus a bit more fresh on top). The fact that someone died, or 5, on Saturday may put some exclamation mark on that hazard, but it doesn’t fundamentally change the nature of the hazard, or how to deal with it.

  127. Justin April 23rd, 2013 3:37 pm

    “those who’s comments do NOTHING more than contribute to the judgemental atmosphere which makes others afraid of sharing their learning experiences.”

    Hell man, I could run “Cat” and post memes of cats riding bicycles and Internet trolls would come by and try to ruin my fun. Also, I do run that site. Also, Mr. Snookums says hello.

  128. Jim April 23rd, 2013 3:45 pm

    Group Dynamics. One of the hardest things is to tell your hot shot group of gung ho skiers to, whoa, stop, lets not ski that rad, powder snow, that sick line.

    I ski a lot alone… and turn around a lot. I ski with my wife, and she is always willing to turn around when either has even a shadow of a doubt.

    I ski with the guys sometimes. They are always better than me because I don’t want to go out with guys worse than me. I’m pretty nervous and shy about telling the IAMGA guide, hey dude, this snow sucks, lets turn around, let’s not reach the summit, let’s not ski more, lets ruin the day for the whole group, let me call your expertise and decisions into question. Its really really hard.

    Group dynamics are the bain of decision making.

  129. Kahn April 23rd, 2013 4:07 pm

    Mark, my wife is not a parrot. She has attended several classes, studied maps, read about accidents, learned how to dig and interpret snowpits, etc – all before she putting her right ski forward on her first tour. That is definitely a bare and next to zero amount of accumulated knowledge, but better than nothing. More importantly, she/we are extremely risk adverse and she has purposely not yet traveled in avalanche terrain. That’s probably a good thing. She has had several great pow days and that’s definitely a good thing.

    I think your point about “management strategies” is typical of how as a group, backcountry travelers are exposing themselves to greater risks under the guise of a supposed increasing level “expertise”. Instead of “we should not be traveling in avalanche terrain”, it’s “let’s travel in avalanche terrain and let’s ski in avalanche terrain, but make sure we follow the proper x, y, and z protocols.” That’s a lot better than “dude, hope this doesn’t rip!”, but perhaps those two attitudes are more similar than different.

    It’s simple. If you don’t want to perish in an avalanche, do not travel in avalanche terrain. Not all backcountry is avalanche terrain.

    There are usually multiple natural and CDOT avalanches in the Loveland Pass vicinity, plenty of warning signs. The Sheep Creek avalanche occurred exactly where you think it would have occurred – near the top of a wind loaded slope in avalanche terrain during a period of elevated danger. It’s the classic “dangerous avalanche terrain” described by Bruce Tremper’s “Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain” – steep, loaded, few anchors, with bad consequences.

    So to me, the comment of “what were they doing up there” is 100% spot-on. Maybe they were trying to access the small sub-ridge in the middle of Sheep Creek to the east of the slope that fractured? Not sure. One commenter made a good point, their potential lack of local knowledge may have contributed to the accident, i.e. not realizing that slope was an issue.

  130. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 4:20 pm

    Ok Mark, point taken. Actually, as moderator I really shouldn’t criticise anyone too much since I’ve got the bully pulpit and doing so takes advantage of my role and is unfair. Doing so is poor form, and I apologize.

    It is true that the resultant criticism does scare people off from sharing their screwups. I guess my response to have courage, all, and share. This world we are in is not just about showing your latest face shot on Facebook. We are a community, family, loved ones, friends. We need to help each other do this sport as safely as possible. Share the bad along with the good.

    I think it’s best any strong criticism of specific people’s comments come from other commenters. I’ll keep my comments more general and about concepts.

    I probably need a moderator myself at times (grin).

  131. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 4:33 pm

    Continuing my self examination (grin), I might have stepped in it by writing my little tick list for the expert. That was meant to be a thought experiment to stimulate thinking and get some folks past this tendency to think of experts in a narrow context. I suppose a person with narrow context could be an expert… but, if you had two guides standing side by side, one had the 10,000 hours, was 48 years old, and the other was 26 years old and had every certification imaginable but had only backcountry skied for 5 seasons, who would you choose? There are different levels, is all I’m saying, and I firmly believe that the craft of avalanche danger avoidance can be very tricky and take 10,000 hours to reach any sort of mastery with. And YES even then there is luck, fate, error and what have you.

    I think we should be questioning the expertise of everyone. Ourselves. Avalanche safety teachers. CAIC forecasters. Guides. “Experts.” And yep, the people in this unprecedented and incredible tragedy. Something may be broken. We owe it to our community to keep working ahead so something like this unbelievable accident can’t happen again.

