Update on Avalanche Fatalities: Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen

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This post has been updated June 6th, 2011. A new report from Colorado Avalanche Information Center reveals further details of this tragic accident. This photo, below,

CAIC officials said, "While it is not certain the skiers triggered the avalanche, they were likely caught near the top of the East Couloir at 13,850 ft and carried down the length of the couloir."

posted originally over at CAIC, shows the crown.

Two bright stars in the ski community were extinguished earlier this week when Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen were killed in an avalanche on Split Mountain near Bishop, CA.  Local friends from Squaw joined SAR efforts, locating the two skiers at the base of Split Couloir amidst fresh debris Wednesday. Check out the full article at powdermag.com.

This story saddens me. While I don’t know many of the details, nor am I familiar with the avalanche conditions of the area, I do know this: the Sierra Nevada’s snowpack is well above average and the two were killed while climbing up Split Couloir with the intention of skiing it.

Obviously their timing was wrong.

This skier lost his skiing privileges for a year for skiing Kemper's--a permanently closed area off of Crystal's backside. Fortunately for him, that's all he lost

And timing is everything when traveling in avalanche terrain. While avalanches may seem unpredictable and precarious, in my experience as an avalanche professional, they are not.

Every snowpack is different.

A maritime snowpack (found in the PNW and the Sierras) usually experiences direct action avalanches. These are slides that occur from recent snow. The Cascades and Sierras often see huge snowfall amounts. Usually the deeper layers sinter and bond, making the snowpack safer as it grows. The danger lies in the fresh layers. In mountains that can see nine feet of snow in a single week, those fresh layers can be very dangerous indeed.

The slidepath formerly known as Employee Housing at Crystal

In a colder, shallower snowpack, such as in the Rockies, deeper layers rot out and become weaker instead of stronger. This deep slab instability can grow worse as the season progresses, each new layer of snow adding stress but no strength to the sugary depth hoar.

Earlier this month, the big slides at Crystal were caused by a little of both. A weak layer, formed by the MLK weekend rain crust was buried in the snowpack. The layer of snow on top of the crust had come in cold, so in the interface between the two layers there was a large temperature gradient. Nature hates temperature gradients. Just like when you are at home and someone (not saying you here, honey) leaves the front door open. Mother nature swoops in to even out the temperature. She brings in cold or warmth or wind or whatever is needed to even out the deficit. She’s consistent that way.

Same thing happens deep in the snowpack. Rain crusts are always zero degrees celsius. Subsequent layers will always be colder, and over time the crust will actually steal molecules from the colder grains, making them rotten and sugary. You end up with a weak, sugary layer of snow sitting on top of a slippery crust. Add to that the weight of several feet of snow sitting on top, and eventually the house of cards comes down.

Knowing about layers and snowpack, even carrying a transceiver or an avalung, or even a float bag, isn’t going to prevent an avalanche. The real problem with predicting avalanches is that they happen in the real world, on undulating slopes, in asymmetrical couloirs, over convexities shaped by wind.

Here’s the secret to understanding avalanches: just because you skied across the top of a slope without incident, or found reassuring results in a pit or even took a turn or two or

Anna hucks a two-pounder on a sweet pocket

watched your buddy ski the slope safely, that doesn’t mean it’s not ripe to slide. When flinging bombs onto the slope, hoping it will slide, I look for the sweet spots. Hit these spots, sometimes invisible to the observer, and a ripe slope with slide.

A sweet spot is shallow, so that the weight of the bomb or the skier can more easily reach the buried weak layer. A sweet spot might be warmer or colder or rockier or just below a convexity. It all depends on that snowpack, that terrain, that slope.

The two skiers on Split Mountain found a sweet spot. They triggered an avalanche that started up high in the couloir and hit them on the way up. I wish this hadn’t been the case. I wish they would have chosen another route or another day or another mountain altogether.

I don’t think people should have to die skiing. I’ve said this before. My job is to prevent that very tragedy, so I take each fatality in the ski industry with a heavy heart. My thoughts go out to the family and friends missing their loved ones.

