Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Andes Avy Incident Article

The Fingers 620x411

White Darkness: Surviving an Avalanche in the Andes

by: Grant Gary
Welcome to your worst nightmare.  You’re tumbling down the side of a mountain inside a wave of snow.  You feel like you’re in the ocean except this water is cold and crystallized.  As you somersault over and over again, all you can see through your goggles is an eerie white darkness.  As your arms flail, you reach for your avalanche airbag.  One pull, two pulls, nothing happens. Every time you try to take a breath, it feels like someone is taking a pile of snow and shoving it with all their strength into the very back of your throat. You are choking to death.  But this is no nightmare.  This is your life, and you are about to die.
Traveling through Chile I had begun to feel like I was invincible.  After several weeks of coincidence after coincidence I felt like the luckiest man on the planet.  I had hung out with the Brazilian National Snowboarding team, successfully hitchhiked dozens of times, received an offer for a free helicopter ride from a local businessman, scored free lift tickets, cheap lodging, fooled around with beautiful Chilean women and had a couple of articles published by Unofficial Networks.  Could life get any better?  Yes it could, with 18 inches of fresh Chilean Powder!
Two days after the storm my Swiss friend, two Frenchmen and myself decided to climb up a Volcano that sits atop the ski area Nevados de Chillan.  The lift rises to about 7500 feet in elevation and then it’s possible to skin or hike another 3000 vertical feet to the top.  It was one of my first times in the backcountry.  I had all the gear.  Beacon. Check. Shovel. Check. Probe. Check. Airbag. Check.  Education. NADA! (That’s Spanish for none).  So I did what all non-educated gringos do, I put my trust in another person who I barely knew but apparently had lots of experience in the mountains.   Mistake number 1.
The anticipated 3 or 4-hour hike actually took 5.  The skin track was icy and at one point I had to take off my skis and bootpack.  I never told anyone but I actually fell into a small crevasse while hiking that was about 3 feet deep.   It was scary but I wasn’t going to let a little slip deter me.  A few hundred feet from the summit the wind began to blow over 50mph.  At that point nothing could stop me short of death itself.  When I reached the summit only one other person from our four-man party had made it.  We talked briefly and it was clear that I was beyond exhausted.  I hadn’t packed any food, expecting the hike to take only three hours.  Mistake number two.  I was woozy and cold and it took my friends wits to tell me to put all my layers back on before I froze to death.
After layering up I looked out and saw the most spectacular sight I have seen in my 28 years on this planet.  We were sitting inside the cone of a Volcano and over the edge I could see the spine of the Andes Mountains stretching as far as the eye could see.  There is a saying in Haiti “Beyond those Mountains, there are more Mountains”.  Never has that saying rang more true for me than during that moment.  There were mountains beyond mountains all the way to the horizon.
Happy To Be Alive and on Morphine 620x933
After snapping a couple of photos we began our descent.  In proper backcountry style my partner and I determined safe areas and skied one at a time.   1000 vertical feet below the summit, skiing started to get fun!  We were cutting completely fresh tacks on wide-open slopes loaded with 1-2 feet of fresh Chilean Powder.  It was complete bliss.
After skiing another 2500 vertical feet we stopped for a chat.  We had two options; head back into the ski area or further out into the backcountry.  My partner asked if I would “like to ski a really steep part of the mountain”.   My brain was so depleted of glucose all I could muster was a foggy “yeah”.  So I followed my friend for a 20-minute traverse that brought us to an area in the backcountry known as “The Fingers”.  Similar to Squaw’s fingers but this is steeper and longer with fewer cliffs.
As we stood atop the 45-degree pitch it was two in the afternoon and the temperature was scorching hot. Mistake number 3. “Gringo, you go first.” My friend told me in broken English.  “If anything happen, go straight”.  Four turns later at 30 mph I fell forward and started sliding down the mountain headfirst.  It was a strange sensation since I hadn’t fallen like that in years.  When I came to a halt I looked over my left shoulder and caught a glimpse of the slide an instant before it slammed into me.
I wish I could say I did something great to survive the avalanche, but the reality is I was simply lucky.  When the snow stopped I was sitting on top, completely unburied and all I had was a broken leg.  The rest of the story is both heartwarming and harrowing; Three days and three hospitals before I was operated on, but dozens of people showing me incredible kindness along the way, including my American friend Lolo who spent 4 days with me so she could translate and help!
The question I hear most often these days is “are you going to go into the backcountry again?”  The answer is an emphatic “yes”, but with the caveat “after I’ve received the proper education”.  I made lots and lots of mistakes in the backcountry that almost led to my death.  However the biggest one I made was not having enough education to make my OWN decisions in the backcountry. Simply having the gear is not enough!  Even if you know how to use the gear that is not enough!  THE NUMBER ONE GOAL IN THE BACKCOUNTRY SHOULD BE TO AVOID TRIGGERING AN AVALANCHE!  We can only accomplish this through proper education and practice.
My friend was nearly in tears.  The ski patrollers looked at me like I was a ghost.  As I was sitting in a sled preparing to be lifted into an ambulance a ski patroller came over and looked down at me.  His eyes were kind.  He was backlit by the ethereal blue sky of a late Chilean winter day.  “You are very lucky to be alive…never forget that”.  I never will…

Monday, October 29, 2012

First U.S. Avy Incident of the Season

The first North American avalanche incident already occurred about a week ago, in British Columbia, and even claimed one life.  But it was essentially an industrial workplace incident, and while an avalanche is an avalanche, regardless of what the victim was doing at the time, I suspect that some of the human factor dynamics at play are different when the party is out to get a job done, versus ski some fun snow.