    Sure, avy accidents will continue to happen so long as we seek the bliss of the mountains. But this accident is a different animal. Let us all keep that in mind so we keep the debate in perspective.


  132. Barrows April 23rd, 2013 5:10 pm

    Read the comments to here, still it appears that many here are being purely speculative. Because we have a survivor in this case, it would be wise to wait until he is ready to tell his story publicly. At that time, we will have more information on the group dynamic, decision making, and actual route taken.
    As to the nomenclature of “expert” and “master”, these terms can be misleading. Anyone who thinks they are a “master” in the mountains is severely mistaken, and probably only very lucky so far, especially when it comes to avalanche evaluation and avoidance. Even the term “expert” can be mis-leading. I am very experienced in backcountry travel, snowboard mountaineering, climbing, etc, with over 30 years of experience, still, I would not call myself an “expert” as use of such a term implies some kind of mastery, and anyone who feels “masterly” in the mountain environment is fooling themselves, and likely heading for an accident of some type. Avalanches do not care if one is an “expert”, there is no one on earth who should approach mountain travel with such an attitude, humility is the only appropriate attitude when traveling in the mountains.
    While it may be comforting to think of ourselves as experienced, and making good decisions, the real fact of the matter is that most anyone who has 20 or more years of backcountry riding experience, and is still alive, has likely been very lucky on at least a few occasions in their career. Sometimes, luck runs out.
    Anyone who does not accept this reality, probably needs to take a close look at their own attitudes and approach.
    That said, I still believe in learning as much as possible, as doing so does tend to stack the deck a little more in our favor.

  133. Halsted Morris April 23rd, 2013 5:33 pm

    I would hope you’d question the expertise of guides, forecasters, patroller and fellow skiers. “Questioning” has kept me alive a lot. I always love it when someone says, “Its safe, let’s ski it.” I always speak-up and say, “Give me 5 -6 reasons you think it is soo safe….” Enough said…

    When I worked for CAIC I used Sheep Creek as one of my regular study sites. I have seen a lot of avalanches in there over the years. This one wasn’t the biggest I have seen, but it did run the longest (once I did trigger it from the side as I approched to dig a data snowpit – thankfully I was self-belayed) I have seen.

    I have rarely approched from the bottom of the bowl. Sheep Creek is a full on terrain trap. There is no were to run if it avalanches. I still can’t figure out why these guys where there.

    I hope the CAIC report will answer a lot of questions. BUT…. The survivor is not required to answer anything. That happened a few times when I worked for CAIC. Please remember that CAIC has no “legal powers.”

  134. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 5:43 pm

    Barrows, I don’t thinking we are saying anyone should call themselves a master, but rather be looking at others to see if there is some mastery, and in that case call a person a “master” or “vastly experienced expert.” Also, humility is noble, but one should acknowledge their own skills and be realistic. False modesty is as unpleasant as false courage or rude pride. There is nothing wrong with assessing our own skill level and basing goals on that. For example, if a person is a good wall climber they know they can tackle a tough route on El Cap and probably have a good safe time. What are they supposed to do, gain all those skills and say to themself “oh, that’s a cool route but I probably couldn’t do it, I’m not really an expert?” There is a reasonable middle ground with this, one doesn’t have to be prideful or boastful, but can acknowledge that they have some skills that could be applied to given situations to influence the outcome. Yes, humility — but realistic humility.

    In your case, with 30 years of experience and not wanting to call yourself an expert. I find that troubling. I think avoiding that would mislead people, especially if you were in a group of strangers and people were trying to figure out who could help the best with decision making. Or are we just talking semantics? If you were in a group that had to, say, organize a complex rescue or survival situation, and someone asked “who are the experts here?” would you chime in and say something like “I’m not an expert, but I’ve got a lot of experience that could help here.” Fair enough? But in that situation, what would be wrong with just saying you’re an expert and be done with it, even though the dread word might not easily roll off the tongue (grin)?


  135. SGould April 23rd, 2013 6:01 pm

    This has been overall an interesting and thoughtful discussion about a tragic event. With all this talk of lessons, what exactly have we learned and how will we individually display the knowledge? This is not meant to point fingers, I’m just curious. I live and ski in Colorado and heck yes I want to go ski this weekend (because skiing is fun). Am I going to the resort? Should I just sit this weekend out (I’m no ‘expert’, just finishing my fourth BC season here)? Do I choose to go out with one, maybe two of my closest ski partners on what we determine to be ‘safe’?
    Trying to put money where your mouth is can be tricky, but it is something I hope we all do in our next tour, and every one after.

