Site Visit — Sheep Creek Avalanche near Loveland Pass

Post by blogger | April 26, 2013      

Avalanche accident sites. Visiting is like looking at a historic battlefield. You don’t see much evidence of the tragedy, but you know the history. Emotions well up. You get slammed with a fist of reality the size of a mountainside.

Yesterday in Sheep Creek, Loveland Pass, we got slammed. We could still see the rescue holes, so it wasn’t all imagination. With respect to the deceased’s loved ones I won’t go into detail on that. Suffice it to say that once you’ve seen the snowy crypt where a body was recovered (or hopefully a person rescued alive), your avalanche safety approach will be forever altered. This was my fourth view of the holes, including my own. I’m not sure I want more. In fact, I’m sure I don’t. Perhaps this is my last site visit.

View south from parking at Sheep Creek, Loveland Pass.

What you see from the trailhead looking southerly. I was amazed at how dangerous this place is. You step out of your car, and about twenty feet later you are crossing below an obvious avalanche path. A few hundred yards south, you step onto the slope that killed the five individuals last weekend. There is no safe way past the first paths that threaten the access trail, but if you deviate easterly when you reach the second path (that caused the accident), after a short bit of exposure you can follow a safe route up the drainage into the attractive lower angled terrain. Click all images to enlarge.

Looking westerly from the safe zone, parking to right. Red dots indicate estimated route of accident group. Of all our photos, this one shows how truly scary this zone is. Step out your car door and you're immediately in danger. Click to enlarge.

Looking westerly from the safe zone, parking to right. Loveland Pass is a short drive farther up the paved road. Red dots indicate estimated route of accident group. Of all our photos, this one shows how truly scary this zone is. Step out your car door and you're immediately in danger. Click to enlarge.

But the visit to Loveland Pass had to be done, as this accident involving six simultaneous burials and five deaths was so heinous, so horrifying as to need more fact-based interpretation. Indeed, to be fair to both the living and dead the site visit was mandatory for honest blogging, so we could look at the situation in the light of normal fun seeking backcountry recreation — not the cold prose of a CAIC report constrained by legal concerns and limits on raw interpretation — not a newspaper report constrained by ignorance or word count limits — and not our own guesswork about the terrain.

Another view of the approach trail.  A dangerous spot with obvious avalanche slope to your right and terrain trap to your left.

Another view of the approach trail. Red dotted line marks estimated route of accident group. A dangerous spot with obvious avalanche slope to your right and terrain trap to your left.

Yes, we all make errors. So was this accident the result of normal human error or did it somehow exceed the normal bounds of human behavior?

While we of course cannot know the final truth, I’d caution any readers to not dismiss this as normal human error. Instead, what we appear to have had is some kind of very unusual event wherein a group of six backcountry skiers and snowboarders, all of whom had been exposed to basic avalanche safety concepts and several of whom were well educated either formally or informally, ignored or forgot basic safety protocols. (Please note, I’ve edited the preceding a bit as I’d initially made it appear we knew the group had a high incidence of formal avalanche education, while it’s more likely it was a mixed group in terms of training.)

How do I assume this was not a normal error? I’m here to tell you that when you step out of your car at the Sheep Creek parking, ten feet later you are walking under a deadly avalanche path. A slope that is northeast facing, obviously wind loaded, drops into a tree studded terrain trap, and averages 31 degrees steep. According to CAIC the perfect slope for self immolation on April 20th 2013, the day five men were killed.

Only this isn’t where last week’s group died.

The six made it safely through the 200 yards of possibly deadly approach trail, only to make the odd decision to continue breaking trail on the toe of a large and again deadly avalanche path. This when by simply deviating twenty or thirty feet northeast from their course and making a very short crossing of the lower avalanche path toe, they could have climbed up the drainage via a route that was perfectly safe during NE instability of the type that existed during their day. This is a route where they might have stood and watched in awe as they triggered the same avalanche that would have otherwise ended up killing them. In my opinion, if the group had taken this route it is likely they’d all still be alive.

Google map of Sheep Creek avalanche, click to enlarge. The 'access' trail from parking is about 200 yards and while dangerous can easily be done one-at-a-time since it's slightly downhill. When you exit the access trail, you are exposed to the slide that killed the men, but only for a moment if you keep moving northeast and use the route I marked with blue dots.

Google sat-map of Sheep Creek avalanche area, click to enlarge. The 'access' trail from parking is about 200 yards and while dangerous can easily be done one-at-a-time since it's slightly downhill. When you exit the access trail, you are exposed to the slide that killed the men, but only for a moment if you keep moving northeast and use the route I marked with blue dots. Mapping illustrates what a dangerous zone this is, with numerous avalanche paths and even previous avalanche deaths nearby.

What you see when you exit the approach trail. Safe route is to left. Obvious avalanche slope to right.

What you see when you exit the approach trail. Much safer route is to left. Obvious avalanche slope to right. Click to enlarge.

Touring up the safe route.

Touring up the safer route in Sheep Creek near Loveland Pass. Move a few feet to the right and you're in danger. Arrows mark known and obvious possible avalanche path, red solid line outlines 2013 avalanche, red dots are group's approximate route. Reports indicate they may have thought the grove of trees was an island of safety. Perhaps to some degree, but where would they have been planning on heading from there?

Looking back from safer route to Loveland Pass Sheep Creek avalanche.

Looking northwest towards trailhead from safe route (blue dots). Reaching safer route still requires exposure to the avalanche slopes above the access path, as well as a short quick crossing of 2013 runout zone as shown in photos. Thus, during a lower hazard day this is all manageable, yet difficult or impossible to deal with on a high hazard day with large group. Burial sites are located from lower area near blue route all the way up out of the photo near small grove of trees, indicating the group was spread out, but even so were all on the same slope and same danger zone simultaneously, perhaps a severe error in judgment or perhaps many (or all) in the group simply did not know they were in danger. Latter theory could very well be true, as none of the deceased had used their airbags or Avalungs. In fact, the individual with the airbag still had the trigger handle zipped up in its compartment. Click images to enlarge.

Topographic view. Solid red line is approximate location of fatal avalanche.

Topographic view. Solid red line is approximate location of fatal 2013 avalanche. Red dotted line is fatal route. Dotted blue line is the safer route choice. Click to enlarge.

Loveland Pass Sheep Creek slope angles.

Another topographic view showing selected alpha angles of Sheep Creek avalanche at Loveland Pass. Many factors influence how far an avalanche will go. In the case of Sheep Creek a fairly deep gully actually makes it safer IF you are on the GOOD side of the gully. In other words, topography can increase or decrease the distance a slab avalanche will flow. Thus, once you're on the safer route as shown on map, you could be quite safe. One interesting thing to note is that once the gully has been filled by an avalanche, if another occurred it might jump the gully and flow farther -- but it does have to go uphill once it's past the gully. A slide with this small a drop doesn't have the energy to go uphill more than a small distance. In any case, due to favorable topography the safer route can easily be moved over to a 19 degree alpha angle zone or even less, for what most people would call a 99.99% safe route.

Google Earth tilted view, looking southerly. Approximate avalanche boundary

Google Earth tilted view of Loveland Pass Sheep Creek, looking southerly. Approximate avalanche boundary marked with pale red, red dots are route of accident group, blue dots are safer route accessing lower angled shoulder area with opposite exposure.

Thus, now that we’ve visited the site and actually done the same or similar tour to what the group must have been intending (giving them benefit of the doubt), it is quite easy to know where they erred. We may never know the why, though my intuition continues to tell me this was a simple case of a big disjointed group that failed in doing good tight decision making perhaps combined with a flawed terrain evaluation — only they had no margin for error. A situation I’ve been close to many times and know well.

1. As soon as you park, you’re in an area with avalanche danger in nearly every direction, next to a nearby slope where two skiers died in 1948. This proximate danger would have been obvious to most of the people in the group, or perhaps all, since there was a least some level of avalanche awareness and education.

2. If you did make it safely along the short but avalanche exposed access trail, by simply dropping ten or fifteen vertical feet and crossing a gully you can access a much safer route up the drainage, a route that quickly becomes 100% safe from the avalanche that caused the accident. For a group with this much experience, doing so would have been trivial. Why they did not do this and instead forged their way up their deadly route is mystifying. The route choice is totally obvious to the experienced eye, and the avalanche slope that killed them is totally obvious as is the extent it can run.

3. A 6 person group is too big for fine-grained contributory decision making, and the individuals were not spread apart to any significant degree. Even yesterday, my companion and I easily spread by a hundred feet or more on the access trail, and continued to do so when we got into the burial area which was somewhat threatened by new wind loading.

In summary, yes, we’ve all pushed the limits and made mistakes. But this was an unusual combination of numerous mistakes in a situation that was totally unforgiving of _any_ error. It is my hope and opinion that most experienced backcountry skiers would have recognized the severity of this situation and not even left the inside of their car, or at the least made substantial effort to mitigate danger by traveling in a small group, spreading out several hundred feet, and taking the obviously safer route once past the access traverse trail. But who knows for sure?

Whatever the case, I firmly believe that by documenting this tragedy and using it as a mirror, we can all significantly improve our avalanche safety decision skills. Indeed, I’d recommend that avalanche safety curriculum would heavily document this accident and use it as a decision making scenario — starting at the party the night before, leading to a parking lot meeting between a number of strangers, and on through stepping out of your car while looking at an avalanche slope thirty feet away that you don’t need a snowpit to rate as considerable hazard or worse. And that’s not even the slope that’s going to get you.

Skiing safe zone east of the avalanche accident site. This may have been where the victims were intending to go.

Skiing safe zone east of the avalanche accident site. This may have been where the victims were intending to go. Problem with that theory is if they'd continued up their route on the avalanche slope they would have just ended up on and under more avalanche slopes. Hence, there is a mysterious aspect to the accident we may never know the final answer for. Perhaps Jerome Boulay, the lone survivor, knows why they were in such an odd situation. At this time I don't feel comfortable pestering the man, but perhaps he'll eventually speak up, yet in his own time. The terrain and skiing in the safe zone is quite nice, but not particularly exciting. I liked it but would only come here during spring corn season due to the tricky access route. Plenty of other, better options exist off Highway 6.

In closing, we saw some incredibly stupid sight seeing activity at the accident site. We don’t recommend going in there unless avalanche danger is minimal or you have top notch evaluation and route finding skills.

Colorado Avalanche Information Center official report.

Annotated version of CAIC report.

Statement from first responder on the rescue.

Our first report about the accident.

(Note, Joe Risi contributed to the photography in this post.)


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205 Responses to “Site Visit — Sheep Creek Avalanche near Loveland Pass”

  1. Danno April 26th, 2013 9:33 am

    Lou, thanks for taking the time to visit and document the site. Your post has helped me better understand the terrain and choices they made.

  2. Collin April 26th, 2013 9:47 am

    Wow Lou, I am flabbergasted at the decision and appreciative of your candor given the sensitivity of the situation. Looking at that path, you’re right, it was an obviously dangerous route at a time when HUGE natural slides were occuring all over the state. Furthermore, that “safe” zone was nothing of the kind. Anything that broke from above would devour those trees leaving anyone in theme either smashed amongst wood and/or buried in the terrain trap below. This makes this tragedy even more perplexing and I think the phenomenon of “Grouphink” could have been a factor here. Especially with a group this size. I am extremely saddened and sobered by this experience and appreiciate your objectivity in describing your views.

  3. Matt Kamper April 26th, 2013 9:51 am

    Lou, I really appreciate your analysis, asking the hard questions without disrespecting those who were there. This incident is deeply seared into my mind and will affect my decision making forever.

  4. Samuel Savard April 26th, 2013 9:58 am

    Really good analysis, you are so full of knowledge. To the victims of this tragic accident, rest in peace.

  5. Scott Nelson April 26th, 2013 9:59 am

    Thanks for the on site perspective Lou. Just doesn’t make any sense, as one can clearly see, just a few meters away was safety. But even to get to that point, you were risking your life just right out of the car, as your pictures show. Nothing adds up as to why those choices were made to be there. But as you said, most of us have done things similar to that, or at least I have. That is the sobering part for me. Call it the excitement for the day, adrenaline or whatever…. its that momentary lapse of judgement that can bring the end.

    Regarding education, in the level one Avy class I took (which was great by the way), I do remember the instructor saying something to the effect of, “now we’ve taught you just enough to get killed.”

  6. Mike Marolt April 26th, 2013 9:59 am

    I was thinking about this last night. I thought of about a dozen people with 20+ years of this kind of stuff that have had very close calls within the first 10 years of really hitting it hard, myself included. And I am not sure how long you were really into it before your highlands close call, but I bet it was around the same. then I googled some stats on the BC equipment explosion in sales. We are looking at about a 10 year major growth period with the largest sales of that in the last 5 years creating a massive intro for people to get into the backcountry skiing game. I don’t know what the percentages are, but of all the people out doing this stuff today, the majority are statistically within this 10 year level of experience. The core demographic is 25 to 35 years old, so really, how much experience can people have in this scenario? I don’t know many teens into it. A few, but not many. So your analysis breeds frustration at this loss, but it’s really makes the education and tools for approaching this critical.

    I also started thinking about this “extra sense” often talked about, and I know for me, that didn’t really start happening until after a good 10 years and not really before my close call, and I still am looking for it 30 years later. But I definitely have a sense about things on a much deeper level than in years passed. I know my approach is significantly different as I progress. As you stepped out of your car to look at this site, you obviously had a totally different perspective. Maybe it’s perspective from getting on in life, wife, kids, responsibility that breeds this extra sense, or realizing from experience the hard way that the worst can actually happen to you out there. I don’t know. But I know it exits. I doubt it can be taught, but I know threads like the one here can’t possibly hurt. When I look at your photos of this and get your on-site take, I know it will have impact on me, for sure. Makes you just want to back up the clock and get a do-over for those guys, but also a realization that sometimes you just don’t get a second chance. That’s the point.

  7. Rob S. April 26th, 2013 10:07 am

    Lou – I’m sure you’re likely to attract some criticism for your unsparing assessment of the decision making here, but I for one applaud you for having the courage to do it. The death of fellow enthusiasts hits us hard, but no one should use that as an excuse to avoid careful examination of the lessons here.

    I’ve only been backcountry skiing for a few years, but I spent a long career flying fighters for the Air Force. I lost a few friends over those years, but every fatal accident resulted in a through investigation that was widely disseminated, and the resulting findings reduced the chances of future mishaps and saved lives. Towards the end of my career, I served as the Board President for an investigation, and it was a fascinating process. No one likes to feel like they are a Monday morning quarterback, but the fact is that careful analysis, like you are doing here, is a benefit to everyone in the community.

    I can’t help but wonder if reports like the CAIC produces, as useful as they are, aren’t missing the most important opportunity…to hypothesize about what went wrong, and what could have been done differently to avert the tragedy.

  8. Karlo April 26th, 2013 10:07 am

    Lou, From the google maps, it appears that there is a summertime trail that leads down from the parking to a small road and then a creek. I don’t know the terrain at all, but wonder if you could go down from the trailhead first, and avoid both the 1948 and 2013 zones and then intersect your “safe route” on the south facing aspect well below where you begin it in your photos? Your thoughts on all this have alerted me to the fact that I, and others I ski with, often focus too much on the areas we plan to ski and not enough on the access (especially when its right out the car door). Thanks for this. And my heart aches for the families and friends of those who were lost there.

  9. Colin April 26th, 2013 10:13 am

    Thank you for posting this Lou, as a young person without your decades of experience I have tried to hold off from opining on this. But I have put in a lot of days at Loveland Pass and in many ways it served as my route-finding training ground.

    I think it is important to note that you NEVER have to cross a slide path while going up at Loveland Pass. It is just over an hour from the top of the pass to the top of Mt. Sniktau where they could have had their choice of the low-angle westerly terrain shown here or the steeper southerly aspects (and their hopefully safer snowpack).

    I have never once started my day by heading UP Sheep Creek, although I have eaten lunch on the ‘safe’ route staring right across at the 2013 slide

    Moreover, it is hard to plan a route with any worthwhile skiing on LL that does not cross significant slide paths. Finding low-angle powder while avoiding known paths on a considerable day is an easier task at Berthoud (if you know your way around)

  10. Steve Lipsher April 26th, 2013 10:15 am

    Interesting, thorough analysis and very informative pictures, Lou. Good job of explaining this tragedy.

  11. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:19 am

    I just added the topo map. That’ll make it even easier for you visual types to get a sense of what’s going on around there.

    Re opinions about this tragedy. Sometimes it doesn’t seem appropriate to opine, especially when the mistakes leading up to an accident are blatantly obvious. But in this case it appears we had such a radical break in normalcy, every fiber of my being is screaming at me to hit it, and hit it hard.

    Apologies to friends or loved ones of the victims. Please please know that the mission here is to save lives. Period.

  12. Colin April 26th, 2013 10:19 am

    Truth be told, that slopes has always given me the heebie-jeebies

    I’ve been above it, across from it, to the side of it, but I don’t think I have ever gone on (or below) that slope. It just barely steep enough, but it is, and it is wide open

    I did not know about that 1948 slide or just how close to the highway it ran, some good info to have

  13. Colin April 26th, 2013 10:20 am


    We had this discussion last night. The blue line was our idea of a safe route as well.

    I think the reason they moved in the direction they did was they traveled the most straight and flat skin route. One person (r.i.p.) was on a splitboard for the first time. Another (r.i.p.) was on a borrowed set of approach skis. The leader may have not wanted to cross the gully and then side hill up the slope because of the difficulty these two would have.

  14. Derek April 26th, 2013 10:21 am

    Lou, thank you for your analysis. The pictures showing the original route versus a safer route are helpful to see what went wrong and reaffirm good versus bad route finding. While you may get some flack for being critical, I hope it gives people pause and prevents accidents going forward. Condolences to the victims and their families.

  15. Christi Cline April 26th, 2013 10:22 am

    Thanks for the report, including the detailed pictures from so many angles. I wonder if the decision-making that early in the tour simply hadn’t started yet, and people were basically just following the road. Not knowing the normal skiing route and protocol in that area (I’m from Utah), it’s hard to say, but I know that roads and trail cuts are often instinctively followed, and it looks from the Google images that that’s where the road goes.

    That early in the tour, people might not have realized they were skiing yet– bad mistake, especially on a route where you’re basically in danger as soon as you leave the trailhead, as you say.

