Saturday, December 29, 2012

Outside article about Rocky

It's been a pretty amazing week of skiing, with conditions that have consistently reminded me a lot of the Wasatch!  As the avy report said yesterday, it's been as good as it gets for blower powder skiing.  And great timing since it coincided not only with the holidays but our decision to stick around for said holidays.  I got stymied a bit the last two days by a combination of a weird bug and a sore back  -the latter of which somehow was contagious between Ash and I, which is weird - but hope to be back up and at it soon. 

Below is a copy of the article that is in this month's Outside Magazine that I alluded to in my earlier post about Rocky Contos.  I'm sure it's against all sorts of laws to post a copy about this, but I doubt there's even close to enough people reading this to make anyone know or care, and I'm sure that it will make lots of people rush out and buy many copies of Outside anyway!  Hopefully you can zoom in enough to be able to read it. 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Two great milestones

Our Christmas Eve started with the unusual opportunity to get a couple of early morning Snowbird tram rides with a stellar gang to celebrate our great friends' Scott and Rachel's 10th (?!!?) anniversary.  Given the storm that was marching into the Wasatch the ability to do this was in some jeopardy due to possible avalanche control work by the resort, but as ever the Sweet/Martin timing was perfect, with just enough snow to create a nice freshener on top of the wind crusts and 'roy but not enough to warrant full-blown explosive control work (which was likely initiated just hours later after it started puking 2 inches an hour late morning). 

Here is the gang about to launch up the hill:

and here are the Decadians themselves with a champagne toast, courtesy of the ever-thoughtful Reyes:

Well done, team! 

Then tonight at the annual Ziegler/Longe Christmas party I had the always-appreciated encounter with the venerable "Full-Tilt" Milt Hollander:

Who turned.....ninety  this year!  (uh....he's the bald guy on the right! not the left....). I first met Milt on a Golden Alpine Holidays hut trip in about 1989 when he was just a young whippersnapper in his 60's.  He's still getting out skiing!  

His secret to success?  "You just gotta keep moving!"  A huge inspiration for all of us. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Stevens Pass avy musings

Today I was sent a link to an extensive article in the NY Times about the devastating avalanche that occurred last winter at Stevens Pass that killed three prominent members of the skiing community, and I must say it’s an impressive article, particularly considering it comes from the world of mass media, which is notorious for not really understanding avalanches (“It was an Act Of God!”).  Here’s the link:

It’s quite long, but a very worthy read for anyone who backcountry skis. 

The quick summary is thus:  through a series of both planned and coincidental events, a surprising handful of industry luminaries happened to be in the Stevens Pass area last winter at the same time as a major storm hit, and the enthusiastic marketing director for Stevens Pass ski  resort siezed the opportunity to organize an outing to show these folks the goods.  Word spread, more people hooked in, and when the group set out there were sixteen people heading out to ski a 3000 foot sidecountry run that was uncontrolled (ie not bombed by the resort patrollers).  They triggered a sizeable avalanche, and three people died. 

This was such a stark reminder of a great point that a presenter made at the Utah Avy workshop this fall:  the “visiting dignitary” heuristic, where locals/experts lose their sense of safety in an effort to “show people a good time”.  Stevens Pass had apparently been making big efforts to improve its image/presence on the big time ski resort scene, and the opportunity to show off to an influential crowd on the best goods around seemed to have clouded judgement a bit.   If for no other reason than allowing the group to grow to sixteen people; EVERYONE knows that this is way too many for any kind of an adventure, much less a backcountry ski outing on the heels of a big storm.  But the opportunity was there…..

It reminded me a bit of an incident in the Wasatch 3 years ago when a longtime Wasatch local took out a couple of friends who hadn’t been in the backcountry much on a super sketchy day and told them about this awesome line that they had to ski – ie showing the “visiting dignitaries” a good time – and it ripped out badly on him with tragic results.  It’s probably good to be aware of this human characteristic that we are all subject to, and when people are visiting, don’t get lured into blurry decision making just to get them the goods (in fact, chances are that even “marginal” skiing by locals’ standards will likely be plenty good for visitors anyway!)

