Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Seven Deaths in Four Days on Ski Mountaineering Terrain

Of these seven deaths over a four-day span, five were climbers, not skiers, and of the four incidents, two were climbing, not skiing.  But all were on terrain that is prime for ski mountaineering (i.e., not technical or mixed climbing). Details are currently rather slim for all of them, but here are some quick summaries with initial attempts at "lessons learned":

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.


  1. OK Jonathan I'll bite. Re the Mt. Baker incident - how does telemark gear increase your risk of skiing off a cliff? Seems to me that the risk here is a combination of exposure and lack of familiarity with route. Granted there are more or less skillful tele skiers and I already know which group I fall into (visual pun intended); but isn't your biggest beef with tele gear lack of efficiency, not control?

  2. First off, just wanted to reiterate more explicitly the caveat that the point of any assessment here is not to assign blame to specific victims, but rather to highlight what lessons can be learned from these tragedies for our own backcountry ski tours.
    In other words, I doubt that anyone reading any of this is planning to ski terrain like Denali or the Coleman Headwall or to set a speed record on the Mt Blanc massif, but many readers are planning to travel through avalanche terrain, to go faster . . . and to ski steep firm terrain on telemark gear.
    So with that disclaimer aside:

    Compared to the current de facto “Tech” binding standard for alpine touring gear, telemark gear is heavier in static weight, heavier in dynamic “lifted” weight (with the sole exception of the so-called “TTS” telemark gear that almost entirely ditches, well, telemark gear, and instead uses an AT boot and an AT toe piece, combined with a telemark heel throw), and with rare exceptions lacks any sort of calibrated release function.
    In exchange for those drawbacks for ascent efficiency and release safety if falling (whether just from skiing or if being dragged down by skis in an avalanche), telemark gear offers less control for the descent.

    Yes, fixed-heel skiers have fallen to their death. And in this particular incident, first off, we don’t even know for sure that the victim was on telemark gear (though in recent years he was on telemark gear, judging by his posting and video footage), and we don’t even know for sure the proximate cause of the fall over the cliff. But even if he didn’t fall while skiing, and instead somehow (?) just skied right over a rollover and onto a cliff, in the short time he had to realize that the terrain was about to change and that he had to either correct his course or stop, would you want more or less control over your skis?

    Even aside from this particular incident’s details (which we’ll probably never fully learn), telemark gear inevitably reduces the safety margin for skiing terrain like the Coleman Headwall that already has a relatively slim safety margin (even compared to other routes on Baker).
    Furthermore, if the victim was on telemark gear, and lack of skiing control contributed to the fall, then this would be neither the first nor (regretedly) the last installment of Death by Telemark:

    - A telemark skier died at the end of an AIARE Level 2 avalanche course when he was unable to turn competently enough to stay on a moderately angled rib (and hence veered onto a steeper pitch that slid).
    - A telemark skier in (IIRC) Colorado fell to his death while skiing steep firm summer snow during his quest to complete a 12-month ski streak.
    - A telemark skier from (IIRC) Arizona fell to his death while skiing a steep couloir in California (Tahoe area IIRC) in firm springtime conditions.
    - The American Alpine Club 2007 Accidents in North American Mountaineering cites “inadequate equipment for the conditions” as the cause for a fall “300 feet over rock slabs” requiring “an extensive ground evacuation using multiple raising systems” by a telemark skier whose three companions were all on alpine touring gear.

  3. And somewhat along these lines, a friend’s account was suspended from the TelemarkTips forum several years ago when he pointed out that “telemark skier” Kasha Rigby all on her big mountain expeditions had either downclimbed the difficult sections that other party members had skied, or she had skied on . . . AT gear. For example:

    “Spencer, Hilaree and Rick skied off of it. It was a steep (52-55) slope of rock hard snow above a bergshrund. A lot of it had to be side slipped, but they do manage to get in a couple good turns. I switched into my Koflachs and climbed up without my skis to watch. Kasha climbed up with her skis but decided that it's too icy for tele gear.”
    “The next day after returning to basecamp, we make the second descent of the Combatant Couloir. The top section of the gully, which in places is only a little wider than the length of a pair of skis, is bullet hard 55 degree ice. Rick, Hilaree, myself, Spencer and Chris all ski it from the top, but Kasha downclimbs a short ways before dropping in. Although she is clearly capable of skiing it from the top, we all agree it is wise for her to act conservatively with her tele gear.”

    She certainly can’t be faulted for recognizing the inadequacy for her equipment choices for that kind of terrain, although oddly enough she continued to promote that kind of gear at the time, and apparently still does even though she’s since switched to AT gear and even been featured in TNF advertisements with lifesize-plus Diamirs on the outside of Portland Light Rail system cars in 2006 and more recently with Dynafit bindings (http://press.jimmychin.com/?p=319) in a magazine, as well as in a book (http://www.amazon.com/Backcountry-Skier-Jean-Vives/dp/0880116501).

    Denali - Many more details courtesy of rando racer Jared’s blog = http://slc-samurai.blogspot.com/2012/06/denali-part-1-accident-on-motorcycle.html
    Baker- An unnamed "source close to the family" (http://kirkland.patch.com/articles/victm-of-fatal-skiing-accident-identified-as-kirkland-physician) clarifies that the victim first fell while skiing, then could not stop in time to prevent himself from falling over the cliff.
    Death by Telemark- I just remembered that at least one telemark skier has died on Everest (Tomas Olsson in 2006), although unclear if skiing ability played any role. (The party had reverted to downclimbing and rappelling when an anchor pulled out, so perhaps better ski gear would have allowed that section to be skied, but perhaps not, especially since the reports at the time indicated a problem with a broken ski?) And of the three telemark skiers who went into Great Gulf’s Pipeline with its notorious ice bulge after a brutal rain-refreeze cycle, the skilled climber survived unscathed, but of the other two telemark skiers, one died and the other suffered critical injuries that required a helicopter evacuation and a long rehab. Ironically, the telemarker fatality was from downclimbing – w/o an ice axe, but w/ the tele duck toe that interferes with front pointing – to assist the other fallen telemarker, with the eventual media report that he fell while transitioning from ski to climb, although the first SAR team on the scene was initially told that he had fallen while skiing. Finally, back to the Kasha Rigby theme, Dave Watson in his 2008 pre-trip publicity repeatedly emphasized that he would not only try to ski portions of Broad Peak and K2, but he would do so on telemark gear. He then rather quietly brought two Dynafit-based setups instead. (The 2008 trip was cut short by the need to assist with the rescue effort on K2, but Dave successfully skied K2 in 2009.)

  5. On the merits - thanks - a lot to think about here. Maybe asking help with some Dynafit mounts someday.

    Side points:

    "Death by Telemark" - if that isn't already the name of a bar band at Mad River, it should be.

    Glad TTips is no longer moderated that actively because there's a reasonable amount of give-and-take now and tolerance if not respect for the advantages of AT gear, especially Dynafits; couldn't see someone being suspended now for that sort of post.