    As far as the decision-making of experienced people, we can often kid ourselves into bad situations. I went on a tour one New Year’s Day when it was snowing and the wind was howling (the notable quote from one of the people early in the tour was “I wonder what all the crazy people are doing today?” As we slogged up the hill and into the teeth of the wind, at one point our group (6 people, composed of two grouplets) mused to each other about our collective century of back-country experience (damn, aren’t we impressive!). And we still managed to get ourselves into trouble. One of our members skiied away from the group in dense trees and heavy snow (note: that little whistle on your chest strap? It’s worthless in wind, snow and trees. Get a real one). When we finally regrouped, we decided to take a short-cut to the ridge rather than hike up and get on the safer trail, thereby putting ourselves under a series of horribly dangerous slots. We skiied across them one at a time, but still, what the hell were we doing there? Once we (miraculously) survived that, we found ourselves in dense trees and gullys as we worked to regain the trail. Then we couldn’t find the trail and hiked up the side of the hill looking for it, until we found ourselves (again) in steeper terrain that by now (6 hours later) had loaded up enough that things were starting to slide. At that point, one of our party pointed out that it was 5:30 pm (on New Year’s day, i.e., almost dark), at which point we skiied straight down and out along a safe route to the road, 1/2 mile downcanyon from our cars. We celebrated our survival that night, but it’s hard to avoid the repeated poor decisions we made that day. I’m just glad I lived through them to learn from them.

    One thing I think that happens with big groups or even small groups of people who are composed of other groups: We get so engrossed in the social aspects of skiing– “hey, I haven’t seen you for a long time!” “Hey, have you met Joe?”– that we forget what we’re doing. Even when groups start the tour with a beep-check, I wonder if they really get their game on before they hit the trail.

    The other thing is that if we get enamored of our expertise, or complacent about it, bad things are bound to happen. We had a fatality in Utah the same week as this event– a highway forecaster skiing alone. While he was on a “standard exploration route” it was at the same time a steep and dangerous place, with 18″ of new spring snow poorly bonded to suncrust beneath. While the issue isn’t quite the same, it still makes me wonder: why would anyone who is “on the job” in avalanche terrain skiing alone. The buddy system is a fundamental aspect of safety. Not just to have someone to rescue you, but (hopefully) someone to check your head and peer-review your decision-making. Or vice-versa.

    I sometimes work in the spill clean-up and construction arenas, and those activities almost always start out with a “tailgate meeting” which focuses peoples’ brains on what they are doing and what could happen. I agree that using this unfortunate event as a teaching moment could be valuable– anything is worth a try.

    thanks for the opportunity for the conversation-
    Christi Cline
    SLC, UT

  16. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:23 am

    Scott, that statement by your instructor: “now we’ve taught you just enough to get killed.” While no doubt intended as cynical humor to make a point, It is in my opinion indicative of how broken the education process is. For the guy to have even felt compelled to make that statement is heinous, in light of this tragedy.

  17. Joe Risi April 26th, 2013 10:26 am

    The site visit yesterday left me numb. I don’t have near the tick list of experience Lou has and have never seen deep burials of this magnitude up close. I’m on the low end of the learning/experience spectrum at the age of 26, that being said, the moment I opened the passenger door yesterday morning I knew this was a bad access point to a zone.

    The winds and recent slides before the Eisenhower tunnel and after on the switchbacks on 6 before we turned around to park were enough to make most say, “lets go somewhere else…”.

    I really can’t wrap my head around the decision making points that went through the groups mind’s that morning.

    I do know one fact, viewing the site has changed my outlook on the risks and rewards of backcountry skiing forever.

  18. Ben April 26th, 2013 10:27 am

    Thanks for further bringing the accident scene to life, Lou. In searching for answers, I think the second to last picture you posted might be instructive (red dots up towards increased exposure, blue dots down towards safety). It seems so obvious now, but in terms of group dynamics/human factors in play, I find there is often a stigma associated with any track setting that causes the group to lose vertical (even if that choice results in safer or more efficient travel in the big picture). Breaking trail, you try to find anyway possible NOT to go down. So on April 20th, perhaps there was unspoken pressure felt to simply “go up” and not “waste time” skirting around. Who was out in front that day? Not to point fingers by any means, but to try to understand how the decision was made to steer the ship. Faced with a choice, and just minutes after they started from the trailhead, perhaps the skier out front was unwilling to break this specious “cardinal rule” and just pointed it uphill.

  19. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:28 am

    Karlo, I looked pretty carefully for a good way in there from the parking, it’s all either terrain trap or using the traverse trail that passes under the first avalanche paths near parking. People do ski from the parking down a steep pitch to the resort runs which are close below in the gulch (this is where it’s said the 1948 avalanche killed several people). I’ve been told you can skin UP the gulch from the resort, but in doing so you will be eventually threatened by all the different avalanche paths we are discussing, though you could perhaps trend left and reach safe zones. As far as I could tell there is no good way in there from that location on a high hazard day. With less hazard, spreading out and using the safer line as I indicated is a reasonable choice, as we did during our site visit. Nonetheless, I’ll admit that if I hadn’t been up there to do the site visit I probably would have gone elsewhere.

  20. Mike B April 26th, 2013 10:29 am

    Can you clarify your “stupid sight seeing” comment? You went sight seeing, for the purpose of creating site content which will help you sell more advertising. You also seem to show one of your partners skinning through the “death zone” while throwing stones at the victims.

  21. timstirling April 26th, 2013 10:32 am

    Very thought proving analysis. Scary that from leaving your car you are immediately in danger, I know many people are used to a safe and gently approach that gives you time to think and analyse the dangers ahead, get a feel for the snow, let the initial excitement drop and the group settle into a safe and well spaced pace. I’m in Oregon ATM and tour typically require several miles of gentle forest trail while you glimpse at your objective and begin to mentally piece together the safest ascent and descent.

    A great example that not only macro level decision need to be right but some micro route finding choices to go 30ft to the side would make all the difference. Sometimes we get caught up in the big picture rather than the finer details (and vice versa).

  22. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:33 am

    Chrisite and all. One word. Radios.

    Prevention is way more important than iffy cure.

    Communication prevents the accident, radios help with that, all the other junk is for after the fact and has a good chance of not working.

  23. APD April 26th, 2013 10:34 am

    I’d like to preface my comments with the fact that I’ve never been to that site and honestly can’t say what I would have done since I was not in the shoes of the party members involved.

    It’s hard for me to see the difference between the red and blue lines in the photos. Obviously on the day of the accident it would have kept the touring party outside of the terminus of that particular avalanche. At most, the red line is just a little bit higher up the deposition zone in a larger event, which was entirely possible. Had the slide communicated with the other paths pictured in Lou’s photos or involved more of the crown. Just a little bit higher on the slope can change the Alpha angle, which we use as basic guidelines when traveling under avalanche paths. It doesn’t happen often but slides can and do outrun their Alpha angles or the region. When faced with large paths that have the ability to natural or be triggered from great distances away, I prefer to give a wide berth from the Alpha angle or avoid the area entirely. When either is not possible I have to ask myself if putting one person at a time in the path of a possible D2 or larger is worth the risk? Having made this decision as a fatal error before, my answer is now often no.

  24. joseph.szasz April 26th, 2013 10:34 am

    thank so much for doing this lou. I have learned alot from this particular incident. just curious. if one were to have been there as this group passes by that day. do you think that person should have voiced there concern. i still feel wierd questioning strangers about thier objectives but im wondering if i should start to question people who are doing questionable things. is their some collective responsiblity?

  25. Colin April 26th, 2013 10:41 am

    What is your source for evidence of a 1948 slide at that location?

  26. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:46 am

    APD, take my word for it, the blue line is safe even on high hazard days, other than the small point where it crosses over, and the initial approach traverse under the 1948 path. What the photos and maps don’t show well is that the blue safe line is on the OTHER SIDE OF A GULCH, the gulch creates a strongly defined terminus (and terrain trap) for any runout debries. APD, I should have made that more clear. It is very defined and obvious, though one could indeed do the safe route farther over if they wanted.

    Another factor is that if the gulch is NOT filled in with debries, it is indeed a bit more of a pain to cross than it was for us. But it’s still doable from what I’ve been told and again is the obvious way to go if you insisted on reaching this zone on a high hazard day for north east slopes.

    One thing about the “safe” route. On a day when _west_ facing terrain was loaded and tender, there are some lower angle and stepped slopes above the safe route that could perhaps avalanche, but that would be unusual and very easy to know about. We switch backed up through those slopes and they were trivial. Though any slope can be problematic given the wrong conditions.


  27. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:49 am

    Colin, CAIC source. Even if the 1948 slide accident never ocured, it is an avalanche slope and quite dangerous as it would knock you down into a timbered terrain trap. At the time of our site visit I didn’t know about the 1948 accident, and I was still scared to cross under the slope on the access traverse. The whole situation is a fear fest if you know what you’re looking at. Lou

  28. tony s April 26th, 2013 10:53 am

    I am so sorry this tragedy had to happen, it is with great respect for the survivor of this event and the friends and family of the deceased that I type these words, which I hope will contribute in some small way to the safety of others.

    Bottom line for me:

    With every person your party grows by, no matter the level of experience or “expertise”, there is the potential of complicating descicion making and compromising observation quality to some extent. If a group is relatively inexperienced in observing deep slap cycles, and the group desire to “ski something worthwhile” is high, then the potential for trouble can increase exponentially. This is why we are left scratching our heads. It’s no ones fault, it doesn’t mean we’re ignorant, it just means we’re human. Individually, most in the party, if not all, recognized the hazard, but some combination of yet to be determined, or indeterminable human brain/groupthink factors quickly influenced the descision making of that fateful day.

    Perhaps only a few true avalanche experts with decades of traveling in avalanche terrain with others are capable of entirely mitigating the human factors of a large group in serious conditions. I know it’s a vulnerability for me, and I have been guilty of letting my guard down and or not making the best descisions whithin groups larger than two or three.

    It’s amazing how fast travel protocol can degrade, how quickly and easily you can end up with multiple people exposed, just to “get from one safe zone to another” especially on the uptrack. Something about group dynamics, maybe it’s the basic human instinct of safety in numbers, causes these lapses in judgement to happen more frequently than we would like to admit I believe. It’s very difficult to identify and override these instinctual human behaviors in groups, I have found in my experience.

    I have been thinking about this alot since the Tunnel Creek event and trying to recognize the potential in myself and others to make mistakes or take unncessessary risk while traveling in groups. Most often I come to the personal conclusion that yes, I have greater potential to make mistakes and take more risk within a group, so it’s just not in my best interest to plan trips in the Backcountry with multiple people when there is the potential for large events. So the valuable lesson of these two tragedies for me is: save group plans for times of more mitagable hazard when human factors have less potential to cause big events and big trouble. Sounds simple enough but there is nothing simple about group dynamics and their influence on travel in avalanche terrain. To me it’s the most complex variable.

  29. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:53 am

    Joseph, yes and no. The approach that works is to engage in friendly conversation. If the conversation leads to mutual sharing of hazard assessments and goals, then it’s time to express concern if you hear or see something that seems off. It would be very rare for a group to show up at a trailhead and change their whole plan because of a comment from a stranger.

    In most cases, keeping mouth shut and just being nice is best.


  30. Tom April 26th, 2013 11:00 am

    Absolutely fantastic review, very clarifying and thought provoking. I am thinking “Guys, you’re being really stupid!” then at the same time while looking at the photos and routes I am also rooting for them to go just a little further left, just do it and you’ll be fine! Yes I know it’s too late but I’m still hoping they go left.

  31. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 11:03 am

    Mike, we were totally prepared and behaved accordingly. In my opinion we were not stupid. The stupid people I saw were solo, no gear, some of them tromping around on the slopes above the access trail, and one guy actually climbed up on the avalanche path under a freshly wind loaded section that was obviously potentially dangerous. Yes, we were sight seeing. But we were doing it very intentionally with firm goals and applying every ounce of common sense. Also, I was doing my job.

    We also only briefly exposed ourselves to danger zones, we did not hang out in the zones, and we never grouped up when exposed.

    That said, call me stupid if you want. I don’t profess to any sort of perfection. Perhaps we should not have been there.

    I used the word “stupid” very intentionally. Believe me, we saw some really disturbing stuff.


  32. cmsummit April 26th, 2013 11:03 am

    Lou, thanks for the insight and more details on the events that happened that day. I can only imagine the emotions that are evoked on a visit to such a tragic site and how heavily the severity of it all, weighs. Personally though, I find the below statement to be assumptive and speculative.

    “And that fact would have been no mystery to these guys if they had anywhere near the level of collective experience they are said to have had.”

    This is your blog and you are most certainly entitled to your opinion, but unless you knew the deceased on a personal level, I don’t think you can state the above with any amount of certainty. I’m not suggesting you sugar coat anything here, just keep the assessment more pragmatic.

    We all know that grave mistakes were made that day and very poor travel techniques were utilized that ultimately led to this terrible event. Let’s not forget though that even the most experienced backcountry travelers aren’t exempt from making mistakes and this is something you admittedly acknowledge. Yes, the mistakes are on such a seemingly high level of oversight that it makes it difficult to not pass such judgment, but I just don’t think you nor I can use the mistakes made to take away from the group “credentials”. It’s my opinion that group size and dynamics weighed heavily on the poor decisions that were made that day.

    Again Lou, I really do appreciate your criticism on the incident and thanks for your time.

  33. Mike B April 26th, 2013 11:13 am

    Thanks for clarifying. I assume you’re not up at Loveland Pass too often, consider yourself lucky for that. The sheer amount of stupid up there can be downright terrifying sometimes.

  34. Scott Allen April 26th, 2013 11:16 am

    Gerry Roach once said, ” Be aware of charging into the wilderness with your city attitude.” Perhaps the quick access from the car didn’t allow enough time for good natural judgement to work. Instead, a plan hatched in a lower parking lot blinded the group to the hazards. Approaching from a high altitude switchback might not grant you the time to really feel your precarious situation.

  35. Matthew Denniston April 26th, 2013 11:16 am

    As a BC newb, this sort of “what does a bad decision look like” vs “what does a good decision look like” is vastly useful to me.

    I’m not sure if such a thing exists but I’d certainly throw down money for a non-sensationalized book / documentary analyzing human involved avalanches, the bad choices that lead to people being caught in them, some theorycrafting (or actual commentary from survivors) about how those involved were tricked into making those choices, and a clear headed respectful 20/20 hindsight view of what the good/better choices would have been.

    Basically, what you’ve given us here for free.

  36. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 11:18 am

    Mike, I used to ski up there quite a bit back in the day, decades ago, and even back then there was some crazy stuff going on that sometimes ended in tragedy. Solo skiers with no gear was how it often manifested.

    Thanks for understanding my use of the word “stupid.”

    I didn’t feel like pulling any punches on that. If someone got killed sight seeing on the accident site that would be just so bad…


  37. Christi Cline April 26th, 2013 11:19 am

    Lou- respectfully, while yes, a radio would have helped with the lost skiier issue, they are beside the point. A radio won’t make you any safer than an avalanche beacon or an airbag. It’s what’s between your ears, and what you do with it, not the stuff hanging off your pack.

  38. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 11:21 am

    CMS, point taken. I think I’ll let that stand and take the flack, in the interest of making a strong statement. Again, in the interest of helping everyone be on guard for the syndromes that must have been at the root of this tragedy.

    But I’ll also go back through these posts in a few days and if anything leaps out as too offensive I’ll look at a few small edits that tone it down without interfering with historical continuity of the comment threads.

    I owe that much to the survivors, that’s for sure.


  39. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 11:24 am

    Scott, what you allude to is a HUGE factor actually. It comes into play all the time when folks are at mountain huts, where you can step out the door into danger just feet away. Lou

  40. Colin G April 26th, 2013 11:30 am

    Apparently there is another Colin on here, so henceforth I will refer to myself as Colin G in WildSnow comments. Perhaps the other Colin will ad their initial as well?

  41. Dave April 26th, 2013 11:34 am

    Lou, terrific pics. A buddy and I were up at the Basin yesterday and stopped by the Scotty’s Corner parking area on the way back to Denver. I took some photos, but by then (4:00) the clouds had rolled in, and there was quite a bit of flat light. We did not leave the parking area, as we didn’t have safety gear. Thankfully the small handful of other folks who pulled over during our 5 minutes there stayed in the lot as well. One glance at the slope to the right of the beginning of the old summer road immediately off the parking area looks sketch. I estimated it at 30 degrees. Interesting to read in your notes that it averages 31. Very sobering to find out about the 1948 avy in this very spot. Can’t believe tourist gapers would be ignorant enough to venture onto the trail and into the debris field. The trees upslope of the parking area might give a false sense of security, until you stop for a moment to realize this grove of evergreens is for all intents & purposes the end of treeline. One glance at a topo map confirms the danger of the slope to the right 10 feet onto the summer road. To be honest, I was not even aware people skied/rode the Sheep Creek drainage. Seems super sketch in many respects.

    Mike, interesting stat on the core demographic. Makes sense, I guess. I can tell you that Loveland Pass attracts a lot of skiers/riders younger than that. Lots of high school kids from Denver metro who can’t afford/don’t want to pony up for resort passes. Many of them “can’t afford” avy safety gear, either. It truly is somewhat of a shit show.

    I found a personal visit to Scotty’s Corner overwhelmingly emotional. I quickly got a lump in my throat and was absolutely overcome for a few moments. I didn’t know any of the guys but chatted briefly with Ian Lamphere at his Gecko Skins booth at the SIA Snow Show. Good looking, confident, well spoken dude stoked about his business and life. The human toll in this tragedy makes me sick to my stomach with sorrow.

    Lou, thanks for heading out there yesterday. Your pics are way better than mine and provide a sobering analysis. They also provide a clear picture of how quickly you can be in sketchy terrain from a parking area. Might be time to re-examine BC access point decision making. Makes you wonder if the convenience of the pull-out combined with the easy traverse along the summer road led to a sense of fatal complacency in this tragedy.

    Vibes to all those affected, especially the families and friends of victims, Jerome, and SAR.

  42. Paul April 26th, 2013 11:34 am

    Just getting familiar with the circumstances of this avalanche and tragedy. I’ve known the survivor for a long time as well as one of the deceased. I’ve taken more time this week just contemplating the loss of life and the loss of a friend rather than the exact details.

    In any event, reading through this analysis, I see 2 lines dictating a “safe” route and the fatal route and the seemingly obvious flaw in the party’s decision making. This analysis was also done on a clear day when “obvious” routes are easier to find. There is no mention in this article or any of the comments of the weather the day of the slide. I was told (which may or may not be true) that it was a storm day with poor visibility.

    The mystery of why they stayed on that contour instead of deviating 20 or 30 ft. to the east could have simply been low visibility.

  43. SR April 26th, 2013 11:37 am

    Proximity definitely is impactful. Switching activitivities, I think that’s one thing that makes the Bastille prone to climbing accidents. It’s also an issue for sidecountry ski and ride access — comfy ride from the chair (or in the car in this case), and immediately you can be in something very different from Disneyland.

