Saturday, March 31, 2012

Snowbridge Collapse Video

Although avalanche footage is now commonplace, I've never seen video footage of a snowbridge collapse.
Pay close attention at the 0:06 mark:

BTW, I recall noting many years ago that the warning signage at the base of the tram that takes you to this route (with no non-glaciated options) was smaller than at the typical U.S. resort terrain park.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bridger Bowl Wet Slides

Just how long can a persistent weak layer, well, persist?
How about all the way through the spring, even on slopes that have been groomed and all bumped-up!

Scary details in this video:

And in the Gallatin Nat'l Forest avy bulletin:
"Bridger Bowl experienced their most impressive day of wet slab avalanche activity in memory.  Avalanche cycles like this one are rare.  It was only the second time in my 22 years of avalanche work that I’ve seen wet slab activity on this scale.  Yesterday, the ski patrol triggered avalanches with explosives that gouged out groomed runs and road cuts plus put debris up to 20 foot deep in the gullies."
As well as in the picture below from an Unofficial Networks article:

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Steve Romeo Incident Report

A noteworthy passage from the official incident report:
"It’s thought that they decided to contour high  across the slope in order to reach the top of their desired ski descent on the southern aspect of the  mountain.  Had they continued switch-backing up along the eastern edge of the avalanche path to reach  the saddle at 10,200’ feet, it’s likely they would have reached that saddle without incident."
A local newspaper article also has some commentary from the park rangers:
The route they chose took them from the edge of an avalanche path into its starting zone, which was the ideal steepness for slides, rangers said.
“They chose to go up a known avalanche path ascending into an avalanche starting zone,” Jenny Lake Ranger Rich Baerwald said.
While Romeo skied radical terrain with elan, he also posted several videos and wrote stories about getting caught in or nearly missed by avalanches.
“I don’t know if he was taking that to heart,” Harder said. “He had more [encounters] in the last few years than I’ve had in my lifetime,” the 30-year Teton veteran said.
“I feel pretty strongly a lot can be learned by this,” Harder said.
Climbing the avalanche path with skins on their skis, Romeo and Onufer initially made the best of hostile country, Baerewald said.
They stuck to the climber’s right, near where cliffs form the edge of the slope.
At an elevation of about 9,700 feet, they made a critical decision.
“They start making their way away from the edge of the avalanche path on into the avalanche track and into the starting zone,” Baerwald said.
Added Harder, “If they were heading to that [pencil-thin] couloir, they probably short-cut over to it.”
An alternative would have been to continue up the right side of the slope, rangers said. This route was less steep and led to a ridge.
“The ridge would have been a safer route,” Baerwald said. Ridge safety is a basic concept, he said.
“The message with regard to route-finding is, it’s super important terrain be considered,” he said.
Once the skiers provoked the slide, nothing could have saved them, rangers said. The avalanche ran a linear mile over cliffs and rocks.
It likely propelled them at speeds between 60 and 80 mph, rangers said. It ripped off one skier’s pack, another’s boot, all four skis.
Searchers found the base layers of one ski ripped from its top plate, its climbing skin still attached.
“The ski was completely delaminated, separated,” Harder said. “Speaking to force, that says a lot right there.”
The chaos likely tore Romeo’s helmet off his pack, and it “sustained a lot of damage,” Harder said.
Romeo had an Avalung pack — a device designed to allow avalanche victims to breathe if buried. Its mouthpiece was deployed, but rangers couldn’t tell whether he had it gripped in his teeth during the slide, they said.
Friends of the two have asked whether avalanche airbags could have saved them, rangers said. Airbags are stowed in backpacks and deploy instantly with the pull of a toggle. They help suspend a skier high in flowing snow and help prevent burial.
But neither skier was really buried, rangers said.
“Chris probably could have sat up,” had he been alert or alive, Harder said. “Steve probably could have wrestled an arm out.
The Teton County Coroner ruled the cause of death was blunt-force trauma.
Buffalo Fork Sub-District Ranger Rick Guerrieri said no gear could have helped.
“One piece of equipment wasn’t going to have any effect on injuries,” he said.
Added Harder, “The best tool they had with them, they weren’t using the most. That was their brain.”
Rangers discounted other skiers’ sentiments about the pair being in “the wrong place at the wrong time.” Such phrases are best reserved for victims of meteorite strikes, they said.
“This [event] had factors in it that [include] decision-making,” Harder said of the avalanche. Rangers are uncertain to what extent the pair took into account the snow and winds.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Avy Research Helps Ice Cream

