What I Learned From Watching My Best Friend Survive an Avalanche
Original post on Teton Gravity Research.
Looking back up at what could have gone much, much worse. Max Ritter photo.
Yesterday I became a statistic. My good friend and longtime ski partner was caught in an avalanche while I stood on the same slope and watched. This was no small slide, but one that flushed him down a 1000-foot chute in a matter of seconds and propagated up neighboring slopes. It the kind of slide that buries and kills its victims. My friend somehow managed to deploy his airbag which saved his life by keeping him on the surface of the snow. When the snow stopped moving and turned into concrete, he simply got up and walked away uninjured from the debris.
I am not an avalanche expert, but I consider myself and this particular crew smart backcountry travelers, who normally do not fall into complacency and make mistakes like this. We dig pits, understand how avalanches work, do our homework, back off lines more than we ski them. We are very aware of the danger we expose ourselves to, and do as much as we can to mitigate it. There are however those times when, for whatever reason, we do fall out of safe habits. I hope that by sharing this information it will help prevent something like this happening to somebody in the future.
The enticing line as seen from the parking lot. Max Ritter photo.
Our party of four was riding a popular backcountry area in Northern Colorado on day two of a fun, relaxed yurt trip with a larger group of friends. A storm the day before had deposited about six inches of fresh blower powder on top of older hard snow. We spent the previous day skiing tree laps in the fresh snow, not venturing any higher due to low visibility. That morning, the sun was out, there was no wind, and we gunned it for the ridge. We skied a lap on a face with a very similar slope and aspect and noticed no instability. We enjoyed big turns at high speed the whole way down. Going up for a second lap, we decided to ski the chute on the same face. We did not dig a snowpit on top of our line, something that would very likely have shown us the obvious weak layer the slab slid on.
The moment it all went wrong. The slope broke roughly 20 feet above the skier. Max Ritter photo.
I dropped into the line first, ski cutting the top of the chute right where it rolled over into steep terrain. My ski cut did not create any movement, nor did I hear or see any signs of instability. I cut over to a safe zone by a small clump of trees, and took out my camera to start taking pictures. My friend dropped in, ripping three beautiful turns in the soft snow before we all heard a slow rumble that became ever louder. The sound did not seem real, and I remember that I did not even immediately register it.
I had my face buried in my camera, and slightly startled, looked away from the chute thinking something else had slid. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the slope in front of me was cracking, and immediately went into overdrive. I yelled to him to get off the slope, but it was too late; he was already being flushed into the gut of the chute. About a second later, I heard the loud whoosh of an airbag inflating, but still had no idea where he was. I yelled up to the rest of the crew to keep eyes on, but from their vantage point, they were also unable to see the middle of the line. Another second later, I heard, “I see him, he’s on top!” and we each breathed a collective sigh of relief as we saw him get up and signal he was unhurt and ok. He stopped about 200 feet past the mouth of the chute, in the middle of an enormous debris pile. It took him a matter of seconds to slide nearly 1000 feet down the mountain.
Our work was not over, as we were now still on top of rather large mountain that had just bared its avalanche teeth. My two friends who were still on the ridge above me came down to my safe spot, and then we made the decision to ski down the slide path from safe zone to safe zone. This gave us a chance to investigate the crown and the layer of facets that the slab had broken on. The slab broke on a buried weak layer, which we determined to be surface hoar that was several weeks old based on its depth and comparing avalanche reports from CAIC. High winds during a previous storm had created a thick and heavy wind slab that was then covered in another layer of fresh soft snow overnight.
The crown was not very tall, but it propagated across the entire slope. The clean break on top of the facet layer is very visible. Luke Worley photo.
Mistakes we made:
Complacency kills. I have been skiing with this crew for many years. Any other season we would have had a much more thorough discussion of everything we could think of in terms of avalanche danger on a line, and been diligent about digging pits and checking the snow, but we fell out of habit on this day. One way to think of it is not double-checking your knot every single time you tie into a climbing rope. It’s something that should become second nature to the point where you cannot forget it. Do your homework, dig your pits, and understand your snow.
The fact that we felt comfortable dropping into a line that slid so big shows that we did not do our homework. We briefly discussed digging a pit on top of the line, but came to the conclusion that it would not show us enough information, so we settled on ski cutting the line instead. My ski cut showed no evidence of instability, as nothing moved, nor were there any sounds or collapsing feelings. We quickly discovered that one ski cut does not determine whether or not a slope is safe to ski.
Nobody in our group had spent much time skiing this area before, and my ski season was only two weeks old after having been abroad for the first half of winter. The few ski days and snow study sessions I had at that point in the season all pointed to a stable snowpack, all factors that led to us ignoring the fact that we did not dig a pit.
That morning while eyeing the line from the car, we did notice the roll at the chute entrance where the slide was ultimately triggered and noted to keep an eye on it once we got up there. The ski cut I performed atop the line was our response to this notion, but we should have taken extra precautions.
Our complacency led us to make bad choices by ignoring vital steps in the decision making process. It is easy to become so used to what you are doing that you ignore simple steps.
Things that saved us:
While we all agreed that the airbag was the guardian angel in this situation, terrain management is what prevented it from getting any worse.
While our line of choice was certainly a funnel — as is the nature of couloirs or chutes — there were no obvious terrain traps in it or at the bottom. The apron was wide and the distance from the mouth to the nearest vegetation was long enough to allow everything to dissipate and not drag a victim into a forest or over a cliff. Think alpha angle. The risk of a slide carrying into trees was very minimal, and there were no cliffs or other large objects in the path, besides a few small rocks and trees that were exposed after the slide.
Secondly, my choice of a safe zone also saved me from being caught in the slide, as it propagated to within a few feet of me but not onto the flat platform with tree anchors I was standing on. Had I been standing in the chute, I would have taken a ride as well.
Of course, the slope still slid, and I am not using this to probe for approval, but the fact is had we chosen a different line with more consequence, the outcome could have been far worse.
Lessons for the Future:
Besides doing your homework and knowing the layers in the snowpack you are skiing, have an agreed-upon rescue plan in place. In case the proverbial shit does hit the proverbial fan, have a way to get your buddy or self out of the backcountry. This can be anything from having someone call for help (which would have been fine here since we were close to a road), to knowing how to build a sled out of your skis to carry someone out in case of an injury. Things that should all be discussed before leaving the car! Also, practice with your beacons. This is not just so you know how to use it, but practice to the point where you are fast and efficient at using them. Practice multiple burials at the beginning of every season. Every second counts.
On the more technical side of things, we noticed some points of concern with the snowpack on the slide path on the way down. The line was wind loaded, even though it did not look like it from below. The adjacent slopes were striated from the wind, but the snow surface in the chute was smooth. There were several rocks buried less than two feet under the snow that became exposed after the slide. It broke on a weak later where the snowpack was slightly shallower than elsewhere on the slope, an easy issue to ignore and one that is impossible to see without researching the line and the snowpack on-site. The trigger point was very near these buried rocks, a spot where facets and instability often occurs in the snowpack, further illustrating that finding and identifying facets and where they are in the snow is vital to predicting what would happen.