  44. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 11:45 am

    Paul, super good point. And would lead one to the conclusion that simply being there that day was a tragic choice.

    I’m told that at least one person in the group had been there many many times, if that’s the case they would have known the route choices. I’d hope so, anyway.

    I’ll do some more potentially insulting guesswork here in the comments where it’s less noticeable to do so, and say I’m starting to wonder if perhaps part of this situation was one fit and fast person led off and made an incredibly poor route choice, and due to group dynamics everyone else just followed along. Could have happened that way… and another thing to watch out for in our own groups. I used to be the guy out front quite often, now I hardly ever am and have to say I’ve been in this exact situation many times: at the rear of the group, noticing the person up ahead possibly going the wrong way, and I’m wondering what to do about it. Not a nice situation.


  45. Andrew April 26th, 2013 11:58 am

    So, why cross the 1948 slide path when it hasn’t released?

  46. Colin M April 26th, 2013 12:00 pm

    Paul, it was cloudy and overcast at the time of the accident. During the rescue it was clear and after it started snowing hard.

  47. mattross April 26th, 2013 12:02 pm

    Pretty Grim and it makes me rethink my BC skiing “expertise.” Would I have taken that line? Would I have even gone into the BC on this day. I have yet to tour this winter due to the early shallow snow pack, then the late pounding. If there was thought of skiing off piste two weeks ago, that was silenced by the massive and I say massive slide in Maroon Bowl off of Highlands.

    You just have to wonder, is it worth pushing it, what is the risk/reward? You have kids, a wife, the avi forecast is considerable on NW aspects. We just got 4 feet. I know skiing off piste was the last thing on my mind the last couple weeks. Is that me being lazy? I don’t think so. I believe it is just not worth it to put myself at risk.
    Anyway, really sad and just not necessary. After Lou’s assessment, it really reminds me of the Tunnel Creek Avi. Just some bad decisions.
    Vibes to the Family;s

  48. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 12:13 pm

    Andrew, lots of factors came into play with our decision making during our site visit. Main one was that an incredibly beat out path (boot packed and wide) existed that was downhill and would only take us minutes to cross, totally one-at-a-time, and was also a quick walk for return. We were using radios, and doing everything totally by the book. The beat out path is a huge factor when it comes to remote triggering or triggering a slope from near the bottom. By sticking to the path, that hazard was minimal in my opinion. We deemed the risk to be acceptable and worth our goal of doing a really good job of documenting the slide. Yesterday I would not have touched the slab above the path, nor the slab developing on the 2013 avalanche path below the wind swale. That was already looking scary.

    I guess the point I’m making here is there is a huge huge difference between the risk of a natural avalanche coming down on top of you, as opposed to triggering one yourself. It is common in mountaineering to cross below avalanche paths in such as way as to have no chance of triggering them, doing it quickly one-at-a-time. It’s like driving Highway 6 below the paths that come across the road. When you do that, you figure it’s an acceptable risk because the chance of the slide getting you is so low. That’s the thinking, anyway. It comes down to the old risk/vs reward equation and where you fit yourself into that.

    I’d add that if we had gotten there yesterday and the beat-out path had not existed, I might have opted to NOT have crossed that slope. Honestly. I was mentally prepared on the way over to simply go to the parking and take photos, then leave.

    One of the CAIC guys had even warned me off, which I appreciated and kept in mind the whole day as it was obvious the 2013 path was being reloaded by the wind.

    P.S., we of course don’t know the exact state of the trail on April 20, but I’d say there is an excellent chance it was not near as beat in as we found it yesterday. Whatever the case, it is an obviously dangerous place and the fact that the group of 6 chose to ski in that way for a brief fun visit to the area is something I think is important to consider. Perhaps I’m wrong about that and it was no big deal for them, but that’s not how I feel.


  49. Kahn April 26th, 2013 12:16 pm

    Thanks Lou, great stuff. I always say – just skin up from the first switchback with the available parking and random hitchhikers. You’ll have the meadows and upper ridgelines to yourself, and clearly see the slopes to avoid skiing and travelling under. Most hitchhikers will drop in from the pass or hike down to the Professor. No need to put oneself in danger.

  50. MtnMama April 26th, 2013 12:29 pm

    I extend my condolences to the family, friends and communities of the victims. May you find some peace and comfort in this process.

    Lou, I wonder if you know of a good online source for past avalanches in Colorado? Ones like that 1948 slide? How can future backcountry travelers learn of the history of these paths? I reviewed the CAIC site and it has a little bit of info in chart form. I would really like to see something like a topo or google map with slide paths and statistics? Do you know of anything like this or of anything in the works?

    It seems like living in a tight knit community this info is out there and discussed. Finding this information for skiing in a new area can be tricky. It would be great if this info was documented somewhere…just the slides, not the goods.

  51. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 12:34 pm

    Mama, it’s a problem with funding. I’m sure the CAIC guys would be delighted to extend their online database back into the 1940 and to create a mapping system, but at the level of funding I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.

    Besides, just seeing where accidents have been and using that for decision making is very misleading, since the frequency of accidents depends on ease of access and frequency of use as much as it does on how dangerous an area is.


  52. Jack April 26th, 2013 12:43 pm


    without the benefit of seeing the site first-hand it seems like it would be easy to view the slide debris and then just determine that if you move “a few feet over” and then you are on the “safe route”. However, is there really an obvious terrain feature that determines where the safe route at the site is? During another year under differnt conditions is it possible that safe route you have depicted would be in the horrible terrrain trap (danger zone)?

  53. Dave Johnson April 26th, 2013 12:46 pm

    Thanks, Lou. I’m glad you’re helping to elevate the discussion of this tragic incident beyond the “it could happen to any of us” level. That may be an accurate statement, but I think we honor the victims best by learning from their mistake and using it to save lives.

    Perhaps this was something as simple as the group not communicating well and the leader taking off on a bad line and everyone just following. We will have to wait to hear from the fortunate survivor.

    My condolences to the victims family and friends.

  54. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 1:07 pm

    Jack, yes, there is an obvious gully and if you’re above the left bank of the gully going up, to me it’s an obvious safe zone though a bit disconcerting to have that big avalanche path just sitting there off to the right close at hand. It would not be a place I’d tend to ski tour in winter, that’s for sure. But if one did want to go up there, there are ways to sneak around. Once you’re on the west facing low angled zone, it’s pretty cool for around 700 vert a person could lap. There are some terrain features the snowboarders would probably enjoy, and perhaps session. This assuming that you are safe from slopes above you on Sniktau, which during our tour on the west facing zone were stripped bare, but I suppose could be dangerous.

    One thing I did in my writing is I tried to emphasize just how close and easy to access the safe route is. I did not intended to imply it’s so close to the danger route as to be confusing. To someone who knows route finding it is totally obvious.


  55. Richard April 26th, 2013 1:10 pm

    I think that the industry numbers point to many more events like this happening for the foreseeable future. Go on forums like TGR and you see post after post that starts out with something like, “I’m going to get into BC skiing this year….” The only growth market in the ski business this year is in vibram soled boots with walk features and the skis, skins, and bindings that match up with them. Ski videos glorify guys doing back flips with slides roaring down behind them. It does not paint a rosy scenario for what is to come. Add in a chronically unstable continental snowpack in the rocky mountains and the picture becomes even more unfriendly.
    I’m one of those grizzled guys with 30+ years with hundreds of touring days (almost exclusively in the alps with UIAGM guides) in the book and the more I learn, the more I realize just how much I don’t know. I mourn the loss of all these wonderful people and implore skiers new to the sport (which includes many so-called experts) to learn from those who have paid their dues in the mountains. The sport requires strong lungs and legs, but the brain remains the most vital part of the equation.
    This blog (and the NYT Tunnel Creek story) should be required reading for everyone heading out of area. The “scared straight” approach is very persuasive.

  56. john red-horse April 26th, 2013 1:22 pm

    Hey Lou,

    So many of the things you discussed in the earlier posts on this horrific accident are subject to many external factors, such as skiing with fewer people (e.g. when other groups may actually already be on the slopes above and unknown to you).

    But this assessment hits home with things that really can be controlled day in and day out, (1) Separation and (2) Terrain management.

    I still think there’s a finite chance that this slide could have been a natural. If so, and if it’d been any bigger, it still could have buried the crew on your diversion below the current runout.


  57. chris April 26th, 2013 1:42 pm

    Hmmm, as you traversed across ‘below’ the face of the former 1948 avalanche, did you consider that you were passing below the same heavily loaded slope character that held energy from the slide that moved just a bit east last week? Was it the well traveled path that gave you confidence? Maybe you dug a pit first? Yes there were trees above you, but if you remember the huge avalanche that blocked I70 above Georgetown a decade back, it was filled with split trees and huge boulders. Trying not to tempt a slab avalanche is a good idea eh. You are obviously safe so you are in good shape to talk.

    I like your graphics, but may suggest that you reconsider that the entire gulley floor below the slide was a slurry fill death trap, not too sure about your safe path. The only safe route ‘may’ have bee to cross low where you suggested and then ascend up the opposite north south facing slope and not entering ‘anywhere in the gully’ at all. Once that gulley filled, that snow became hardened cement down there, just lethal. I am sure you noticed how solid and icy the avy terrain was.

    Just some thoughts. I don’t know if any single of my thoughts are particularly true, or any better or worse than yours. BTW I liked your last message, be careful! Yes, and back country travel is a risk. Yes. Is it worth the risk, I believe so, at times anyway, and it is alright to turn back no matter how much group dynamic or peer pressure you have too. There are always other days.

    Glad you took pictures. I have some too from the following day after the accident that I can share if you like.

  58. chris April 26th, 2013 1:46 pm

    Correction west facing to the north.

  59. Andrew April 26th, 2013 1:49 pm

    I hear you Lou, but from an Avalanche 101 perspective, you broke at least five rules in knowingly crossing that 1948 path. But, I guess the rules are meant to be broken by… experts.

  60. Dave Field April 26th, 2013 1:52 pm

    Here’s an available resource showing known paths on Loveland Pass:

    Doesn’t differentiate the 1948 slide from the recent slide but its a clear indication of the kind of terrain you’re getting into right off the highway.

  61. Brian in SLC April 26th, 2013 1:59 pm

    Really well done, clear eyed. Appreciate the voice of much experience here with a very hard analysis, on a personal level, to come up with.

    Its difficult to be critical of especially other experienced folks who’ve made mistakes.

    Well done and thank you.

  62. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 2:09 pm

    Andrew, thanks for your take. I did what I thought was appropriate for the conditions and goals at hand. If you deem it inappropriate or rule breaking, then that’s of course a totally valid opinion and good to add to the discussion. I’m happy for people to learn from my mistakes or actions. Lou

  63. Bryce April 26th, 2013 2:10 pm

    I’ve been wanting a report like this since the incident happened.

  64. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 2:21 pm

    Guys, just to clarify, the route on the _other side of the gully_ is the 100% (edit, 99%) safe route. Getting over there still involves a brief exposure to 2013 path and of course traversing the access trail under other slopes with terrain trap below you. I’ll look back at blog post and be sure I made that clear. No intention to mislead anyone, indeed, I might have implied that the tour up there is safer than it is! If I did so, my bad. It’s a truly dangerous place if there is avy danger on NE exposures. More, no one is saying that crossing over the gully to the safe zone is nothing, but it’s a pretty short distance and a short drop, though with thin snowpack it’s said there might be some willows that are a hassle but still passable.

    The main point is that if you insist on going up there and passing under the 2013 path, there is a way to do it that’s more along the lines of avalanche terrain route finding.


  65. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 2:28 pm

    Just to keep this on the up-and-up, I changed the word “safe” to “safer” in a few places. But know that the blue dots route is pretty darned safe once you’re over on the east side and above the gully. Besides getting there that day, which would have scared the heck out of me, once I was on the blue dot route I would have been comfortable. That’s just me, anyway… Lou

  66. chris April 26th, 2013 2:48 pm

    Lou, glad you changed ‘safe’ to ‘safer’ I have pictures of the deep pit that will add perspective to that entire gully area was a death trap. Also Lou, I want to thank you for picking up the challenge of opening up this whole discussion to advance the ‘science of avalanche avoidance policy.’ Someone had to do it. I challenged your thinking just as you had theirs, because in all of us collectively splitting hairs we can bring avalanche awareness one more step forward. Nice work, it must be exhausting. One thing I’d like to add is I very much appreciate your remote trigger background experience from your quiver of journeys. I too, long ago had such a trip where we were walking on egg shells and our every move was felt by surrounding mountains, frankly terrifying. Not all conditions are so unstable, but wen they are remote trigger events, you literally don’t want people even talking any less yelling. My next point, though a strange one to young skiers. I grew up skiing back country where our 10th Mtn Division parents told us to yodel to trigger an avalanche before we entered a canyon. They were not joking. Sound travels at 700mph, and carries with it in an oscillating tone a similar sonic vibration to a blast wave, as they use now days in ski areas to clear slopes. Yodeling was also a means of long distance communication using canyon walls as vibration reflectors to channel sound down adjacent canyons via an echo chamber. That way remote parties could connect over long distances while making the terrain ahead a bit safer. Nobody yodels today. It used to be fun practice getting the right tone, pitch, and vibration, especially when done in harmony. Nope, it does not replace a good mortar round, but In the past I have seen it move a slope. These days maybe yodeling cannot be policy, because so many more people are traveling back
    country that you could remotely release on another party. Back to my main point, your discussion should be archived, this is very good thinking and I applaud you for picking up the charge.

  67. chris April 26th, 2013 2:52 pm

    Your upper terrain blue dots, sure, lower ah not so much. 😉

  68. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 3:02 pm

    I know how to yodel, and it doesn’t trigger avalanches.

  69. Renee April 26th, 2013 3:11 pm


    You mentioned wanting a good book on human and avalanches, I just finished a fastastic read, Snowstruck by Jill Fredston. Granted it is based in Alaska, but chronicles the forcasting scene up there over the years, and covers many of the issues of human decisions and teaching people about avalanches, from the experts position.

  70. chris April 26th, 2013 3:33 pm

    Okay Lou, you realize a boot can remotely trigger an avy, so here goes, a marching band collapsed a bridge because of their uniform oscillation movement. Not only can kinetic oscillations, so can wind oscillations (airwave pulsing) trigger an avalanche, or for that matter exert enough force to collapse a heavily engineered suspension bridge. Check with your physics pals. Watch the attached video Lou. Glad to know you can yodel however. Have a good ski this weekend, depending on where you go conditions are great!

  71. John Gloor April 26th, 2013 3:37 pm

    Lou, in the last picture, from behind the skier, you can see the ridge above the fracture line. It looks a little steep above the road, but is it a safe route to the summit?

    @Chris, the energy in a yell/yodel would not do anything at three feet. There is no way it would have any effect after being dissipated 360 degrees and traveling thousands of feet.

  72. SR April 26th, 2013 3:48 pm

    I am wondering what type of role-playing and group practice could help on both the routefinding and spacing issues here. Intra-party, groups certainly might be made to feel more comfortable staying on each other to keep safe spacing, though it seems here the group wasn’t being “herded” in a La Traviata sense, and was trying to space, but for some reason thought 50 feet was safe, or safe enough. The 50 feet is a curious number for that reason.

    In terms of avoiding terrain traps, I honestly think there’s already been a pretty strong culture of avoiding them, and gullies always rank high on that list.

    At an appropriate time, it would be good to get a group dynamics report to see where people think the decisionmaking here went bad at the micro level — how, for instance, the slope that went was correctly identified as a hazard, but then 50 foot spacing was used in partial response. And, suggestions on how each of those micro mistakes might be avoided. For instance, my gut is that if there had been an express discussion of where the slide risk was along there route, followed by a discussion of how far they had to space, they would have run squarely into the issues presented by their routefinding. So, did they in fact have that kind of express discussion (and my gut is wrong, and something else was off?) or did some of this get done without express discussion, in which case talking thing through may have helped?

    Sorry to use firearms as an analogy, because I know some can find it a contentious subject, but for safely handing a shotgun or rifle to a hunting partner, the reason for the ritualized behavior there (“Is it loaded?”, “Thank you (I have it now)”) is to ensure that critical issues are expressly addressed.

  73. chris April 26th, 2013 3:49 pm

    I will have to say that we had no proof that 30 years ago fifteen people yodeling in harmony actually triggered the natural slide we witnessed, as it was a natural slide day, and we all laughed about it being proof. It was probably just coincidence, and one for Myth Busters to take up in an episode to disprove. However, I am convinced air wave pulses can creating an oscillating frequency that can release energy from an unstable slope and trigger a natural slide. Think what you want. If this is of no help in getting into the physics of remote trigger avalanches, go back to temperature and water for a cause that satisfies. There is probably a better line of discussion, like Lou’s ‘safer’ path analysis.

  74. Kahn April 26th, 2013 4:13 pm

    Lou, what do you think the conditions would have to be for the 1948 path to run again? During the big winter of two years ago, I remember CAIC reporting about a path behind/to the east of Keystone that ran the furthest and/or most destructive it did in 200 years.

  75. Kihm April 26th, 2013 4:56 pm

    The series of books called “The Snowy Torrents” should be read by anyone planning to spend time outside during winter.

  76. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 4:57 pm

    Gad, firearms and yodeling, should I turn off the comments now (grin)?

    Seriously, good point on the firearm rituals, but as for the yodeling perhaps a big group yodeling like a bunch of maniacs could cause something, but that is an outlier for sure.

    Back to the discussion, sensitive remote triggering of slides due to weight on the snowpack is very real, very scary, and sometimes very deadly.


  77. James B April 26th, 2013 5:00 pm

    Lou, I have the same question as “John Gloor” above. I’ve never been to the site, and 2-D photos can be deceiving, but my first thought about a route choice when looking through the photos was to skin straight up out of the parking area (90 degrees from the trail taken) through the trees, crossing above the top of 1948 and following the ridgeline (on the crunchy non wind-loaded aspect) across the top of the 2013 slide area around to the low-aspect side of the bowl.

    Is there something out there discouraging to that route? Just curious. I’m not a Colorado skier.

  78. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 5:06 pm

    James, it is possible for that actually to be a good route, but more for accessing the top of Mount Sniktau. Problem is that when you get past the top of the 2013 avalanche, you’d need to traverse in somewhere to get back to the skiing and there are several other avalanche paths you might encounter.

    As far as I can see the best way in is just to wait till conditions are moderate or low rated, then go in via the established access trail, but then take the “blue” route.


