Chair 6 is Gone, Dude: What I learned about big avalanches

Standard

This weekend at the Northwest Snow and Avalanche Workshop, fellow ski patrollers Megan McCarthy, Michelle Longstreth and I presented our story about the big slide that destroyed Chair 6 last season. In our presentation, which we titled, “Chair 6 is Gone, Dude!” we discussed the season’s snowpack, the crazy weather that preceded the big slide and the decision process that lead up to that fateful afternoon we called “ladies night on the Throne.”

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

The avalanche that took out Chair 6

Afterward the presentation, in both the Q and A that followed as well as in the hallways, many people asked, “how did it feel to start such a big slide.”

It’s a good question.

Wisdom comes through the stories we tell about our experience. Without a narrative, a near-miss becomes nothing more than an incident. If I told myself that the Chair 6 avalanche was an unlikely event I’d never see again, I could more easily dismiss it. However, I don’t want to forget how it felt to witness such force. We tell stories to invoke feelings. It’s that emotional response that reinforces learning, that leads back to wisdom. As a writer, I believe wholly in the power of story. The important part is that our stories invoke the proper feelings in order to instill wisdom.

So, how did it feel to witness such power and destruction?

Avalanche control is a funny thing. Like storm watchers and tornado chasers, ski patrollers are often present to the awesome power of Mother Nature. But unlike Anderson Cooper during Hurricane Sandy, we aren’t reporting from the front lines of a natural disaster, we are actually coaxing mother nature to do her worst.

Checking out the Avalanche Moments after we started it.

Checking out the avalanche moments after we started it.

On that early evening of March 10th just moments after we’d lit our 25 lb. charge and watched that 10 foot deep avalanche peel away from the ridge, it felt scary. But first, it felt exhilarating. There was even a brief moment there when Megan and I high-fived each other. It was like, “Wow. Look what we did!” Then, as the avalanche disappeared into the clouds and we could hear trees snapping and the low rumble of heavy debris scraping over dirt and rocks, our hearts sank. My exhilaration changed to foreboding. While it was closer to thirty seconds, the avalanche seemed to charge into the midst for several minutes. It seemed to go on forever. (It seems even now to still be rolling down the slope below me.)

Then we heard the sound of metal crunching. That’s when my foreboding turned to gut-wrenching angst. My world was falling, it was letting loose from it’s foundation and sliding with great power and force and it was destroying everything in its path. Word came over the radio from a group of patrollers watching from a safe distance. One patroller recorded the slide on his phone and said, “Chair 6 is gone, dude.”

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

The Three Shiva Destroyers: Megan, Kim, and Michelle.

Indeed it was.

But our work was not complete. Michelle, Megan and I had yet to release our full payload. We still carried 50 more lbs. of explosives up and over the ridge. We worked in a sort of focussed trance. We were in the zone now–communicating in precise staccato, making clear-cut decisions, moving in a safe rhythm. It would take us another hour before our route was complete and we finally reached the bottom of the debris pile.

It was only then that I realized it was Mother Nature who was holding all the cards. We could try to set off these slides with our explosives, so they’d happen when we wanted them to, but we couldn’t stop them. We could only hope to make them happen when the slopes were closed.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

Throne Avalanche aerial view.

That night I lay in bed unable to sleep. Even though most of our starting zones had slid in the past few days, I still felt vulnerable in my bed at the bottom of that valley. It felt as thought the world could let loose on me at any moment.

To say that I was scared was an understatement. It’s a feeling and a moment that I will never forget. While we’d always called it avalanche “control” I realized with clarity that we weren’t controlling anything. Even a slope I’d skied a million times could go bigger and longer than anyone could have imagined. Now as we turn the corner into ski season in the weeks ahead, I’ll be thinking of it still. It’s a story that I will keep with me always.

I hope I’m not the only one. Anyone who witnessed the aftermath of that storm cycle, whether at Crystal or elsewhere in the Cascades, most likely has a mark on his or her psyche. Don’t let that mark get covered up by bravado and the steady march of time. Instead, bring it out once again as we start to accumulate snow in the mountains. Keep it close to your heart as you head out into the backcountry this season. Hold the image of those deep debris piles in your brain as you drop into your first big powder run of the year. Remind yourself of just how small you felt when you realized the breadth of those slide paths.

Let’s all remember how big it really can go. That’s the story we should carry with us this season.

Advertisements

7 responses »

  1. You said that you used 25lb. charges. Is that a standard size charge or do you do a calculation to determine the size of the charge? In this case do think a smaller charge would have set off a smaller more desirable slide or was it the sheer volume of fresh unsettled snow that caused things to go so big?

    • Great question. Yes, it was a bigger explosive than usual. Any time we hope to affect a deeper layer, we tend to use larger explosives. If we’d used a smaller one, chances are good we would not have gotten any results. (Or we could have gotten the same. It’s hard to tell.) But the weak layer would still be there. At this point, the entire snowpack was wet and saturated. Another warm-up or even a small amount of rain could have let that slope go big like this naturally. Many of the slopes around our boundary slid this big without explosives. We didn’t want it to slide like this when we were open.

  2. Kim, thank you for what you do and for sharing the experience. As one who helps new skiers learn to ski and long-term skiers improve, your skills and focus on keeping us all safe makes all the difference. Yet, it is good to pause and remember just how powerful our mountains are and that we are, to be blunt, interloping guests. We experience freedom at their whim, not our own.

    Thank you.

  3. Hi Kim,
    Word in the Bullwheel, Snorting Elk, Naches, and the local spots around Enumclaw is that this was a ploy to to get insurance money to pay for a new lift. This is pretty commonly echoed by locals, employees, and a few patrollers alike. Was that really the case?

    • That’s ridiculous Amber. Have you even read this post? It specifically describes how an avalanche of this size was unprecedented and went much further than even the experts ever said it could. Anyone thinking otherwise doesn’t understand avalanches.

You people are amazing. Thanks for commenting.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s