  136. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 6:14 pm

    Checklists were mentioned above. Good tool SG if you’re trying to figure out course of action for the weekend. There are plenty of safe places to backcountry ski, and yes, in Colorado the resort play an important role when things are dicey.

    All, I’m going to back off on my comment count till the CAIC report comes out. If it’s extensive, it might be worth another blog post.

    We’ll see.

    Thanks to all of you, this is easily the best thread on the web about the Sheep Creek accident.

    ‘best, Lou

  137. BJ April 23rd, 2013 6:58 pm

    If anything, this thread and the stories I’ve read over the last 3 days has made me do some serious navel gazing and reflect on how fragile life really is. I don’t know the victims personally, but am certainly a couple degrees of separation from each. That finality hits new depths in my fears, and my ego. I try to place myself in that 1st degree and it makes my heart hurt.

    Its also has forced me to re-evaluate many of my decisions and perceptions of the snowpack (past and present, go or no-go) – and probably will bend my entire DM process in the future. I suspect it will for many of you as well.

    Speculation without all the facts in hand is warranted – and helps build the framework for the lessons we will learn. Yet, speculation without facts is essentially assumption – which we all know can make an ASS out of U and ME.

    Speculation IMO is best delivered with a level of consideration for others. these are our brothers after all, with real families and friends who will never see their spirit in flesh and blood again.

    The easy way out is to point out flaws without a measure of consideration. Take the longer skin track and add some humbleness to your delivery. It goes along way and is keeps the true spirit of our tribe together and working towards that Project Zero goal.

    I’m pretty sure once the facts come in from CAIC and perhaps with a first-hand account from the sole survivor there will be more “WTF’s” from all around. Its all part of the grieving process no matter your separation from the victims. It may be a Huge WTF. But I suspect it;s going to be more complex than many of us thought and will require tremendous self-introspection around so many different safe practices, assumptions and decisions. Which it should.

    The lessons to be learned from this will resonate within the community for a long time. So will your comments and contribution to the discussion. Thanks for the ability to open up and for moderating this, Lou.

    Keep it real amigos. RIP ALL our lost brothers and sisters over the years.

  138. Lou Dawson April 23rd, 2013 7:07 pm

    Nice comment BJ, thanks!

  139. JG April 23rd, 2013 7:46 pm

    Very Good points Gerry, Watching a slide strip a slope in minutes has a lot of valuable information that can’t be related in a report, picture or book. Even video doesn’t do it justice. Recognizing starting zones and trigger points from the top and bottom of runs is a very tough skill to safely practice and certainly not a suggestion for any novice. Intentionally triggering slides off the sides of ridges while climbing or skiing teaches my friends and myself the humility of what we think we know. To me a triggered slide is at least as informative as any of the pits we dig. To my friends I’ve often said, “I’ve never been surprised by any Avalanche I triggered, I’ve only been surprised by how freaking big it went “. Knowing that the conditions are ripe and where the starting point is, leaves How deep ,How big and How far when recognizing Avalanche paths.
    Take no offense, but I have to agree with the guide’s point of view , if your job is to be a guide or it’s in Rescue your skill set should be at least as high as anything that you will expose yourself to during a trip or mission. Don’t wait for the situation to crap before you start developing the skills you need ( I know you’ve seen that). If you don’t have those skills practiced your endangering yourself and everyone who is counting on you. It obviously wasn’t their fault the lady followed their tracks, but it is no less tragic. Stay Safe

  140. Lawrence April 23rd, 2013 8:56 pm

    I am really curious about a very basic fact about this accident that I have not been able to find out yet. What was the approximate slope angle of the site area where this accident took place? I read on CAIC that the aspect is North. From all of the news reports, blogs and comments, I have still not been able to find out this basic fact. I moved to Colorado from Utah about year ago and have not skiied this area. Does anyone know the approximate angle?Thanks much.

  141. Scott Nelson April 23rd, 2013 9:01 pm

    I appreciate your comment Gerry, about the brain science regarding decision-making. Why we do what we do is sometimes a total mystery. I’ve made more than a few poor choices, even in spite of being knowledgable beforehand. That’s the part that get’s me. But even if we understood the dynamics of this process, would we choose any differently?

    If anything, this all motivates me to step back and examine my decision-making process as well as those I’m with, and hopefully make good choices in the future. But even with great choices, there still is no absolute guarantee that nothing will go wrong.

  142. Tom Wolfe April 23rd, 2013 9:20 pm

    Lou, it’s good to read an article that goes beyond the “they were all very experienced” and dares to look at why mistakes were made.

