Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Vermont Avy on Mt Mansfield

This recent backcountry partial burial on Mt Mansfield was probably "just"
a sluff from a slide mechanics perspective, but still, burial up to the
victim's neck, with one side of his head covered too:

The fourth picture on the page appears to show a Stowe in-bounds slab
fracture line, although hard to tell for sure:

Monday, February 27, 2012

Secondary Slides; Elevation Effects

While checking to see if the NWAC Alpental report was available yet, I noticed a report for a 2011 incident on the same mountain as the recent Stevens Pass incident (although different aspect)

Excerpted below are two passages that I found especially interesting.

First, the danger of secondary slides to rescuers:
“After patrol examined him with a portable AED and administered CPR for 15 minutes or so they pronounced him dead. Other patrollers came behind with a toboggan to extract the victim. In doing so they triggered another small wet slide which propagated into the zone we were in and partially buried me and the two patrollers as well as sent my snowboard and one patroller's skis down the hill. One of the other members of our group was able to extract the patrollers and myself." 
Second, the different weather and snowpack conditions at lower elevations:
"The avalanche forecast issued by the NWAC on the day of the event (3/27/01) indicated that for Sunday “increasingly dense snow or rain should further load or weaken the already weak upper 12 to 16 inches of near surface snow and increase the potential for both natural and human triggered loose or wet loose slide activity.”  However, according to the witness account below, the riders were aware of the increasingly wet snow conditions encountered below 4000 feet as they descended toward US 2. Unfortunately a bad landing resulting in a hard turn were enough stress to start a small wet loose slide that subsequently caught and carried the victim into a terrain trap (small stand of trees)." 
"The strong destabilizing effects of even early spring radiation or direct sunshine on recent snow
cannot be overemphasized and should always be considered when descending into lower elevation  terrain that may not have the cooling effects of winds near higher ridges." 

Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Wicked Witch of Group Dynamics

The skier who triggered (and subsequently died in) the Stevens Pass avalanche is shown in a video wearing a jacket with a white cross, but apparently that is the Mountain Ambassador uniform, not the ski patrol uniform.  And as is typical of many western patrols, only a small paid subset of the patrol is involved in control work.

But more importantly, he comes across in the video as a genuinely fun, enthusiastic, and welcoming skier (not some sort of conceited or jaded "pro"), an ideal ambassador for a ski resort.
And an ideal ambassador for the sport too.

I can see why so many people mourn his loss.  I miss him even now, despite never having met him (or heard of him previously), just from watching the short video.

I suspect that most of his friends would deeply resent any analysis of the mistakes that occurred Sunday (and remember, you don't have to be stupid to make stupid mistakes, as the educations and careers of Mt Washington avalanche victims illustrate), but that stability assessment (and the group management) was obviously horribly mistaken, even a continent's width away - before, during, and after.  The avy danger rose was all orange with a little red, which translates into "black & white" (unless the terrain is all too shallow to slide, which I highly doubt skiers like this would seek, and in such snow conditions that are likely to make lower-angle terrain akin to tedious downhill trailbreaking).  But if we can learn from his mistakes, then that is a more lasting legacy that even his many contributions to the sport during his too-short life.

What we don't know from not being there that day is what is was like to be in that initial group of 15 ... but then again, we've probably all had an experience like that, even if it nothing to do with backcountry skiing.
The irony is that everyone else might actually be silently thinking the same thoughts you're silently thinking.

I read this email excerpt (from a certain former avy course student of mine) over and over again at the time, and have returned to it many times since, especially since the ending is kind of like the 1:00 mark in this classic scene:

“First off I noticed that there were a bunch of people at the trail head, 9 including myself.  [...] I eventually realize that [the original intended partners having dropped out] I am with 5 friendly strangers.  As we traverse the snow becomes heavily scoured and drifted.  We are near treeline and there are some upper mountain slide paths that have already run. [...] Keep in mind that we have felt several propagating collapses and the slabs are very hard. Nevertheless, the area we need to cross is short enough and low consequence enough and I'm thinking that it seems manageable if the terrain we are headed for is the type of safe, protected terrain that I have been skiing all week.”
“But here's the thing, they aren't really glades.  They are steep gullies with sparse trees on the edge and trees between the slide paths. Keep in mind that the CAIC rating is considerable on these aspects and elevations. Granted they are not above treeline super wind loaded start zones and we are not skiing down the gut of them; but the wind has hit the area so hard that the snow is a mix of sastrugi and windslab which makes for what everyone agrees is mediocre to terrible skiing. [...] I'm thinking ‘Ok that pretty much sucked and seemed more risky than I prefer. But the skin track back up should go through these dense trees we are now near and then we can ski back down the safer terrain and better snow that we started on.’"
“But no, they start skinning right up the terrain that we just started skiing down. A few minutes up I feel one more widely propagating collapse and all of my mental red flags start going bonkers. I think ‘Fuck this, we are fucking climbing up fucking steep, hard wind slabs in exposed terrain that could avalanche for shitty skiing. What the fuck is going on here???’ [...] thinking about all the accident reports where the less experienced people don't speak up I decide I'm done. I say I'm done skiing this terrain and need to go back to the safer side and that I think this is way too slabby and could avalanche. [...] Suddenly the whole group is pulled from continuing-to-ski-out-there stubbornness to taking the safest route back to the safer terrain.”

Avy on Irene Path in Daks

Avalanches on the Daks summer landslide paths are fairly common, but documentation is scarce.  

For a recent incident though on one of Irene's (many) new slide paths, we have both the triggering skier's account and a video narrated at the beginning by recently engaged Bob Yates  (congrats again Bob!) and a write-up by speed hiker extraordinaire (e.g., entire Presidential Traverse in less than 5 hrs) and rando race champion (when he doesn't miss a turn, but I'll take my victories however I can get them!) Jan Wellford:

Note that Bob and Jan made their assessment before the triggering skier submitted the report, so they had to guess at the sequence of events based on the physical evidence, but turns out they were pretty much spot-on.  Well sleuthed there guys!

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Climax Avalanche on Slick Bed Surface

The post title and picture below pretty much say it all -- that and know thy summer terrain!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

"It didn't matter that we got away with it...

. . . we were still wrong."
So wrote a TGR poster reflecting on a prior tour in the aftermath of a deadly incident.

Apparently all party members had at least a decent level of training and knowledge in stability assessment, rescue preparedness, and first-aid.
Yet they chose to ski a line capable of a 2,500-vertical-foot slide (i.e., imagine from the base of Tux all the way to Route 16) when the avy bulletin stated:
"Whereas last weekend there were 6 bullets in the chamber for Russian
roulette, now there are only three. Best to keep the safety locked." 
They had gotten away with it on a prior day, when they were accompanied by the TGR forum author of the quote in the post title.  But the lesson he took away from that tour was:
"It was great skiing on the headwall but honestly I didn't really enjoy it
cause all I could feel was fear and shame for being there."
Tragically, the other party members appear to have taken away a different lesson.