Sunday, April 29, 2012

Rescuers Dispute Rescue Bill

Rescue organizations have previously criticized various government initiatives to charge individual victims for search & rescue effort.  But this seems to be a first:  the individuals who rescued the victim are criticizing the State's bill to the victim (for the efforts of State employees).
Full article is here:
... with some excerpts below (emphasis added):

"She just had some bad luck," said Steve Larson, one three members of the North Conway-based Mountain Rescue Service who led Julie Horgan off Mount Jackson. She had spent the night in zero-degree temperatures enduring 50-mile-per-hour winds near the summit of the 4,052 foot mountain.
"It was pretty brutal. We were certainly anticipating some injuries," Alain Comeau, one of the three rescuers, said at the time. "It was a surprise to find her in good health. She was well equipped. She did everything right."
"This is all a desperate attempt to extract money from hikers and climbers," said Rick Wilcox, the president of Mountain Rescue Service. "We don't think think they're going in the right direction by billing the type of hiker this lady represents."
"They are continually lowering the bar," Steve Larson said. It used to be someone had to exhibit reckless behavior to get charged for their rescue. Horgan got lost on a day hike and survived an intolerable night.
"She was in a terrible place, and it was freezing cold," he said. "All she needed was to be shown the way."
Even Jeb Bradley, the avid hiker and Republican state senator who represents most of the Mount Washington Valley, has questions.
"Any hiker who needs to be rescued should be prepared to pay," he said, but the bill should be a standard fee around $800 or $1,000. "I'm not exactly sure why she's being charged the full boat here."

Friday, April 20, 2012

Avy Conclusions to Remember

The SLC rando racing and speed ski tour record-setting trio of Jared, Andy, and Jason have reported some spicy moments in the past.  But the avalanche of Thursday last week (April 12) was on another order altogether.
Fortunately, a full and speed recovery is anticipated for Jared.  Plus both Jared and his partner Jason have blogged many valuable lessons for all of us to learn.

First, from Jason's account, some harrowing moments in the following excerpts:

