Sunday, December 9, 2012

An avalanche tale

We finally got some real new snow this weekend with a surprise 1-foot of blower coming in Saturday.  According to the Wasatch Weather Weenie it wasn't lake effect as I thought it had to have been, but rather just the beauty of a NW flow.  With such high precip rates on a variable base that consists of various crust/facet sandwiches, thoughts of increasing avalanche danger were prevalent, but generally speaking it turned out to be a pretty benign weekend that enabled plenty of great skiing that reminded me of the Wasatch!  However, it was a good reminder that avalanche season is on the nigh, and we did a bit of rescue practice today, with Ash showing her characteristically super solid skills that -among other reasons - makes her a great ski partner.  The rescue practice reminded me of the incident I was involved in 4 years ago, and I thought that I'd do a reprint of the tale that I wrote at the time  -(I wrote it partly for catharsis and partly for the Avalanche Review, a "newspaper" for avy pros). 

As I was thinking about this, I realized that virtually everyone I know who has backcountry skied a lot has had an avalanche incident.  Here in the Wasatch the perceived security of the masses and the relatively forgiving nature of the range - despite its many avalanches - results in people perhaps getting in the mindset of "it won't happen to me."  But the truth is that if it hasn't already, it likely will, so I find that reading firsthand accounts is always a good way to get yourself into the mindspace, especially in the early throes of the season.  So here is the (sorta long) tale.....

On Dec 26 I left the Mill D lot solo and skied a run with a ton of other people on Tom’s Shoulder/Wuthering (“Weathering?) Heights.  The skin track was a few hundred feet down canyon from where it “usually” is, but I felt that I would follow it until I didn’t like it anymore – if indeed that happened – but it seemed to be ok and a quick pit (an addition to what someone else had done) on the steepest roll in there indicated that the new snow – at least – was relatively stable.  Of course, it wasn’t the new snow that everyone has been worried about; it was the near-ground crust/facet/crust/facet/ground silliness that was now pretty well loaded.  However, that line is low angle enough that I felt it was unlikely to slide, as did the rest of the 10-15 people on that slope. 

En route I hooked up with Matt, Dan, and Paul, all of whom I had bumped into in the backcountry at one time or another, and we chatted a bit.  At the bottom of the Tom’s Shoulder shot I decided to head up canyon and see what else could be had w/o the hordes about, and Matt, Dan, and Paul followed.  When they caught me they invited me to join them going to Little Water, which sounded like a fine idea.  Not super-inspiring skiing, but nice for a day like today, with high danger and surprisingly fast-skiing snow (so low angle stuff was pretty fun).    

We ascended the west ridge of Little Water peak and noted that the south sides would probably make a nice exit; exposed terrain, but due to its southern aspect (dirt two weeks ago and mostly windward yesterday) and relatively low angle it would probably be fine. 

We stopped to de-skin prior to the top of Little Water Peak, having bypassed the first noblet that offered super mellow aspen glade skiing, anticipating that we would return to ski that on a subsequent run.  En route we found a nice steeper leeward pillow on top of a short slope that we used as a test slope and nothing moved. The NE face of Little Water Peak is a steep shot that is a “frequent flier” and even though the slope that runs adjacent to it and goes due north is a lot lower angle, we were content to stop well-short of that one as well and simply drop into the thick trees very directly from the flank with no exposure. 

We skied probably 8-900’ of bouncy fun powder in tight trees, and re-congregated again in the flat drainage.  The plan was to take the skin track generally trending skiers’ left/climbers’ right in order to have convenient access to the many different glades in that area.  I started breaking trail from the bottom, with the intent of warming up a little (<10 degreesF) before stopping for a drink and a snack.   As I ascended was trying to move more climbers right, but the early snowpack-induced thicker trees/bushes and my desire for a nice skin track pulled me a bit more up and left than I have done in the past, and more so than the other guys had done in their previous outings there.    