    Climbing terrain with avalanche potential without spreading out (“gang style”) is appropriate when the hazard is acceptably low. I often climb in avalanche terrain without spreading out. When hazard is higher I choose more conservative terrain with less or no exposure. Skiing down of course is a different story — it goes much faster than climbing and is often one of those “why not” situations even if I’m confident.

    Whether you’re a group of 3 or 21, you still need to be right about your hazard assessment. Smaller groups just mean that if you’re wrong there will be fewer funerals.

    In the Canadian ski guiding world, judgements on terrain are made during the guide’s meeting at the start of the day, before breakfast, and involves a weather check, a look at the avalanche conditions of neighbouring operations from the previous day, and often extensive discussions lasting an hour or more. Runs are given a green or a red. Throughout the guiding day, runs might change from green to red, but never from red to green — that’s left for the next day’s meeting after a sobering night’s sleep.

    This approach, as well as many other techniques used in the Canadian ski guiding industry, are of course the result of years looking back at how mistakes were made to come up with safer systems that still provide good skiing over long seasons with many guests in all kinds of terrain and conditions. Sadly this process is ongoing; there will be more errors and accidents in the future to learn from.

    Lou, on the topic of “expertise”, there are big differences between a 50 year old guide and a 50 year old avid backcountry skier. Two big ones are training and professional exposure. Training for guides’ exams means rigorous scrutiny to identify and fill the gaps that hundreds of days of experience can easily leave. Professional exposure, especially in the ski guiding industry, involves ongoing professional development, staff training, participation in professional associations like the ACMG, AMGA, IFMGA, or CAA, ongoing dialogue and exposure to professional standards in the workplace, and of course months of consecutive exposure to terrain and decision making every winter in all conditions.

    I’m glad that “Rich” pointed out that there are different types of guides. A single pitch instructor has had minimal training in building toprope anchors, risk management of a rock climbing site, and climbing instruction. The American avalanche training system has three levels, the first level being a basic introduction to professional avalanche skills and the third one being the minimum requirement for entry into the final ski or alpine guide’s exam.

  143. Paul April 23rd, 2013 9:56 pm

    Mark…simple concept.On contribution, yours wasn’t, just a drive by…why.My simple message is simple, we have no more excuses.It’s a terrible tragedy, mostly for their loved ones,and people, when you want that line,think of the ones you left behind and stop for one second,being so narcissistic and consider everyone else.They’re going to be left once your gone,think about it.

    Tomorrow is another day and the mountain and snow and friends will be there. Be greatful to be skiing at all,even low angle tracked out,some days are meant to be just that,pure,simple fun.

  144. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 12:08 am

    One poster here has said something like, that an experienced person would never ever be in danger of getting caught by an avalanche. That is wrong, I guess. It is all about calculating risk and reducing it to a certain extent.
    Think about what is one of the main reasons why most of us are out there? It is about feeling the “real world” in a way somehow our anchestors did for tenthousand of years. It is NOT a computer-game.. there is real storms, real pain in your body from exhausting it, real beauty.. .and in some way real danger, even to die. Thats all things that make the magnificance and intensity of nature and especially mountains. Thats why we most times love it so deeply beeing out there and sometimes the reason for situations where we swear we will never leave the house again if we come home safe this day… just to forget it some hours later and beeing out there the next day.I think it is like with feelings, lets say love.. to really feel it intensively (what means to really live) you have to take some extent of risk to get hurt maybe. What does NOT mean that we should not do anything to reduce risk outdoors as far as possible and always try to learn more in this field. But: We will never be able to reduce it to zero.. and the mountains would not be the same anymore if we could.
    The victims probably took to much or unnecesary risk, as far as I understand. But I am far from really knowing that, cause I have no idea of the certain US- snow and avalanche conditions,
    And for the saying if it is impously to launch this discussion at this time: I am sure that most of us are in our hearts really with the persons who died our there – cause we know what they felt, we know the way they loved the mountains. We feel somehow like brothers to them.
    With that in mind I am thankful for this post and appreciate that Lou has started it.

  145. ivo April 24th, 2013 12:48 am

    This is the best thread on the tragedy.

    Many great comments, even the speculative ones – because they stimulate us to think. Even if actual facts are different, when they come out – the speculation is still valuable imo.

    However, I do believe that some are not just disrespectful but outright profane and this turns me off, even when there’s lots of truth in what is being said. I appreciate the truth, but not the jack-ass attitude. Is it so hard to tone it down?

    I like what Barrows said – and don’t worry Lou, I am sure that even though he is humble, he would not hesitate to challenge someone’s perceived “expertise” in a real life situation. He doesn’t brag much but does understand and appreciate his achievements.

    Looking forward to reading more

  146. damian April 24th, 2013 1:00 am

    There are many long comments here, hard to read and digest all.