  79. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 5:24 pm

    Kahn, judging from the slope angle, aspect, vegetation and conversations with CAIC guys, I think that slope runs fairly frequently. At least once every few years, perhaps several times on some years. And it’s certainly a concern on a year like this. It would not surprise if one went up to the most obvious starting zone, tied into a belay, and starting stomping around, they would trigger an avalanche down over the access trail. I considered going up that way and dropping in via what seemed like the safest line, but doing so would have threatened all the sightseers using the foot path so I discounted that idea after considering it for about two seconds. There are some old ski tracks next to the 3013 path that appear they might be from the CAIC researchers returning from their fracture line evaluation. Lou

  80. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 5:34 pm

    Just an overall observation that might speak to our culture: Apparently there were airbags and Avalungs in the group, but none of that stuff was in play. But they did have their beacons turned on. Does anyone find it interesting that a person would turn on their beacon and venture up that trail with their airbag trigger zipped up? This really got me thinking, as I tend to do the same thing myself (leave beacon on all the time, but deploy and stow other gear depending…).

  81. Mitchellskis April 26th, 2013 7:37 pm


    Thanks for your research and write up.

    I’d say the wisest advice is to avoid this area. Crossing under at least 2 avalanche paths that funnel into a terrain trap to get some maybe 500′ marginally cool west facing glades is not worth it.

    I’ve skied the pass for over 20 years and have never gone to this area due to the terrain trap situation. I have skied directly off the road down into the Loveland Ski Valley once they are closed but never down that road. If the conditions are safe enough to go in there, I’d be on a much bigger line than anything over there.

    Just not worth it.

  82. Colin W (initial as requested, 3rd Colin) April 26th, 2013 10:02 pm


    First, thank you very much for the excellent write-up and Joe’s photos. The visuals help a lot.

    We’ve been discussing this amongst my friends here in California (who also read Wildsnow) and a few things stuck out to us:

    1. We’re glad we don’t have to deal with a spooky Continental snowpack. Remote trigger conditions like you’ve been experiencing in CO are exceedingly rare here.

    2. The “Tunnel Creek Syndrome” seems like it may have been in play here. I think there are a couple of components to that term… group size is a big one; potentially lack of democratic discussion at the trailhead/early while touring. I dunno. But the accidents seem eerily similar to me.

    3. (What caused me to comment right now with your last comment) The stowed airbag tabs and unused Avalungs really struck me when I read the CAIC report. This, to me, made it seem like they really weren’t in “danger mode” yet–perhaps because they were so close to the car. I’m sure plenty of people, as you noted, stow this stuff while in their touring mindset and pull it out when they’re in their skiing mindset. I pull my Avalung mouthpiece out whenever I’m in avalanche or treewell terrain. But then, that’s just personal habit. When I took Avy I in 2006, those safety items weren’t as common (in the U.S., in the case of ABS packs) yet. But part of the course material was, “Beacon check at the trailhead.” Maybe it should now be “Beacon, ABS, and Avalung check at the trailhead”?

    4. In this post, and your last, you keep discussing avalanche education and how we’re not doing something right. Can you expand on that? When I took my AAIRE Avalanche I, the course stressed routefinding, weather, and visual factors more than anything–which I think is what you were getting at. There was very little focus on, for example, pit digging and snow science, and only a bit more focus on companion rescue.

  83. byates1 April 26th, 2013 10:34 pm

    attending a seminar in slc years ago, i asked bruce tremper about huristics, it did not seem to me to make sense to focus on the snow, but on the human element.

    he agreed, and offered “what we are doing isn’t working”

    i am certainly sorry this has hit close to home for you, for all. you touched on what the origin of the problem is earlier in your dissertation. it’s us. not the snowpack.

    i have chosen not to be clouded in my mind, to control what comes in. no tv, no facebook, very limited media on all fronts. what constantly screams at us shapes us.

    the effect of our contininued exploration into uncharted waters regarding the current snowsports industry, social media, etc, seems a bit, well, rushed and shallow.

    touching back to the human element, we seem to be losing that..

  84. Lou Dawson April 26th, 2013 10:41 pm

    Colin, regarding education I don’t pretend to have the answers, I’m just pointing out that perhaps the avalanche safety teaching system could be even more emphatic about the decision making process. Perhaps they need to implement more actual behavior modification exercises. I just continue to be stunned that this could have happened…. Lou

  85. David B April 27th, 2013 4:55 am

    Lou, you’re right it’s a head scratcher. I have never skied the area in question but I have poured over the images over the last couple of days and I can’t understand what would made them take the path they did. The obvious choice is to the left, if for nothing more than it takes the terrain trap out of play.

    I was involved in a rescue some years ago involving two deaths and eight serious injuries and apart from the obvous physical mistakes made by the unfortunate “guided” party was familiarity. ie I’ve skied it many times before and it’s never slid. Perhaps this might explain things.

  86. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 7:07 am

    The “1948” avalanche I marked on some of the photos and was using to name the slopes over the access trail may not be correctly termed, and the people in 1948 perished in a slightly different spot near the parking. They’re still dangerous slopes and obviously slide periodically, so nothing changes in terms of what exists, but we’d better stop calling that the “1948” slope and instead the “slopes above the access trail,” or something like that. Apologies for not getting that dialed, other than terminology it’s not a big deal, point being that in terms of decision making and general feel for the area, when you park your car you are surrounded by dangerous avalanche terrain where people have died. Game on before you even open your car door, in other words.

    More, this morning I made some small improvements to some of the photo annotations. It’s important to get that when exiting the access trail you have choice of going where the accident group went, or going left where it is quite a bit safer and eventually totally safe from the slide that buried them. But there is NO good alternative route to the access traverse trail which also passes under avalanche paths which could throw you down into a terrain trap as well.


  87. loveland April 27th, 2013 7:57 am

    No worries lou, the slopes above the trail from the parking lot are obviously dangerous, whatever the past history and exact locations of accidents. It seems that what important is the place is overall a danger zone

  88. Anders April 27th, 2013 9:46 am

    regarding avalanche education: I think it has gone under a significant change with more emphasis on decision making and communication. I think people need to realize the limitations of a 3 day course for a Level 1 and a 4 day course for a Level 2. People need to know the education doesnt stop after they take a course. Often people seem focused on getting the certificate (although you are not certified until you take a Level 3 course that includes a field and written test). A level 1 is like learning how to fly a plane in 3 days. It is known that the most dangerous time to be a pilot is the 50 hours to 350 hours of training. You might have the book knowledge but havent gained the purposeful decision making needed to stay alive.
    So how do we overcome this as backcountry travelers in avy terrain? Find a mentor. Be purposeful in your continuing education. Be very aware of your level of training and experience with the conditions and honest with yourself and your partners. Dialing it back should be more acceptable. Sadly the group seemed doomed from the moment they left the trailhead. With the explosion of backcountry use we may see the number of accidents increase,

  89. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 9:57 am

    Well said Anders, thanks. I totally 100% agree that avalanche education has vastly improved and indeed continues to focus more and more on human factors and decision making. My main point is if it looks like a duck, quacks like a duck, it is a duck. In other words, if an accident like this can happen to a group of smart and avalanche trained individuals, we at least need to look at the education side of things. And no, I’m _not_ saying the education is the key factor here, I of course have no idea. But the question has to be asked, based on the individuals involved. If it was a group of tourists on foot trying to look at wildlife, I’d not be bringing this up. Lou

  90. See April 27th, 2013 10:43 am

    I never knew the individuals involved in this sad event. Judging by what I’ve read, they were fine people, knowledgeable and accomplished bc riders, loved by many, and will be sorely missed. Also, I believe that while skill and experience can improve the odds, bad stuff can still happen.

    But I am still wondering if it could be significant that both this most recent tragedy and Tunnel creek involved knowledgeable people from within “the industry.”

    Could it be (as others have suggested) that what is not quite right with the culture is related to the fact that what was once a fringe activity has become big business?

    This growth has been fueled in part by the creation and marketing of a youtube myth. A number of the professionals who have contributed to the creation and marketing of this myth have been hurt or killed in the process.

    The popular image of backcountry skiing today is very different from what I remember 20 years ago. I am aware of the history of alpinism, but it is my feeling that what previously might have been considered exceptional in terms of risk has become more widely accepted.

    I wonder if this recent event was not “delusional” so much as it was another roll of the dice.

  91. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 11:27 am

    See, “delusional” was probably indeed the wrong word. I was never comfortable with it so I changed it out of respect for those involved. Nonetheless, I’m glad you brought it up, and the associated issue of how much risk tolerance we’re seeing.

    I did a blog post a while back about how important it is in avalanche safety to be quite risk averse (if that’s the right word). Along with that, I could be miss-perceiving things but it often looks to me like people with knowledge of avalanche risk are frequently less averse to it than the culture was, say, 25 years ago.

    There is indeed a mythology surrounding the sport that I’ll admit I’ve had my own small part in creating, that of perfect pow days and summit lunches in the sun, and video or stills of white perfection… when sometimes, perhaps even most of the time, the reality is totally different. This is where plain old mentorship comes in, mentorship that I think the vast majority of backcountry skiers are not getting due to the amazing explosion in sudden popularity.

    When driving back the other day by East Vail sidecountry, I thought, isn’t this ironic? The ski industry spends billons of dollars creating perfect piste, and the hottest thing in skiing is to avoid that at all costs?

    Humans. Always up to something unexpected.

  92. David J. Rothman April 27th, 2013 11:28 am

    Hi Lou —

    I completely agree with your assessment of this event. I know this area well, as I’ve climbed up into it (though never to the top) on a number of occasions when my sons were racing at Loveland Valley. I’d climb the ski area, then keep on going up the drainage if there were time before the starts — it’s directly accessible above the top of the lift (with a safer approach than from the road if you choose a good route, up out of the gully on climber’s left). Most of the time it has been about this time of year and relatively safe, but I vividly remember getting deeply spooked in there on one occasion and moving immediately and directly over to where that safe line is — it really is pretty obvious if you’re paying attention. When I saw their route I just couldn’t believe it. Not only are the features large, but the access is directly into a large terrain trap, directly underneath a typically wind-loaded northeast slope at the perfect angle to slide. Given the amount of new snow and wind over the last few weeks (four feet!), that pitch was primed like a bomb.

    Our community is so small — I didn’t know any of these guys, but am just once removed from three of them — friends of acquaintances. My heart goes out to their friends and family.

    On the education issue, here’s what I’d observe. I think I have a good recommendation here on snow-science curriculum. Look at the ages of those who were trapped — they were 32 to 36. I would humbly suggest that this age — early to mid 30s — may still be in that window for the deadliest age for men in the backcountry.

    I say all of what follows based on observation of others, and memories of myself at that age!

    Men at this age — call it 28 to 35 — are as strong as they’ll ever be, and still have the energy of youth even if the first bloom is off the rose. Also, many of them who are serious about the sport have a good deal of experience (even up to several hundred tours) but perhaps not as much as they really need to understand the best decision-making process, unless they are full-on UIMGA ski-certified pros. Esp. in a large group of excited guys, protocols can fall by the wayside and the strategic sense of decision-making process can get all too easily disrupted. I remember this well.

    So here’s a suggestion. WE SHOULD THINK ABOUT INSTITUTING A SPECIFIC EDUCATIONAL PROTOCOL ABOUT HOW AGE AND GENDER CAN INFLUENCE DECISION MAKING. EVERY AVVY CLASS SHOULD INCLUDE EXPLICIT WARNINGS TO YOUNG MEN — MAYBE UP TO THE AGE OF 40!! — OF HOW DECISION-MAKING CAN GO AWRY IN A GROUP MADE UP ENTIRELY OF SUCH FOLKS. This could be a very specific, red-lined psychological-educational protocol for Avvy 1 and beyond, and should include case histories and group decision-making drills, which could even be graded.

    The other obvious issue is: route-finding, route-finding, route-finding.

    Again, my heart goes out to the families and friends. I cannot even imagine the sorrow.

    Lou, I hope you and yours are well. thanks for the incredible work you do.

    Dave R.

  93. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 11:35 am

    Thanks David, that means much coming from you, and the fact that you know the terrain, wow.

    I’ve heard nothing about if we’ll see deeper analysis of this accident that’s done in any meaningful way (though Denver Post is said to be preparing something), but I’d be very surprised if it was not use as a scenario in coming years, for avalanche safety classes.


  94. Njord April 27th, 2013 12:09 pm


    This accident will definitely make it into my AIARE Level 1&2 classes that I teach for CMC and the NSP. There are many lessons to take away from this at many different levels.


  95. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 12:15 pm

    All, due to some emails I want to clarify something.

    Because of Denver Post article stating the victims were ” …guides, avalanche experts and veteran backcountry travelers.” I assumed some meaningful level of formal avalanche training within the group and hence am pretty harsh on how ineffective such training might have been.

    Turns out the level of formal training in the group might have been quite low.

    If that is true, my point about education still stands though I may have to update the post a bit so the concept is presented differently.

    First, since the event the individuals attended included an avalanche safety component, they were indeed recently exposed to avalanche education. Though not formally.

    As one even participant stated in newspaper: “Our whole goal was about being safe. The goal for us was just getting together to talk about safety and try some new gear.”

    Second, and my main point: Standards and ideas promulgated by formal avalanche training in North America have a powerful influence on ALL backcountry skiers, and set informal standards for safety protocols.

    Thus, again my point, if an accident such as this can happen, perhaps there is a severe failure in how the avy education is being done, and a re-think is necessary.

    The whole thing is like herd immunity when it comes to vaccinations. If enough people in the general public are vaccinated with a functional vaccine, some people in the population can go without vacination and will probably never get sick, because of “herd immunity” and the fact that the disease has no ability to spread.

    Same with avy education. Skiers and riders completing avalanche courses will never reach 100%. But if enough people are taught, and they are taught good stuff, there will be a degree of “herd immunity” to avalanche accidents — especially accidents resulting from basic mistakes.

    Thus, in that sense, no matter what the exact education level of the group in Sheep Creek, it makes me call into question the style and content of present day avalanche safety education.

    If I’m wrong to do that, apologies. But I’m going with my gut here…


  96. Mason April 27th, 2013 1:11 pm

    I’ve been thinking more about risk acceptance for a few years, ever since 2 close calls. Skiing is recreation, why risk life and limb for that? There are many answers to this question I suppose. I’ve tried coming up with analogies to help wrap my head around this question, here’s a few. Soccer, enjoyed the world over by players and spectators, isn’t too risky except for some fans experiencing riots or players in plane crashes. Mountaineering, in the Himalaya for example, is pretty damn risky. What about the guides in Chamonix who regularly perish? I’ve heard that almost all kayakers who huck large waterfalls will eventually sustain a serious back injury. Then there’s the old drive down the canyon that kills someone every year. Powder skiing is soooo goood, are the endorphins clouding our judgement? Maybe a detailed look at accident statistics in these sports could help explain how dangerous it is. Backcountry skiing is DANGEROUS, right?
    We ALL accept a level of risk when heading out from the trailhead, you’re wearing a tranceiver, right? When we evaluate other peoples mistakes we better be holding up a mirror at the same time. If Lou had been caught in a slide the other day, 1948 or otherwise, then the more risk averse folks would have been criticizing him big time, he would’ve been called stupid. You would see those comments on the newspaper blogs that say people who backcountry ski are stupid. It’s relative risk, like the gapers on snowshoes with cell phone cameras. Hiking alone in grizzly bear country is not recommended, so the kid can’t walk down the block to the bus stop? Or I can’t walk my dog after dark because a mountain lion might eat me? We have to draw the line somewhere just to get out the door!
    Avalanche education will improve, but will rising popularity outweigh that? What’s the old saying, “there are only 2 guarantees in life, taxes and death”? Humans are at the mercy of nature (and the government), and the avalanche doesn’t know you’re an expert.

  97. John April 27th, 2013 2:52 pm

    I have found this conversation to be informative, despite the tragedy that has given spark to it. There are some things we can take control of to mitigate the risk of skiing or boarding in Avalanche terrain. I have had to explain to family members the dynamics and risk mitigation of Back Country Skiing and Ski-Mountaineering.

    In looking back on my personal experience, the friends I have lost due avalanches have all been killed while ascending, and these deaths have always been in multiples. I can’t stress enough the importance of separation when crossing below avy terrain, or just steering clear of it all together, no matter how much out of the way it is.

    I like the SLC concept of manageable vs. non-manageable terrain. Last year I didn’t tour in CO because I felt the snowpack was un-manageable. I skied on resort or went to other countries.

    At the beginning of every trip, a complete check, and readiness should be made of all safety equipment; Avalung mouthpieces, ABS trigger handles, beacons checked, and radios checked and locked on the selected frequency. The planned and contingent routes should be thoroughly understood by everyone. I find the most valuable tool is your eyes, or your buddy’s eyes, paired with good communication.

    The largest avys I have encountered have been in Maritime snow packs, followed by Inter Mountain, then Continental snow packs, the reverse is true for their frequency.

    I can’t really speak to an individuals descending skills, awareness, terrain choices, or risk tolerance. But I can say if you choose to ski avy terrain, a good radio is invaluable.

    For communication, nothing beats a good radio with a speaker mic well attached high on your shoulder strap, and the volume turned up all the way. (my choice is an opened up UHF/VHF Yaesu VX6R with the large speaker mic. This is a fully waterproof system. One of mine was submerged in salt water in Antartica in 2010 with no damage) One day on Mt. Rainier ruined our FRS radios.

    For the descent, I can’t count the number of times an attentive buddy has called out over the radio FRACTURE! LEFT! LEFT! LEFT! No one in my group has ever been knocked off their feet, caught, or buried by an avalanche on the descent. With a loud speaker mic, near your ear, when someone is yelling at you, their message is unmistakable.

  98. Scott Nelson April 27th, 2013 3:27 pm

    I like Anders’ comments, particularly “A level 1 is like learning how to fly a plane in 3 days. It is known that the most dangerous time to be a pilot is the 50 hours to 350 hours of training. You might have the book knowledge but havent gained the purposeful decision making needed to stay alive.” That’s what I think the instructor I had in level 1 meant by saying that “now you have enough knowledge to go out and get killed” upon finishing up the course. I remember spending most of our time talking about human elements, not snow science or digging pits, though we did do that. But decision-making was hit on, right off the bat.

    Similar to Anders’ analogy, a friend of mine who was a long time Forest Service wildland firefighter told me that statistically, the most most incidents that involved these firefighters on fires, whether injury or death, occurred right around the 3 year mark. They had some good training with mentors and now they were starting to get out on their own, and that was when the most problems happened. So I would say that this could be and probably will continue to be an issue with skiers/riders and avalanches. One course does not make one a experts. But then you have those that supposedly are experts, and they ended up in the same situation, i.e. avy control people, long time skiers / riders, etc. So maybe my theory is blown, and it really all boils down to the decision making process no matter what your level of knowledge or experience. Its the human brain thing again.

