Deep Snow, Avalanches and Keeping Your Brain Screwed on Straight

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Avalanche_Prone_Area

Avalanche Prone Area

The Cascade Mountains are in the midst of a major snow cycle. Pacific storms bringing wind and significant snowfall have pounded the Pacific Northwest mountains the past two weeks. As of yesterday, Crystal Mountain had received 40″ of snow in the past two days, and another 18-24″ is expected today. Another foot or two is on deck to Thursday.

Yesterday we posted signs at the ticket windows and the base of all chairs warning people of the hazards of deep snow. We recommend skiing with a partner and keeping them in sight at all times. We also recommend wearing a transceiver and carrying shovel and probe while in avalanche prone areas. Those areas at Crystal are specifically marked. Northway, Southback and Bear Pits are accessed through gates marked “Avalanche Prone Area”. And yet I’m surprised by how many people yesterday in Northway were not wearing transceivers yesterday.

Northway opened at 2pm yesterday after a full day of avalanche control. Moments before the gates opened, the lift went down for a mechanical reason. Eager powder hounds were amassing at the gates.

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The Hike to Morning Glory looking back at Northway Notch yesterday

Ski patrol wanted to open the terrain in order to get tracks in there. Skier compaction is the best way to manage avalanche hazard. Ski and snowboard tracks today will keep the hazard lower tomorrow as new snow creates subsequent layers.

We decided to open “Short North”, asking people to return on I-5 rather than dropping down to the bottom. On a very small but steep section of the horizontal return trail a small pocket of snow pulled out and buried a skier.

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It was easy to get “gold fever” yesterday. Photo by Andrew Longstreth.

She was not wearing a transceiver. The snow carried her about thirty feet to a tree island where subsequent snow buried her. She was not tumbled or pushed very far. Luckily, she was able to punch one arm out of the debris and remove some of the snow near her airway and was therefore able to breath. After approximately 10 minutes, ski patrollers arrived. Witnesses at the scene had already probed her, and she dug her out. She was okay, and able to return to the base area under her own power.

We can all learn many lessons from this close call.

  • Wear a transceiver and know how to use it. Even when you aren’t planning on riding in an Avalanche Prone Area, wear it anyway. You just might be tempted to drop in when we open the gates.
  • Ski with a partner. Keep this partner in sight the entire run. Plan your run ahead of time. Decide where you will stop and wait for the rest of your party. Make sure everyone is accounted for before continuing on.
  • Ski one at a time. Do not drop onto a steep, deep slope with twenty other skiers and riders. Do not drop in above someone else. I know this seems like an impossible task. Often when we drop the gates everyone bum rushes the slope all at once even when we’ve warned them not to. Talk to the other people standing there and stake your lines beforehand.
  • Carry a cellphone and put the ski patrol on speed dial. The emergency-only number is 360-663-3064. Witnesses at yesterday’s close call claim that it took a full five minutes before anyone called patrol.
  • Carry a shovel and probe. Know how to quickly deploy them. Practice using them (and your beacon) at the Easy Searcher search park located next to the Campbell Basin Lodge.

It’s easy to get “gold fever” when standing at the top of a bottomless, untracked slope just as the sun peaks out. You feel like a hero. You feel lucky and blessed. And you are. Just remember to keep your brain screwed on straight. The best skiers and riders always do.

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39 responses »

  1. Many lessons to be learned. I’m curious what you meant by “punch one art out of the debris” Did she actually expose an arm or did she in some way create an air pocket? Is there any more detail to be provided about the best ways to protect your body for burial? I’m always curious about this.

    • Alex,
      She was able to push her arm up through the debris. In this situation she did the best thing possible. There’s not much you can do to protect yourself. The best thing is to avoid getting caught. You might consider a level 1 avalanche course. We offer them through the patrol.

      • Thanks Kim! I got an AIARE 1 done last year and I always come as prepared as possible! It’s always been a topic of interest for me and my friends though. One of those last resort, hope-you-never-have-to curiousities.

        • Agreed. I remember watching a video of Bruce Tremper talking about what to do if you get caught. In a word, fight. Fight, swim, kick to the surface and try to get a hand out. Then get all zen and calm and try not to panic. It makes my palms sweat just thinking about it.