    Lou, your post on levels of experience and training is an important one. The term “Expert” gets applied far too often to people who are perhaps only Intermediate.

    The Canadian AST Level 1 avalanche course in fact has a mandatory lesson on avalanche decision making competency and in it the spectrum of [Unaware > Entry Level > Intermediate > Advanced > Expert > Master] is differentiated on the basis of training and days of QUALITY experience.

    For example, the level of Advanced avalanche decision making competency lines up with a professional guide in terms of training, and a very very committed recreational backcountry skier in terms of experience, perhaps 500+ days in the backcountry making structured avalanche decisions, followed by reflective learning of the day’s decisions that evening.

    Further, the term ‘experience’ is well defined as [loosely here] as being a day in the mountains where you consistently apply a structured decision making process, arrive at a decision, come home and review that decision. A random day in the backcountry applying no structured approach to decision making is not a day of experience. You need to use your avalanche muscle (brain) for it to grow. Other valuable days of experience include: days in different snowpacks, and days with people who are a lot more experienced more than you (mentored days).

    True Experts also assume in the first instance that they have missed something and do not know everything. They also assume by default that there are Human Factors at play. Intermediates think they have it worked out, and often conclude that there are no Human Factors at play in their group. There are always Human Factors influencing your decision making, so find them and mitigate them! And you never have it all worked out, so back the risk off a few notches every time by default. At least that is my personal opinion.

    A final thought: being a very skilled rider is to often confused with being an Expert in the backcountry.

  147. Chris April 24th, 2013 2:31 am

    Great article. I was up on Loveland Pass. 🙁 I skied both days, and wrote about this event. I was up there, apparently about 4 hours after Alpine recovered the last person, and I took many pictures and a video. This was a gut check for me, no ego left really. I was up on Professor before going over, with some (unnamed) mountain rescue folks, to walk across the debris path. I have seen plenty of avys, but this one dropped my jaw. This was a powerful slab avalanche. Some of the slabs were the size of cargo vans or a small bus. There were busted trees inside the debris field. I have pictures with arrows drawn for scale. I walked down into the 17ft hole where a victim was recovered. I plan to take prayer flags back to that area as a gesture of respect. Here is my take Lou, they were more prepared with their avylungs, beacons, buddies, and flotation systems than I was. Why the long post. I walked out of there and drove back over the pass toward A-basin and looked at the 20ft overhangs on the lee side of Professor, sitting over a heavily loaded slope, as well. As I drove down the bend I knew my car would not survive a natural release from that slope either. Some aspects, at least right now, are ‘very’ dangerous. I plan to ski for awhile where I know they blast the crap out of slopes, the snow in bounds is pretty amazing, and you cannot beat the beach in spring. The only criticism I have after being up there
    is for myself, in not knowing more, not about them.

  148. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 5:52 am

    Today in Denver Post, article about the guys in the avalanche. Breaks your heart.

  149. AK April 24th, 2013 9:44 am

    Utah lost an avalanche professional a couple weeks ago. Tiny slide in comparison, same result for him. All the “experts” who investigated it said it could have been them just as easily. No one is immune. Anyone who says otherwise is obviously NOT an expert.

  150. Brian Foley April 24th, 2013 10:43 am

    Here, and in other places where this and other avalanche accidents are reported, there is a huge amount of discussion about the safety and risk etc. But I am guessing that the risk of driving to and from skiing, whether it be resorts or backcountry, is quite similar to avalanche risk at the destination. If 5 people had died in a car accident on an icy highway going skiing, would it have made the news outside the local area?

    All deaths and injuries are tragic, and we should seek to reduce risk as much as possible and reasonable. But I suspect that many people who would criticize the choices these people made in the backcountry, themselves drive to ski areas or backcountry sites without putting on chains or using studded snow tires. And without much thought to the idea that like avalanche beacons and other gear, sometimes auto accidents not the fault of the driver, but the fault of some other person on the road or simple unavoidable circumstances.

    I am not saying that we should not seek to learn from this accident and hopefully reduce future backcountry accidents. I am only suggesting that people should also think about other risky situations such as driving on snowpacked roads, and think about how we could all help educate others about those risks as much as we think about educating others about avalanche safety.

  151. Colin Lantz April 24th, 2013 10:43 am

    Wow, this is such a sad story — and a real eye opener. My deepest condolences to the families and friends of those affected.

    Thanks for the great report Lou. I think it’s important for every backcountry skier to reflect on this accident and try to learn from the mistakes that took place here. This is a great forum to generate some discussion and thinking about this accident.