As I read the article, I was struck by how many people were quoted something along the lines of “I knew that this was a bit serious, but I didn’t want to be the jerk who piped up about it and rained on the parade.”  Indeed, all of us have been there:  maybe there’s a critical mass of people who are on the groupthink train and we don’t want to derail it, there’s an “expert” in the midst whom you don’t feel like you can/should supercede, or there wasn’t really any opportunity to say “hey, I’m not comfortable with this”, but I’ve found that if I’m not comfortable and say as much, chances are quite good that at least someone else feels the same way and even the entire group can be relieved that someone brought it up.  And if you do it in a non-threatening way (Ash taught me the great line of “how do we feel about the safety of this?”) it can lead to a great discussion.  And paradoxically, while no one wants to feel like the weeny saying “I’m not comfortable with this”, it actually takes a heckuva lot MORE courage to say that than simply go along with the crowd and its inherent apathy, or at least the fallacy of safety in numbers.

And speaking of numbers, I alluded to it previously, but wow….sixteen people?   I always get a little nervous with more than four, and even last weekend our friends who typically ski in a 6-8 person posse lost a guy because he went the wrong way, arguably because he got a little bit lost in the crowd (he ended up fine, but exited alone, in the dark, miles from the car).  Suffice to say, with small groups it’s a lot easier to follow protocol of paying attention to partners, skiing one at a time, and make good decisions.  And again, while it takes a bit of courage to say “hey, our group here is wayyy too big; let’s do something about that!” the odds are good that there will be palpable group relief that someone spoke up, at least to generate some discussion about this important point.

On a gear-related note, it was interesting to me that the one person who had the avy airbag pack lived, while three others died.  On the surface – so to speak – it would be easy to attribute her survival to the airbag, but I think this may be a bit optimistic, since it sounds like the three fatalities were because of super bad trauma due to the heavily-treed nature of the slide path.  And the current crop of packs – with the explosion of compressed air – are not very effective once the relatively fragile fabric of the bag material is torn – by a tree, for example – and it deflates.  Not to say that airbag packs aren’t good – my understanding is that they effectively double your chances of survival – but I think this is more relevant in places like EU and AK where so much of the avy incidents are above treeline. 

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rocky Contos' First Descent of the Amazon

In August I went to Peru for a little kayaking expedition with Rocky Contos and had a great adventure.  As I was awaiting my flight for a day in Lima on my way home I wrote up a long story about our adventures together; however, as I tried to save it Rocky’s mac froze up and it’s still in a deep freeze, so that story is yet to come. However, I thought I’d go ahead and talk about Rocky’s other forays down there, since they are pretty fascinating and have enough adventure and intrigue to warrant an article in the Outside Magazine issue that is just hitting the newstands. 

For those of you who don’t know Rocky, he has established himself as one of the premier whitewater expedition paddlers in the world.  He has over 100 first descents in Mexico, many of them very long and difficult, and most of them were done solo.  In addition to that, as a neuroscientist he exposed a fraud case involving his advisor at the University of Washington who happened to have won a little award called the Nobel prize for physiology.  And not surprisingly, with these fascinating and disparate resume’-building facts, he’s quite a character as well.    For more info on Rocky specifically here’s an article I wrote for American Whitewater a few years ago:

For the past year Rocky re-trained his sights from Mexico to Peru, a country that arguably has some of the best whitewater rivers on earth; most are tributaries of the Amazon that start high in the Andes.  Part of his enthusiasm is due to the fact that Rocky has an unusual passion to do rivers and from as high as possible to as low as possible, so the Amazon -at over 4000 miles long – represented literally the world’s best opportunity to do that.  So last winter he started researching what he’d do in a multi-month adventure there.  And it’s here that the story gets interesting.