  2. Good writeup. A little correction in the accident. The patrollers arrived after she was probed. Quick acting skiers/riders were the ones who found her.

      • Why don’t you consider correcting the original write up. Also, if it took folks 5 minutes to call and patrol rescued her 10 minutes later it only took 5 minutes for patrol to arrive once called? I’ve heard 10 plus minutes after the call plus another 10 minutes for the dogs to arrive. Accurate info is greatly appreciated.

        • Thanks for your comment Jackson. I was unable to correct the regional post until now. As far as the timing goes, I’m sticking with “approximately” since I’ve heard conflicting reports.

  3. I was also wondering if there was any kudos you’d like to award to the people who where on scene, with the right equipment, who acted quickly and correctly before ski patrol could get there. Any credit to share?

    • Absolutely Mike. Thanks for mentioning that. From the reports I heard the witnesses were at first a bit stunned. But a few rallied the group and got them all probing. Sounds like they were the ones to probe the victim. Bravo!

      • Thanks Kim. I wasn’t there, but I have read a couple of first hand accounts and I didn’t think the reader should be left with the impression that she was buried and alone for 10 minutes. I think it is amazing that she skied out after that.

  4. Thank you Kim for your insight, advice, and experience. My husband and I are just now at a level to start exploring the backcountry after years of confidence building. We had been procrastinating the purchase of an Avy beacon but will be correcting this immediately. Tonight.

    • Check out beaconreviews.com for some good information. I am buying myself one and not waiting for Christmas. I was a late arriver at the scene but it is a spot I have traveled maybe hundreds of times without a thought of avalanche. If it can happen there it can happen just about anywhere.

      • Bob,
        The main thing to consider is the amount of snow we had in the past two days. Anything over a certain steepness can slide with enough snow. Looks like were going to get more snow in the next few days, I’ll be wearing my transceiver every day.

  5. Thanks and great article! I now it’s a life saving investment, but in all reality there are many of us that simply can not afford this type of expenditure!! Beacon, Probe & Shovel – over a $300 expense plus the avy course which I’ve never seen offered for free? Anyway, I want to be smart and prepared, but seriously, unless I win lotto there just are not funds available for this kind of purchase – especially when there are more than one of you in a family that need to be equipped. I know life is worth much and if I could, I would, but I get so tired of feeling guilty everytime I read something like this. It’s a shame in order to ski in Northway or Bear Pits that we would be expected to have this equipment. Anyone got any ideas for those of us (excellent skiers, try to do the right thing, don’t venture beyond normal inbounds backcountry) wanting to protect ourselves and others but having no extra income available?? Other than, of course, following the other “smart” tips, which we do?? Thanks!!
    VK

    • Vicki,
      I understand what you’re saying. Perhaps you might want to avoid skiing in these areas when we have a bunch of new snow. You can also choose not to be the first one or 10 to drop in. Me personally, I wouldn’t ski without one. It’s a personal choice which is why we only recommend and require them. These kinds of warnings aren’t meant to make you feel guilty.

  6. Lesson learned here. Every weekend family member of the male persuasion insists I put on my beacon. Sometimes I whine about wearing it … because “we are skiing inbounds.” This year I have given in and just put it on. No more whining about it.

  7. “Ski one at a time. Do not drop onto a steep, deep slope with twenty other skiers and riders. Do not drop in above someone else. I know this seems like an impossible task. Often when we drop the gates everyone bum rushes the slope all at once even when we’ve warned them not to. Talk to the other people standing there and stake your lines beforehand.”

    All good in theory, but realistically if one person rushes, everyone will rush – regardless of plans. Perhaps patrol could help enforce this? I think it would make everyone’s first run much more enjoyable as you don’t feel you need to bomb at 110 miles an hour to get fresh!