"I skied first, pulled into a safe zone and watched Jared ski by in deep new snow until he yelled "Avalanche!" I watched for a second until he skied out of it.  Looking at the crown it was only 3-5 inches deep.  We laughed."
"After this little run in, we figured N faces weren't the safest option we figured we better take S Superior out and be done for the day.  Everything we had seen move was on the northern aspects, the new snow had bonded fairly well on S faces, and once again, we figured if anything moved it would be manageable."
"I skied first, cut the slope, was happy with the results and went a few hundred feet pulling off in the left side of the far left chute high on Superior.  It's looked like the snowpack got a little boney towards the end of the chute so as Jared skied by I yelled to be little cautious.  Next thing I know he's going cartwheeling over the exposed rock at the end of the chute.  I quickly turned my beacon on and asked myself if it was safe follow.  It was so off I went.  I remember looking at the crown (don't remember how deep) as I skied by, noting that I was skiing on the bed surface and then coming to the rollover where the snow ran out and I was left staring at exposed rocks.  I remember them being big, sharp and all pointing up.  I looked at my beacon and it wasn't picking anything up, for a second I thought Jared's beacon wasn't working.  That's when I started yelling, luckily I heard a response.  I saw Jared down another 100 feet and a little off to the right.  After side stepping through the steep rocks I stepped onto snow again.  Immediately another slab broke loose.  I yelled franticly for Jared to get out of the way until it was clear the slab got funneled away from him.  Jared told me after the fact that he saw the 2nd slide coming but couldn't do a thing about it."
"When I first got to him, I gave him a quick once over.  He could talk, he was breathing although it was a little fast, he had a good pulse.  He told me he thought he broke some ribs and maybe his right femur.  I looked at his leg and saw blood dripping from the seat of his pants.  Having just got done working with the trauma team at the hospital for the past month I couldn't help but think the worst."
"After getting to the hospital he was rushed in, stripped naked and found to a have a few lacerations (head, leg, butt) one needing stitches, a muscle that avulsed from his femur, cracked ribs, and a partially torn hamstring.  Nothing that won't fix itself.  It might take a month or three but he should be good as new in a bit."
"Reviewing his gear showed a hole in his helmet and a cracked beacon.  Things could have been worse..."
Second, thoughts from Jason:
  1. "We're lucky."
  2. "It's easy to talk yourself (at least me) into thinking that nothing bad will happen.  We've skied all sorts of stuff (maybe we shouldn't have) in moderate danger thinking ski cuts, cornice drops and what not will keep us safe.  Maybe a little more respect is needed."
  3. "Transporting an injured partner is not easy.  Luckily Jared was able to get himself out almost completely on his own.  It still took a while but if he were unconscious it would have taken forever."
  4. "'Manageable' sluff or slides are manageable in some situations, not all."
  5. "No body wants to die skiing, not worth it."
  6. "Although we were scared to ski for a few days, I can feel myself wanting to get back out and start pushing it again.  It's going to take a little effort to remember the lessons from that day."
  7. "Wear a helmet!"
  8. "Be careful!"
Third, an abbreviated (just to make it more universal) list of Jared's conclusions to remember:
  1. "I love the mountains; but the mountains don't love me.  Why is a rock deserving of any love?  How can a white-capped mound of dirt and debris be the sole object of my desire?  The mountains are my sanctuary. But they don't know I'm there.  Nor do they care."
  2. "The pull of gravity is welcoming when your feet are on the ground; but in free fall, not so much.  As I skied by Jason and into the chute, I heard him warn of the rocks below.  And then I felt a collapse, looked around me, and saw the snow around me begin to liquify.  I checked my speed, or attempted to at least, in an effort to resist getting swept into the funnel.  And then my sluff combined with the soft slab from above hit me.  The impact was unexpected.  How can a wave of snow pack so much energy?  It lifted me off my feet, and then I was airborne.  The immediate acceleration was horrifying--I had no control and all things must come down.  My instinct was to try and gain control and arrest my fall.  The first time I smashed into the broken, pointed, black rocks, I caught a glimpse of them.  My mass and my acceleration smashing into those rocks produced an immense force on my chest.  My hope of gaining control was extinguished, and I was overcome with fear.  And then it was a confusing, discombobulated cycle of churn, fall, impact . . . scream.  I waited for the lights to go out."
  3. "Once April comes around, not everything is always a "go."  I consider April a golden month for skiing.  Usually, the snowpack is stable.  The coverage is good.  Travel conditions are fast.  Racing is over.  Given the rough winter we've had in the Wasatch, I looked forward to April.  When it came, and the snowpack began to stabilize, a green light went on in my head.  I had big plans.  On April 12, 2012, it was snowing in the mountains.  Even so, I drove towards the Lone Peak trailhead, intending to work on a project on and around Lone Peak.  But after talking with Jason on the phone, and worried about the bad weather, I flipped my car around and headed up Little Cottonwood.  As we climbed Superior, both of us expressed regrets about not being on Lone.  Jason suggested that we ski out and head to Lone.  Soon were skiing Superior's north face.  There, I triggered and skied out of an avalanche.  As Jason says, we laughed at it.  The avalanche on North Superior didn't stop us from climbing Superior again and skiing the south face.  We had just looked the Dragon in the eyes and felt its fire, and then we kicked him in the crotch and laughed.  Why?  Because it was April."
  4. "Listen to the mountain, not your ego; ski to ski.  Skiing does not need to be a competition.  Skiing does not need to be about getting that trophy photo.  Skiing does not need to be about being better or going higher or shredding faster than others.  Skiing does not need to be about being the first to ski this or that slope or mountain on this day or in the history of the world.  Skiing does not need to be about impressing sponsors or distinguishing yourself so that you can get sponsors.  Skiing does not need to be about that next blog post.  Is there such a thing as pure skiing?  I should listen to the mountain, not my ego.  I should ski to ski."
  5. "Wear a helmet (and a breast plate).  In some instances, playing the "what if" game can be productive.  I'll play it here.  What if I had not, as an afterthought, thrown my helmet in my pack?  What if I had not been wearing a helmet as I starfished down Superior's face?  What if I had stuffed my beacon into my pack or pocket and not strapped it securely onto my chest?  What if my bindings had not released?  Answer:  I would be hurt worse.  I would have a hole in my head.  I would have broken ribs and collapsed a lung (there is a hole and cracks in my beacon instead).  I would likely be dead."
  6. "I should be a better partner.  Sometimes I skimp on the rescue gear I carry.  Often, I carry a small shovel and a carbon probe.  Sometimes I don't carry anything.  I don't carry much in the way of a first aid kit, if anything.  I rarely carry matches or a knife.  On April 12th, I was carrying a plastic rando race shovel. Sorry Jason.  I gave Jason my aluminum rando race shovel because he couldn't find his." 
  7. "I need to try harder to not let my loved ones down.  Just because I won the lottery once, does not mean that I'll win again.  Statistically, I think my odds just drastically decreased.  If the price of admission is your life, the game probably is not worth playing.  If that means not playing this game anymore or playing it less or playing a lower stakes game, so be it."