I've been in touch this month with researchers at the Swiss Institute for Snow and Avalanche, or “SLF” (part of the Swiss Federal Institute for Forest, Snow and Landscape Research), regarding my upcoming article on airbag statistics.
Apparently their research in related matters has quite the range of applications:

Samples of ice cream have been scanned with an X-ray machine more typically used to study the ice crystals which are key to avalanche formation.
Nestle is hoping to reveal the exact conditions under which ice crystals merge and grow.
When the crystals get big enough they change the texture of ice cream and alter how it feels when it is eaten.
The study of ice crystal formation has been carried out with the help of scientists at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Mt W Conditions Update

March 21 Trip Report:  Mt Washington Four-Ravine Circumnavigation . . . or should that be, March is the new April, or maybe even May, or in some places June.

Yes, although some spots still have nice snow, the possibilities for touring among multiple ravines are pretty slim, or maybe even nonexistent now after yet another day of major melting, and with one more coming up tomorrow.

Full picture set and TR (via captions) here.

... but here are few quick pics ...

Route (clockwise):

Heading on up:

Color coordinating the helmet and skis:

Booting back up after relaying the news up to a waiting Jerimy that, no, it doesn’t go:

Josh in upper Monroe Brook:

And quite a bit further down:

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Low, But With Instabilities

Low avy bulletins are usually pretty boring.  But the March 9 Eastern Sierra bulletin discussed numerous weaknesses in the snowpack, despite the Low overall rating.

Avalanche forecasters come from many backgrounds, and the writer of that bulletin is a true snow scientist.  But she wasn't just getting carried away with the details of a Low rating.  In typical Sierra fashion, a big snowstorm was on the way, coming on top of all those instabilities.

Here's the result in the form of the March 17 bulletin:
The avalanche danger is HIGH. Over two feet of new snow has fallen overnight. Natural avalanches with crowns 2 to 3 feet thick are running on June Mountain. Natural and human triggered avalanches are very likely today. Large avalanches will occur in many areas. Very large avalanches can occur in steep wind loaded terrain. 
Heavy snow continues to fall on a weak snowpack adding to the unstable conditions. 

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Tricky Tahoe Snowpack

The Lake Tahoe snowpack was so thin that even Alpine Meadows was planning to close in mid-April.
But recently nine feet of snow arrived.  (Yes, feet, not inches.)

To demonstrate the impact on backcountry snow stability, here is a video of an avalanche forecaster's Propagation Saw Test:

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Norwegian Avalanche

All avalanches are of course bad, but this one was especially bad:  five dead (reportedly four Swiss, one French), from a ship-based tour (i.e., think mobile floating hut).  Only one buried victim survived, who according to a TGR poster from Svalbard was a guide, buried up to his neck.  Dale Atkins reports that a touring group of 12 was split into two separate parties of 6 each, so that implies that all members of one party were buried, with only the guide surviving.
Dale Atkins also reports that as many as eight helicopters transported rescuers and victims, and that the Royal Norwegian Air Force flew at least one F-16 for observation assistance.
As shown in the picture below, a very wide crown line (reportedly spanning one kilometer), and with lots of vertical relief, funneled into a relatively narrow runout zone.  One victim was extricated from beneath six meters of snow.  [Update:  the deepest burial was actually eight meters.]