    When skiing today, I was thinking about this whole incident, and it just seems to me that they were there because it was simply convenient to access and provided a quick ski, and maybe a chance to check some known avy terrain from what they perceived as a safe spot, and thus gather some field knowledge due to having a some sort of educational before heading out. I don’t know, and we may never know. But those are just my thoughts, wrong or not.

  99. Charlie April 27th, 2013 3:59 pm

    “Anything that produces as much joy in people’s lives is worth a certain amount of risk; physical risk, emotional risk, whatever. But how much risk it’s worth is an open question.” — Lou (Steep, 2007)

    Can avalanche education be better? Always. Even perfect education cannot prevent error. Without input from the party, it’s difficult to know what led the group to choose their route/plan.

    In an uncertain environment, stability assessment cannot be perfect. As a northwest skier, Colorado’s snowpack is unfamiliar and scary. My read from afar is that, while many locals regard the accident location and conditions at the time of the accident as dangerous, it was far from certain that the party’s route would remote-trigger a slide from above. They were headed for a safer spot (presumably going up/left from the trees), and opted for a route that traded time in a terrain trap for limited exposure to the slopes above. That the group had opted to spread out indicates that they were cognizant of hazard, and took steps to mitigate it.

    It is clear that they didn’t do enough, but I think it’s important to note that, most days, they might’ve gotten away with it. Mitigating lower probability, higher consequence hazard is the hardest. How many parties have made similar route choices this season in Colorado?

    Spreading the group out was savvy; it’s rare for 80% of slide victims to be fully buried, terrain traps notwithstanding. Safer routes may have been available, but the path the group chose was hardly most hazardous. One mobile rescuer on the surface, and the outcome may have been tragic, but less-so.

    The group made a mistake. We all make mistakes. It’s a blessing that that not all mistakes are so consequential.

    Is the blue route, as marked, really that much safer, without hindsight to know exactly how full the terrain trap would become? At least in Washington, climax slides routinely run up opposing slopes. If slides from the north-facing aspects of the bowl were a concern, it’d be far better to cross the creek and head uphill immediately? If the difference between “victim” and “safe” is fifty feet of valley floor, I don’t want to be in that valley.

    Warm condolences to the family and friends of the travelers caught in the slide; it’s a tremendous loss to see young lights go dark. The survivor’s experience is unimaginable; stay strong, stay with friends — it will get better.

  100. David Hamre April 27th, 2013 5:17 pm

    The issue of remote triggering is not one that’s well understood by occasional backcountry skiers. There are rare times in the backcountry where remote triggering has been known to run across flats and uphill to trigger avalanches as far as 1 mile away. These times are extremely rare but occur in pretty much all the snow climates I’ve been involved with from the high arctic, continental, inter-mountain, and maritime. The good thing about these very sensitive periods is that they don’t seem to last for that long. With that said it’ sort of difficult to figure out this is happening until you are in the field and get your first full scale settlement that you can actually watch the settlement wave propagate away from you and upslope. Unfortunately, the first indication can be the last. We’ve also seen these types of situations get heated up in a Facet/hard slab combo on the first good sunny day that the surface of the snowpack warms up. Not sure why but that’s a big alarm bell for me after a 1 meter or so new hard slab gets put onto a facet layer of any kind.

    It’s important to remember some of the dynamics of upslope propagation. This type of event requires a fairly strong and homogenous snowpack on a weak layer. It is helped by a collapse type of initiation where there is some vertical displacement of the relatively strong snowpack. The snow doesn’t really want to propagate uphill but it will if there is enough continuity in the slab and also in the underlying weak layer to help a propagation wave to form. Some of the same dynamics have resulted in skiers getting pulled off relatively flat ridges, probably in the Haines accident this year and in the Honeycomb Cliffs accident near Solitude in the early 1980’s. The conditions that lead up to these two types of events are exceedingly rare and thus are also easy to miss or not understand. About the only way to figure this out is to have it happen and survive or run into someone who has experienced it.

  101. Matt Schonwald April 27th, 2013 8:47 pm

    The talk about the need to improve education negates the responsibility of the participants to use it. Even if they all went thru a modern L1 & L2 course, if they don’t use the tools they were taught then the problem extends to a deeper issue. The aversion to using checklists can be seen on every forum, some people want to make their own, others believe their experience covers all the points they need to figure out their plan.

    The truth is the winter environment is too complex to depend on memory and reflex. Pilots, doctors and engineers use checklists to avoid catastrophic failures in their job because over the years they have learned that their work place demands everyone be responsible for their own safety. They learn their safety protocols and use the appropriate checklists before, during and after their project/surgery/flight to ensure they cover all the important points and review them to make sure there is nothing wrong with their plan and use contingency plans if something is not right.

    One of the first questions in the AIARE Communication Checklist, ‘is there anything wrong with our plan?’ The Avaluator, as pointed out on another forum would of scored their plan, ‘not recommended.’ The question is how do we get people to use the tools that already exist that help avoid unnecessary risk?

  102. Art Judson April 27th, 2013 9:51 pm

    The 1948 avalanche in this area occurred on January 25. Three people were buried and two died. This is documented by M. Martinelli, Jr. and Charles F. Leaf: “Historic Avalanches in the Northern Front Range and the Central and Northern Mountains of Colorado. September 1999. General Technical Report RMRS-GTR-38. U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station. Fort Collins, CO. The 270 page report extends the Colorado avalanche record back to 1861.

    (Editor note: The avalanche occurred January 25 1948, and newspaper reports were published January 30 in Rocky Mountain News.)

  103. Bar Barrique April 27th, 2013 9:54 pm

    Good ongoing discussion;
    One more thing that I experience is that; usually there are individuals who tend to “lead” the group, and, there are those that tend to follow depending on the “leader” to make route decisions etc. In this reality, quality discussions about route selection, and, snow pack stability may not occur. Again it is a group dynamic thing, but it is also “human nature”.

  104. Melissa April 27th, 2013 10:05 pm

    This was a very unfortunate event: My heart goes out to those affected by this tragedy. With that said, I appreciate your (Lou) insight of the terrain. I must say that I’m often disappointed with the media when they label back country users as “experienced” based on number of visits into the back country or training.

    I’ve encountered situations that are unsafe thus having to make decisions on whether to proceed or not (even when there is a paid-in-full hut awaiting me). Times I’ve concluded the thrill is not worth the danger are: calling off entering the back country because of high avalanche danger; calling off entering the back country when I’m not able to see the person in front of me when spread out during adverse weather conditions; calling off entering the back country during the spring in the afternoon after it has warmed up making for unstable conditions; and calling off entering the back country when I feel responsible for those less experience accompanying me (like my kids).

    “Experience” means also knowing when not to enter the back country.

  105. Chris Kipfer April 27th, 2013 10:33 pm

    i believe that David hit the nail on the head with his comment that the current generation of “experienced’ BC skiers are willing to take much more risk than those of us whose prime was in an earlier time. I’m not absolutely certain that these guys understood the risk that they were taking,but if they did it was a symptom of the times,and no amount of knowledge will eliminate the notion of individual imortality that used to be more limited to the 18 to 25yr age group.

  106. Ron S April 27th, 2013 11:01 pm

    A sad event. Autho Ian McCammon does an excellent job of summarizing Human Factors and their Influence on Avalanche Safety; a summary of his research may be found here . It is a worthwhile read that provides suitable insight and education.

  107. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 11:39 pm

    Ron, yeah, human factors are just so important and none of us are immune. I’ve screwed up in that way so many times… The worst for me seems to be getting into group situations where people are too close together, and too many. Similar to at least some of what sourced the Sheep Creek accident. Like many of you, looking at Sheep Creek makes me even more vigilant, or at least I hope it does. Especially: Where I’m gong to watch it more carefully is during Europe trips when I tend to get involved with big groups. I’ve done some really dumb stuff in those situations.

    Beyond that, I’d like to clarify something. Due to basic physics, a snow slab avalanche of the type you’re going to get in Sheep Creek in midwinter is not going to run past alpha angle 21 or 22 degrees, and would probably stop at more like 23 or 24.. Some folks I’ve been speaking with don’t understand this about avalanches, and think a “bigger” one could run farther, and thus my suggestion of a safe route is lame. Yes, bigger ones on a patch such as Sheep Creek can run farther than smaller ones, but not past the boundary dictated by the alpha angle. The blue dotted “safer” line I marked and that we used for our tour up there is easily less than a 22 degree alpha, and can be made even more conservative by moving the route over ten or twenty more feet to the east.

    This might be hard for some of you to grasp. If so, I’d suggest really trying to get your head around the concept. Avalanches are subject to physical laws, and the maximum extent of their run is easy to ascertain by measuring alpha angle, observing vegetation — or simply evaluating with experienced avalanche eyeballs. For example, that’s why geologists can survey mountain property and tell you where you can safely build a house.

  108. Kihm April 27th, 2013 11:39 pm

    Melissa… I believe it is possible to ski in the backcountry all day everyday all winter long no matter what the avalanche danger rating is. Experience helps us make the decision about wether or not we enter avalanche terrain.

  109. Lou Dawson April 27th, 2013 11:49 pm

    Kihm, you are correct, thanks for emphasizing that.


  110. Kihm April 28th, 2013 12:57 am

    Sorry to keep bringing that up Lou but I feel it is important for people to know there is a difference. I get the impression that when the term backcountry is brought up people immediately assume that you are skiing some big steep wide open area that is prone to avalanches when exactly the opposite might be true.

  111. chris April 28th, 2013 4:24 am

    Lou, one thing I haven’t read in a thread so far, but have not read them all, so it may be address on another blog, was there any possible influence on the ‘group psychology” for back of a better term, based on close proximity to the slide risk (how close the road ‘6th’ was) from the slab avalanche site. For example, when you checked the site several days later, was there any dismissal or perceived air of confidence, hence ‘feeling’ of safety, being that area was so close to the road, and with a well warn trail near by? I have my own reasons for bring this up. When I go back country, I gradually become more self aware the further I get into wilderness. For example when I am in a cirque basin 10 miles up a trail with zipo cell phone coverage, I take my environment more seriously, thinking to myself “if something happens back here I have to get me out of this, and the pretext drops, at least inside my head, of an easy bail if things don’t go well. So the question is, is there any reason to think close proximity to a well worn trail and a highway play into the ‘this is probably safe’ factor ‘so far’ in their group decision-making process, at least on an individual basis? Just wondering what others think since the general consensus is that this was some sort of heuristic failure in decision making.
    I also noted people taking respect for the area by memorializing the memory during my viewing. I think at least that is good because, well, they lost their lives and others are having to deal with the loss, it also shows respect for the ‘mountain’ and serves as a ‘marker’ message not to forget this one.

  112. chris April 28th, 2013 5:13 am

    Lou, last point, my reason for believing tree areas are not safe on high wet snow or slab avy days.

  113. Lou Dawson April 28th, 2013 6:39 am

    Chris, I did allude to that somewhere, perhaps in comments. We of course will probably never know the psychology, but it’s indeed a tight situation with avalanche danger right outside the door of your car. Of course, you can stay in huts or ride ski lifts that put you in the same situation, so I’d advise not focusing too much on this as a factor, except for the fact that it does show the group making a significant choice to expose themselves to danger (assmuning they knew how to identify avlanche slopes and danger, which it sounds like they probably did). Lou

  114. chris April 28th, 2013 7:10 am

    Yes you did, I found it. BTW whatever could slid did on that day, when you went for inspection nothing slid, and I suspect your awareness was very keen, and after alll correct, no slide then. We all know Colorado can change drastically in a few days, new day new conditions. Sounds like by addressing all the feed-back, you have established a body of knowledge that got pretty much to the root. Now, ‘hopefully’ some folks take advantage of all the hard work you’ve done, so it makes a difference out there. You have done a great service to back country, as usual. Probably hard but darn well worthwile.

  115. Lou Dawson April 28th, 2013 7:29 am

    Thanks Chris, it was a lot of work and the site visit was painful. But like I said in the posts I just couldn’t see any way around covering this quickly and thoroughly due to it being such a big deal, and how when it’s fresh in people’s minds the learning process is much more effective. There is always a tendency to attack the messenger with this sort of thing, that’s not been going on here (though I’ve heard that on some other websites discussion of Sheep Creek has devolved to that). Instead, all you guys really stepped up to the plate and did some good thoughtful writing. I’ve gotten a number of emails and in-person comments from folks who’ve found all this content to be helpful in getting a grasp on improving their own avalanche safety behavior. That’s the whole point.

    I was thinking of closing the comments on these threads, but I’m not seeing any need for that. I do need to move on however and I’ll probably be commenting less unless some new information about the accident comes to light or it turns out I need to correct some mistakes in the content.


  116. Lou Dawson April 28th, 2013 9:20 am

    I’m not sure where this fits in, but it’s information worth adding to the mix. A source was able to research the formal avalanche education level of the group. According to them, the only person in the group with a record in AIARE’s national avalanche course records is Rick Gaukel, who had completed Levels 1 and 2. While Rick had also completed an AIARE instructor training, he was not lead teaching avalanche courses, though he could have taught under a supervising course leader.

    This is not to say that many in the group may have attended non AIARE avalanche safety events or seminars or been self educated. The fact that the group was very well equipped with avalanche safety gear indicates they had some sort of collective avalanche awareness. What is more, the event they were associated with had an avalanche safety component that had no doubt upped the awareness level to at least some degree.

    Point being that this was not a group of riders formerly educated in avalanche safety. Rick was the only rider with that.


  117. Art Judson April 28th, 2013 9:59 am

    Someone once wrote: “What we learn by experience is that people never learn from experience.” This is true some of the time. And there is a saying: “Never go with your avalanche beacon any place you wouldn’t go without it.” We are losing an average of 30 people a year to avalanches in the western U.S. There is little evidence that this number will do anything but increase in the future. This is because there is no way of knowing for sure how snow will react to triggers we place on avalanche slopes. No amount of formal training and experience will change this situation.

  118. Kevin April 28th, 2013 10:46 am

    Re: Education. Often thinking you know what you don’t is more dangerous than knowing what you don’t know.

  119. Lou Dawson April 28th, 2013 10:51 am

    Art, thanks. Indeed, the number of folks we’re loosing is huge, especially when you think of how small the community really is and if you multiply the yearly toll by a number of years. Chances are if you don’t know someone now that has died, you will. Honestly, the constant string of friends and acquaintances I’ve known over the years who have died in avalanches has been very disturbing for me for quite some time, reason of course being that we have such a vibrant and rewarding life in the mountains, that’s usually so positive and full of love, is so easily shattered by that same environment. Yeah, in a way that’s a reflection of normal life and all that, but one doesn’t have to like it…

    I might be old-school with this, as I’ve heard more and more, especially in Europe, phrases like “eh, whatever, it’s the mountains and the luck…..things happen.” While there is an element of fate or chance involved in any part of life, we do have a certain amount of control over our actions and resulting consequences. Might as well do the best we can with that. It’s actually pretty amazing how far we’ve come in avalanche safety compared to, say, the 1960s, both in knowledge and equipment. But as we come farther and farther it means there is more and more to learn. An avalanche “expert” in the 1960s had a fraction of the knowledge an avalanche “expert” in 2013 needs to retain and apply. In other words, at least to some of us the bar is higher in terms of safety behavior.


  120. Matt Kinney April 28th, 2013 11:12 am

    Had a friend die in an avalanche in Thompson Pass a few years back. The next day I went up to the site at first sunrise. I found the hole where his dad and another skier dug him out. Before I left, I filled in the hole so it was indistinguishable. Someone should have done that last week after the this incident investigation. No one should have to see it, and the pictures should not be public.

    Frankly, I tire of the term “human-factor” and the public’s psycho-analysis of these incidents. Been around long enough to know its usually, if not always, the same mistakes over and over. I’m not sure this incident is a learning experience for many of us as much as another really sad and tragic mishap to some folk out skiing one day.

    From a technical standpoint, the slide was rated R3/D2.5 That indicates that the path had run bigger in the past. Angles are the most critical piece of information in route management and has been the key to my longevity. I obsess about angles. (See my book.) Lou is right on about angles and appreciate his emphasis on them in this story.

    I have concerns about AAIRE Instructor certifications and their course outlines, but I will leave it at that.

    Spacing? I space all the time wether in avalanche terrain or near alpa angles regardless of conditions. Of course its hard to chat with your pals, but that’s the way it is. I start spacing about the max distance of a beacon receiver and then increase it from there dependent on terrain. Beacon distances are determined by each beacon once on the trail during a beacon drill. Not perfect, sometime I let my guard down, but spacing is really important. I really want rescuers if I’m buried, so I am a bit selfish about that.

    I rarely have a client these days who is not a 30-something male snowboarder and who wants every turn at angles steep enough to slide or too steep to slide. That was not the same when I was guiding in the 1990’s but in many ways it was relative to gear and abilities at the time. Conservative is not a good word in the ski industry. Beside it’s boring. They want hype without the reality. That is the one thing that has not changed since the steep era began with WESC.

    No, I did not read every comment fully. Like many, we are decades-long-experienced so it easier for us to be critical of other’s mistakes in the backcountry and how it never would happen to us and we never would make the same errors…yadayadayada.

    Deja -vu is my excuse so feel free to ignore my comments. Been gone for a few days so I’m just getting caught up on this incident and this is the best place.

    Thanks for keeping the story on the level lou.

  121. Jim April 28th, 2013 11:35 am

    One of the most difficult aspects of avi safety is route finding and terrain choices. As Lou pointed out, a safe route was so near. This aspect is rarely emphasized is avi education. In the field it is difficult sometimes to see in flat light, it is difficult to see the big picture with hazard above as you trudge along. While skiing it is difficult to make fast decisions as you come to a roll over or gully. The size and degree of the features are not often clear in perspective, nor is the slope angle. It takes experience to learn to discern these things.

  122. Rich Mignogna April 28th, 2013 11:43 am

    Thanks to Lou and the other commenters from whom I have learned so much in this discussion. While I am rather new to backcountry skiing, I am not new to management theory and, having reviewed the Denver Post series on this tragedy as well as the group dynamics reported in the NY Times on the Tunnel Creek avalanche, I see a number of parallels to flawed group decision-making processes including the ill-fated space shuttle Challenger. The characteristics of “groupthink” in which either no one wants to be the first to raise a red flag or, if they do, that person is overwhelmed by the group’s desire to accomplish its mission appear evident in all of these episodes (see As other have said, this needs to be an important component of backcountry education.

  123. Kevin S April 28th, 2013 2:38 pm

    Lou- Having recently watched the NY Times video on Tunnel Creek, I found it interesting that when one of the gentlemen in the group saw the avy debris he pulled his beacon out of his pack. Why would his beacon be in his pack and not on his body? Finally, Steve Lipsher’s Denver Post article said it all today……. Be safe out there!!!