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"Facet Saga Continues"

Some really eye-popping stability test videos of faceted layers from the Utah Avalanche Center:

In the screen capture below, the powdery looking layer to the right of the tester's saw is the layer of facets puffing out from the block as the fracture propagates.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Avalanche Triangle & Human Factors

Two seemingly simple questions on my Level 1 course review quiz often flummox my students.
One is:
List the three proximate physical conditions that contribute to the occurrence of snow avalanches.
I get all sorts of answers, but what I'm looking for = terrain (i.e., steep and open) + snowpack (i.e., unstable) + trigger (i.e., you or a "natural" trigger, which is really just a change within the snowpack) = avalanche.

For my students' confusion I blame in part the traditional avalanche triangle.  Here are a couple graphical representations:

The new 2011 Fifth Edition of the classic Snow Sense explains:
"The interaction of three variables - the terrain, snowpack, and weather - determines whether or not an avalanche is possible.  Terrain is the foundation of avalanche, weather is the architect, and the snowpack is the winter's blueprint.  However, to determine whether an avalanche hazard exists, we must add an important fourth variable, us.  Without the present of people or property, there is no hazard."
The second edition of Bruce Tremper's Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain rightfully downplays the causation element by referring to it as a "data triangle" yet still reproduces the same isosceles triangle from Snow Sense.

So what don't I like about the traditional triangle graphic and the Snow Sense explanation?

  1. First, it mixes together both direct and indirect factors.  Specifically, we care about weather only because of the snowpack it creates.  If we possessed a magical means of somehow scanning the entirely snowpack on a mountain (and such research is even in its initial stages), then we would not care at all about recent or season-long weather in evaluating slope stability.  But since we have only very limited and time-consuming means of examining a snowpack, and hence face considerably uncertainty regarding the snowpack condition, we rely up our (typically) more certain knowledge of recent and season-long weather.
  2. Which brings me to the second problem:  not only do the equal sides of the triangle imply equal weights to what are direct and indirect factors, but those equal sides also mask the unequal certainty with which we can know those factors.  Specifically, we can know terrain with absolute certainty.  (Although exceptions certainly exist with unfamiliar terrain in poor visibility.)  Weather we can also know with reasonable certainty (given some combination of personal observations and telemetry).  Snowpack though (except at the extreme ends of the stability spectrum) will always be uncertain to some significant extent.
  3. The third problem is what's inside the triangle.  It's us, but as a passive "presence" - the reality though is that we're there because we made a decision, and AIARE has emphasized decisionmaking throughout its curriculum.

Which leads me to the second question that flummoxes many students, although admittedly I deliberately phrase it in a way to lead them into the tradition thinking that I want to critique:
"About what percentage of avalanche incidents are attributable to human factors?"
A typical answer is 82 percent, based on a citation in Bruce Tremper's Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain to research by Dale Atkins.  Staying Alive also includes a table for "Primary Factors in Fatal Avalanches 1990-2000" which is reproduced from "Human Factors in Avalanche Accidents" presented by Dale Atkins at the 2000 International Snow Science Workshop ("ISSW").  Out of the sample size of 41 fatal incidents, 1 is attributable to snowpack, 2 to weather, 4 to terrain, and 34 to human factors.  So just under 83 percent in the table for human factors.

However, the correct answer I am looking for is . . . 100 percent!  An avalanche incident can't occur unless human factors led to the decision to be exposed to the potential avalanche terrain.  (Even an incident such as the Alaskan avalanche hitting a warehouse would not have happened had someone not made the decision to locate the warehouse near an avalanche path.)

I lack information on the details of the 41 fatal incidents of the 2000 ISSW paper, but nevertheless, I can assess the primary factors in each incident:

  • Snowpack = Yes, the snowpack had to be a primary factor, since without an unstable snowpack, the avalanche never would have occurred.
  • Weather = Yes, the weather had to be a primary factor (albeit indirect), since without the weather to create an unstable snowpack, the avalanche never would have occurred.
  • Terrain = Yes, terrain had to be a primary factor, since without a steep and open pitch, the avalanche never would have occurred (as the unstable snowpack would have stayed put, despite its instability).
  • Human Factors = Yes, the human factors had to be a primary factor, since without the human decision to be in an unstable snowpack, the avalanche incident (with humans and/or our infrastructure) never would have occurred.  (Perhaps an avalanche might have occurred - via a natural trigger - but as a variation on the old line about "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it does it make a sound?" if a slope slides and no one is around to be hurt by it, then no, we don't really care about it.)

So where am I going with all this (if anywhere)?