I finally popped out at a more-friendly spot to move right, but it was an open slope.  In the past we had skinned below this open slope on flatter terrain in bigger trees, but that’s not where we ended up.  The reason we were in Little Water is that the slope angle is generally quite mellow, and looking at the open shot in front of me I guessed that it was at most 30 degrees, we were probably 400 vertical feet below the ridgeline, and I felt that crossing it one at a time would be safe.  I moved across it, and at the other side – in the lee of a tree and where the slope dropped back to perhaps 20 degrees, I stopped and watched Paul cross the slope.  He got to me and kept going on past to assume the small low angle ridge and use that as the remainder of our climb.  I looked back as I munched my sandwich to watch Matt and Dan come across it, and watched as Matt took one step out of the trees, and suddenly there was the telltale whoomph and then the slope shattered as a 4 foot crown opened just behind me.  It propagated up into the woods above Matt and Dan and I could see it moving through the trees.  I yelled for Paul, turned around, jumped off the crown onto the bed surface and skied down to where I had last seen them.  I could hear Dan yelling but no Matt.  I went to receive on my beacon, told Dan to as well and also told (asked politely?) him to get out his shovel and probe. 

We were within a few meters of Matt almost immediately, but the beacon still showed 2.5 meters away, which indicated that he was at the foot of a very large (>3’ diameter) tree with lots of live and dead branches extending down into the snow.  The debris had piled up fairly high on the tree and its associated picket fence.  When I realized the hot spot was only at 2m on the beacon I started probing and hit him almost immediately (despite the presence of the ground and the many logs/branches, I knew instantly that I had hit him; it was quite a distinctive sensation).  We left the probe in place and started literally moving the mountain. 

Although I remembered the theory of digging to a victim from the downslope side, because of the tree we could not do that, so our only choice was to go straight down.  We had two of us going on him and the third was clearing the snow from a trench that we were creating that was perpendicular to the slope (ie two would throw the snow at the third and he would clear it out).  Matt was somewhere around 5’ deep, but because the snow that was around him hadn’t moved very far it hadn’t heated up due to friction and gone to concrete, so we were able to dig somewhat effectively, though the conical nature of the hole due to the tree etc was frustrating.  At one point I felt like we had possibly gone too deep since I thought we should have gotten to him, so I grabbed the probe again and gave it another thrust, was reconfirmed that it was him, and realized that we were a foot or less from him, and at that point I yanked out the probe since it was somewhat limiting our digability (but was necessary as a marker). 

We finally hit his head, which was vertical.  As we tried to clear the snow from his face I heard him moan softly, which was encouraging.  We kept trying to clear snow away but it was difficult because of the snow continuing to fall into the airspace.  When we could we tried a finger sweep of his mouth, but his jaw seemed fairly well clamped shut He was no longer moaning at this point, and as his face came into better view he was quite blue and unresponsive.  I finally was able to bend down and give him a couple of rescue breaths (even though his jaw was shut his lips were sort of bared) and had no response. I went down again for another couple and as I did so I saw his eyes flutter open, and he took a breath on his own (and I heaved a big breath myself!).  He later thought that the rescue breaths may have not been needed and the moaning indicated that he had been breathing, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. 

From there it was just a matter of continuing to dig at about 98% rather than 125% in order to get him out of the snow as fast as possible.  This took ~10 more minutes to dig down enough to release his body from the snow and his boots from his skis and haul him out.  He was able to converse and guide us to the most effective spots to dig in order to extricate him.  Once out he was able to stand on his own, he was shivering near-uncontrollably, we put lots of clothes on him, poured a bunch of hot, milky, sugary tea down his gullet, and soon we were hiking out and Matt began to warm up. 

We were at about the 9200’ level, due north facing, slope angle in the 27-30 degree range (measured from a distance; need confirmation of that).  The slope was ~120’ wide, and maybe 200’ long, and didn’t run very far at all due to the flatness below (in fact, most of the blocks were still intact, if I remember correctly).  Total vertical drop of the entire slope was maybe 50 vertical feet?  (I guess if it was 30 degrees and 200’ long then it would be 60’?).  Yesterday’s storm dropped more or less of a foot of snow after very strong (~40 mph) winds that were mostly southwesterly.  As we skinned up we saw that another open slope above – that had a noticeably steeper pitch to it – had slid some time previously since there was new snow on the crown/bed.  Because there had been no reports of this and that so few people were out on Xmas day we are almost certain that it had released naturally.  We didn’t see that crown/slide on the way up since we ascended the ridge out of sight of it; had we seen that, it’s possible that I would have made a different route choice for our ascent. 

