Thursday, August 30, 2012

Avy on Asbestos Mine Tailings Pile

Treeless open terrain for skiing is very limited in Northeastern North America.
Periodically though, interest arises in skiing one of the manmade treeless hills out here.  Most such terrain is in Quebec, but one is in Vermont, and was even featured in Backcountry magazine a few years ago.

Manmade treeless hills?  As in a clearcut logging operation?
No, the manmade part refers to the hill:  not created for skiing, or even for the purposes of creating a hill, but instead a byproduct of asbestos mine tailings.

The angle of repose for such a . . . substance is strikingly similar to the optimal angle for slab avalanche initiation.

And sticking up above everything else, prone to wind loading too.

So, what could possibly go wrong with skiing an avalanche-prone, Superfund-designated, carcinogen-laced industrial waste site?

I've read a detailed account of one skier-initiated avalanche there, and heard about a dog dying in another.  (Plus a death at a Quebec site.)
Here's a video of another avalanche:

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Norway Avy Report: Now in English

For those whose Norwegian is a little bit rusty:

The report provides some detailed assessments of the snowpack, which was poised for a deep slab avalanche.

Unfortunately, no information on the decision making, but given that the decisions were being made by a commercial guiding operation, that kind of information in such a context will most likely become known only via the possibility of some sort of government investigation or lawsuit, e.g., Bay Street.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Rescue Prompts Hiker Fine *and* NH Officer Suspension

So now we have a double first of sorts for the March 26-27 hiker rescue of 2011:

  1. First, as previously summarized here, the rescuers disputed the fine for the lost/disoriented hiker.
  2. Second, a NH Fish & Game lieutenant has been suspended for five days without pay for . . . well, exactly why depends on whose perspective you adopt, so here's the full article --

August 11. 2012 11:55PM

Skipped rescue call nets fine

CONCORD — A state Fish and Game lieutenant was suspended for five days without pay this summer for not taking part in a search for a hiker lost on Mount Jackson last year.

Douglas Gralenski said last week his actions had no effect on the search and his suspension was, in reality, payback for a difference of opinion he had with his superiors over deer hunting restrictions. The hiker, Julie Horgan, 62, of Milford, Mass., was found and returned safely after a night on the mountain.

Fish and Game Department Col. Martin Garabedian said Friday he would not comment on any personnel matters and would not say whether other department personnel have been suspended for similar reasons.

Horgan, who was billed $6,971 by the Fish and Game to offset the agency’s expenses for the rescue effort, could not be reached for comment.

Gralenski’s appeal of the suspension was denied by the state Personnel Appeals Board in a decision handed down June 28. He served the suspension but said he is considering further legal action. 

According to court documents filed during the appeal, Gralenski was still on duty about 4 p.m. March 26, 2011, when he was notified by New Hampshire State Police Troop F that a hiker had gotten lost near the summit on the Jackson Trail in Crawford Notch on Mount Jackson. Fish and Game policy holds lieutenants responsible for establishing a command post and organizing rescue efforts in their own districts. Horgan was in District 1, where Gralenski has served as lieutenant for the past eight years. He’s been with the department for 26 years.

Records show Gralenski had planned to attend a church dinner event in Berlin that night. Instead of heading up the search, he called Sgt. Brian Abrams in nearby District 2 and Conservation Officer James Kneeland, asking them to coordinate the department’s response. An off-duty Fish and Game officer, Lt. Todd Bogardus, was called in to help lead the efforts.

With winds of 80 mph, the temperature at zero degrees and wind chills roughly 40 degrees below, rescuers were forced to suspend their search about midnight. Horgan was told to “hunker down” and plan for the search to continue the following morning.

The next day, Gralenski arrived at the Highland Center at 5:40 a.m. to coordinate the effort with Bogardus. With the Mountain Rescue Service volunteers, a National Guard helicopter and crew, and 14 Fish and Game officers joining the effort — which court records point out clocked in 56.5 work hours and 107.5 overtime hours — Horgan was spotted at 9:45 a.m. March 27 by the helicopter crew and led safely down a trail by two of the searchers. Horgan and all team members returned safely to the Highland Center at 12:25 p.m.

Gralenski said his actions that night in no way hampered the rescue effort.

“It didn’t even come in as a call for a rescue initially,” said Gralenski. “The call was for a woman who was disoriented and had lost the trail. Mount Jackson is located near District 2, so they were contacted. Realizing that there was a potential for a rescue effort, I activated the response team. Nothing I did that night affected the rescue efforts.”

