Avalanche Deaths

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Avalanche Debris at Crystal Mountain, 2011

Yesterday was a bad day for skiing in Washington. Four people were killed in two separate avalanche incidents. It’s been all over the news–especially the avalanche at Stevens Pass that killed three. As I followed the condolences and shock on Twitter and Facebook yesterday afternoon, I realized how easy it is to cast judgement. I live and play in the mountains. Even those that have never spent a day chasing powder have still taken risks that 99% of the time do not end poorly. But when others take risks and die, the convenient response–the reaction that makes us feel just slightly better–is that we would not have taken the same risk. We would not have skied in the backcountry when the avalanche danger rating was high. We would have been more responsible, more careful, more lucky.

I knew those that passed away at Stevens Pass yesterday–Johnny Brenan, Jim Jack and Chris Rudolph. They were all good men, and an important part of the local community. Chris was the marketing director at Stevens. I can’t imagine how they must be navigating this tragedy when the very one who would normally field questions from the press was a victim. Our hearts, not our judgement, should go out to Stevens.

They were careful, they were wearing beacons and avalungs and carrying all the right gear. They had stopped in a group of trees, skiing from safe island to safe island, one at at time.

Just the way we are taught to mitigate risks. But mitigating risks doesn’t mean eliminating them.

The deaths in Tunnel Creek, as well as the avalanche fatality that occurred in Alpental’s BC yesterday, are tragic accidents. Yes, risks were taken. But we all take risks every day. My heart is heavy today for the families that have lost their loved ones.

If a lesson can be teased from the wreckage, it is in Elyse Saugstad’s story. She was standing in trees with the others when the avalanche broke out above them. She, too, heard the freight train sound of the avalanche barreling down on her. She, too, was taken over 1,000 vertical feet in the debris. But she wasn’t killed or fully buried. She was wearing an ABS system and deployed her airbag. It saved her life.

Click this link for a firsthand account of the avalanche from ESPN’s Megan Michelson, who was there. Megan describes the scene from the top of the slidepath and interviews Elyse regarding her experience. This is the best footage I’ve read so far.

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20 responses »

  1. Hi Kim. First, my condolences on the loss of these great people. I didn’t know them personally, but have heard their names many times as great parts of the local community.

    Yesterday was indeed a bad day, and one that also scared me quite a bit. When you get a minute I would like your opinion on the BCA Airbag vs. the Black Diamond Avalung. I currently own an Avalung but am considering a switch to the BCA pack after yesterday’s events and doing some research based on your article. It doesn’t seem like the two can be used together, so a choice must be made.

    1. The BCA airbag would give you a better chance of not getting buried, but if you do, wouldn’t help you breathe.

    2. The Avalung wouldn’t prevent you from getting buried, but could help you breathe for a long time.

    Which one would you suggest?

    • Justin,

      Thanks for the question. I was just talking about this with my boss. An airbag system has been proven to save lives. The avalung has been proven to prolong life for buried victims. Both have merit. It is possible to use both, if you wear the airbag backpack and the avalung bandolier. Having said that, I use an avalung. The airbags are still a bit heavy and quite expensive. I need a backpack with enough carrying capacity for 10 bombs, so the BCA Float 30 and the ABS backpack both are too small for avalanche control. I use the avalung. When the airbag gets a little lighter and the pack has more room, I’ll probably consider that too.

      Of course the best piece of equipment in the backcountry is a cool head. It’s okay to turn around and decide NOT to ski something that feels sketchy. Or choose the safest line possible–sometimes the skin track you came up on. Even the best gear can’t always save you.

  2. Very well said. Jim Norman Jack, Chris Rudolph and John Brenan were NW icons, with a world wide influence. I am appalled by the Monday Morning quarterback/ avy forecasters who are so quick to blame and judge. They lived in a world unknown, unexperienced by most skiers, one that is impossible for non skiers to grasp. The phrase soul skier is cropping up more and more often in our literature, to me JJ is the epitomy. Each day in mountains, as well as most of life, brings a fair amount of risk many times with rewards that are less than commensurate. Today I am grateful for all of the shared experiences over the years and I am saddened by the loss. I might have been mistaken this morning when I heard a raven while taking a memory walk South, I hope I wasn’t.

  3. My heartfelt sorrow for the families, friends, and fellow skiers who must be devastated.

    It is hard to take comfort from anything about this story. Both my sons are backcountry skiers and talking about this with my 13 yr old was not easy. What lessons can we teach? They did all the right things. They had all the right gear, the right training, the right attitude; but the mountain is boss and we are guests. Small, fragile guests.

    Where is my comfort in this; how do I confront this with my boys? The only thing I could say was “at least they died doing what they loved and not in some stupid car crash on the way to the mountain.” But really, shallow comfort. I encourage my boys to be passionate about their skiing. To live their dreams and bring passion to what they do. To make every moment count. To be smart about the risks. To help them become as qualified in skills as those skiers that died on the mountain. It reminds me to teach them well, to talk about it and not take a moment in the BC for granted. Maybe it will save their lives someday.

    Thank you for the wonderful write up about this. You have no idea how much it means to me.

    • Thanks Steve. Indeed it is shallow comfort. These men were all taken too young, too early. Any lessons to be extracted from such a tragedy can really only be drawn by those that were there. It’s easy to armchair judge from a distance. The danger of avalanches is real in the backcountry. Humans tend to “learn” from experience. If we ski the same line 99 times and it doesn’t slide, we assume that the 100th time it won’t slide either. But every time we venture onto a steep, unskied slope it can slide. I see this often in my job. It’s important to be both aware and humble in the mountains. Teach your kids well.

  4. Thank you for such a well written piece, it saddens me that we live in such a society as we do where it is so easy to pass judgement.

    These men died doing what inspired them to live their lives and get out there everyday, at least their families can say that these men lived their lives, may they continue to ski the finest powder together!

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  9. 26 inches in 2 days. 38-42 degree slopes from the top Cowboy Ridge to the Valley floor. A 13 person party/posse skiing Tunnel Creek?? There is a big lesson to be learned from watching 13 people IGNORE those 2 obvious weather related warning signs well before there is a lesson to be learned about wearing your AVALUNG!! Seriously……That is putting the chicken before the egg!

    I was the guy who led Johnny B. down Tunnel Creek for the first time and countless more back in 1991-92 season when he showed up working for Rob Mullins with Davis, Ogle, and Saunders. I slept and studied with Johnny B. in the same room at National Avalanche School in Reno in 1993 when we both attended together. Johnny had never used a pair of climbing skins until he started skiing with myself. He was friend of mine. Tunnel Creek should be skied by small parties that know EXACTLY how and WHY to stay the hell away from that drainpipe/chute on deep days. It is such an obvious terrain trap for anybody who has skied Tunnel Creek more than just once. You don’t screw with that section aftre 2 feet in 2 days. Ski it from Gemini Pass/Polaris if you are going to ski it in sketchy, deep conditions. Going off the top is only for the right days……there are lots of them in a season, usually.

    • Thanks for your perspective Rich. I recently read an article in Outside Magazine written by Megan Michelson, one of the survivors. She talks about the mistakes and lessons that were made in a very poignant and honest account. Avalanche education is shifting towards a focus on human factors. The objective hazards are still the same. However, we can control how we react to them. We can choose to turn around. I sure wish someone had spoken up that day at Tunnel Creek and said No.

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