Same picture below, but with a circle around a Sea King helicopter (barely visible) to convey scale (thanks to another TGR poster from Norway):

Picture from a different perspective:

Some additional details in this Washington Post write-up.
Educational angle?  A TGR poster states that the name of the mountain in the indigenous people's tongue translates as The Deadly Mountain.  With terrain like this, you had better be 100% sure that the snow is 100% stable.  All victims are thought to have been equipped with airbag packs, with at least two "successful" deployments, but entrainment in an avalanche like this is nearly hopeless.
Also, when in a group, always observe, think, and act as if you are alone.  Even with professional guides, be involved in the decision making process, and if you have concerns, then speak up.
Anyone can make a mistake, professionals included.  And even if you agree entirely with the guide's decisions, being involved in the process will help prepare you better for unguided tours.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Course Dates for 2012-13 Season

Yes, a little bit early to be planning for the 2012-13 season, but given our current heat wave and meager snowpack, perhaps not (sigh...).

The fall session (mainly classroom, along with some outdoor practice in beacon searching and probe lines, plus a short fitness hike with full winter packs), will be on a November weekend day, most likely November 18 (Sunday), although that could change to a day (or even a week) earlier if we need to juggle conflicts with facility reservations and ski patrol refreshers.

The winter fall sessions will be the weekend of March 2-3.

Details on course content and registration here:

Also, the Mountain Travel & Rescue ("MTR") level 1 course will be held the weekend of October 20-21 on Mt Greylock:
The MTR curriculum is best described as an eclectic mix of basic backpacking skills and low-angle rope rescue.  In keeping with the general approach of the avalanche course, lots of homework assignments before the weekend of the course, but then that means the weekend of the course is reserved for actual hands-on activities.  We start off indoors on the first day only to review our packs and practice basic navigation skills, then we wrap up indoors on the second day with some rescue sled construction.  Otherwise, we're outside, include an overnight campout up on Mt Greylock.
Although the course takes place in the fall, students must pack clothing, shelters, and cooking systems as if we were anticipating winter weather, so as to prepare better for winter ski mountaineering.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

"hoy por tí, mañana por yo"

Last year around this time I read a story about a stranded motorist sitting in a friend's borrowed car with a tire blowout but without a jack, watching three hours of traffic (including tow trucks) drive by indifferently, until finally saviors stop in the unlikely form of two Mexican migrant fruit pickers (who don't even speak English) and their children.  After much difficult, filthy, sweaty work by the motorist and the Mexican husband (including breaking the tire iron of the Mexican husband, whose wife immediately drives off to buy a replacement), the motorist tries to give the husband a $20 bill, but with no success.  He then succeeds in giving the money to the wife.

As they are about to depart, a daughter who speaks English asks the motorist if he'd had lunch yet, then runs over a tamale to him.  He opens up the foil to find not only a delicious tamale, but also his $20 bill.  He runs back to the Mexicans and desperately tries yet again to convince the husband to accept some financial compensation for such valuable help from a family that is clearly of exceedingly limited means.  The husband just shakes his head no, smiles, and then mustering all his command of English, speaks so much with just four words:
"Today you, tomorrow me."

Some searching informs me that this was his translation of a Spanish saying, "hoy por tí, mañana por yo."
And such is the theme of an avalanche transceiver, as it both receives for you and transmits for me.  By contrast, a probe and shovel are only for you; a helmet, Avalung, and airbag pack are only for me.

About three years and one month ago, Rob Liberman was skiing near his home base of Telluride -- a day before heading up to Alaska for his spring heliski guiding job -- when he and his touring partner heard an avalanche, went to investigate, and turned their transceivers to receive in case anyone else in need was on transmit.
The first thing the completely buried victim remembers after blacking out during the avalanche's violent ride was a stranger, Rob Liberman, holding the victim's head and saying, "Thank God. We have you. Calm down. Breathe."

Yesterday, Rob Liberman was hit by an avalanche while heliski guiding.  Other skiers, including from another party, turned their transceivers to receive for his transceiver that was on transmit.