  1. Ditch the avalanche triangle graphic.  For a substitute, AIARE has the ever-evolving Decision Making Framework ("DMF") graphic, but it's much more complicated, and not addressing quite the same issue.  Perhaps some sort of yin yang graphic, representing terrain and snowpack, with weather feeding into snowpack, and the human element represented . . . somehow.
  2. Acknowledge human factors as a universal and critical factor in all avalanche incidents.  Although speaking of the "White Death" as the enemy makes for fun drama, the reality is more introspective.  Staying Alive mentions the following classic line in the context of triggers, but it is even more appropriate and insightful in the context of the decision making that is at the core of every avalanche incident: 

Monday, April 9, 2012

“Lions and Tiger and Bears, Oh My!”

One of the review quiz questions for my ski patrol mountain travel/rescue course is:
“Lions and Tiger and Bears, Oh My!” -- or, when animals attack, Part III: type of Northeastern U.S. animal attack with the most incidents of potentially highly adverse health effects = 
Only about half the students get it right.  So courtesy of a regional newspaper article, here's a heads-up for the coming season.  A few especially scary excerpts:
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were 4,019 cases of Lyme disease confirmed in Massachusetts in 2009, the most cases for any state in New England and more than double the number of cases in the state in 2004.
"The ticks that are active right now are adults, and about 50 percent are infected with Borrelia. That rate is pretty constant wherever you find adult deer ticks," he said.
It is the nymph and adult ticks that can infect a human. And because the nymph tick is so small - about the size of a fleck of black pepper - it is the most dangerous, as it may not be seen as readily by someone checking for ticks.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Snowmobile vs Avy Race

Lots of video footage available on snowmobiles caught in avalanches attempting to gun their way out -- sometimes successfully, sometimes not -- but this appears to be a first for the combination of the situation and the perspective (with the excitement starting around the 1:00 mark).

Saturday, April 7, 2012

"The Coldest War"

The latest fatality count is up to 135 for the avalanche that buried a Pakistani military base.
Back in 2003, an Outside Magazine article recounted the horrors of the long-running conflict on the Siachen Glacier between Pakistan and India, whose origins were abetted by oropolitics (i.e., the "use and abuse of mountaineering for political purposes").
A cease fire has been in effect since that article came out, but given that most casualties were then caused by man versus mountain, the horrors have most likely continued unabated, as evidenced by this most recent avalanche.
Some excerpts follow below, along with an Indian military memorial plaque that prominently features Silvretta alpine touring ski bindings.  (The final excerpt is the most haunting.)

"But there's a reason these mountains remain untouched: They sit in the middle of a 250-square-mile war zone where India and Pakistan have been fighting for the past 19 years as part of their intractable dispute over the state of Kashmir. What might be a climber's paradise is instead the site of a harrowing and improbable siege, the highest and coldest combat theater in the history of the world."
"Never before have troops fought for such extended periods in such extreme physical conditions. At least twice a week a man dies, occasionally from bullets or artillery, but more often from an avalanche, a tumble into a crevasse, or a high-altitude sickness—perils usually faced only by elite climbers."
"Unlike mountaineers, who usually climb during the best weather, Siachen soldiers endure the worst the mountains can throw at them, year-round. Avalanches are frequent and terrifying; their thunder is so great that it's often impossible to distinguish from shelling. Blizzards can last 20 days. Winds reach speeds of 125 miles per hour; temperatures can plunge to minus 60 degrees. Annual snowfall exceeds 35 feet. During storms, two or three men have to shovel snow at all times. If they stop, they will never catch up and the post will be buried alive."
"In such extreme cold, the single most important resource is kerosene. Known as "K2 oil," it is used for cooking, melting snow for water, thawing out frozen guns, and keeping warm. It gives off a noxious smoke that coats the igloos with grime; for months after they descend, soldiers cough up black gunk."
"Each summer in the Ghyari sector alone, more than 35 Pakistani bases, gun positions, and fighting posts have to be stocked with some 2,000 tons of ammunition, rations, and fuel. This material is freighted to Ghyari by truck and hauled up the ice on mule and donkey trains. To prevent snowblindness, the pack animals are equipped with specially made glacier goggles. Sometimes they stumble and plummet into the crevasses. "They scream for an hour until they freeze to death," one of the muleteers told me. "It is terrible to hear.""
"In settings like this, suffering is often transformed into legend. The Pakistanis tell of a post beyond Sia La, at nearly 22,000 feet, that is said to have three separate cracks in the ice known as Three-Man Crevasse, Five-Man Crevasse, and Eight-Man Crevasse—each named for the number of men who died falling in."
""After a bunch of guys take a shit, it's impossible to clear it away," Das explained. "Pouring boiling water on it, or banging on it with an ice ax, won't work—it just keeps building up. So those mounds, we would have to clean them with our machine guns. Cock an LMG—tacka-tacka-tacka—and it breaks into tiny pieces of rock-shit. They fly in the air. A couple times a week is enough.""
"From the top of Kumar, you have a splendid view of the Siachen's white skin, the white peaks that wall it in, and a dense ring of odd white pillars stretching out from every side of the base. These pillars are the remains of 19 years of parachute supply drops. Over time, as the ice has melted and refrozen, they have risen about five feet above the surface. Most appear to have a head, shoulders, and a torso. There are thousands of them, and from above they look disturbingly human."
"This scene is bizarre enough by day, but at night it becomes truly ghastly: a frozen necropolis of trash, a Golgotha of ice haunted by the spirits of the dead. When the wind subsides and the moon rises and you gaze out at the cordon of pillars shrouded in the pleated folds of the parachutes, it looks like you've been encircled by an army of ghouls, as if all the soldiers slain in these mountains have risen from their icy graves and gathered before Kumar to stand in mute judgment of what they have done to one another, and to the balance of nature. "This is the most depraved thing I've ever seen," Teru whispered one night. "I don't know if this is war. But it's definitely hell.""

