June 14, Denali:
Five Japanese climbers on a rope team were descending Motorcycle Hill (a snowy slope with a pitch somewhere in the 30s, so would be nice for skiing) when they were hit by an avalanche. The sole survivor was swept into a crevasse (from which he eventually successfully self-extricated), and separated from his rope team, apparently because the rope broke. Subsequent searching located the end of the rope in the same crevasse, and hence the other four party members are presumed to be dead, located further down in the crevasse, their final resting place. A fairly detailed account is available in the Anchorage Daily News.
Apparently avalanches are quite common on Motorcycle Hill, but these are the first-ever avalanche fatalities on that slope. According to this blog entry, avalanche conditions were so bad that one party hunkered down for "several days" and descended down Motorcycle Hill only once they heard from an ascending party that all the unstable snow had been avalanche off (by the ill-fated Japanese party, although they did not know this at the time).
The blog entry reports wise decision making by the author's group, but also shows that the Japanese party was not the only one way making unwise decisions:
"During this time several other parties were either climbing or descending the fixed lines. Two of these groups were caught in separate avalanches. One group of three was caught just below the fixed lines and lost much of their gear and sustained numerous puncture wounds. The other party was caught just above camp and sustained relatively minor injuries. The decision to move higher or lower on the mountain is often a difficult one, but in the conditions that we observed there was no disagreement that our group would not be moving until conditions stabilized. When conditions were safe for us to descend we had only one meal left, and we were forced to abandon our cache of gear and food higher on the mountain due to safety concerns."UPDATE: Many (many) more details from rando racer Jared's blog.
June 14, Mt Hood:
Only a few hours later, a climber fell to his death while descending the most popular (indeed, sometimes too popular and hence dangerously crowed) route on Mt Hood. The victim was well-known in the outdoor industry, and about three decades ago, back when he was in his 20s, he had a number of rock climbing first ascents.
I've skied this route, and it's no steeper than, say, all the standard ski lines in Tuckerman Ravine (and elsewhere in the Presidentials). Fortunately when I skied it (carefully!), conditions were absolutely perfect, especially since the length and exposure are both far greater than the standard ski lines in Tuckerman Ravine.
Some of the incident accounts mention the dangers of climbing that kind of terrain solo, and hence inevitably unroped. However, many of the rope teams on that route do not place protection, thereby doing nothing to reduce the risk of a teammate's fall (given the inherent difficult of self-arresting on terrain that steep), yet placing the entire team at risk of being taken out by one person's fall. (And even worse, one falling rope team can "floss" another -- even into the prominent bergschrund on that route, which happened just a little over a decade ago . . . a tragedy almost compounded immensely when the rescue helicopter crashed.)
Lessons learned? Advocating that anyone on that route be roped up with protection seems excessive. We'll never know what caused such a skilled climber to fall to his death on such a comparatively easy route. Did a crampon part break? Was he just too casual about such a standard route he'd completed so many times before? All of that is pure speculation, but if it helps us not to take the condition of our gear or familiar routes for granted, then even such pure speculation can be helpful from a safety perspective.
June 15, Mt Baker:
I have skied only two comparatively easy routes from the peaks of Mt Baker (Grant via Roman Wall & Easton Glacier, and Sherman via Squak Glacier). I had previously read trip reports of the Coleman Headwall (2007, 2010, 2011), which looked like terrain well within my skiing ability, though well outside the safety margin I prefer.
A recent trip report from another route originally contained the passage:
"Said hi to a few fellas from the great North contemplating the Coleman Headwall. Big balls if they skied it under really frozen conditions.........TR?"The "TR" that was subsequently filed by the media doesn't have much on what caused the victim (who leaves behind a son about the same age as my daughter) to ski over a cliff to his death. However, based on both a video and his Turns-All-Year.com posts, he had at least in recent years been on telemark gear, which drastically reduces the already slim safety margin on such a route. One account indicates that he was simply not aware that he was about to ski over a cliff, which would indicate dangerous lack of familiarity with the route -- that detail could be entirely untrue for this incident, but still, it reinforces the need to ski slowly enough on such terrain to be able to stop in a very short distance if the terrain has the potential to cliff-out if slightly off-route.
UPDATE: An unnamed "source close to the family" clarifies that the victim first fell while skiing, then could not stop in time to prevent himself from falling over the cliff.
UPDATE: Pictures of the victim from other tours show him with both telemark gear and AT gear over time, and more specifically an AT boot model that has been available only during the current ski season and the prior season. A reasonable inference is that during the current season or the prior season he switched over to the TLT5 for tours like this, so telemark gear is probably absolved from all blame for this tragedy.
June 17, Mt Blanc:
Each year the Mt Blanc massif records almost as many fatalities as Mt Washington has experienced in its entire history of outdoor recreation (especially when the couple dozen or so motorized accidents are netted out).
This single death comes as more of a shock though because the victim was Stephane Brosse, a former champion ski mountaineering racer, whose skin>ski transition video has been watched countless times by many aspiring racers.
He was accompanied by current champion ski mountaineering racer Kilian Jornet, on his "Summits of My Life" project. Perhaps they were both giving the cornice what anyone would have considered a sufficient safety margin. However, a tour plan that entails the following:
"[...] a series of mountain routes in ground-breaking style - several of them never attempted previously. This spectacular journey will redefine the idea of 'travelling light' with technical equipment and back up kept to a bare minimum. [...] The project begins this summer in the Mont Blanc massif, where Kilian will set out on two incredible mountain trips, traversing the massif from east to west (Champex to les Contamines) on skis, and then from south to north (Courmayeur to Chamonix) climbing and running. Neither of these routes have been attempted in previously.". . . certainly presents conflicts with the "safety > efficiency > speed" guideline.