Gralenski believes his public stance in early 2011 against a proposed three-point antler restriction for hunting white tailed deer in his district put him in the cross hairs of his superiors at the agency and was the real reason behind his suspension.

“I believe this had nothing to do with actions and response regarding the search and rescue,” said Gralenski. “I decided to take a stance against the restriction, which I felt would adversely affect hunters in my district, and knew I would risk the ire of the department in doing so. I think that’s what was behind the suspension, not my actions regarding the search, which did not adversely affect the mission in any way.”

Rick Wilcox, president of the North Conway-based Mountain Rescue Service — whose agency had 20 volunteers involved in this search — agreed with Gralenski’s assessment. 

“I don’t have a problem with what Doug did,” said Wilcox. “In a rescue like that, Lt. Borgardus, who heads up the Advanced Rescue Team, would have been called in anyway.”

Gralenski’s efforts in opposing the deer hunting regulation included writing and distributing internal agency correspondence and assisting in creating and distributing newsletters, fact sheets and a petition. 

Gralenski conceded that when he addressed a meeting of the Chiefs of Police in Berlin, he was in uniform, which was a “technical violation’’ of orders given him by Col. Garabedian.

At the appeal hearing, Gralenski testified that Fish and Game officers need “some semblance of normal life,” saying that after he contacted other officers to manage the rescue effort, he went to the Harvest Fellowship Dinner and remained there until the guest speaker’s presentation was complete. The pastor at the church where the dinner was being held the night of the rescue effort, David Cantor, also chaired the legislative committee of the Androscoggin Fish and Game Club.

In its decision, the Personnel Board wrote, “The Board understands that every employee needs what the Appellant described as ‘some semblance of a normal life.’ Presumably that was what Lt. Bogardus was doing on his scheduled day off when he was called in to manage a rescue that was actually the Appellant’s responsibility.”

The cost of searching for hikers who get lost in New Hampshire reaches more than $300,000 a year. As previously reported by the New Hampshire Union Leader, Maj. Kevin Jordan of the state Department of Fish and Game stated his agency was called out 799 times between 2007 and 2011 to look for people either lost or stranded. Of those searches, 443 were for climbers and hikers, many of whom were deemed ill-prepared or not properly equipped for their outdoor adventure.

As for Horgan, she had enough equipment for a day hike in the conditions she set out in, according to Wilcox. She was not expecting to be in the elements overnight, so she did not have a lot of overnight gear, but she was experienced enough to build her own shelter out of materials in the woods.

Wilcox said he believed Horgan was an experienced hiker who found herself in a bad situation, off the trail and then out overnight when bad weather hit. He said he felt she was prepared for what she could have reasonably expected to encounter during a day hike

Gralenski said the possibility of responding to yet another call for an ill-prepared lost hiker did not factor into his decision to call in Sgt. Abrams from District 2.

“That wasn’t part of it at all,” said Gralenski. “Like I said, the call didn’t even come in at first as a request for a rescue. It was someone who had lost the trail.”

Report on Norwegian Avalanche

Following up on the March 19 Norwegian avalanche that killed five skiers, with the deepest burial at eight meters:

And also the incident report.

(Yes, it's all in Norwegian, and no, I don't have a translation, but the images are still quite striking in any language.)

Monday, August 27, 2012

Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My!

The review quiz for my ski patrol Mountain Travel & Rescue Course includes three questions with the theme of “Lions and Tiger and Bears, Oh My!” -- or, when animals attack:
  1. type of North American animal attack with the most emergency room visits;
  2. type of North American animal attack with the most human deaths; and,
  3. type of Northeastern U.S. animal attack with the most incidents of potentially highly adverse health effects.
Students are often prone to putting down bears for any or even all of these questions, even though the correct answers involve far less "impressive" animal species.

But from Alaska comes a grim reminder that bear attacks can be a real danger, with the first fatal mauling in the entire nearly century-long history of Denali National Park.  (Note that the victim took pictures of the bear during an eight-minute period at a distance of about 50 yards.)

Bear kills hiker in Denali National Park
by By Kris Capps/For the News-Miner
Aug 26, 2012
UPDATED at 9:50 p.m. with victim ID

DENALI NATIONAL PARK, Alaska — A grizzly bear killed a solo backpacker inside Denali National Park and Preserve on Friday, the first fatal mauling recorded in the park’s 95-year history.