Now that we are all safe and sound, let the reflection (and inevitable criticism) begin.  The decisions, in chronological order:
Ski today at all vs not (high danger day)
Where to ski - macro (Mill D = “safe”, with some very obscure exceptions or a fair bit of effort to get into more rad terrain)
Whom to go with – I was solo, three guys who have clearly skied together a lot.  We came together easily as a pretty natural group; I watched them, talked to them, and felt like they were pretty solid, and apparently they felt the same about me.  Four is definitely a fine party size, and I think that had Matt only had one partner he'd be dead due to the fact that the three of us worked well and efficiently together, yet were only barely able to get him out in time. 
Where to ski – micro:  we all felt comfortable with the decision to ski the NW slopes off little water peak.  Low angle, lots of trees, very little exposure. 
Skinning and ascent route – we discussed the macro plan, but - as usual – the trail breaker chooses the route.  They were content to follow my track, but if they had not, I would have totally respected their decision.   I did not ask Paul – coming behind me – what he thought of the skin track, nor of my decision to cross the slope. 

Fundamentally, there are a lot of ways to ascend that area without exposure to any open slopes.  In retrospect, of course, I should have stuck to the unexposed areas as I was in charge for that portion of the trail breaking.  I have skied that area probably 1x/year for the past couple of years and don’t know it as intimately as I know some other areas; I didn’t realize until later that at least a couple of the guys had just been there a couple of days before so they had a better sense of the terrain.  Being a little cold and having a love of trail breaking initiated my charge up the trail. 

With regards to the rescue, I was very pleased that Ashley (my wife) and I make a big deal out of our “beacon searches” being more like “rescue practice”; that is, instead of simply putting a beacon under a few inches of snow, we bury a pack as deeply as we can.  The deep burial has the potential to be confusing with digital beacons, and today when we started to get a little confused by the fact that our beacons were only getting us to about 2m and no amount of dundering around on the surface got us any closer, I had the tickle in my brain of our experience with “deep burials” that indicated to me that we needed to get off our 2D plane and start going down, and that at the 2m point probing became critical.  

In addition to practicing deep burials, we also try to take the time to create an avalanchy-looking area, make sure that deployment of the shovel and probe happens, and a dig ensues, with an annoyingly loud reminder of how much time has passed and an occasional pop quiz about CPR that needs to be applied to the rescued pack thrown in if we are feeling especially geeky. It made the concept of executing the rescue that much easier and provided confidence that our rescue actions applied today were the appropriate ones despite the intense pressure of time and life.   I also think that having that practice makes one more prone to continue to concentrate on the execution, vs letting other broader-implication thoughts (“he’s gonna die, how am I going to live with myself, how will I tell his wife”, etc) sneak into your head. 

Matt’s reflection on his down time echoed those that I’ve heard in the past: absolutely cemented in place, feeling panic but trying to squelch it and relax, getting dreamy, not having much of a sense of time, and then hearing the voices.  Fortunately for us, Matt seems to be an unusually mellow character, which probably helped preserve him until we could assist.

He was not using an avalung pack, but given the super short ride (he probably only “rode” 10 horizontal feet) it’s debatable whether or not he could have gotten it into his mouth in time anyway.    