    I know Lawrence asked this question yesterday, but does anyone know the slope angle of the avalanche path? I’m curious because from some of the pictures I’ve seen it looks quite low. Pictures can be deceiving and obviously the slope angle is probably not consistent through out the entire path, but it sure looks like a not so steep area. I’m very curious because low slope angle is an excuse often cited for traveling in sidecountry areas without avy gear. I see it all the time out the back gate at our local ski area and have even taken to stopping people and asking why they are skiing in the backcountry (yes, it’s all backcountry once you are away from the ski area) without the proper safety equipment.

    What a tragic event and again my deepest sympathies to all affected. Let’s all slow down and take a breather here. The snowpack in CO pretty scary right now with all this late spring snow and warm weather in between storm cycles. Maybe it’s time to get the bikes out of the garage and put the skis away for a few weeks until the snow settles and consolidates and we can think about spring skiing in safer conditions.

  152. Rob Mullins April 24th, 2013 10:45 am

    Sincere condolences. We all may take pause or learn from this and other tragedies, and use that to stay safe.

    Self-discipline and self-control are fundamental to this along with experience and expertise.

    My personal and professional experience and expertise are genuine and goes back a few decades. No self-satisfaction motive here, perhaps I can try to share what has kept me alive for a few thousand days on avalanche terrain.

    A certain amount of (uncool) self-discipline and self-denial is required in regard to turning away from some hazardous slopes. I have witnessed several times individuals who have professional avalanche knowledge, experience, and high-expertise allow emotion to override the reality of the consequences. That proper conclusion (do not enter) could be processed after sober reflection, but that process is suppressed by emotion. In other words, I have known of and watched genuine experts get caught in avalanches that I expected while perhaps they were ignoring, denying, the possibility. These considerations, self-control and self-denial, are separate from the expertise and experience required to stay out of avalanches.

    Group size and dynamics as well are important to this problem. I feel that myself and two others is a large group. Often I feel safer and more relaxed, and think more clearly, when alone. My view is that one must ‘get it right or die’, since rescue is more luck than skill. It is the same decision alone or with others! Alone, if I make the wrong decision to enter avalanche terrain, I die unless I am lucky; the exact same applies to being with a group, except in the small percentile number of examples.

    Terrain is fundamental to the avalanche question. Certain terrain has such potential that one must simply stay off unless one is satisfied to the high 90th percentile of the stability of the snowpack.

    Much discussion is around the “Considerable” rating. It is important to understand the consequences. I live between two mountain crests with very different potential. In one area, I will not enter true avalanche terrain if “Considerable.” The other area to the east receives 1/2 or less of the snowfall, thus slabs are smaller, etc. Thus, in the high-snowfall area may exist a larger consequence with just a “Considerable” rating. As well “Considerable” avalanches have different consequences depending on how or were the avalanche falls. As well, one may find a fatal avalanche to occur for “Low” or “Moderate” ratings…

    The mainstreaming of avalanche exposure and the devaluing of the potential of an avalanche is THE PROBLEM! As well, in regard to the avalanche problem, equipment, formal and popular education, formal and popular ‘improved’ rescue techniques are the problem- in spite of those very things being the solution! Some false sense of having a backup plan if caught has been invented. Decades ago, widespread lack of knowledge or experience in regard to the avalanche problem kept folks away from harm. Now folks read about the latest electronic device, the latest (very appealing) plan for group shoveling with the coolest new shovels, the latest ‘fourteen-taps and stand-like-this’ test, and then the undeniable reality of death on an avalanche slope is softened and forgotten. Many times previously I like to say, get it right or die, not to be coarse or insulting, but that is my thought each time that I choose to enter avalanche terrain.

  153. Halsted Morris April 24th, 2013 11:25 am

    Looking through my old snowpit books at my study site in Sheep creek the slope angle was 32 to 34 degrees. I used the slope slightly to skiers left of what avalanched on Saturday. So, it might be a little steeper out in the center of the fractureline, but I don’t think by much.

    On May 02, 2005, Dale Atkins and I went to look at an avalanche in Sheep Creek, that had been reported has “HUGH!” on TGR.

    Turned out the fractureline was only 135 cm max., and it was only 200′ wide.

    But…. At the bottom of the debris we found a hole where someone had obviously dug someone out from a shallow burial. No one ever came forward to report this close-call.


  154. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 11:27 am

    Still wondering why the concept of the Alpha angel seem not to be an issue at least in the region of the alps.. scanned all my books about avalanches and avalanchetraining today, tried to remember all I have learned and heard in practical trainings, talked to professional guides I know: No results… Even searching by google brought only results in english (for the US I guess).
    Could it be that the avalanche training is more developed in the US? And could that be maybe a reason, why Lou talked about the “more risky Eurostyle” (which I never heard before, always tended to think that the US-powder-skiers would take more risk than we do in the alps)?!