Alaska State Troopers killed the bear on Saturday and recovered the remains. The victim was identified as Richard White, 49, of San Diego. He had been in the backcountry for three nights when he was killed. He may have had some experience hiking in other parts of Alaska, but it is not known if he had previous experience at Denali, according to the National Park Service.

The remains and the bear were found at what appeared to be a historical grizzly cache site about three miles south of the Toklat Rest Stop, where the braided river narrows and becomes a dense brushy area. A second, smaller bear that was in the immediate area fled after the first bear was shot.

There are no other registered backpackers in the immediate area. An emergency closure is now in place, prohibiting all hiking and camping in Backcountry Unit 10 and adjacent areas, until further notice.

Although no park visitors were known to be in the vicinity, park staff contacted three groups in adjacent areas and flew them by helicopter to the Toklat River Rest Area.

Maureen McLaughlin with the National Park Service said date-stamped photos on the victim’s camera show a period of eight minutes during which the bear and the victim drew increasingly closer to each other. Photos show the bear initially partway in the brush.

It is not known whether the bear or the backpacker closed that gap from what looked like an initial 50 yards. Hikers are advised to keep at least a quarter mile away from bears.

A necropsy on the bear, performed Saturday night, and photos from the victim’s camera, confirmed that that particular bear killed White.

The attack was discovered Friday afternoon when three day-hikers, including an off-duty park employee, found an abandoned backpack in an open area along the Toklat River. They saw evidence of a violent struggle, including torn clothing and blood.

"They were out in a more open area, and did not see the body," McLaughlin said. "It wasn't the cache site, but it was the kill site. There had been an attack there."

The group immediately hiked back to the rest area to report it, at about 5:30 p.m. According to McLaughlin, the hikers recalled seeing a solo hiker, up in the distance, earlier in the day on Friday.

Park rangers launched a helicopter and airplane from park headquarters at 8 p.m. and found the scene at 8:35 p.m.

At least one grizzly bear was still at the site, although there have been reports of multiple bears in that area. Wildlife biologists estimate that roughly 12 grizzlies have been living in the vicinity of the kill site this summer.

The bears moved away when the helicopter approached and landed. Two rangers on board got out and confirmed the location of the victim’s remains.

But a bear then returned to the cache site while rangers were investigating the scene, forcing the rangers to retreat to the gravel bar. The bear began to circle around them. According to the park service, rangers fired two rifle shots. The bear was not hit and the rangers were then able to leave by helicopter as darkness settled in.

Initial evidence shows that the attack occurred on the open gravel bar and that the bear then dragged the remains to a more secluded, brushy cache site.

Rangers returned on Saturday, with at least two Alaska State Troopers from the Cantwell/Healy area, including one who specializes in wildlife cases. When they returned in daylight, the big male bear was still there. A trooper then shot the bear and killed it.

All backpackers in the park are required to receive “Bear Aware” training prior to receiving a backcountry permit. This includes watching a 30-minute bear safety video and attending a safety briefing from the backcountry ranger staff. Backpackers are also required to carry a Bear Resistant Food Container.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Eastern Snow & Avy Workshop= Nov 10

Save the date:
The 2012 Eastern Snow and Avalanche Workshop will be held on November 10 (Saturday) in the North Conway area!

The What will be held When and Where?

Okay, so if you missed the inaugural 2011 “ESAW” then you missed out on a day of avalanche safety presentations, followed by a social hour (and then some...), complete with prize raffles and vendor displays.

So even though you may not have attended, 85 of your fellow backcountry enthusiasts did, and we had to turn away about 40 more beforehand because of space limitations.  (Apologies again if you fell into that latter category!)

This year we are looking into a larger venue to accommodate everyone.

ESAW is a joint effort of the American Avalanche Association and the USFS Mt Washington Avalanche Center.  To get on the official email distribution list, send an email to the ESAWavalanche google mail account.  (And yes, we’ll eventually have an website.)

Article on last year’s event:

And here’s a nice write-up from Dave Lottmann (the EMS guide and avy instructor):

Also, as the presumptive Member Affiliate Representative elect to the AAA Governing Board, first and foremost, I really like using the word “presumptive” (just like that other guy from Massachusetts running for some office or other).  Second, I can reassure you that lots of schwag is already coming in for raffle prizes – Mister Ups is getting quite the workout bringing everything to my door (along with the usual Chinese plastic contraptions for our toddler daughter).  So although ESAW is not free, you stand a good chance to win back your registration fee in prizes!  (And it’s a small price to help keep yourself safe...)