I wish this story had a happy ending.  (And even worse, a client injured in the same avalanche is currently "clinging to life."  [Unfortunate update:  the client died in a Seattle hospital the day after the avalanche.])

I didn't recognize his name when I first read the tragic news, but my email archives turned up an exchange from this past fall in his position at DPS skis.  Sure, he wanted to sell DPS skis because he worked for DPS skis, but I could also tell that he thought skiing on DPS skis made skiing more fun, and he wanted more skiers to have more fun.

I was about to conclude that the next time I'm having fun skiing (which is of course every time I'm skiing, since that's why we ski, right?), I'll dedicate some turns to Rob.  But no, that's just more about me.
Instead, the next time I can do something to help someone whom I don't know -- even if it's far less dramatic and important than Rob's save three years ago of a complete stranger's life -- I'll dedicate that to Rob.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

"In case I'm . . ."

A recent TGR exchange reminded me of the variations I've had on the following conversation with various partners over the years before late-spring and early summer tours in the Sierra and PNW:

He- "Do you think we should bring avy rescue gear?"
Me- "Yes."
He- "So . . . you think our route might have avy danger?"
Me- "No."
He- "Then why should we bring avy rescue gear?!?"
Me- "In case I'm wrong."

Monday, March 12, 2012

Steve Romeo Outside Mag Interview

Outside Online (the website of Outside Magazine) claims to have interviewed Steve Romeo a vaguely defined "few days" before his fatal avalanche.
As published by Outside, here are the three final exchanges of the interview:

One thing that’s fascinating to me is that a lot of people who get killed are experienced skiers. They know what they’re doing and they’re well aware of the risks that they are facing. And yet they’re choosing to push the limits in the back- and sidecountry. They’re literally betting their life that it’s going to be okay. I’m amazed that the power of that ski run can override the sense of self-preservation.  Totally! That’s something my partners and I try to remember. When you’re planning to ski some exposed run, you’re like, man, do I really feel that confident? Am I ready to die for this? Because that could happen.
It’s an awfully high price. You’re all-in.  Exactly. You know, you’re up there, and the sun is out and there’s this perfect powder slope and its’ kind of a grey area, 50-50, and you’re like man I got this, I’m just gonna go for it. I don’t know what drives it. It’s just the passion and the love for skiing, and that adrenaline rush. And maybe there’s a feeling that you skirted death, that you were good enough to ski it and not have it rip. You had the skills to ski it correctly. Who knows. It’s definitely a challenging aspect to the whole thing, the mindset and the personal dynamic of making those decisions. I think the more you’re out the and the more close calls you’ve had, the more you’ve avoided or skied from, you get this sense of security, a sense of confidence that you’re making the right calls.
It almost feeds your decision-making.  Exactly. Statistically the odds are in your favor. But it just takes a little bit of tweak in the snowpack that you’re not used to, or you make a turn in the exact wrong spot and you get the whole thing to go.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Stabilitus Testorium

Definitely one of our more entertaining bulletins this season:
"All doubts can now be laid aside; spring has arrived. How do I know this? Every year around mid-March, a certain migratory species makes its presence known in Tuckerman Ravine. Stabilitus testorium, known to avalanche forecasters around the world as “volunteer stability testers”, are occasionally found in the eastern ravines during the height of winter. They become prevalent each spring, particularly on weekends. Yesterday a large flock descended on Tuckerman, testing slopes in numerous locations including the Center Bowl and Lip. While the biped variants had little success in their search for instabilities, one four-legged creature managed to release a couple minor propagating slabs while searching for a descent route through the Lip. Mostly though, the initial harbingers of spring were left to contend with sluff management on top of the dominant crust layer."
Such references by a USFS forecast center to the backcountry recreationalists in the forecast area do seem to border on outright mockery, but then again the recreationalists in question don't read the avy bulletin anyway . . . even though it's posted at the trailhead's visitor center, at the trailhead outside, and at treeline.  (If you're not familiar with the scene there, it's just impossible to explain . . . so I won't even try!)
Complete bulletin here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Land Shark