Additional thoughts; Dec 28, after re-visiting the site with Bruce Tremper, my brother, my partner Ashley, Matt, and Dan.
  • The overall area there was about 200’ wide (guessing about 1 rope length) and about 2x that long from crown to toe. 
  • The slope angle at the point where we exited the woods and crossed was 28 degrees.  However, at the crown it was 33 degrees with micro rolls of 34. 
  • When faced with the decision to cross/don’t cross, I was a bit too focused on the slope in front of me, vs the slope above me.  It was a lot easier to see the slope angle in front of me since I was perpendicular/adjacent to it, and it’s trickier to judge slope angles from below (which should have made me that much more cautious)  In any case, I speculate that I was lulled into trusting what was in front of my nose. 
  • I was a bit too reliant on the “fact” that most avies occur on slopes in the 35-40 degree range (despite Ash constantly reminding me that avies have occurred in the 20’s). 
  • It didn’t resonate with me enough that the winds from the day before were strong enough – and the aspens on the ridge above thin enough – that, despite being ~400 vertical feet below the ridgeline, the snow transport from windward to leeward could drop that much snow that low to overweight the snowpack on that small slope.
  • It was interesting that the >30 slope slid, but it stopped pretty quickly on the slope that was <30 degrees below.  Ironically, it looked very unlikely that anyone on the main slope would have been buried, because the snow/blocks didn’t tumble; the blocks just slid downhill off the steeper part and then stopped.  Due to his position relative to the tree (which was an unusually bad tree, due to the thick branches), he was probably in the one place where he could get buried. 
  • Along those lines I was re-reminded that treelines adjacent to avalanche paths aren’t necessarily safe, particularly if the slope in question happens to arc towards your side but above you in the trigger zone.
  • I asked myself if I would have crossed that slope if I’d been alone (the way I started the day), and I think the answer is no.  Not necessarily because I felt safer with people watching me, but I knew the group wanted to get further to the west and I was “eager to please”. If I had been solo, or perhaps with one other person, I probably would have chosen to stick to the fairly densely wooded area (that we eventually skinned through on our exit) once I realized that the ascent route had led us to the edge of the clearing, because I would have not cared as much where on the ridge the skin track would end.  As it was, I created in my mind some mild pressure to get where I perceived the group wanted to go.
  • Along the lines of doing rescue practice vs beacon practice – it occurred to me that during the 6-10 minute rescue the beacons were only used for the first 2 minutes.  So while they are a super critical part of the search – and in this case our overall range was pretty short, since we intuitively knew within a 10m radius where he was - they are a relatively small part of the rescue process.  And the beacons themselves have gotten a lot better – so much so, in fact, that Bruce said the companies test them with truly mentally-challenged folks in Europe because that’s what rescuers potentially become in a real-life environment – that simply getting to within a meter or two of the beacon is by far the easiest part of the rescue.
  • As always in avy rescues, the downtime is the most important aspect, and being back there again reminded me how close we were to losing Matt.   And after being asked by a friend how the whole leadership/task allocation was established and thinking about how that related to the efficiency of the rescue, I realized that with the practicing and talking about rescues I felt pretty dang confident that all the decisions that were being made in the heat of battle were mostly correct without too much second-guessing, and that gave us the confidence to act aggressively and quickly and be able to anticipate the next moves. 
  • I was reminded again that it’s really hard to fully grasp how physically hard it is to move a lot of snow in a short time.  We had relatively soft snow, and it was still pretty arduous. 
  • All of which reiterates the fact that deep burial/real rescue scenarios are really worth doing. 
  • While it was quite mild today, I remembered how cold we were on Friday, and how the extra clothes that we had and – according to Matt – how critical the tea was for warming him up. 
  • A friend asked me about how systematic my probing was, and looking back on it now I remember that I was definitely not being systematic but was just givin’er in probing the area where I “knew” he was.   I know that I forget to be more systematic when I practice as well.  I was lucky I hit him when I did, and that he created a bigger target by being more horizontally-oriented than vertically. 

Late January, 2009…..
A month has passed since the incident, and more time to reflect on it.  A lot of people – including our really weird neighbor – saw the media accounts and have gotten a bit melodramatic about it saying that I’m a hero, this guy owes his life to me, blah blah blah.  The truths, however are thus:
  • I may have saved his life, but I came almost as close to killing him
  • Heroism is really overrated.  The price is too high
  • we ski a lot in avalanche terrain, and if you have any illusion that for this reason or that that you won’t be in an avalanche situation, you are fooling yourself
  • if you read this account - or any other – and don’t feel that you would be able to perform the same rescue in the same amount of time, you need to seriously reconsider your propensity to travel in avalanche terrain, your training, your gear, your practice time, and your confidence. 
 And here is a video that Bruce Tremper did; as always, he did a great job.

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