Finally, while I have your attention (unless I’ve already lost it?), the dates for my own L1 avalanche course (the subject of a 2011 ESAW presentation):
... are November 18 classroom (in Northfield MA) and March 2-3 field sessions (Mt Washington).
The November 18 classroom session can also be taken as a standalone refresher course, since it’s almost entirely discussion, group exercises, etc. (with the “traditional” PowerPoint reduced for this, the classroom sessions’s fourth incarnation, down to about half an hour total throughout the day, since the basic technical knowledge foundation is achieved via pre-course reading on your own, not getting lectured at all day).

Friday, August 17, 2012

Six-Day Crevasse Rescue?

No, setting up the mechanical-advantage ropework system didn't take six days, but apparently a solo climber spend six days inside a crevasse yet was eventually rescued.

Mountain climber, 70, is rescued after surviving one week inside glacier crack

A German mountain climber has been rescued alive after surviving for six days inside the crevasse of an Austrian glacier
The 70-year-old fell through a 20 metre crack in the ice while on a solo climb up Schrankogel, a mountain in the Stubai Alps in Tyrol, on Tuesday.
Passing climbers heard screams and shouts for help from inside crevasse and alerted authorities to the trapped man.

The 70-year-old climber, pictured wearing purple, was hauled up on a rope by rescuers following his six-day ordeal
The 70-year-old climber, pictured wearing purple, was hauled up on a rope by rescuers following his six-day ordeal

The seven rescuers treated the climber at the scene before he was taken to Innsbruck hospital
The seven rescuers treated the climber at the scene before he was taken to Innsbruck hospital

A rescue team pulled the pensioner up to safety using a rope pulley, and marveled at how he was able to survive for so long.

    He lay on the mountain-side, wearing a waterproof jacket and some form of scarf tied around his head.
    Rescuers said the pensioner's shouts and screams for help were heard by passing climbers who alerted the authorities
    Rescuers said the pensioner's shouts and screams for help were heard by passing climbers who alerted the authorities
    The team of seven rescuers checked the climber at the scene for injury.
    The pensioner was then airlifted to Innsbruck hospital suffering from hypothermia and exhaustion following his ordeal.
    He had set off six days ago and was walking to the Amberger Hütte when the accident occurred at around 3000 metres above sea level,  the Austrian Independent reported.
    Franz Santer, from the mountain rescue team in Gries im Sellrain who coordinated the rescue, said: ‘The rescue went well. We got the man out of the crevasse with a rope pulley.
    He added that the climber had been resting on a ledge following the fall.
    The man, who had been climbing solo, is thought to have stood on snow covering a crevasse which then gave way below him.
    Mr Santer added: ‘Other climbers heard screams and shouts for help. 
    'They alarmed rescuers. 
    'It is a wonder he survived so long.’
    The Schrankogel mountain is the second highest mountain in the Stubai Alps, peaking at 3497 metres.

    Thursday, August 16, 2012

    Phased Array Radar for Avies


    Wednesday, August 15, 2012

    Car-Like Airbag for Personal Use

    If only the protective features of an automotive airbag system could be adapted to personal use while skiing, automatically sensing when the skier is in danger and then deploying an airbag in critical areas.

    By contrast, an avalanche airbag backpack has been demonstrated to provide protection only by making the skier bigger (so as to keep the skier on top of the avalanche debris via inverse segregation), plus it must be manually activated by the wearer (or by a guide with a remote control trigger as with the ABS brand system).

    But now behold the "invisible" bike helmet:

    Yes, instead of paying as little as $30 for a well-ventilated helmet that weighs only several ounces, you can pay ~$600 and wear a collar around your neck that together with its cover weighs almost two pounds.  Plus it has to be replaced after every deployment.  (Although at least you get a bit of a discount off the original $600 price.)

    As a practical application for biking, this is clearly a disaster, except for fashion-conscious (?) bikers who somehow think an expensive and heavy neck collar is preferable to a light well-ventilated helmet.

    But this product demonstrates that automobile-level motion detectors and automated protective airbag deployment can be adapted to personal use, and at a fairly trivial weight penalty.

    Stay tuned for future applications...?