  124. Lou Dawson April 28th, 2013 6:20 pm

    Guys, as this whole deal settles down, now would be a good time to share your avalanche safety success and failure stories. Feel free. Lou

  125. Doug April 28th, 2013 7:06 pm

    When the snowpack is waiting to kill you conservative terrain choices are your friend. It’s about recognition and maybe more effort. It’s not neccessarily the easiest path.

  126. SteazyShredder April 28th, 2013 9:42 pm

    Safe/blue route on a different water year will be wiped of the picture.. alpha blah blah blah..

  127. Edge April 29th, 2013 1:40 am

    A lot of people are learning big lessons from this event. I brought my 16-year-old son there yesterday to teach him a few lessons about the huge stakes involved in backcountry skiing. Both of us stood in the excavation site for Ryan Novak and I can guarantee you it will be with us forever. More details on the Backcountry Access blog.

    I’d say Lou’s analysis is right on, especially the part about the group size being too large for such “fine grained” decision making. My guess is that the decision-making process was tainted by the pressures of this being a group of industry folks (like myself) who were trying very hard to make this event a success. Also, I think crossing that gully to get to the safer side might have been more difficult than we think: right now that gully is completely filled with debris and the crossing doesn’t look bad. But with no debris in it, it might have been a different story, especially if the reports are true that some of the folks were new on splitboards.

    Before entering the site, we scouted it the first part while the conditions were still frozen, then I spoke to Jon Snook from the CAIC, who assured me that the lingering hazard was minimal. I’d say the sightseers were quite safe out there this weekend.

  128. Justin Peacock April 29th, 2013 12:35 pm

    Nice writeup, Lou. I’d add a few things to the discussion.

    First, as has been discussed, we can only speculate as to the actual knowledge and experience of the group. That said, it does seem they had enough knowledge to recognize and manage the situation. From my perspective a few things that may have contributed to the decision making process that resulted in this tragedy.

    1. Human factors. A variety apply to every group and every accident as has already been discussed.

    2. Unusual weather creates unusual avalanches. This is the one that I haven’t really seen people discuss with regards to this accident. There are a couple of things here.

    First, deep persistent slabs and remote triggering are an unusual problem for late April. Typically that problem winds down in March or so and people are thinking (and doing) spring descents come mid to late April. Also, 3-4″ of water over a week in mid April is not a common thing either. I have to wonder whether the time of year and unusual conditions played a role in the complacency and not connecting the dots. It can take many years of experience before you recognize unusual conditions and respect them. If you’ve only been in the game for a few years it’s possible that most of your encounters with unstable snow have been things like wind slabs and storm slabs which are easier to recognize and provide more clues. Deep persistent slabs hide and don’t really provide any clues aside from recent avalanches. Unfortunately that clue was present in the immediate area as well as in the bulletin.

    3. I was talking with a friend and we wonder if they actually knew the aspect they were on. I-70 dog legs at Herman Gulch and actually runs NE/SW to the tunnel. Usually when you see I-70 you can assume you’re looking North. From Sheep Creek, however, you’re actually looking more West. The deep slab problem was on North so perhaps they didn’t think there were really where the problem was?

    @Kihm: Totally spot on. Scaring people out of BC skiing because of the avalanche danger is usually arbitrary and unproductive. People want to get out and go skiing. I think as educators we have to tell students that yes you CAN go out on high hazard days. You just need experience and good planning to know WHERE you can go on those days and provide yourself with an adequate margin of safety.

    Lastly, I HIGHLY recommend The Snowy Torrents books as Kihm mentioned. The first edition, 1910-1966, incredibly is available as a free download on Google Books: There are some incredible stories in there.

    The 2nd and 3rd books seem impossible to find, and the 4rd book (1980-1986), by Dale Atkins and Nick Logan, is around if you keep your eyes open. Dale is working on the 5th edition to catch us up, but it’s an incredible feat.

    Sorry for the long note–Justin

  129. Justin Peacock April 29th, 2013 12:43 pm

    Also, sound does NOT trigger avalanches. That’s a long held myth that Mythbusters DID do a show on and disproved. They filmed it at Telluride. Great episode.

    A good paper on the topic if you want math to prove it:

  130. chris April 29th, 2013 2:01 pm

    Matt, I gave it some thought about not showing the pit, but when there and seeing one 17ft down in the relatively flat run out area between the two hillsides it almost seemed like someone was whispering to me to share this so others would know it was not safe. I gave it some thought, put that off for a few days but the thought persisted, and I have gotten good feed-back from people saying I would have never guessed that area wasn’t safe. I also went with some mountaineers and placed prayer flags at some visible and some not so visible places up there, as this is now a sacred mountain memory.

    Lou, I was caught in an ‘in bounds’ avalanche in the back bowls of Vail 30 years ago that I can share, but will hold off on relating that account for a page you’ve dedicated to such stories, so as not to detract from your great discussion.

  131. Kihm April 29th, 2013 3:54 pm

    Justin… Try the library that’s where I found them.

  132. Kihm April 29th, 2013 4:49 pm

    Another book called. DEEP SURVIVAL WHO LIVES WHO DIES AND WHY by Laurence Gonzales is also a good read

  133. SR April 29th, 2013 7:00 pm

    In terms of avy ed, how relevant do people think the Snow, Weather and Avalanche Observational Guidelines (SWAG) and related material are to the typical bc user in places like CO and UT where a great deal of info (probably more accurate than what the typical user can get for themselves through their own efforts) is already publicly available? Even if this group didn’t have a lot of formal avy ed, it is likely that on a group basis they would have done ok on performing shovel shear or compression tests, reading a profile, etc. — but that wasn’t at all relevant here, or for that matter in the recent accident involving another, in that case very educated, person in UT. There was already awareness of snowpack issues here, in Tunnel Creek, in the recent event in UT, etc.

    Obviously, for people who live and/or travel in places where there is not as much info generated by UAC, CAIC, etc. , or for people who vocationally need the SWAG skillset and uniformity, it can still be very relevant. But, maybe consider it as a seperate module so that more time for “typical” bc users can be devoted to safe travel protocol, routefinding, etc.?

    One dog that thankfully did not bark here, at least yet, is access. Likely because this was a frontcountry/ middlecountry outing but not one utilizing ski area fixed assets or gates.

  134. DFisher April 29th, 2013 8:47 pm

    Lou – In your 3rd pic on this thread there are remnants of a snow pit to the right of the trail. What are your thoughts on pit research for those of us who are at the beginning stages of learning SWAG? I understand snow pits may not help well experienced BC locals, but for ski vacationers new to the snowpack, do you recommend them as a food starting point.

  135. Mike Marolt April 30th, 2013 9:03 am

    @KHIM, it all boils down to the science of the brain and how it works. I agree, anything by Laurance Gonzala is a must read for people heading to the BC. It’s really the study of how experienced people do stupid things. Not my words but the author. His work has greatly impacted me over the past few years, and I often look back and see all the mistakes I made and got lucky…..

  136. Larry Grossman April 30th, 2013 9:42 am

    You wrote this report as if no one knows what and how decisions were made. There is a survivor, and he knows the entire story……Also to say the path you took on your “blue line” was safe is irresponsible. Under these snow conditions maybe yes, under different snow conditions, your path is as unsafe as any other. There is a reason your “safe zone” is void of trees, and it is not purely because of the elevation. If you were witness to the slide that buried the Arapahoe Basin parking lot and took out the bottom of Molly Hogan lift in 1985 you would understand that your path was anything but safe.

  137. Justin Peacock April 30th, 2013 10:14 am

    @Larry – Lou made a point to say that his suggested blue line was a “safer” route, not safe. Crossing under any avalanche path by definition has exposure, but it’s not necessarily high risk. Lou’s route gives him a margin of safety and (importantly in this case) keeps him off the edges of the slab where he could trigger the slope. These two things make his blue line safer.

    It is unrealistic to expect that people traveling in the mountains will never go near or under any avalanche terrain at any time. A major R5 avalanche like the A-Basin/Molly Hogan avalanche was a natural release and the maximum for what that path can produce. On a day when avalanches like that (and it sounds like you saw that impressive event) are occurring, you can bet that Lou, myself or anyone else would not want to be anywhere near that slope or blue line below. Aside from the fact that those days are few and far between, I’d wager Lou’s route assumes a very acceptable amount of risk for most people on most days. Of course, that’s different for everyone but I don’t think Lou is irresponsible for discussing terrain and route options in the context of a sport where we assume some amount of risk every time we go out.

  138. Mike Marolt April 30th, 2013 10:56 am

    Well, I don’t think it takes a genius expert to believe that the blue line was safer when lou crossed…..after the face slid, and given the terrain, probably a hell of a lot safer than even only a few yards to the other side of the ravine where the guys were caught. But to Larry’s point, ya, under some conditions, it would simply be a matter of degrees, not safe at all to not safe no way in hell. Point being, it was obviously extremely iffy conditions, and the group had without question a safer line to choose from given they made the decision to cross at all, and fact of the matter is that had they made that slight change in line, we wouldn’t be having the discussion. So I don’t think i’d call it irresponsible on Lou’s part even remotely.

  139. SteazyShredder April 30th, 2013 11:01 am


    04-27-2013, 08:53 PM #394 Summit
    *NOT* an expert
    I guess a major problem I have with Lou’s report is it has played on this whole idea that these folks “almost made it.” It goes back to my “close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.” Safe zones are truly safe or they are just “safer.” The route Lou proposes looks totally safe in hindsight… but if it “went bigger,” Lou’s route could have resulted in the same tragedy. If the slope had gone smaller, they’d had been safe. Quite frankly, the routes Lou lays out as the “woulda/coulda/shoulda” is a bunch of 20/20 hindsight “safer zone” ***** especially if he wants to claim that they had inappropriately exposed themselves the second they touched the trail. I also think Lou is overblowing the danger of the first section of trail; that was not an inappropriate place to be: witness the massive SAR response along that trail.

    I’m not taking issue with critically analyzing and learning from the situation, but Lou’s proposed analysis is NOT spot on in my opinion.

    One presumes that his “stupidity” with people visiting the site relates to his fear of the first trail section and people proceeding without gear or knowledge and that he is not a total hypocrite.

  140. Mike Marolt April 30th, 2013 12:14 pm

    Regarding Steazy Shredder comment: Keep in mind, Lou’s analysis is based on the fact that a decision to go was made. My take on Lou’s analysis clearly points out that regardless of before or after, there is always going to be a point the determines “nearly made it”. It’s the initial basis for making virtually every decision you will ever make, with success being relative to one’s understanding of where, if not it actually is, where it could possibly be. Point being, you have to at least try to come to a rational understanding of where not to be, just as much as where you should. It’s not a matter of being “spot on”. It’s a matter of analysis with the benefit of factual results of a specific event that if nothing else proves there actually is a point where you will either make it or you won’t.

  141. Lou Dawson April 30th, 2013 12:17 pm

    Shredder, please stop cross posting. It is not necessary.

    As for this thing of a safe line being hindsight, I don’t know why you guys have so much trouble realizing that avalanche slopes have a maximum extent they can run. Using alpha angle and terrain recognition it’s not that tough to ascertain this. The route I marked as “safer” is based on that concept.

    I really don’t understand why you guys don’t get this, and attack me as the messenger for simply going up there, measuring some alpha angles and looking at terrain, and showing what is a very obvious way to skirt that avalanche slope.

    Again,. everything from ski mountaineering to home building would be impossible if it was impossible to determine safer or 100% safe areas.

    As for the specific route I have marked in blue, it is most certainly on the margin of the slide zone, but could easily be moved over another 10 or 50 feet. If it would make you guys feel more comfortable with the photo, I can do that, but it would be kind of pointless. The route I show is where a bold but careful ski or snowboard mountaineer who was trying to avoid that slope would have likely gone, but again, they could have deviated more to the left which takes you farther up the hill and farther to the left, thus reducing the alpha angle to the point where it would be impossible for the slide to reach you (the home building site a geologist might approve.)

    Another thing that I thought you guys would get and didn’t need to be pointed out is that the route taken by the party of 6 was a sort of “bridge to nowhere” that appears to simply climb up and along the avalanche path that slid, and lead eventually to the runout or even on to another avalanche slope. The route marked in blue leads directly to a low angled safe zone with the opposite exposure aspect. That alone is a huge thing, sort of a gorilla in the room if you will when it comes to this discussion.

    Shredder, do you get all this?

    Due to my questioning current avalanche education I’ve been in contact with two AIERE instructors. They both have told me that this basic concept is taught in Level 1. It’s not just me sitting here armchair quaterbacking. It’s simple reality. There is a safe route around most of that avalanche runout zone, other than needing to cross the gully down low after exiting the trees.

    (I’d add that when I say “safe” for any terrain I’m first talking about it being “safe” from the slide that killed the five, and after that talking about a route that is safer from avalanches to the point where even during that day it would have been reasonable to be there by normal standards of avalanche safety. “Safer” would perhaps be a better word, but I mean quite a bit “safer” so safe is used on occasion. More, in any terrain there are places 100% safe from avalanches in any practical sense and for an informal discussion calling them “safe” is in my opinion totally appropriate.”)

  142. loveland April 30th, 2013 1:04 pm

    shred, you are attacking messenger with inane stuff,in many situations it is perfectly easy to find an obvious safe route around a possible avalanche, if anyone could do that when they put their mind to it that would be Lou, you think he was just up there guessing and using 20/20? If you think that you are sadly mistaken

  143. John April 30th, 2013 1:21 pm

    From my Level 1 class last year I do not remember hearing the term Alpha angle in the class, but rather from reading Tremper’s book. That book is also responsible for me buying an inclinometer, which I primarily use for slope angles since I’m mostly tree skiing or meadow skipping, rather than crossing below larger paths. One more thing for me to geek out on now. Lou, maybe next winter you’d find it interesting to sit in on a Level 1 class.

  144. Jack April 30th, 2013 1:36 pm

    Please bear in mind that I am a total newb. I would like to echo the “role play” comment above. If an avi instructor had groups talk through and role play the decision making process in class, including how to decide on spacing and speaking of each point in the safety/danger analysis, this would go a long way.
    Then skiers/riders in the field would have a template and a memory of how to start and work through “the conversation”. A formal checklist approach that included dialog about each point might help bootstrap the conversation. I think that relatively inexperienced climbers are at a disadvantage in raising objections to points made or unspoken by the hard chargers / great athletes.

  145. Lou Dawson April 30th, 2013 1:36 pm

    John, I’m just going on what I’ve been told, perhaps I’m not remembering correctly and they didn’t call it “alpha” angle but instead “overall angle” or “average angle” or something like that. Main point is that I was distinctly told they teach the concept of how to determine where you can safely skirt an avalanche path. My understanding is that the instructors don’t have to teach verbatim, so perhaps the guys I spoke with were adding more of this in that during the course you took.

    Let’s just say, 1.) I’m not going on much here and 2.)If you didn’t learn this concept or something similar in Level 1 than my uninformed opinion would be that something is off.

    If you google it, you’ll find they also seem to call it the “shadow zone.” Perhaps they used that term? Or something like “overall angle?”

    Refresher: Assuming you’re evaluating if you’re in a safe spot or not, Alpha Angle is the measured angle from your feet to the top of the avalanche slope. In Colorado for slab avalanches, 19 degrees is super conservative (camp there if necessary) while 22 degrees is a good number for overall route selection while moving a group. Paths may run shorter than these numbers due to minimal snow loading or terrain such as shelves or perpendicular catchment features such as ravines or moats, but only run longer in extenuating circumstances such as a wet flow or channeling. And no, I’m not a scientist, this is just a layman’s take and there is a lot more to it. But the rules of thumb as stated do work for picking safe routes, especially if yo’re seeking to be conservative (avoid it 100% !).

    I took an avy course in the 1970s, one of the originals from Rod Newcomb. Since then I’m auto didactic other than a bunch of community seminars and that sort of stuff (which can be good with a competent leader). Plan is for both Lisa and I to do a Level 1 next winter and blog about it, with focus on how they teach hazard evaluation, decision making and group dynamics. I’m sure I’ll learn something, always do.


  146. Dude April 30th, 2013 1:39 pm

    Given the lack of information in the CAIC report, I would like to say thanks for visiting the site and reporting what you found. Your analysis helped clear up a lot of questions I had having not been out onto that terrain. I see skiers skinning all grouped up in dangerous zones all the time, or sometimes “spreading out” all of 30 feet across a dangerous hillside. Hopefully this accident and your report will help save some lives.

  147. Lou Dawson April 30th, 2013 1:51 pm

    Jack, no matter how much practice the conversation gets stifled by so many factors. The big trend in this is I believe going to be going deeper and getting people to practice things like situations where they feel totally shut out by someone with expert halo, or simply a cavalier group “tude.” But doing this sort of thing takes a trained facilitator and very motivated student.

    Also, there are situations where you just can’t get your opinion in there to make a difference, no matter what you try short of blowing off fire crackers or something. In those situations you’d be best to bag it, but who’s going to ski back and sit in the car and wait the group because you think they’re doing dangerous stuff?

    That all said, there is another factor:

    Only one individual in Sheep Creek (Rick) had AIARE formal training, he is the only name in their database according to a source. That means that despite whatever level of decision making chops are taught by AIARE instructors, it would have been meaningless for this group in terms of interaction since other than Rick they would not have had it. (Though to give benefit of the doubt it’s likely at least several of the guys had done at least something in terms of avy education, perhaps a community seminar or something…)

    But yeah, the takeaway is be sure we have hardcore skills taught in the formal classes, and get more people to take the classes.

    Oh yeah, last I looked no one had drawn a firm correlation between avalanche education and more/less likely hood of being involved in accident. In fact, I’ve been told that when doing rough look it appears that if you’re educated you’re more likely to get caught. Anyone know of any new data with this?


  148. shawn April 30th, 2013 1:57 pm

    This post has left a bad taste in my mouth, especially the picture of the skier riding down the sunny terrain that the decedents supposedly intended to ride. I hate it when tragedies are followed up by a bunch of air guitar in the name of learning. Despite all of your considerable avalanche experience and credibility as a BC ski blogger/writer (and even with the solid points you’ve made) you’ve overreached your position here with an impudent and poorly timed post. As a former reporter, I can’t fathom publishing such an in depth accounting of this tragedy without first waiting to interview the sole survivor, or at least waiting until he’s somewhat recovered and is able to at least decline or accept an interview request (my apologies if you took this step.)

    IIRC, and to paraphrase, you said your site visit was necessary because the official reportage is often too plagued with dry language and objectivity to say what needs to be said… hmm… perhaps the feelings of the decedents’ loved ones are protected by this sort of crime scene objectivity, especially when their husband’s or son’s or father’s last moments are being imagined and openly critiqued on a public website whilst their shock is still fresh and while the dust settles.