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11 responses »

  1. Sad but excellent post. I appreciate hearing this from an expert’s perspective. I’ve probably tempted fate myself and been lucky. These days I err more on the side of caution. Something about more widsom and age.

    hey were you in Bhutan in the last few years? (see a photo on your right margin.) I was there in 2007 trekking.

  2. We were skiing Thursday 4/28. Midmorning we heard someone was caught in an avalanche close to Chair Six but was found alive. We heard another rumor later that the person was just separanted from his group. Asked some of the lifties today but they didn’t know. Do you?

    • Patti,
      I wasn’t working that day, but didn’t hear a peep about it. I will look into it and let you know. If it was an avalanche, I would have heard something, but I’m guessing it was just a separation. I’ll find out for sure and let you know. Thanks for you comments!

  3. Dear Kim Kircher,
    Teaching safe travel in the mountains and working AC at a resort is a great pursuit and one I admire. However I find your article disrespectful and lacking any sort of sensitivity to all the friends and family of Kip and Allison. As of your posting date of April 29th Kip and Allison’s bodies had not yet been recovered from Split Mountain let alone a Ceremony of their passing. I find your use of this tragedy as an example more than a little bit premature. As a self proclaimed avalanche professional, I’m sure you yourself have never seen anything rip that you thought was safe nor put yourself in a calculated situation of risk! These two amazing mountain travelers skied and climbed throughout the world in the most spectacular and unforgiving environments this planet has to offer. There experience rivals any “professional”.

    Bernie LaForest
    Squaw Valley, California

    • Bernie,
      Thank you for your honest remarks. Indeed, my goal was never to offend or demonstrate an insensitivity to the friends and family of these two obviously beloved individuals. In the past year we have seen numerous tragedies in the ski world, several of whom I mourned deeply. In fact, my friend is still missing somewhere on the slopes, presumed in a tree well. We are waiting for the snow to melt in order to find his body. This fact breaks my heart.

      My experiences with avalanches are humbling. I’ve been caught in an avalanche; I’ve seen avalanches slide deeper and wider than I expected; my own house was nearly buried recently from a slide that took out old timber and redefined a slidepath. I have certainly wiped my brow after a close call in relief many times in the mountains.

      This post was a follow up to one I wrote earlier when my friend, Paul Melby, went missing. I put out the question, is it okay to die doing what we love? I’ve seen death, and I can tell you how much more I prefer to live. But for others, this may be different. In every sport, in every walk of life, really, there are those that say they’d rather live an amazing life even if it risked death. And I admire them.

      I understand that mentality as a skier and adventurer, but as an EMT and the wife of a cancer survivor, I wish it wasn’t so. I wish that when we all stood at the summit of a big run–at the top of our fears–the only risks were in our mind. I so truly wish that people didn’t die skiing. I can’t help it. I’ve watched too many skiers die in my hands. I’ve dug up dead avalanche victims, I’ve pulled dead bodies from trees.

      In my post, I do not place any blame on Kip and Allison for their tragic deaths. I even mention that I know little about the circumstances, only what I’d read in the sterile news releases and the poignant words of the brave friends that found them. I’m not trying to use their death as an example. I only wish to mourn, once again, the irony of a sport that brings such freedom and joy. It can also bring death, and I simply wish that wasn’t so.

      At Arne Backstrom’s funeral, I watched his sister and brother speak of the amazing person he was, and I wished I could reach back in time and change something. I’d seen him just a few weeks earlier in Chamonix, and I wanted to return to that moment, look him in the eye and tell him not to go to S. America. Because Arne’s death, just like Kip and Allison’s, was not some inevitable event that was bound to happen. Accidents happen to the best of people. We all just have to ward against them, press back against the real risks in the mountains with equipment and education, take precautions and build judgement over time. I’m sure that Kip and Allison had all these things, and sadly, it wasn’t enough this time.

  4. Kim,

    I find nothing disrespectful in what you have written but then I didn’t know Allison or Kim. I wish I did.

    Phil

  5. Kim, Thanks for your response. I will admit I may have and still may be a little overly sensitive in loosing two more amazing friends. I miss them both and also Arne. Cheers to you and stay safe.

    Bernie LaForest

  6. Pingback: Tragedy, Triumph and a Lesson in Public Discourse | Kim Kircher

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