  155. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 11:42 am

    Halsted. Wow. That might be a good example of this prudery and secretive attitude that prevents facts from being shared that could save lives?

    At any rate, as you alluded to here and elsewhere, Sheep Creek has some history.


  156. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 11:49 am

    Erik, I’m sure the European avy educators must have a name for this, it’s a basic engineering concept I’ve seen in numerous diagrams of slope profiles.

    In practical use, by shooting the alpha angle up from where you stand you can quickly determine if you’re at risk or not. Works well for setting up campsites, or judging where it’s necessary to split a group up.


  157. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 11:51 am

    Erik, in the training you’ve had, how did the educators suggest you determine the extent of a given avalanche slope’s possible runout zone? Guessing? Vegetation?

  158. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 12:06 pm

    Lou, it it was just not a topic in any training I participated in! No one adresses this, all the backcountryskiers I know just seem to guess somehow.
    I am also subscribed to a magazin for professional mountain guides (since I passed parts of the education becoming one) for like 15 years. In this magazin issues referred to avalanches are very common – but I can not remember one single contribution bout the determination of the runout zone.
    I have read your articles about visiting the Tyrolean alps – did YOU get the feeling locals there have a special training in this spezific issue?

  159. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 12:14 pm

    But it is a good thing that I heard about this alpha angel concept now. At least I can bring that closer to all the skiers I know (many) and maybe encourage the educational institutions (do you say so?) to put more focus on it. Thanks!

  160. Tom Wolfe April 24th, 2013 12:20 pm

    Avalanche runouts are part of the science of avalanche mapping, which is the domain of either a geologist, engineer, or an advanced, specially trained avalanche professional.

    Important factors are terrain (steepness, complexity, and roughness of geology/vegetation) and snow load overlying the weak layer. Snow load is a variable and so runouts are therefore variable and complicated to determine.

    Determining runout practically involves a combination of understanding the avalanche forecast for an area, direct observation (what’s been happening on similar slopes, changes in weather, vegetation damage, etc.), training, and intuition/experience.

  161. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 12:25 pm

    Alpha angle concept is essential for picking campsites above timberline or on glaciers… and so forth. Only caveat is you have to know the alpha angle for the snow climate you are in, and the type of avalanche you’re expecting. Once you figure it out, you just act conservatively and all usually turns out pretty good. The concept doesn’t work as well for ice avalanches and wet snow slides that can tumble and flow. But it is amazingly accurate for soft slab powder ‘lanches, which is why it is one of the top concepts for safety in Colorado.

    BTW, plotting alpha angle is one way a geologist figures out where you can build on land in avalanche terrain. And it’s a super important part of calculating where to do improvements on ski resorts (and is sometimes overlooked…)

    I’d like to repeat that this is an engineering concept based on physics. It’s not hocus pocus. But the angle you pick for your “alpha” is a generalization. Hence, for the concept to work you have to use a fairly conservative number.


  162. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 12:33 pm

    I might disagree Tom, in a practical sense anyway.

    If a lay person uses a conservative alpha angle here in Colorado, 22 degrees, they can make a very effective and realistic determination of where they should be to totally safely skirt an avalanche path. Sure, just doing that isn’t going to work to do geological mapping for a lawsuit or building site, but it works great for backcountry skiing safety and education. I’ve been doing it for years and observed it working in a practical sense. Taught it many times, and it’s amazing how quickly it opens up eyes and helps people get a realistic sense of where the slides can run to.

    Vegetation patterns are a must for attention as well, but on big years the vegetation patterns can be hidden, and may not be present above timberline.


  163. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 12:39 pm

    Thank you, Tom and Lou! This is very helpfull and may be even live-saving someday.
    And contributes to the “experienced” – discussion: Take me for an example: Thought I was quite experienced in my local area (although not an expert), partly cause of lots of practical experience but partly also cause I tried to learn everything local trainings offer. Just to see that there is a really obvious aspect I never even really thought about. Always just guessed how far a slide can go (based on experience), never was aware you could think about this systematically…

  164. Tom Wolfe April 24th, 2013 1:01 pm

    Lou, I’m not disagreeing. Rules of thumb work for conservative decision making.

  165. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 1:06 pm

    Erik!!! Your Google skills must be a bit lacking (grin).

    Here is an image search for alpha angle stuff. It’s all over the place.

    I guess I should post something up.