The Amazon is generally considered to be the 2nd longest river in the world at 3976 miles, just behind the Nile (4132 miles) and just ahead of the Yangtze (3914), but in terms of discharge it dwarfs those two (it’s actually has more than the other biggest seven  rivers combined).  And as one of the Great Rivers there has been huge efforts over the years to not only determine “the” source of it but also to find that source.  Initially the Rio Maranon was the longest, then the Rio Urumbamba  - that flows past Macchu Picchu was the winner (with expeditions launched to both), but about 80 years ago or so the Rio Apurimac was determined to be “the” source of the Amazon.  An $11M expedition by Jean Michel Cousteau in 1982 detailed it with explorations of 18,000+ foot Nevado Mismi, whose rivulets and trickles off the snowfields and glaciers were considered to be the highest/farthest-from-the-mouth contributors to the Amazon.   In classic Cousteau fashion, a six-hour documentary of this expedition was produced (here’s some more information, and here:  This was again reconfirmed by satellite in 2001 and 2007. 

Around this time an international team of paddlers/rafters, funded by an enthusiastic but woefully under-skilled South African did a memorable first descent of the entire Amazon (via the Apurimac) from the Andes to the sea that Joe Kane documented in his excellent book Running the Amazon.

Fast-forward to 2012. Rocky Contos, ever-the-scientist, has studied maps and Google Earth at his San Diego home very carefully, and after double and triple checking, looked up from his Mac and exclaimed that actually another river extends up the Amazon 80km farther than the Apurimac!  There are very few people who can decipher fraudulent scientific information at the Nobel level and refute hundreds of years of expeditions by world-famous explorers and satellite imagery, but Rocky is not one to take science lightly, and when he went to Piotr Chmielinski – who was the defacto captain of the Running the Amazon expedition and is considered an expert on the subject, Piotr agreed that Rocky was correct: history, scientists, expeditions, and satellites have indeed neglected Rocky’s discovered river as the source of the Amazon.  Chmielinski has maintained ties with National Geographic in the years following their descent and contacted them with this the news that there may be a new source of the Amazon, with the added feature that the extra distance may make it actually longer than the Nile.  Piotr personally helped Rocky out with a $2k donation and connected Rocky directly with National Geo, which committed money as well, but is waiting to announce the news until   a peer-reviewed geography journal verifies and accepts the fact.

In the meantime, Rocky was prepping himself for 4-6 months of expedition kayaking and rafting in Peru.  In addition to planning on doing the first source to sea trip starting on the new headwaters of the Amazon, Rocky wanted to do all the others too:  the Urubamba that makes the Macchu Picchu tourists shudder in their train cars, the Maranon with its 400+ mile section of Grand Canyon-style, raftable big water, the Apurimac’s fearsome Black Canyon and even-more fearsome and committing Acobamba Abyss.  He lined up partners for many of the adventures (including Erik Wiehenmeyer, the blind guy who among other things has summited Everest, and Piotr Chmielinski) and in April finally headed to Lima, where – in an understatement, Rocky paddled all of the Peruvian Amazon’s major rivers, including the Maranon with me, the Apurimac, the Urubamba, and the Mantaro.  

Coincidentally, two other expeditions were being mounted/executed.  One was a young South African with no whitewater experience who, after summiting Nevado Mismi worked his way down into the flatwater where he ended up being inexplicably shot by indigenous fishermen:   The other was conceived and mounted by a guy named West Hansen, a Texan who has had considerable success in epic flatwater racing. West called his trip the “Amazon Express” -  with goal to do a speed descent of the Amazon from source to sea, in “60 days or less”.  West was another guy with minimal whitewater experience, so was looking for experienced partners to help get him through the tough sections in the Andes. West had lined up an Epic kayak for his trip and some other small sponsors, but was still looking for bigger sources of funding for his trip when Rocky contacted him in March. West was impressed with Rocky’s accomplishments and soon invited him to join his team and descent of the Apurimac, promising Rocky funding (if he could get it).