But now we have the first U.S. avy incident of the season, involving three skiers.
Being avalanched at any time of year is bad, but at the very beginning of the season ... well, let's just hope this at least scares everyone straight out there.


Avalanche partially buries three skiers, injures one.

Three Skiers Partially Buried and One Injured in Bridger Range
On Sunday, October 28, three skiers were in the northern Bridger Range ascending a south facing slope immediately south of Frazier Basin when they triggered and avalanche.  All three were partially buried with one injured. The avalanche was triggered near the ridgeline as they were skinning uphill.  They felt the slope collapse with a “whumph” and saw the slope fracture above them which swept all three to the bottom, but not before beating them up on the rocky bed surface with one suffering a deep knee laceration and hip injury.  Luckily they were not completely buried in the slide.  The skiers were buried to their chest or armpits. At noon they called Gallatin County Search and Rescue to toboggan the injured skier out which was completed by 3:30 p.m.  This time of year the best skiing will be found on wind-loaded slopes where the snow is deepest. This accident reinforces the behavior of only traveling one at a time in avalanche terrain and carrying rescue gear.  Eric, Mark and I will head to the avalanche this morning to investigate the snowpack.  We will post more details in the next few days.

No Name Bowl Avalanche Path

No Name Bowl Avalanche Path

The avalanche broke near the ridgeline where it was windloaded.  The skiers felt the slope "whumph" and then watched cracks propagate above them before they were all swept downhill and partially buried. They got beat up on the rocks, which injured one, but there was also plenty of snow to completely bury them, which luckily did not happen.  Photo: GNFAC
Avalanche: No Name Bowl Overview
Avalanche: No Name Bowl Overview
Three skiers triggered and were caught in an avalanche in the northern Bridger Range as they skinned uphill.  They were all swept to the bottom getting beat up on rocks along the way.  The skiers were all partially buried.  One was injured and was evacuated by Gallatin County Search and Rescue.  Photo: GNFAC 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mike Marolt's Article on Manaslu

I think all this has already been stated by others, but here is a particularly strong version of it.

Opening paragraphs:
"I woke up on September 24 to something that I had long expected: a major disaster on Manaslu, the eighth-highest peak in the world. This particular one came in the form of an avalanche that killed at least 11 people and left dozens of others severely injured."
"I found myself on Manaslu a few years ago, and in my mind, and the minds of many who have climbed it, this tragedy was anything but a surprise. It was an act of God, but one that was manufactured into a disaster by human action. After climbing and skiing on some 40 of the world's major 6,000-, 7,000-, and 8,000-meter peaks, this is the only mountain I could not recommend to anyone: it is avalanche central."
Concluding paragraph:
"I, along with many others, fully expected something like this avalanche to happen on Manaslu; we even knew two possible places where it could hit. I have nothing to lose by piping in, and if my reality can twist someone else's arm, I will twist hard. It's not for me to judge if you go, but if you do, think about every step and make decisions on your own. I guarantee every inch of the mountain will demand total respect, with virtually no place to let your guard down."

Friday, October 12, 2012

ESPN Avy Series & Stevens Pass

ESPN -- the website -- has started a six-part series on avalanches.

Actually, really seven parts, as the intro piece is quite compelling.

The first part (or is that the second part?) profiles the 34 avalanche victims from this past winter.

This is accompanied by a separate photo essay (making for eight parts total I suppose).

(BTW, maybe it was just me, but I had some troubles in Chrome, although IE displayed it perfectly.)
Positioning your cursor/pointer in the lower left pops up a brief bio.
The bios in the photo essay lack any information about the deadly incidents, but just seeing one victim after another (sometimes with family) makes for some very emotional viewing.

Note that the author has an article about the Steven Pass incident in the latest issue of Outside magazine, but no mention of it yet on the Outside website (although a brief blurb is available elsewhere from the author)..

Her ESPN piece also has many references to the Steven Pass incident, especially in the conclusion:
"For me, the lessons learned extend much further. I came face-to-face with death. I made a choice to ski terrain that came very close to killing me, and did kill three of my friends."
"I think constantly about what happened that day at Stevens Pass. Like a war zone, a slow-motion series of horrific moments is burned into my brain. I think about the soundless cracking of the avalanche, and how, in those first few moments afterward, as I skied down the now-icy slide path with my beacon in search mode, my mind and body went into overdrive, terror and focus running through my veins. I can still hear the frantically ticking clock of my heartbeat during the ensuing search for our missing friends."
"And worst of all, I recall the moment of realization, after 10 minutes of searching, 10 more of probing and shoveling, and nearly an hour of members of our group conducting CPR, when we knew we'd lost them. That sensation -- one of terror, sorrow and utter disbelief, which followed me back to the base of the ski area, in the car on the ride home, throughout the ensuing media blitz that followed, and for days, weeks and months after -- buckled my knees and changed my mindset forever."

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Monday, October 1, 2012


I have no idea whether this is worthwhile, but the footage of the skier falling into the crevasse is impressively scary!