  8. Kim, over 10 years ago, Mt. Baker made the difficult yet necessary decision to restrict access to the backcountry (through their gates) to only those travelers who had the 5 requirements: partner, beacon, shovel, probe, and knowledge of snowpack/conditions. I think it is long past the time for Crystal Mountain to implement the same restrictions. Doing so will further the safety of your ski patrollers and also the safety of those of us backcountry travelers who responsibly equip ourselves. It is unconscionable for people to continue to put themselves and others at risk so selfishly. I commend the rescuers and patrollers in this situation, but I just can’t stay off the soapbox on this one. Safe backcountry travel requirements are needed!!

    • Good point John. Remember however that Northway is not backcountry. Nor is Southback. We don’t require that people wear transceivers but we strongly recommend it. As far as backcountry access goes, we allow access to the far north, the true backcountry through gates with lots of literature so they know the risks they are taking.

      Kim Kircher http://www.kimkircher.com 206-914-9194

    • I second John’s suggestion of requiring beacon/shovel/probe/brain to enter areas like Northway and Southback. Though it might be tough to enforce with so many frequented gates at Crystal. If you don’t know…don’t go (through the gate).

  9. There were numerous people in the lodge and on the hill after the rescue effort talking about “buying me a beacon”, but heard nobody talking about getting educated (so perhaps they never have to use it, or are able to assist). There’s lots of hands on training resources nearby that pair really well with a shiny new transceiver+probe+shovel. Maybe not glamorous gift or self purchase, but time and money well spent. After experiencing this real live search and recovery, I humbly admit that I for one need more practice and hope that’s the only time I need to deploy my avy rescue equipment again. Bravo to my fellow powder hounds and professional ski patrol on the scene with the necessary skills and equipment achieve a positive outcome!

    • Aaron,

      Glad to hear people are considering beacons. The Easy Searcher beacon park is up and running adjacent to the Campbell Basin lodge. Although the probable signals are getting pretty deep. It’s a great place to practice beacon skills. There are also probes available to use. Just bring your beacon.

      I also agree that education is the key. A level 1 avalanche course is a good start. These courses provide enough education in order to get out and put that learning to use in the field. But by no means is it a get out of jail free ticket. The more I learn about avalanches (I’ve been a patroller for 24 years and taken numerous courses) the more humbled I become.

      Judgment is built one experience at a time.

  10. I really enjoyed the post. I did program in Crystal’s emergency number, but I have a related question: Why doesn’t Crystal (or other areas) print this number somewhere that skiers can easily find it? It’s not on our passes or RFID cards, or even on the trail map. I started looking through my drawer of trail maps and could only find it on Whistler’s map (it’s not on their Edge Card, either). I notice Stevens’ emergency number is just their main number, then you get a choice of options once you call. This all seems like a very cumbersome system for reporting emergencies. I’ve noticed this before and thought maybe ski areas just want you to call 911, but the fact that you’ve posted Crystal’s number shows that this probably isn’t the case.

    • Good point. We have been trying to get our number out there. You should get on the next trail map. It is posted on signs thought the mountain. Next we need to work on trail maps and other areas.

  11. Kim,

    I am curious what you think of the proceedings in Colorado where Vail is being sued for an avalanche death inbounds. The Judge in that case did not dismiss the case based on the grounds that avalanches are an inherent risk in ski areas. Read this article for more info:

    http://www.adventure-journal.com/2012/12/judge-avalanches-are-not-an-inherent-ski-area-risk/

    It seems like Crystal is getting into some very gray area in letting customers venture into patrolled inbounds terrain they say may slide even if there are warnings. I don’t know if I could trust customers to treat an inbounds area the same way they treat backcountry when they walk through a backcountry gate, and I don’t know where your liability ends.

  12. It was at least 15 years ago in avalanche courses, when the whole powder & side/backcountry attraction was quite a bit different/quieter, that I learned to not only wear the beacon from the start of the day, but to TURN IT ON in the parking lot! It continually frustrates me to hear people say “Oh, let me get it out of my pack”, “Hold up, let me turn it on”, “I didn’t feel like bringing gear today” or even better “I’m beeping, that’s good enough” (no shovel/probe along. Always watch out for the herd mentality, bear in mind that the person speaking with the most confidence is not always the smartest, and always be ready to say no thanks when the human and physical factors just don’t feel right. And yes, things CAN happen inside the resort.

  13. Pingback: Approaching Risk « Kim Kircher

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