The presence and goals of Hansen’s Amazon Express created a bit of a quandary for Rocky; West was of course planning on doing the Apurimac, since that was considered the source, but his “success” in the eyes of the world would be compromised if news of his “record” coincided with the global publication of Rocky’s new-found source info. So Rocky wondered, should he tell West about his discovery?  Maybe it would be good news for West that he wouldn’t need to run infamous class V-VI cataracts of the Apurimac, but perhaps it would be bad news given a largely unknown river that might turn out to be just as tough. Rocky decided to tell West the news and offer to combine resources, since Rocky could use the extra funding, and West of course, could use the extra kayak support as well as the information on the new river.  Rocky’s requirement was that West promise beforehand not to tell anyone about it or change his river plans without Rocky’s approval and inclusion. Rocky, being ever so careful to protect himself, recorded the conversation. All seemed well as they agreed to work together. 

Rocky and I up high in the Andes bumbling around

After Rocky started his trips in Peru the communication stream from West suddenly went stone cold.  Hansen simply refused to answer any of Rocky’s emails, phone calls, etc - with no explanation. West got his Nat Geo grant – but didn’t include Rocky on any of his correspondence with them or tell him about it – it was Chmielinski who told Rocky what West was up to. It seemed clear to Rocky that the only reason West’s grant was funded was because of Rocky’s discovery of the new Amazon source. So now finances were becoming a big stake in the game – in addition to the potential fame that might come from a first complete descent of the Amazon. 

 In the meantime, West was clearly scrambling to change his program from the Apurimac to the new river.  But there was no mention of this on his website or any of his blog posts (actually, his wife’s, who was communicating with him via sat phone), despite the fact that the Apurimac was still “up” on the site as the river that they were doing.  So only the few people who knew the area understood that he was doing the river that Rocky had said was actually the source, thereby fulfilling his obligation to Rocky to give him credit in a very backwards way by not actually mentioning it (but fundamentally breaking his vow to include Rocky). 

To his credit, despite the fact that he remains a beginning whitewater paddler, West made it through the difficult whitewater of the true Upper Amazon, albeit with a lot of support and in far more time than he anticipated.  Eventually he hit the flatwater and as expected starting making up time.  Rocky and West’s philosophy was different; doing the whole thing under his own power was clearly very important to West, to the point where his nights were spent on his support boat that was moored on the bank versus drifting in the current while asleep on the boat.  Despite Rocky’s comparable and unusual prowess at flatwater paddling, he didn’t have a support crew and he didn’t want to take the time to paddle the whole thing himself, but he did want to complete the entire descent of the river, complete the first ever GPS measurement of its length, and have the cultural experience of travelling the river the way the locals do – and do it all before West.  So Rocky boated down the rest of the Ucayali and Amazon, but with a motor and a captain at the helm. And that trip was full of adventure itself; he was robbed a couple of times – once at gunpoint – and had many memorable experiences of the deep Amazonian jungle. 

As luck would have it, Rocky and West hit the Brazilian border at the same time and Rocky hunted him down in the town of Santa Rosa.  As Rocky put it:  “He wasn't particularly friendly to me, probably because he knows he went against his word to not run the new Upper Amazon without my permission (permission I withdrew based on how he was treating me).  And he did not mention our meeting in his blog.”  In fact, West never mentioned Rocky ever in his blog. Something like Stanley and Livingstone, but not quite.  West Hansen’s journey actually finished December 5th after a total of 109 days, far longer than his initially proposed “60 days – or less”.  Here’s the link to his blog:

So now Rocky is back in San Diego, downloading the innumerable photos, videos, notes, gps stats, etc from his adventures, and will likely start his book “First Descent of the Amazon” soon.   It should make for a fascinating tale:

He recently put up a few pictures from the MaraƱon and Urubamba too:

I'd insert the pdf of the Outside article, but I  am not sure how to do that....will work on it.  And hopefully soon to follow is the account of our own adventure on the upper Rio Maranon. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


In mid-August of 2011 our good friend Boyce died kayaking in the North Fork of the Payette, casting a pall over the many people around the country who knew Boyce in one of his four lives:  one of New England’s pre-eminent hardmen of whitewater kayaking, as one of the top executives managing $150 billion at Fidelity Investments, the principal investor in the successful Liquid Logic kayak company, and as a devoted family man.     Though the lives of a high level kayaker and a financier aren’t commonly associated, Boyce walked the line with aplomb. 