  166. Ali E April 24th, 2013 1:14 pm


    A very interesting article, that also talks about alpha and beta angles, in the context of the 1999 Montroc avalanche near Chamonix.

  167. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 1:19 pm

    No,no at least in google skills I am ok, if not in the alpha angel thing..(grin)

    Literally I wrote in my previous post “Even searching by google brought ONLY results in ENGLISH” By that I wanted to point out, that this concept seems to be mainly widespread in the US, concernning avalanche training,but not in the alps. results in ENGLIsH I found a lot (but, in the end you are right however.. did not think of searching with “google pictures”)

  168. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 1:25 pm
  169. Erik Erikson April 24th, 2013 1:28 pm

    Thanks,Ali! You guys let me learn a lot…

  170. TK April 24th, 2013 1:50 pm
  171. Pierce Oz April 24th, 2013 2:03 pm

    Man, I’m still reeling from this. The article you linked to, Lou, from the Denver Post is just heart-breaking. This feels like the Stevens accident again, only closer to home. The reaction I’m having is very personal, even though I don’t know anyone involved. I feel like I’m reading about one of my friends (or myself) in that article, and I think that’s the reason. Multiply this feeling times 1000 and maybe that’s a little like being a loved one. I’m sure a lot of people reading this forum are feeling the same way. The only good I see in this now is that it is serving as a huge gut-check to the CO BC community and the backcountry community at large.

    I live in Colorado and ski the Loveland BC area with regularity. When I first heard about the slide in this location, having assumed they dropped in from the top of the ridge, it sounded extremely reckless. I would like to think that I’m somehow “smarter” than this, but after hearing more of the details and now having been at site in the last few days, I can see how something like this happens to people who are experienced and “should know better.” I have no doubt they weren’t fully cognizant of the risk they were taking, and weren’t trying to be reckless.

    Loveland Pass has always been a place where anyone can get into high consequence terrain with a few minutes of hiking, and where there is huge variation in slope angle, aspect, elevation and snow coverage all in one area. The snow in the “road-lap zone” on Loveland Pass, below tree-line and more protected from the wind, was surprisingly stable the other day, and only a few hundred yards from Sheep Creek gully.

    Not sure if this was already linked, but it shed a little more light on it for me, along with the article already linked by Lou with the stories of the victims:

    This blurb, which I won’t repost all of, from the other article Lou linked to above was struck me:

    “When Joe Timlin was a student at Highlands Ranch High School, he and his friends would hitchhike up Loveland Pass and jump out at the last switchback…
    ‘They would spend days and days in that drainage,” said his brother-in-law David Carrier-Porcheron. “He started his passion for backcountry snowboarding right there and he pretty much ended it there.’”

    Familiarity breeds complacency, something I’ve certainly been guilty of over the years. I can see how that might have played a role. My guess is that they were looking for a final run in some fresh snow back down to the Loveland Valley lot. Standing at the switchback on the pass where you might enter Sheep Creek (not even sure if it’s a fact they accessed from the road yet), the skin across the gully to next batch of trees looks pretty short, and the starting zone that ripped is partially obscured by the stand of trees many of them were standing under. This gulch hasn’t really even been skiable in the past few seasons, so avalanches in that spot may not have been fresh in everyone’s minds. I guess it also is a stark reminder that having skied something without consequence many times before is no indication of how safe it is today.

  172. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 2:05 pm

    Thanks TK, I’m on it!

  173. Lou Dawson April 24th, 2013 2:14 pm

    I just spoke with one of the investigators, official CAIC data, alpha angle of this avalanche is 24 degrees, so that’s right in there with the Colorado rule of thumb.

  174. SR April 24th, 2013 2:21 pm

    The report and some of the comments here, particularly Rob’s post regarding different consequences that can go with a “considerable” rating,using the two different average snowpacks near him as an example, brought to mind the recent UAC blog about attaching R or X modifiers to ratings.

    This is one among several areas where local knowledge combined with situational awareness can be relevant to helping control risk. The question about whether it ever makes sense to go out with a moderate or considerable rating has a different answer, at least to me, depending on whether everyone is just sort of waiting to see who randomly loses a negative lottery, versus whether terrain and behavioral choices can dramatically lower risk.

    The decision-making in this case seems to have tried to address snowpack concerns, but left consequences largely out of the equation.

  175. Moondog & Sniper April 24th, 2013 3:41 pm

    Halstead, great advice from a true master. See you a Wiegele next year

  176. Kevin S April 24th, 2013 3:51 pm

    Having just finished reading the CAIC report I find the details chilling and somewhat simplistic as to what happened. I will head up there Sunday morning to skin around the area (8:30ish) if anyone is interested in comparing thoughts/perspectives just show up.

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