Remember the Saturday Night Live "Land Shark" skits in the wake of the "Jaws" movie hysteria?
You'd just be hanging out in your apartment, far away from the ocean, far away from danger, when in through your front door came:

Land Shark
Get More: Land Shark

Well, here's the King Cove, Alaska equivalent, just hanging out in a warehouse (fortunately empty at the time), when in through the door comes:

Here are videos from two other security cameras:

Educational content?  Well, okay, this definitely falls into the "Godzilla vs. Various Manmade Infrastructure" category of "fun" avalanche videos.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Learning the Lesson of Vietnam

My father told me many stories about his involvement in the Vietnam War's "sane" opposition (as contrasted with all the hippie-types, would-be-revolutionaries, Ho Chi Minh sympathizers, etc.), but one of my favorite stories was his account of a press conference once it was all more or less over:
Reporter:  "President Ford, have we learned the lesson of Vietnam?"
President Ford: "Yes, we have."
Aside from the humor of a politician rather easily dodging a question he clearly doesn't want to answer, the exchange brings up the valuable point that everyone always learns a lesson from an incident (whether triggering an avalanche or losing 58,220 American lives).

The real question though is, just which lesson?

Looking back at his posts that I read at the time on four avalanches he triggered or in which he could have been entrained, I wonder what lesson he learned from all those close calls.  I also wonder whether other skiers will learn a lesson of pointless fatalism ("If it could happen to him..."), denial ("I can't believe it..."), or something more valuable.
Either way, RIP Rando Steve (and your partner too, who I just learned is an avy L2 grad of one of my western "penpals").  I enjoyed reading your blog over the years, and I wish I could have kept reading it for many more years to come.

Massive Wet Slide- April, 2009
"Yes, probably a bad decision to ski a south facing line where we would be held up in the line of fire I guess, considering the skies were much clearer than predicted….at least where we were."

Slab Avy on 4th Turn- April 11, 2011
"I've been trying to keep the reigns pulled-in in an effort of self preservation for when the snowpack finally consolidates, but yesterday, I got a little overzealous I guess and got into some pretty steep terrain with some wind-loaded snow not quite bonded well enough with the lower layers and a slab pulled out."
"i was a bit spooked on how much newish snow and how “upside-down” the snowpack appeared lower in the couloir and probably would have pulled the plug lower if i was on my own."

Slab Avy on 1st Turn- May 5, 2011
"Well, I think I need to have my head examined for not heeding my own advice to pull in the reigns this weekend due to a current questionable snowpack at the higher elevations here in the Tetons. Sometimes though, the lure to try and ski bigger, steeper and more exposed lines is just too great."
"sometimes people mis-judge things and conditions, which is what happened here. i thought it would be stable enough…but it wasn’t. simple as that, really."
"…upon seeing the path of the avalanche, most the places I thought would be islands of safely, most likely weren’t. not many places to hide when you have a slide that big."
"and i think that realizing we are mortal and often not able to survive avalanches, might keep us from pushing it in the future. then again…maybe not."

Remote Trigger- December 31, 2011
"One might think this is extremely stupid, but like I said prior, the slides today reaffirmed my thoughts relating to the safe skiing and skinning zones on the route, which we stuck to…sorta."
[in response to comment of "Glad you didn’t die":]
"thanks, but i think i was far from death. well…at least 150-200'."

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Harrowing Rescue Video

I don't usually pay much attention to snowmachiner avalanche incidents, since their travel mode is so much different than ours.
However, this Utah incident report and video provide some valuable lessons:

  • Beware of Mission Creep- The victim didn't bother bringing his beacon because his original plan was just to stay on a low-angle road, but when he saw his buddies up high...
  • Don't Trust Tracks- The video clearly shows how the slope released only on the umpteenth track.
  • Place/Point Last Seen ("PLS")- One person with a POV cam is stationary and focused during the avalanche, and he (or someone else?) exhorts everyone to do the same by yelling "Where's He At?!?  Where's He At?!?"
  • Channel Your Inner Al Haig- The Secretary of State was generally mocked for his "I am in control here" press conference after the Reagan assassination attempt as it came off a bit like some semi-coup attempt.  But in the midst of chaos -- perceived or otherwise -- just having anybody take charge is better than nothing, as demonstrated by the one rescuer who is giving orders (e.g., to ready a probe).
  • Persistent Instability- As the UAC forecaster scoops out a handfuls of obviously weak facets, he comments that the instability won't go away until the snow is coming out of their water taps.
The professionally produced video also includes some sobering post-incident interviews with the party members.  The entire video is quite long, but worth watching in its entirety.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Invasive Species Avalanche

No, not an avalanche caused by non-native vegetation, but rather a Colorado avalanche killing a skier in Lake Tahoe.
Whereas Colorado is the poster child for the continental snowpack, Lake Tahoe is the same for maritime.  But not this season, given the highly unusual thin snowpack and extremely long dry spells.
Remember that although the three avalanche climates are useful for teaching purposes and for general awareness of typical avalanche "Problems" what matters most is what is happening right then and there on the slope you are contemplating travelling on, not broad generalizations.

The comprehensive incident report includes a video of a snowpit stability test that replicates the step-down nature of the fatal slide.  Also of note is that the party dropped a cornice that released a slab a few inches deep that propagated widely across the slope.  Unfortunately, this was not a sign that the slope could not slide any more, but rather that more was still to come.

The incident report is relatively silent on the party's decision making, but having skied extensively in Lake Tahoe with my brother over the years, I can understand how the skiers might have been lulled into a sense of complacency regarding the Red Flags noted in the incident report:
  • Recent avalanche activity
  • Whumphing noises, shooting cracks, or collapsing
  • Recent loading by new snow, wind, or rain
  • Terrain Trap

Monday, March 5, 2012

Managing the Unmanageable

Brian Harder's blog usually focuses on lightweight gear and hard-core fitness, but his recent post on "slough management" is very insight.  Definitely reading the entire post, although here's a quick excerpt to whet your appetite:
"The expression suggests an ability to somehow control one of winter's most powerful natural forces - piles of snow yielding to the force of gravity. We see the term written in stories and hear it and see it in adrenaline-fueled ski porn. The fatter skis and higher speeds of today's free skiers allows for "managing" ever larger so-called sloughs. But at some point we need to call a spade a spade and admit that some of these events are really avalanches. I mean, who are we kidding here?"

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Avalanche in ... Ontario?!?

I would have thought that an avalanche could never occur in Ontario.  Apparently, these snowmachiners though the same thing.  Unfortunately, the snow wasn't in on our reasoning...

As the video shows, if you have enough unstable snow and enough pitch, anything can avalanche, even if it is in Ontario.  And note how the slope fractures far above the victim, and also carries him toward some trees -- an especially bad combination.  Add in the lack of any rescue equipment, and the combination becomes even worse.

Fortunately, notice how the person with the POV is at first stationary, focused on Place/Point Last Seen.
The video then shifts to the POV of the victim, which shows . . . well, you just have to watch this to believe it:

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Godzilla vs. Chairlift

Some avalanche incidents are highly educational, although others are more just "fun" in a Godzilla destructiveness kind of way.

With that caveat aside, although this video does show the often highly destructive yet typically slow-moving nature of a wet slide, I have to admit that seeing an avalanche crash into the base of a high-speed quad is kind of "fun" (given that everyone comes out okay, especially the skiers seemingly unconcerned despite their apparently close proximity):

The video from the chairlift provides a good view of the bed surface:

And finally, like everything else in the Alps, even a chairlift evac involves a helicopter:
(While in Chamonix for the first week of our honeymoon, I probably saw more helicopters in the "backcountry" than in all my time back in the U.S.!  At the hut, a broken pair of ski bindings was "repaired" by just buying a pair of bindings over the phone from a ski shop, which then loaded it onto a helicopter along with the food for that evening's dinner.)