Boyce was famously logical, which is likely why he achieved such a high level of respect in finance, and some of his gem quotes have stood the test of time and acted as guides for both his colleagues and his kayak partners.   Here are a few examples:

When the mighty Kern brothers were embarking on their remarkable kayaking careers they felt compelled to travel the country following the rains and the dam releases.  At one point they wanted to go down to the Green River (in North Carolina) or the Gauley (in W. Virginia) as dirtbag kayakers they didn’t have a working car to get them down there, so they asked Boyce if they could borrow his Ford Explorern for the trip.  Boyce agreed, and off they went on a good adventure.  However, a week later they had an “issue” and were forced to make the call that everyone dreads:  “Boyce, we totaled the Explorer.”  A long pause, then The Line:  “Well, I never invest more than I can afford to lose.”  And that was that. 

Boyce was renowned for having huevos of steel.  Even in his mid-50’s, he was always pushing the limits on rivers; running ever-harder stuff at ever-higher flows, despite taking more than a few ferocious beatings and swims.  One memorable day with our mutual buddy Greg Hanlon on the infamous Tereau river in Quebec, Boyce got vertically pinned and had to be rescued by his friends using a river-wide tag line, which was then followed by a bad swim that had his partners worried about him potentially drowning.  After finally getting re-situated Greg asked Boyce if was still good to go, because it got steeper and more committing below.  Boyce looked at Greg somewhat incredulously and in a very even tone:  “What happened up there has absolutely no bearing on what will happen downstream.”   While the logic was irrefutable, it takes an mastery of emotion to exercise it so the fear associated with what just happened isn’t paralyzing your actions in what comes next. 

Boyce was asked to go back to Harvard – where he had received his MBA – to give a presentation to current MBA students.  One of them asked “what would you suggest that we students do so that we can achieve the same success as you?”  His simple reply, that was undoubtedly a little disappointing to the ambitious students:  “I’d take a lot of math. Life and business is all about solving problems, and if you can solve math problems, you can learn to solve any problems.”
this could be a problem! 

In the aftermath of the financial meltdown of 2008 Wall Street types were not only absolving themselves of all blame, they were also skating out of the industry, many times with big bonuses, much to the chagrin of the investors.  When asked about this, Boyce said “It was the likes of us who got the individual investors into this mess, and as such, it’s our responsibility to help guide them out of it.”  If only most/some/any of his peers had that kind of integrity (Here’s a link to a video of Boyce as a guest on CNBC in 2009  - when the Dow was near 7000 - talking about long term investment fundamentals:

As one might expect of a high level finance guy, Boyce made a lot of money.  And no doubt he and his family’s spending was a bit on the lavish side.  But in the American Whitewater’s list of annual giving to support free-flowing rivers, under the “$10,000+” category it would be Patagonia….and Boyce Greer.  His rationale was simple: “It’s what I do.”  When we did an expedition on the Romaine river in remote Quebec and needed to hire a plane to take a dozen people on three flights in to the put-in, Boyce insisted on paying for the whole flight cost, after using his motor home to get 9 of us up there.  And when he took his family on a Middle Fork Salmon/Main Salmon combination with a commercial company he invited some friends along who typically didn’t do guided trips.  They were a bit reluctant to pay the price for the commercial trip nor have Boyce pay for their whole vacation, but Boyce insisted:  “Look, this is what I do for fun, and I want to do it with my best friends.  That is invaluable to me.” 

After an expedition went awry and our team got benighted in Chile in the rain, when Boyce finally made it to the airport after having missed his flight he requested a first class upgrade to rewind on the way home.  The ticket agent said “But sir, that is very expensive” and Boyce responded “This card has a credit limit of $10,000; please don’t exceed that.”

Of course, with the means that Boyce had he could afford to do these kinds of things, and it’s perhaps unrealistic to apply these “inspirational” stories to those of us without those means.   But the theories and practices: protecting what you love, acting with integrity, valuing your friends, investing in what you believe in, and looking at rivers and investments and the perils of each with complete and utter objectivity are those that we can all take through our lives. 