    I don’t buy the argument that information about accidents needs to be sussed out right away. In the immediate aftermath of a recreational tragedy, private dialogues between skiers, kayakers, climbers or base jumpers or whatever are the most helpful and the least dangerously assumptive. The sensitive thing to do is to wait politely for someone to come forward with first hand knowledge of the event, which then opens it up for public discourse with all the cards showing.

  149. Mike Marolt April 30th, 2013 2:09 pm


    Nice work, and thanks for taking time to go up there and bring it back. It was respectful, informative, educational…..and at least in my mind “spot on”…..

  150. Lou Dawson April 30th, 2013 2:10 pm

    Shawn, thanks for chiming in. Appreciate your opinion though I do stand by my decision to publish. Wasn’t easy, however, honestly. Regarding timing, do you have a time frame for when these sorts of things should be published? Seems like there are a lot of opinons on that but no one comes up with a specific number of days — just that I did it too fast and I assume by the same token Denver Post and CAIC published too quickly as well. One thing I’d emphasize to you is despite what you think are flaws in this, the overarching idea here is that this accident is so unusual, so heinous, it required more than just private community chatter. If covering it with my voice doesn’t produce value for people they can vote with their feet and I will be silenced, and so bit it, I’m totally comfortable with that. Lou

  151. Kevin S April 30th, 2013 2:26 pm

    Lou: Regarding Shawn’s opinion which is respectfully his yet I disagree with as there is no better time to discuss the tragic event than right after the accident with thoughtful discourse. I have been involved in a number of negative backcountry events over the years that needed more public discourse. For example, I wish the internet was around in the winter of ’86-87 when the Peak 7 and Shrine Pass snowmobiler avalanches occurred. Much could have been learned by blogs like your’s had they been around then. Accident investigation is the best way to prevent future accidents and the CAIC report along with your mostly unfettered report was spot on! For those of us who have been to the site, and others in the past, the pit in your stomach upon arrival stays front of mind for a long time thereafter. The pit of emotion and new found intelligence has helped to keep me and others alive (for now).

  152. loveland April 30th, 2013 2:40 pm

    If this amazing comment thread is going to change to yammering about whether Lou should have published this or not, I request that he turn off the comments so as not to junkr it up. This post and especially the comments will safe lives. Shawn, if this post could save one life, should it have not been published? As for Lou talking to survivor, it would be good to do that eventually and it might change things somehow, but the site take from Lou and Joe is solid, there is an avalanche slope, people were on it, they got killed, photos show how it all works in terms of terrain, and we should be thinking about how we all could have avoided the obvious mistakes these guys made. A question I have is why CAIC didn’t show better photos more like these.

  153. Steve BC April 30th, 2013 2:48 pm

    Lou stated. “Oh yeah, last I looked no one had drawn a firm correlation between avalanche education and more/less likely hood of being involved in accident. In fact, I’ve been told that when doing rough look it appears that if you’re educated you’re more likely to get caught. Anyone know of any new data with this?”

    Fresh from the Canadian Avalanche Centre today…”Canada is the envy of all other alpine nations in terms of recreational avalanche training. A nationally standardized curriculum, the penetration of training into a broad and varied base of users, and what is clearly a significant decline in avalanche fatalities clearly points to a success story that no other country in the world has been able to duplicate.”

  154. Andrew April 30th, 2013 3:08 pm

    There are so many nails being hit on the head, points being driven home and yelling from the rooftops here that I thought I was in a 2006 Vail condominium construction project for a moment. 😉

    I think what troubles me, and obviously many other people here, is how easy it is to be “right” in retrospect and yet how tempting it is to confuse luck with expertise when you get away with something. Personally, I think the Sheep Creek party did an overwhelming amount of things right (far more than your average touring bear) and deserves a lot more credit for it. When it comes to remotely triggering a hard slab from half a mile away, I don’t think there is an avalanche expert in the world who could reliably do that on their own, especially in “considerable” conditions. In extreme conditions, maybe, but in considerable, it might take as little as a snow plop off of a tree, or as much as tractor and artillery to get anything to move. I don’t think the danger was overwhelmingly obvious, except in retrospect.

  155. Lou Dawson April 30th, 2013 3:09 pm

    Thanks so much Steve. My gut of course tells me that training will help people to be safer, but as Freakonomics shows, gut is not always right so it’s good to question assumptions.

  156. Rick April 30th, 2013 3:35 pm

    ” In fact, I’ve been told that when doing rough look it appears that if you’re educated you’re more likely to get caught. Anyone know of any new data with this?”

    I took 3 avy courses, earliest early 90s, the last one was 4 years ago Level 1 by Bryan Mountain Ski Patrol. My level 1 course instructor told us that because we were trained, we were now more likely to be an avy fatality, statistically speaking. I don’t know what data backs that up. Compared to what I had done in years past, I was amazed by Bryan Mountain’s approach. At one point, without telling us why, they had us all run and follow them. We ended up at a simulations site out of breath. That was our 3rd simulation. I thought they did a great job with the human factor.

    After visiting the site, I thought the terrain conditions were far worse than I would have imagined from your photos. It was breathtaking. According to the “Snow Sense” decision making chart, it was a no go.

    Thanks for your report, I learned a lot and I don’t think it is disrespectful in any way.

  157. Gerry Haugen April 30th, 2013 3:40 pm

    Thanks again for letting the comments run and responding so skillfully, and with sensitivity Lou A couple of additional thoughts
    1. Studying the map and discussing the route while still in the parking lot could have helped them recognize the hazard
    2. Talking with some experienced locals might have highlighted the danger for them
    3. The CAIC avalanche report highlighted the deep persistent hard slab overlying the weak layer, and described recent avalanches triggered from the bottom
    4. Recent weather and major, reported loading of those slopes alone were a red flag
    These facts alone should have been enough to scream in your ears – Change plans. No snow pits, alpha angles, spacing, or subtle route finding needed.
    As Matt and others have pointed out, checklists are important, but only if communicated and discussed. Our human factor traits can obviously so overwhelm our judgement that we have to use protocols to overcome them and manage our risks. Michael Jackson, a respected Avalanche, AIARE and AAA educator, just shared his opinion with me, and it goes like this: when doing you pretrip, trailhead or critical travel point decision making, make sure everyone in the is yes to the plan. A no vetoes it for the group, as does ‘a no opinion’. This helps give voice to the person or perso who might not ordinarily speak up.
    I also thought your comment Lou on the ‘fittest’ person sometimes setting the track, without the appropriate education, skill or experience, was right on. I’ve often seen that.
    I also thank you for showing the points of the victims excavation. It reiterates to everyone the magnitude of the event, slide extent, etc. Lest you think me too insensitive, let me tell you that nothing, nothing sears your mind & memory more than the sight of a twisted, frozen body- whether in person or a picture; such pictures were regularly included in the 60’s & 70’s publications. Remembering such scenes when contemplating the consequences of a line or route can be instructive – they are to me.
    Lastly, in the past as backcountry skiers we certainly knew less, and had no reliable beacons, but many of us had, or reached out to, the grizzled mentors who had the knowledge. We learned from their hard won experiences. And this is what AIARE and the AAA are trying to provide the community now. Perfect education? Not yet, but sure as hell trying hard to steadily improve. These forums you’ve provided Lou should help all of us be safer.

  158. Robert April 30th, 2013 4:22 pm

    Those of you criticizing Lou for saying that the blue line is much safer than the red one seem to be missing the key point: it’s on the far side of the terrain trap. Big, obvious difference (although I see Lou beat me to it up above). On the other thread I posed the question: was there avalanche slopes on the opposite side of the creek? Seems not, at least after 200 yards.

    I think people have still not made the terrifying inference from the avalanche report regarding the three that were swept away from the island of safety. All I have to say is that the survivor should be given support but monitored for his own safety. This was, by a matter of inches only, a major multi-death tragedy rather than a minor tragedy.

    I took a ski touring leadership course from the ACC in 2011. One of the things we were expressly commanded to do was to lose altitude while skinning whenever necessary for safe route finding. Our meanie master ski guide made me do it at one point when I was out front. Something to consider for avalanche courses.

  159. Lou Dawson April 30th, 2013 7:03 pm

    From Bruce Tremper’s book, alpha angles:
    Maritime 23-25
    Intermountain 20-23
    Continental 19-22 (Colorado)

    Remember these are used to figure maximum extent of a slide’s run (or figure if a slide can get to your campsite or route), they can go shorter but generally don’t ever go past the lower number unless very extenuating circumstances. Tremper does a thousand times better at explaining it all than I’ll ever do.

  160. Bill H April 30th, 2013 7:58 pm

    There have still been a few comments above questioning the source for ‘hard’ data regarding # people in accidents vs education/experience level and why people who have training get in more accidents, aka the ‘you know just enough to be dangerous’ phenomenon

    The baseline paper in North America would be Ian McCammon’s “The Role of Training in Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States” from Proceedings of the ISSW (2000) Big Sky, MT, p 37-45. Its not too hard to turn up as freely available download either on Google or Google Scholar.

    Another European corollary would be:
    Burtscher, M and Nachbauer, W “The Effects of Training on the Risk of Avalanche Fatality” Skiing Trauma and Safety: Twelfth Vol, ASTM STP 1345 1999 p 45-49

    From the abstract of the McCammon paper:
    “This study investigated the relationship between avalanche education and victim behavior in 344 recreational US accidents, and found that victims with more avalanche training did in fact take fewer overall risks. However, all of the risk reduction in trained recreationists can be attributed to better mitigation measures taken by these victims. None of the risk reduction appeared to be the result of trained groups exposing themselves to less hazard. In fact, victims with basic formal training exposed themselves to more hazard than any other group, including those with no awareness of avalanches.”

    By ‘risk reduction measures’ he refers to wearing beacons, going in groups etc, and technilogical things like avalungs and airbags would fall into that category, as opposed to behavioral choices like solid route finding and terrain choices. Speaks largely to concepts discussed frequently on this forum suck as risk homeostasis etc. So to borrow from the car driving analogy, people are depending on better cars with crumple zones, seat belts, anti lock brakes, front and side airbags etc to save them in a wreck, rather that focusing on driving in a manner that avoids wrecks in the first place.

    For some more heady reading group size, dynamics, decision making, etc check out another one (also probably referenced elseshere in on other threads:
    McCammon, Ian, “Heuristic Traps in Recreational Avalanche Accidents: Evidence and Implications” 2004 Avalanche News No 68. Spring issue.

  161. Kihm April 30th, 2013 8:00 pm

    Avalanche ” Experts” Approach to Practice

    Be organized
    Consider personal mental and physical state-mood, stress level, health, fatigue…
    Think systematically – human, physical, and environmental
    Recognize and manage knowledge gaps
    Maintain an internal and external awareness
    Communicate to generate understanding with team members, clients, management
    Listen to and consider other perspectives
    Notice when communication is impaired
    Have faith in your decisions
    Pay attention when things are different
    Be aware of multiple indicators and trends of events when things are not going as
    Notice the influence of time pressure
    Respect avalanche phenomena
    Maintain a margin of safety that is bigger than what is thought to be needed
    Plan for the unexpected and be prepared for surprises
    Consider and manage variations in goals and objectives, knowledge and skills
    Consider varying levels of acceptable risk
    Avoid being influenced by ego, overconfidence, or higher risk tolerances of others
    Recognize and manage individual, team, client, organizational, socio-political
    Be conscious of decision-making processes when the terrain is getting used up

    Human Factors and Expert Decision Making, Laura Adams-April 2005

  162. Brian April 30th, 2013 8:43 pm

    Great discussion. As for the waiting or lack of sensitivity concerns… people sensitive to the tragedy simply don’t have to read this. Kinda like violence on TV. If you don’t like it, don’t watch it. The bulk of the individuals reading here simply want to learn something and likely have no connection to those involved.

  163. Andrew April 30th, 2013 9:39 pm

    In a nutshell, the alpha angle of Colorado = Kansas. If you were to avoid all steep slopes under all conditions, you’d never go skiing there. Doesn’t CO have something like 2.5 times more avalanche fatalities per year than the next closest state? A continental snowpack is brutally unforgiving.

  164. Tom April 30th, 2013 10:44 pm

    Great article. I though this topographic map with slope-angle shading might be helpful to others. Is it possible you can add the blue and red routes, 1948 & 2013 avalanche runoff areas, burial locations, etc to this map? Thanks again.,-105.85654&z=15&b=t&o=r&n=0.25&a=sf

  165. Bill H April 30th, 2013 11:26 pm

    Hi Tom, gave it a shot, dunno if it came out, not familiar with this map site yet…

  166. Jonnspur May 1st, 2013 1:53 am

    Hi Lou, big fan! Is it u or perhaps a son that skis lines up here in Washington ? I have seen avys that run up the other side of valleys, hindering the reliability of alpha angles? Figuring the angle, the bed surface structure, and volume of potential slab, well that sounds like a heck of a story problem with highly subjective answers depending on who’s doing the computing. I’m very sorry 5 people died! Fwiw, looking at the photos it’s hard to tell, but being on top of that slope looks possible, and with a ski cut , protected or not seems like a feasible plan?

  167. Jonnspur May 1st, 2013 2:06 am

    Uhh never mind the skicut part of my comment, with the amount of storm snow , and the forecasted instability I wouldn’t be interested in that slope , but if u had to get down it , well …. Mayb? Much respect to you guys that manage sketchy continental snowpacks. It’s tricky!!

  168. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 4:34 am

    Johnnspur, it appears you’re still not getting it. You can shoot alpha angle from anywhere, including up on the other side of a valley. Sure, it’s somewhat tricky if you’re not experienced knowing where an avalanche can run to, but it is not voodoo. This is such a basic concept it’s been a real eye opener to see how poorly understood it appears to be. Possibly a real failing in avy education? Or to be fair are you guys just trying to make the point that at a certain level of fine-grain it is indeed impossible to know exactly where an avalanche will run to on a given day? Latter is true, so that’s why alpha angle can fortunatly be determined with a wide margin for variation, hence use 19 degrees for Colorado if you want to determine a campsite or cabin site, and perhaps use 22 degrees for picking route during a lower hazard day when paths are not maximally loaded and hair trigger.

    Alpha angle can be deterimined from a topo map. Difficult to do it accuratly enough on smaller slopes especially whith terrain features the map might not accuratly show due to contour interval etc, but is easy for big avlanche paths. Also, you have to ID where exactly you’d expect the avalanche to start, which is usually fairly easy in the field but sometimes tricky from a map, and again will greatly influence the alpha angle you calc for a smaller slope. Just calculate elevation drop and determine horizontal run, convert to precentage grade, then convert that to degrees. There are map tools that do this for you.

    Edit: Here is the graphic I’ve been working on. Should make alpha angles clear. Click to enlarge.

    Avalanche slope profile side view showing alpha angle concept.


  169. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 4:39 am

    Tom, I checked out Caltopo. Pretty cool for overall rough route planning, but not detailed enough for accurate analysis of individual avalanche paths. It appears to suffer from the same failing at the underlying topo maps, in that it’s working from the 40 meter USGS digital elevation models and so on. Also, am unclear on how it determines the distance it averages to decide what to color a slope in terms of angle. Eye candy? Sure, it shows steeper and less steep areas, but so does your eye if you know how to read a topo map. But perhaps a good visual aid for folks who are not as practiced with map reading?

  170. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 5:04 am

    Andrew, your analogy of Colorado alpha angle = Kansas is a chuckle, but very misleading to noobs hanging out here and trying to learn something. It’s 19 degrees on the conservative side. But yes, the snowpack in Colorado during most years is very tricky, and we have a large population of skiers, so the combination results in lots of accidents. Lou

  171. Tom May 1st, 2013 9:39 am

    Lou, re: I agree 100%. caltopo, is merely a mapping tool, like any other topo map.

    I believe but am not sure that the “slop angle shading” is based on the distance between the 40 foot contour intervals. The shading does not add any data. (“Slope angle shading” might perhaps be a useful “eye candy” tool for folks that have difficultly intuitively interpreting slope angles form the tightness of contour lines.) Of course, there is much information “in the real world” (micro-features, rocks, tress) that will not show up on any map.

    One reason for sharing caltopo is that I think mapping is a good tool when route scouting and planning, it is free, and copies of proposed routes can be printed out the day prior to a ski-trip and shared among the group. Perhaps a map with a proposed route, slope angle shading, etc. can serve as one tool, along with the avalanche advisory, group discussion and debate, etc. to begin a discussion that continues the next morning, at the trailhead an throughout the day.

    Thanks again for your writing and service, much appreciated. Very instructive and I’m trying to learn as much as I can.

  172. Andrew May 1st, 2013 12:07 pm

    To me, avalanche alpha angles seem much more applicable to construction and planning where you are trying to avoid building something, which in an absolute worst-case scenario, could get hit by an avalanche. From a practical touring standpoint, if you were to avoid any and all potential alpha angle slides, that would eliminate entire drainages and/or mountain ranges which is why I mentioned Kansas.

    The 14,300′ camp on Denali seems like a classic alpha angle faux pas, yet thousands of people camp there every year and get away with it.

  173. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 12:23 pm

    See, granted one has to consider other factors always, but I can assure you that the alpha angle concept works and does not cause one to need to only tour in Kansas. For starters, it is combined with a hazard evaluation. Second, it’s used to determine where one might want to travel one-at-a-time etc, not just for 100% avoidance. It’s also a good tool for learning the basics of recognizing avalanche slopes, which is not in our DNA. It is an excellent tool for anyone.

    As for Denali, I’m not sure what mitigating factors prevent 14,000 foot camp from being overrun, but they must exist. Historical knowledge of previous avalanches is also a huge factor in route planning, and the Park rangers seem to have a pretty good understanding of how far those slides can run. The slides don’t start all the way up to the summit, so that could be part of the reason, and it’s probably farther to the base of the face than it looks from camp. Intervening bergschrunds and moats are also a factor, just as gullies are such as the one in Sheep Creek — so long as you’re on the good side.

    Main thing to remember is a conservative alpha of say 19 degrees is used to determine how _far_ an avy could run based on physical properties, it’s not a tool for figuring out why it doesn’t (re Denali).

    Once I was camped on Huscaran below a giant face that avalanched several times a day due to a storm cycle. A huge crevasse existed between us and the face and was eating up the avalanches, still pretty scary as our alpha angle was more like 35 degrees. They were loud roaring slides. Sleeping was interesting.