    Monday, August 6, 2012

    Meteor-Triggered Avalanches

    On a moon of Saturn -- quick, someone report these to the Iapetus Avalanche Center!

    Giant Icy Avalanches Seen on Saturn Moon

    Iapetus landslides traveled unusually long distances, study says.

    The moon Iapetus.
    Saturn's moon Iapetus is seen in a 2007 Cassini image.
    Image courtesy SSI/NASA

    Andrew Fazekas
    Published July 30, 2012
    A landslide on Iapetus.
    A landslide from Iapetus's Malun crater surged an astonishing 22 miles from the crater's base. Image courtesy SSI/NASA

    Thirty giant icy avalanches onSaturn's moon Iapetus have been spied by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, a new study says.The events, likely triggered by large meteors, may offer a unique insight into the mechanics of landslides on Earth.
    With steep crater walls and a 12-mile-high (19-kilometer-high) mountain ridge more than twice the height of Mount Everest, Iapetus has nearly a perfect setup for avalanches, according to study leader Kelsi Singer, a Ph.D. candidate in geology and geophysics at Washington University in St. Louis.
    "When you look at Iapetus from space, you can clearly see the equatorial ridge sticking out, and it makes the icy moon look somewhat like a walnut." (Related: "Saturn's 'Walnut' Moon Mystery Cracked?")
    The moon "has some of highest topography for its size of any major body in the solar system, and has the most landslides other than Mars," Singer said.
    Analyzing the Cassini landslide images, Singer and her team noticed that icy debris falling down the crater walls and mountain ridges would travel surprisingly long distances horizontally across the terrain—sometimes 50 miles (80 kilometers), which is 20 to 30 times the height from which they fell.
    "The scale is just enormous—if you were standing on the ground, you wouldn't be able to see" all of the cliff.
    Flash Heating Spurs Long Landslides?
    Most landslides on Earth spill out to twice the height from which they fall.
    However, a less understood type of landslide called a long-runout rock landslide, or sturzstorm, does fall longer distances, behaving like those seen on Iapteus. (Watch video: Landslides 101.)
    Long-runout landslides on Earth have long stumped scientists, since there should be enough friction to stop the tumbling rock or ice.
    On Iapetus, scientists suspect, an unknown factor is reducing the friction of the ice avalanches.
    The culprit may be a phenomenon called flash heating, during which friction from the landslide heats up the ice, making it slippery enough to speed along the rocks and debris as they fall.
    "Because the material is moving very quickly, [the heat] doesn't have much time to dissipate into the surrounding material, and so the heat is concentrated in a small area—just enough heat to help make the cold, hard ice more slippery," said Singer, whose study appeared this week in the journal Nature Geoscience.
    Unlocking Earth's Landslides
    Singer and her team are most excited about how the Iapetus landslides will aid our understanding of similar natural events on Earth.
    "Long-runout landslides are a natural hazard here on Earth that can seriously affect people if they were to occur in a populated area," she said.
    "So of course we want to know more about the mechanisms that allow them to happen, and the landslides on Iapetus help narrow down the possible mechanisms."
    For instance, the new study gives "extra evidence that flash heating may be at play for Earth's long-runout landslides," she said.

    Thursday, August 2, 2012

    MacGyver in Avalanche!

    The competition is stiff for the worst-ever representation of an avalanche in popular entertainment.
    In particular, I recall the 2002 movie “Trapped: Buried Alive”:

    ... in which Killington is taken out (or least imperiled by?) an avalanche, or rather the Killington base area serves in part as the stand-in for a supposedly Western ski resort, interspersed with clearly non-Vermont massive alpine terrain threatening from up high.

    And of course, many examples of the usual avalanche burials in which the snow is simply brushed aside by the victim.

    However, I think this short clip is exemplary for its combination of interspersing obviously incongruent terrain, incorrectly portraying the mechanics of an avalanche burials, deploying a ski pole in a manner that is absolutely impossible, and extricating the victim in a maneuver that would horrify anyone with any first-aid training.

    Plus after so much unintentional hilarity, the denouement is wonderfully (and deliberately) hokey:

    Pete: “Are you willing to admit now that skiing is dangerous?
    MacGyver: “Skiing’s fun.  Avalanches are dangerous.”
    Pete: “Walking – that’s how man is supposed to get where he wants to go.  One foot in front of the other.  Safest thing ...”
    Pete then falls and breaks his leg.  (Really!)