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Continuing Ed: MWO "Wind Swept"

In the department of continuing education -- by actually reading old-fashioned printed volumes -- the latest edition just arrived of Windswept, the quarterly bulletin of the Mount Washington Observatory.

For an annual $45, you not only support the institution that provides us with the weather data so important for our avalanche bulletins, but you can also access high-resolution versions of the webcams along with additional views (which unfortunately this spring has allowed real time images of our melting snowpack throughout individual days), and four collections each year of some interesting articles.

Highlights of the latest edition include:

  • An examination of the fatal hiker fall in Tuckerman Ravine on an early January night this year.
  • An explanation of upslope snow, by the same meteorologist who delivered the presentation at the fall Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop.
  • An author's remembrances of skiing and hiking on Mt Washington, spanning from 1968 to 2011.
  • An assessment of human factors in mountain climbing accidents, by EMS avy instructor Dave Lottmann.
  • A recap by a MWO Meteorological Observer of our rather slow October-November-December start to the season (which although a depressing reminder, might at least take your mind off our rapid end to the season).
  • An explanation of the adiabatic process by another MWO Meteorological Observor.
Oh yes, and a cover picture showing the Mt Washington summit cone from Mt Monroe in late spring . . . except this year, on March 21, from that same vantage point, I saw far (far) less snow, sigh.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Springtime Hazards

Soon our local avalanche bulletin will go back into permanent Low mode, and the safety focus will shift to springtime hazards unrelated to snow stability.

Complacency can easily set in regarding these hazards, but from out West, two harrowing reminders:

First is a very close call -- pretty much as close as it can get -- from the Sierra with what was apparently a collapse through undermined snow into a hidden creek.  Look carefully at the video to see how deeply buried the victim was, and upside down too.

Second is a personal account by a party member of his older brother's death in a steep skiing fall.

Tuesday morning tragic addendum from Mt Washington:
On Sunday afternoon, Norman Priebatsch, from the Boston area, accompanied by three other party members (including an adult son), fell into a "crevasse" in Tuckerman Ravine.  Although these are technically glide cracks, not crevasses, nevertheless this one mimicked a real glacier crevasse:  despite heroic rescue efforts that included lowering a USFS snow ranger 50 feet into the crack, rescuers could not make any contact with the victim.  The rescue effort was eventually suspended just an hour shy of midnight.
Although rescue efforts were intended to commence once conditions allowed, with cold running water in the crevasse, along with other hazards . . .

Monday, April 2, 2012

Mt Baker Avy Crown Line

The two most dramatic pictures are linked below, but many more gawk-worthy pictures at the photographer's website.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Avy Deaths Legal Ramifications

Legal ramifications of avalanche incidents seem to be very rare in North America.  The most prominent is the CMH Bay Street incident, in which the court essentially ruled that the guides merely need to be following proper protocol, as opposed to being correct in their stability assessments.

Criminal prosecutions occasionally occur in Europe for avalanche incidents, once even against the Chamonix Mayor for failing to evacuate at-risk residences.

The latest European prosecution involves manslaughter charges against two instructors for the death of a client.  A few years ago two snowboarders were found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to short jail terms for triggering an avalanche that killed a victim in another party.