I triggered an avalanche the other day that could have easily killed me and/or my partner, the same way that an avalanche in the same place killed a friend. I’m supposed to be “very experienced”, so why did this happen?
Every fall in recent years seem to follow a familiar pattern; long about October the talk on runs and rides turns to what skis and boots people are getting this season, what hut trips we are going on, remember that day of cold smoke in the Room of Doom, etc. Then a cold storm rolls in, dumps enough snow for snowboarders to ride some rails and cover the high trails, and then…..we wait. Usually until December to - sort of - start skiing. Also during that time the snowpack invariably develops The Layer that a long spell of high pressure has wrought, and this deep slab instability then plagues us for weeks; sometimes months.
And this season was no different: a couple of early storms then a longgg snowless period of high pressure that turned surface snow to sugar, then the storms started rolling in and buried the sugar down deep; a nice ball-bearing surface that’s well-greased to let subsequent slabs rage down. I have been back around and skiing for three weeks and watched as this developed, and saw the reports of people going for scary, dangerous rides as these slides broke and ran on them. So why did I then go out and trigger one?
As ski season comes and the storms do/don’t come as well, I try to shake up the marbles inside my skull a bit to account for another season of traveling in avalanche terrain. As our venerable Utah Avalanche Center forecasters have become acutely aware of, avalanches are as much a function of psychology/sociology as they are of meterology and snow science, and as such that’s a reason I’ve been intrigued by books such as Blink, How We Decide, The Black Swan, and – the best - Thinking, Fast and Slow. I try to remember what I learned in those books and apply them to my winter state of mind, because backcountry skiing is not the mindless jibjab that trail running or cycling are; simply put: it’s dangerous.
So what happened? Why did I knowingly go up into an area that has all of the terrain characteristics that our forecasters have said for weeks is primetime to trigger a dangerous deep slab avalanche? A few reasons, and my analysis of those…..
1. Uncommon Partner.
Jason is a friend I always enjoy doing outings with: he’s game, interesting, gotten super strong over the last few years, is a great skier, and our careers are very similar so we always have a lot to talk about. But our connections are sporadic; we get out a couple/few times each year, and so we don’t have the intrinsic knowledge of each other that we likely have in our other, more-consistent partners. As such, we probably don’t have the most-open line of communication which – ironically – means that the fact that we don’t get out that often makes it even more important that we communicate before and during the outings. We had a bit of perfunctory chat before going out, but much of our conversation revolved around catching up on our respective lives. We didn’t talk enough about the snowpack and The Plan.
The night before Jason told me about a “safe place’ he knows on Kessler, and wanted to hit it quickly before heading out of town. I know Kessler probably as well as most folks, and while I figured that it was unlikely that he knew some hidden pocket that I didn’t, I was willing to go along with his agenda, since much of that area is indeed safe and for sure it’s great skiing. However, it did define The Plan and therefore there was less likelihood/opportunity that we would be willing to consider alternative options. For sure, Jason is a great guy and an agreeable sort if I had suggested alternatives, but the tone had been set.
I’ve now had three different avalanche experiences in the last few years that in hindsight were complete functions of an agenda. I generally lack a bit of ambition; that is, I just wanna go out and have a good time. I’ve had the good fortune to do a lot of fun stuff, and don’t often get fixated on a goal, and while I admire folks who get a vision and work hard to execute on their goals, I think that goals/agendas create greater opportunities for an insidious “Drift Into Failure” that Drew Hardesty wrote a great synopsis of here: http://utahavalanchecenter.org/blog-drift-failureor-mathematics-and-few-thoughts-risk
3. A few more turns
On our first climb I suggested stopping well-short of the “normal” stopping spot on the ridge. Jason agreed and we skied down from that point, which ultimately was shown to be right about the end of the “safe” zone since the slide path did not affect the skin track below that point. Our run was pretty ridiculous:
(A quick video):
And of course we headed back up for another. When we arrived at our earlier stop point we suggested going up a bit higher; why not? That was fun, nothing happened, and…..we are human beings, so if we have the chance to go up higher and “get more”, we will! I’ve sometimes used this point in the day to say: “Well, we haven’t triggered an avalanche yet, so let's go up higher!” In hindsight, we would have had a stellar day and not triggered that slide had we continued to stop at our short spot. However, what if the other party that was in the area had pushed on up higher? Would we have followed? Answer: absolutely. That’s what we do. But maybe….we shouldn’t. Be satisfied with the (very good) goods that we have, and don’t succumb to FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out), despite its omnipotent push/pull?
4. Danger rating de-escalation
When I heard the avy forecast that morning I heard Bruce Tremper say: “No avalanches yesterday, a few inches of superlight snow, and no winds, and the rating is……considerable.” Considerable? Ie human triggered avalanches are likely? What he had described sounded like “moderate” to me. Yes, there was a weird avalanche on a similar aspect/elevation a couple of miles away, but it was two days prior, without a significant load applied since then. And an experienced observer had noted that the “snowpack was healing”. Yes, there are deep-pack instabilities, which are notoriously fickle and long-lasting, but the odds that the blower that fallen big enough and the addition of a couple of skinny skiers to awaken the dragon seemed low.
That said, even my de-escalation to “moderate” was tricky; after all, “human triggered avalanches ARE possible!” But we get so many days of “moderate” ratings in these parts where people seem to slay every imaginable line on every elevation/aspect that “moderate” is almost the new green light (despite the fact that just as many avalanches are triggered on moderate days as on considerable days). So I practically de-escalated it by two steps……
5. Comfort in trees
One of the allures of Patterson Ridge is the presence of lots of anchoring trees, even as it’s pretty steep. However, as you get up higher on the ridge the trees become fairly sparse, but those that are there are pretty big. Ie you aren’t skinning up a path of Christmas trees that grew out of a leveling-slide some years ago (as on the nearby Catcher’s Mitt run), and the trees up there aren’t “flagged” with branches missing on the uphill side.
But as I thought about it, there’s a bit of a rub: those trees are in the starting zone, where a slide doesn’t yet have the destructive mass/power. And then there are enough openings below for the snow to slice through (which also makes for great ski lines!). But for the skier this is almost worse than a nice wide-open slope, because – as happened to our friend Craig up there – there are just enough trees to almost certainly pulverize you before you get buried (Craig was not buried; he died of trauma). If a slope is wide open you are only dealing with the odds of being buried and the probably of being found before you expire; by tumbling uncontrollably down a pinball run at 60mph it’s unlikely you’ll get that chance (Ian McCammon did a study where he determined that 30 feet is the key; if you are 30 feet or less from a tree and can aim for it to stop you, do so; past that its destructiveness to our fragile little bodies becomes too great).
So trees are great…..until they aren’t.
I have gotten lucky….again. I’m losing track of how many times I shoulda died but didn’t. And while it’s been said that: “It’s better to be lucky than good” I’m not fooling myself: this stuff is like a coin toss, and luck that happens next time has absolutely no relation to what happened this time. Unless I can do a better job of fully (instead of partially) mitigating/avoiding the danger and recognizing my own frailties.