I once asked Boyce on a long haul back home what he said on Monday mornings down at the Fidelity office in downtown Boston after he’s driven all night both ways to huck himself through class 5 drops all weekend while his colleagues have been watching the Sunday morning news shows, catching the big game, and barbequeing prime ribs, and they say “Hey Boyce, what were you up to this weekend?”  His only-partial tongue-in-cheek response?  “I had more fun this weekend than you can possibly imagine.”  Hear hear, Boyce.  Live it up. 
Boyce not watching The Big Game

Perhaps the best quote was actually not by Boyce himself but by his good friend Woody Callaway:

who’s been a staple in the kayak industry since the beginning of time and pretty much defines southern good old boy charm.  Woody spoke to a crowd of over 2000 people – mostly wearing suits, while he was in a Hawaiian shirt, shorts, and flip flops – in a huge tent at Fidelity’s New Hampshire HQ for Boyce’s memorial, and after getting plenty of chuckles for saying “when Boyce said he worked for a bank he made me think he was a branch manager or sumthin’” he then got a bit emotional in his final comments.  Woody left the podium, then suddenly lunged back, grabbed the microphone, and at the top of his lungs yelled:  “BOYCE GREER IS THE FUCKIN MAN!”  Indeed he is. 
with his comrade-in-arms Greg, deep in the wilds of  yet another river. 

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.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

"Miserable" skiing

We've had some interesting skiing over the last few days.  Sunday - out of the White Pine parking area of LCC - was warm and windy, but we were able to sniff out some nice turns done somewhat gingerly due to the thin coverage.  That night a ferocious little storm roared into SLC with some rare-for-December lightning, and Monday morn Ash and I went up to the PC ridgeline to kick some of the inevitable cornices that had to have formed in the 85 mph winds the night before and maybe kick off an avy.  The only problem was that:
there were no cornices!

And it was not only pretty stable, it was good skiing on all aspects to boot.  So we barely salvaged the morning by having plenty of nice creamy turns.

Last night was the 2nd of the Wasatch Skimo Citizen's series races.  For Paul and I the drive up the canyon was a nice throwback to our roots in Oregon, hoping that by the time we got out of the car the rain splattering the windshield would change to snow. But like many days in Oregon, it did not.  This did not dissuade the Skimo enthusiasts, however, who charged off into the darkness and the rain with headlamps ablaze (the historical ambient light of Brighton's night skiing wasn't there since they haven't started that yet) to taste the blood  in their mouth due to high altitude overexertion on three climbs and descents.  Andy warned us to ski conservatively due to the lack of light and the plethora of natural obstacles given our lean snowpack, and that proved to be no problem since the saturated snow necessitated some skating just to move in some places.   The party continued in the covered area where Andy gave out the traditional prizes of a little gear and some awesome pies, then we retired to the Porcupine Grill to trade war stories of our hour of dundering around in the rain.  Much thanks to Mike Hales who had to miss out on another rando race but was kind enough to let me use his gear while I await some new skis and bindings coming soon.  As ever, as I warmed up I was stunned at the incredible ease/speed of skinning - and decent ski-ability - that this new age lightweight gear represents. 

Many thanks again to Andy for promoting this series; super fun. And thanks to PowderWhore Noah for bringing his Drooling Moose to spice up the post-race party.   

This morning - despite the UAC's warnings of a "miserable" day out in the mountains (neglecting to mention that a miserable day in the mountains is better than an average day in the office, and/or perhaps as a population control measure) Colin and I actually had fun skiing up high on north/ne facing to celebrate his first wintertime Wed morning late-arrival to work (which I anticipate will enable him to overcome his aversion to less-than-perfect conditions!).  However, a few quick hand pits indicated that our weird weather (wind, big temp swings) are creating a complex "base" - such as it is, at least up high - that will likely prove problematic once the snow guns eventually turn on. 

Moral to the story:  as ever, skiing's always good; if it's raining just convince 40 of your friends to join you in a sloggy slugfest, and if the conditions suck just go anyway.  Good for the consitution.