Tag Archives: Allison Kreutzen

Tragedy, Triumph and a Lesson in Public Discourse

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Over the weekend, two boaters died in the glacier-fed Tustumena Lake near Kenai when winds picked up and swamped their 18-foot boat. What started out as a calm evening, quickly turned into a nightmare. The father, Ashley Udulhoven, his two teenage daughters and their two friends set out along the 25 mile lake for a public use cabin at the north end of the lake. Partway into the trip, the winds rose, creating waves as high as 9 feet. All six passengers were wearing life jackets and were thrown into the 40 degree lake. One of the girls struggled with her ill-fitting life jacket, and Ashley tried to save her by using a rescue stroke as they all headed for shore, two miles away. But the effort was too much, and soon the father and the girl slipped away.

The other three girls, aged 12, 13 and 15 continued on, swimming to shore, then scrambling over the rugged terrain without shoes to another cabin, where the girls started a fire and waited for rescue. Miranda Udulhoven, the eldest of the surviving girls, urged on the others, acting with a responsibility and resolve hard to imagine.

This story was covered in the Anchorage Daily News, and the comments there are supportive and complimentary. Reading the comments on the same story over at CNN.com simply made me sad. A few commenters, not all, blame the father for the tragedy without understanding the circumstances.

This is far too easy to do.

Public discourse too often mirrors the polarizing left-wing vs. right-wing formula meant to sell commercial spots and increase ratings rather than promote discussion. In fact, it seems that public discourse itself has become taboo. Too often, we shy away from it in fear of vitriol and unsupported rhetoric. When the norm for open discussion is simply spewing out one’s own beliefs without stopping to listen to the other side, it’s no wonder debate has become such an ugly word.

A few months ago I wrote about the tragic avalanche accident that killed Kip Garre and Allison Kreutzen. One reader claimed that I used their deaths as a lesson for others, admonishing me for my article. In my response to him I explained that while I hated to see yet another avalanche fatality, in my experience slides are predictably relentless, I was not trying to assign blame. Instead I was trying to engage in some discourse about our chosen risks. Is it okay to die doing what we love? I’m just not sure. Regardless, the death of these two is tragic and awful and there’s no other way to look at it. I, too, engage in the very same risks, and I’m questioning myself as much as the ski culture at large.

In the case of Ashley and the four teen girls, they set out innocently and prepared. He tried heroically to save the struggling girl. Ashley could have left her and saved himself. Instead he strove to the end. The other girls, with strength and resolve barely seen in most adults let alone teenagers, stuck together and survived.

It’s the kind of story only ever seen on Disney movies or old after-school specials. It fills my heart with sadness and also a surge of pride for those brave girls that survived.

Go and read the comments at cnn.com and come back here and add to this discussion. What is the proper way to engage in public discourse? Can we talk about tragedy without getting nasty? Is there any value in it at all? What about in politics or news? If we don’t like the kinds of polarizing debates going on elsewhere, should we all change the way we have discussions? Can we simply start to listen?

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.