  174. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 12:50 pm

    Alpha angle for avalanche threat at Denali 14,200 foot camp. Tough to get it exact so this is just estimating, but the avalanches don’t fall from the summit, more like 4,000 vertical being a very large one and rare, most start more at about 3,000 vert or even less above the camp from what I’ve seen and been told. But I used 4,000 vert and a horizontal run of 1.5 miles (the face is not vertical, which is why it avalanches of course…). That gives an alpha angle of 22.5 degrees, which is exactly the range I’ve been talking about. If you calculate as 3,000 vertical the alpha angle of the camp will drop to somewhere around 19 degrees.

    There might be mitigating factors as well such as bergshrund and large crevasses. And the fact that much of that mountain wall is too steep to develop deep slab and most of the avalanches are huge point release powder slides, which probably have an alpha angle but is not what this discussion is about, as we’re talking about Colorado slab avalanches.

    Nonetheless, I thought the spot was a bit scary, as do many other people. We ran like a bunch of lemmings when we heard the roar… Because of the scale and the mountain wall in your face.


  175. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 1:19 pm

    I’d also offer that you guys appear to be expending a lot of energy trying to tear down the concept of alpha angle. Perhaps revisiting the concept and learning more about it might be an option. Bruce Tremper’s book is a good place to start.

    The 14,000 foot camp does have an alpha angle, I’m looking at a map right now. Optimistically figured it’s around 23 degrees if one figures avalanches starting from the upper part of the face but not from the summit. Mitigating factors:

    1. Face is too steep to develop big slabs that could run full path to alpha 19 degrees.

    2. Most avalanches coming off Denali above 14,200 foot camp are not slab avalanches, but rather are powder avalanches (gigantic sluffs, for you ‘sluff management’ junkies). I’m not sure what alpha is for classic big-drop powder avalanches, but it might be somewhat different. Perhaps it’s more when they’re huge and create their own air pressure wave, and less when they’re medium sized, or something like that. No idea. Tremper?

    3. There are intervening bergschrunds and crevasses.

    4. Other factors I have no idea of, as IANAAS (I am not an avalanche scientist) Grin

    Again, alpha is used to determine how far a slide could run, it is not used to figure out how or why it would run less far. Also, again, this is just a tool not the end-all be-all. Determining the exact historical extent of an avalanche path depends on many factors, no just alpha. But if you’re in Colorado and you use 19 degrees as your rule of thumb you’ll be out of most danger, and at 22 or 23 degrees you’ll be in an area where it might be ok to travel one-at-a-time but you might possibly be exposed.

    Simple, in my view anyway (grin). And it doesn’t just work in Kansas.

  176. Justin Peacock May 1st, 2013 1:24 pm

    I totally agree with Andrew. Alpha angle just isn’t that useful for slope scale terrain evaluation and decision making. Making camp? Totally. Lou, in reality, how often are you using and measuring the alpha 19 as part of your terrain management and decision making process? I’m genuinely curious.

    I don’t personally teach alpha angles in Level 1. I just looked through the AIARE L1 student manual and can’t find alpha angles mentioned anywhere as well. It’s easy and IMHO better to show students things like tree lines, tree sizes and height of flagging to estimate path potential. If people want to be super conservative and follow tree lines they can. But even with ultra conservative decision making and travel techniques you’ll be unable to go to many places if you use alpha angles as a rule of thumb. But yes, it will keep you pretty safe!

    Also, if I remember correctly, the more conservative 22 degree (for Colorado) alpha angle is based on a 10-year return interval and 19 degrees is based on a 40-year return interval. Either way they are pretty large and rare R4-5 avalanches during large storms or deep slabs on big snow years. Generally the avalanche hazard will be high and the snowpack in your face during those sorts of conditions; we rarely see accidents during those times because it’s pretty obvious, even to the novice, that things are sketchy. Anyway, a few thoughts…

  177. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 1:41 pm

    Justin and all, ok, I don’t think we’ll see this the same way but thanks for the discussion.

    As for how much I do this, when teaching I used alpha angle and inclinometer all day long, especially above timberline where there are no vegetation clues.

    I’ve also used it in Europe quite a bit in unfamiliar territory to get a really firm idea of how much risk I’m in.

    I also use it every time I look at an avalanche slope and wonder how far it could go, only I’m using the inclinometer in my head.

    I’d offer one last thought: This whole thing came about because there is a zone that’s safe from the Sheep Creek avalanche. One way of “proving” that zone is to measure alpha from there, but terrain recognition and experience do indeed indicate it as a safe zone. Conversly, CAIC measured the Sheep Creek avalanche alpha at 24 degrees, which is well within the Colorado danger zone, thus showing it wasn’t some kind of strange event or something.

    That lead to the fact that even if you think that measuring alpha angle is useless for route decision making, you have to know that avalanches operate according to physical laws and are not just voodoo, and it’s thus possible to know how far they will run and in turn identify a safe zone. Understanding alpha angle is an indication that we understand this fact about avalanches.

    Perhaps we’re just over thinking this whole thing?


  178. Mike May 1st, 2013 2:41 pm

    “Perhaps we’re just over thinking this whole thing?” – Lou

    Interesting conclusion to this entire series of blog entries and related comments. 🙂

  179. Andrew May 1st, 2013 3:04 pm

    I think it is a matter of avi-geek semantics. Alpha angle is a hard & fast number, whereas “run-out-zone” is a far more useful, but also far more subjective concept.

  180. Mike Marolt May 1st, 2013 3:27 pm

    ha, if I find myself in a situation where the need for alpha angle is crucial for life or death, I will probably turn around. For most other conditions, 25 degrees, well beyond the extremely consistent data at CAIC. But that’s just me. I hate Vegas…..

  181. Mike Marolt May 1st, 2013 3:29 pm

    typo on that number…….

  182. Forrest Gladding May 1st, 2013 4:17 pm
  183. Lou Dawson May 1st, 2013 4:17 pm

    May, last time I looked “perhaps” wasn’t a conclusion! Jeez!

    Also, I was only talking about alpha angle… should have been more specific. (grin).


  184. SR May 1st, 2013 5:59 pm

    In terms of overthinking, I don’t think the discussion of alpha angle is overthinking. My understanding is that alpha angle is simply a statistical creature based on return period. It does tie into physical laws, though, simply because there are certatin constraints on how far sliding snow will run, and so it doesn’t run but so far in a given return period. My subjective view is that, just as, say, a 100-year return period might be used to get a super-conservative number for engineering, different alpha angles are appropriate for different activities such as camping, versus touring. If hazard is moderate or less, and you want to up things a bit and/or just use existing tree lines, etc. to decide where to camp, that probably works, too, assuming you put some thought into what those trees are exposed to.

    Even assuming use of a clinometer or other rigorous way of measuring alpha, it should be recognized that it’s a direct angle, and often we are measuring from somewhat oblique angles. So, being conservative probably makes sense.

    I do agree that you can take recent snow and weather data into account. If it’s a black day, be way conservative. If rating is low and no new snow is forecast and skies are clear, you probably can camp in, say, UT in places that may not be outside a 100 year alpha but still have trees and other snugly things.

    For Sheep Creek, some of the pot-shotting by some commenters ignores that the “safer” route, described as safe or safer relative to prevailing conditions THAT DAY, is outside the alpha angle of the slopes that were worrisome that day, even if relative lack of trees and other evidence suggests it’s not outside a 100 year return period for the area as a whole.

    Outside of Kansas or Nebraska, alpha still does require judgment along with it, in other words. Extreme alphas in UT can be down in the low teens, e.g., but you don’t need to use 14 degrees as a reference point for touring.

  185. Chris Kipfer May 1st, 2013 9:27 pm

    Beta angle defined by where the runout is assumed to reach no futher than a slope of 10 degrees seems to be a more intuitive sense of danger than alpha. Trying to guess the alpha of an extremely rare event to insure absolute safety sounds good. Its not that difficult with an inclinometer to approximate the angle from crown, and with an assumed alpha stay absolutely safe within the assumption. How many BC skiers are actually ever going to use this more scientific method. How many are going to look at Beta angle and trust their gut,runnig through the memory of all the avalanche runouts that they have seen in their years of experience. Perhaps the best way to have a safe day this time of year while the snow settles between winter and spring corn is to stay within the boundaries of lift served not too steep terrain of closed ski areas. Tuesday last week we had over a foot of new powder top of Mt Werner. Today after the new storm last night brought powder to the top and sierra cement at the bottom. Soloing up, I encountered only one other skier. I suppose that it’s not back country but the solitude up and the turns down are just as sweet.

  186. Lou Dawson May 2nd, 2013 6:07 am

    Chris, good points. Where I’m more concerned about use of careful determination of alpha angle is for people who do not have the experience to use their “gut,” which now that I’m paying attention to this subject is appearing to be a large number and way more prevalent than I thought.

    As for the Sheep Creek skiers, we of course don’t know how experienced they were as a whole with fine grained route finding in avalanche terrain, the kind of route finding that requires a trained eye. Perhaps the person in front recognized they were on an avalanche runout and chose to go that way anyway for a variety of reason, like we all have. Or perhaps they just didn’t think it through or somehow thought it was much safer than it turned out to be. I’d trend to the latter theory but we may never know for sure.

    Point being that if you evaluate the 2013 avalanche slope (before or after avalanche) with an inclinometer, it’s quite obvious that the safe line up the drainage is on the other side of the gully, and that while there is no perfectly safe way to reach that line, once you’re there it’s very reasonable even with the avalanche slope rising up to your right and eventually behind you as you climb. I brought up the alpha angle idea to get this more on the side of reason than just stating “there is a safe route” like the idea came from a crystal ball or something. But it seems to have become a sort of straw man in the discussion.

    As for guessing the alpha of a rare event, that’s not how alpha is used in the backcountry for ski mountaineering. Rather you memorize the critical alpha angles for your region and snowpack, you then pick an appropriate one to use for the situation. Path minimally loaded and avy danger low, but you want to be as safe as possible while not deviating so far as to take a lot of extra time? Pick a route that keeps you at enough distance for a 23 degree alpha angle. High hazard day and you’re below a fully loaded path? Dial it back to 20 degrees. Snow built up to the point where CAIC is saying historically huge slides are possible? Dial it back to 19 degrees and stay out of areas where flow can be channeled. This can indeed all be done by gut, quite well at times. But the inclinometer can be a big help, especially for noobs who are using one anyway to determine slope angles in general.

    I’ll work this morning on publishing slope angles diagram.


  187. Chris Kipfer May 2nd, 2013 8:39 am

    Lou,with your extensive experience in Colorado the advice on alpha angles here is truly appreciated. You definately have much experience elsewhere as well. Since this forum attracts contributers from all over the world is there a resource that would give general alpha angle advice by both conditions and region, perhaps the contributers themselves. Specific advice is available in historical avalanche records,but in this continent the records are not as comprehensive. Also, I doubt that many will be planning well for every day tour. The Sheep Creek event was more of a spur of the moment affair that is representative of the majority of day tours. Overconfidence in gut decisions may well be our greatest hazard. When a shred of doubt exists a rule of thumb may save lives.

  188. Lou Dawson May 2nd, 2013 9:25 am

    Thanks Chris, am working on graphic this morning. It should display below, click to enlarge. It shows alpha angles we’ve been discussing for continental snowpack such as that of Colorado. Alpha angle concept is not that tough a tool to use if you just use it to be conservative. But it’s of course optional.

    Regarding Sheep Creek, the avalanche slope does run over somewhat of a shelf at at least one point, which could be visually misleading and could have given victims a sense of confidence that turned out to be wrong. Hence again that need for the alpha angle concept _combined_ with terrain recognition.

    Imaginary avalanche slope, viewed from the side in profile.

    This is NOT a profile of Sheep Creek avalanche, it is simply an example.


  189. Andy May 2nd, 2013 1:11 pm

    As a newb planning a spring ski/climbing trip to the Wind River range, your analysis is very timely. Thanks for “shouting from the rooftops” – I’ve learned a lot here. With weird spring snowpack this year, I know I will be safer because I read this. So thanks. And thanks to the commenters.

    I also appreciate the alpha angle discussion – it makes perfect sense to me if you think about it probabilistically (like, you know, basically all physical/natural phenomena…). 19 is “safer” because there is a smaller historical probability of a slide running that far. And current probability of course is influenced by current snowpack conditions – there are factors we know about like layers, bonding, etc, that affect whether or not and for how far a slope will run, and there is a random (unknown, unobservable, probabilistic, stochastic, call it what you want) component too. Any approach to thinking about it that says “It’s all random!” or “We can know everything and make a 100% certainty call that it’s safe or not safe all the time” is flawed. Of course, Kansas is pretty safe, as are locations with alpha angles <17 (arbitrarily chosen, less than 19). It's the grey areas that require the real thinking.

    Lastly – when I read your reports I pulled up Google Earth and checked out the terrain. With that 3D view it is fairly easy to see that your blue route is up on the other side of the gully, and looks pretty darn safe. That said, your pictures above don't communicate the 3D shape of that landscape nearly as well as the Google Earth view. Maybe that is why some folks are having a hard time understanding the distinction you are making between the blue and red routes.

  190. Tom May 2nd, 2013 1:26 pm

    Estimating avalanche runoff areas using topographic maps?

    Can anyone recommend a good article, book, etc. on the topic of “estimating avalanche runoff areas using topographic maps” (and perhaps other tools such as Google Earth, etc.)? From what I know, topographic maps complement but do not substitute for information gained from “boots on the ground” and “local knowledge”. But I do think that maps are useful for group pre-trip planning, route proposals, and group critique/discussion, etc.


  191. Lou Dawson May 2nd, 2013 1:29 pm

    Yeah, perhaps I should make a view in Google Earth. I was just playing around in there for a different project and you can indeed see the gully and such in Sheep Creek, but the view I got makes everything look so low angled it is very misleading. Also, the elevation sampling grid seems to exaggerate some of the lower angled areas when I try to do an elevation profile, which is typical when trying to work with smaller areas in Google Earth, as it’s not designed with a fine enough grid for detail work.

    I’m planning on going up there in the summer to look at the topography. The lower angled area where the group was might be more pronounced than the photos show, and could be misleading. That would indicate a situation where obtaining accurate alpha angle could have been very useful and a way to cut through what was perhaps a mistake in terrain recognition. In other words, CAIC said alpha of 24 degrees but it might have looked like less.

  192. Lou Dawson May 2nd, 2013 1:32 pm

    Tom, I’ve done maps and Google Earth for hundreds of hours, in many cases neither is fine grained enough, as well as the fact that you have to know very exact locations for starting zones before you can measure alpha. Boots on the ground is the only sure way to dial it as close as possible. But yeah, you can get a general idea from Earth and maps. This especially if you use Earth to ID vegetation trim lines. I’ve got a post coming about all this.

  193. Lou Dawson May 2nd, 2013 1:46 pm

    Andy, remember there are different angles for different climates and types of avalanches. For example, we slides can flow almost like water and go long distances. Likewise, large blocks can sometimes glide over lower angled compacted snow. But for camping above timberline on a spring ski trip in the Winds, an inclinometer and some rules of thumb would come in handy unless you’ve got a good gut feeling for all this. Lou

  194. Andy May 2nd, 2013 2:11 pm

    Thanks for the tips Lou. I was just harping on that one number as an example. But the point about wet slides is probably very relevant for late spring travel. This discussion has definitely motivated me to get an inclinometer, because I definitely don’t have a good gut feel.

    As for Google Earth, I always set the elevation exaggeration to 1.5 when looking at mountains – that seems to correspond better to how it “feels” to be there. Perhaps because you are usually looking from much higher up in Google Earth. I suppose that’s kind of cheating as far as proving your point about the “safe” line, but it definitely shows the difference more clearly.

  195. Lou Dawson May 2nd, 2013 2:47 pm

    Andy, I added a tilted Google view. Thought I was done with this, whew… but it’ll be a reference. Everyone, if new information comes to light I’ll be ammending if necessary, otherwise, I hope to let stand. Lou

  196. Chris Kipfer May 3rd, 2013 10:52 am

    Rethinking possible fatal advice:

    The spring 2006 wet avalanche at A basin on an inbounds heavily skied run killed just one person as I remember,but it could have been far more lethal. I previously recommended staying inbounds at closed ski areas this time of year. Here in Steamboat at mild inclinations this is good advice,but avalanche can even occur on bumped out slopes when steep enough. The apparant beaten down character of the slope is no guarantee of safety.

  197. Chris Kipfer May 3rd, 2013 10:59 am

    Correction. I decided to look it up. That should have been May 2005.

  198. Jamie jones May 7th, 2013 9:36 am

    Does anyone mention that after 41 inches of snow in the past week that maybe doing something else would have been a better option. Seems like folks get their calendar filled with an event they won’t reassess their plans.

  199. Lou Dawson May 7th, 2013 11:21 am

    Jamie, lots of factors like that. We all need to let this be a good lesson and watch our own actions and decision making. Indeed, if it snows that much in Colorado and CAIC is reporting a persistent weak layer, one does need to do very conservative route finding if they do decide to go out. Colorado in general = more caution than many other regions of the world. Backcountry skiing here has always been a challenge to do with adequate avalanche safety.

  200. John May 11th, 2013 3:16 pm

    Thank you Lou for doing this kind of work. It’s a great public service and we all can learn quite a bit from this unfortunate tragedy!

  201. Bruno June 6th, 2013 5:44 pm

    If anyone knows who to pass this information on to… some of the gear is starting to surface; skis, poles, sunglasses. Friends and family of those lost might want to know.

  202. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2013 8:27 pm

    Thanks Bruno, I’d thought about that a while ago, then plum forgot to mention it… the loved ones and families should be able to receive that and decide if they want that stuff or not. Lou

  203. Hacksaw April 20th, 2016 4:45 pm

    I just looked through my photos from the rescue/recovery in Sheep Creek. Most I wouldn’t want published, because they don’t need to be out there on the web for the victim families to see.

    Yesterday I was skiing Loveland and it was hard to not think about this accident. But, every time I drive by Sheep Creek on I-70 I can’t help but think about it.

    I know this accident affected me, and I think a lot about the lesson I have drawn from it. From the moment you leave the trail head you should be thinking avalanche, is the biggest lesson.

  204. Lou Dawson 2 April 20th, 2016 5:29 pm

    Thanks Hacksaw, indeed lessons to be learned, that’s why we did these blog posts. Condoloences to everyone involved. Lou

  205. Hacksaw May 15th, 2017 3:00 pm

    This winter I was reading an article about the Apollo 1 launchpad fire, the the Air&Space magazine.

    The author concluded the major reason for the accident was “Perceptual Blindness.” He wrote, “Preceptual blindness, in which even smart people, (are) sure that they are paying attention, can miss what is right in front of them.” This really jumped out to me, as a major factor in the Sheep Creek avalanche accident.

    Even with all the years that have past since the accident, I still think about this accident a lot. When ever I drive past Sheep Creek on I-70, I can’t help but look up there. There are still a lot of unanswered questions, which I guess will never be answered.

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