Tag Archives: avalanche

Be Safe, Live Wild

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Roger Strong nearly lost his life in an avalanche at Snoqualmie Pass. A year later he returns to the tree that tore his tibias from his femurs and reflects on his decisions, his assumption of risk and his return to the mountains. As Roger puts it, “We are all going to make mistakes…it’s truly learning from them that makes life sweet.”

Each one of us must weigh the risks of our sport against the rewards. For Roger, the mountains are a place of happiness and meaning. My encounters with him in the mountains have always been punctuated with his infectious enthusiasm and his willingness to go a little further. This video, produced by Fitz Cahall at Duct Tape Then Beer, offers an elegant view of risk assessment, courage and Roger’s enthusiasm. Have a look.

The Risk/Reward Calculus

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As a ski patroller, I mitigate risk for a living. Whether on the edge of a groomer or the top of an avalanche path, my job is to reduce the risk for the skiing public. Perhaps that explains my fascination with the  risk/reward calculus in action sports. What started a few months ago as a suggestion from a good friend, (“Hey Kim, maybe you should write your next book on risks, and why people take them!”) has transformed into an all-out obsession. My research has taken me from psychology to neurology to the stories of amazing athletes pushing themselves to the very edge. Now, everywhere I look, people are talking about risk. It is like the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon, also known as the red-car phenomenon, when you encounter a previously obscure piece of information and start seeing it everywhere.

Avalanche Basin

The light fading in Avalanche Basin

Friday, as I headed to the top of the King at the end of the day to sweep, I ran into a group of snowboarders preparing to drop into Avalanche Basin. Since it was the end of the day, and I was sweeping Southback, I explained to them that I would watch them all drop in and make sure they made it out the bottom before continuing on. None of them had ever skied Southback, and I observed their decision-making skills.

A few of them were tired from the hike and traverse. These ones were ready to drop-in and get to the bottom before it got dark. The best snowboarder of the group noticed the alpenglow surrounding Mt. Rainier. He seemed calm and prepared as he checked his line and smoothly dropped in. I asked the rest if they’d ever ridden this line. None of them had. I offered some beta on the various drop-in points, and waited for them to strap in. One of them laughed nervously. Another one seemed to obsessively check the screen of his POV camera, making sure it was on.

The visibility worsened as the sun disappeared behind a cloud. It would be totally dark in less than forty-five minutes. One by one the group dropped in. They waited carefully for each one to appear at the bottom of the chute and move to a safe location at the bottom.

Even though they appeared like newbies, they knew enough to go one at a time, to wear shovel packs and to check each area before dropping. As they prepared to to drop in, I watched them calculate the risk versus the reward. The rewards were big: three untracked chutes above an open fan with about 8″ of new snow. The risks, as always in the mountains, were many and varied. That 8″ of snow was sitting on a firm bed surface. Somewhere between the bed surface and the new snow was a layer of surface hoar. The visibility and the temperature were dropping. And now we had less than thirty minutes of daylight.

I love it when the rewards outweigh the risk

I love it when the rewards outweigh the risk

Three boarders remained. One, who I’d been following since the Throne saddle, waiting as he stumbled along the trail, expending twice as much energy as necessary, looked at me. His jacket was unzipped to his collar bone, and steam rose from his skin. “What’s below here?” He asked again. I explained the terrain carefully, then added, “this chute is the biggest. It’s the easiest way down.”

“The easiest way?”

I nodded, not that there is an easy way down Avalanche Basin, I pointed out. But of all the options, this one right here was the least risky.

He nodded and zipped up his jacket. I could see him doing the risk/reward calculus in his mind. He must have also considered his options. At this point, there weren’t many. It was too late to hike back out. To go any further would only mean he’d surely be riding out in the dark. It was now or never.

He was the last to drop in, and he carved a broad but respectable turn across the top of the chute. The snow rippled around his knees and sprayed onto his torso. It was a good thing he zipped up that jacket. I heard several whoops and hollers and continued my hike to the top of the King, glad I’d put fresh batteries in my headlamp.

Sometimes the rewards outweigh the risks. These are the good days, the lucky days, the days when six friends can end their day with one last run in Southback. But other times the risks are too high, and we hope we’ve built the judgment to know the difference. On those days, we back off. We stand further away from the cornice, we choose a safe line down. We exercise our judgment, which is the single-most important tool in the mountains.

A few minutes later, I stood on top of the King and attached my headlamp to my helmet. The gray light was fading fast. I hollered one last time into Silver Basin, “closing!” and listened to the wind. I was the only one out here. Everyone else had gone home. After a minute, I dropped in and glided home too.

I Love the Sound of Avi Bombs in the Morning

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Avalanche Control

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Photo by Andrew Longstreth

Powder hounds love the sound of avalanche bombs in the morning. To wake to the boom and rattle of windows, to feel the deep compression reverberate across the valley, to open your eyes to the alarm clock of explosives means only one thing. Powder day.

But how do we ski patrollers decide when to go out for avalanche control? Some days the rumble of explosives promises fresh powder, and other days the hillsides are quiet only to reveal deeper and lighter snow than before. So what gives? Why do we go out some days with 3″ of new and not others with 8″?

There are no hard and fast rules. This is weather we are talking about, after all. Our avalanche forecasters decide how the current weather will affect the snowpack, and make the decision to wake us all up at 4AM to come in for avalanche control. Also known as “Avi” or “AC”, we mitigate the avalanche hazard by using explosives or ski cutting to create avalanches while the slopes are closed, so that they don’t happen later, when skiers or boarders take their first turn.

surface_hoar_snowpack

Surface hoar, once buried, creates a weak layer in the snowpack

The decision to “go out early” is always made before anyone actually sets out on the snow. It would be easy to decide when to go out if we had a clear rubric, if anything 5″ or more meant an automatic callout. But it doesn’t work that way. 5″ of light fluff that falls without wind doesn’t add much stress to the snowpack. However, 5″ of wet, heavy snow that comes in on a southwest wind and deposits snow in our north-facing starting zones could trigger big slides. Avalanche hazard is determined by the strength of the snowpack versus the stress of new snow. The snowpack can weaken or strengthen over time. In a maritime climate, such as ours, the snowpack tends to strengthen over time. The stress of new snow is our biggest determinant in avalanche hazard. We base our avalanche control almost entirely on new snow.

Here’s how we make that decision.

Automatic Callout

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Hiking the Throne for AC in Southback

If the weather is nuking all day long, and we have not had much skier compaction, Chet, the Snow Safety Director, may decide to make the callout “automatic.”

Regardless of what happens overnight, the determination has already been made before the previous ski day ends. If the upper mountain is on “wind hold” during a big snow event, and no one has been up to ski the new snow, we will almost always have an “automatic callout”.

We set our alarms to arrive early to work at about 6AM. Then we all head up the Gondola and disperse from there to our various routes, each consisting of at least one avalanche blaster and one blaster apprentice.

Crystal Mountain has numerous avalanche paths. We are right up there with bigger areas like Squaw and Snowbird for number of detonations.

At other ski patrols, it may take years for a new patroller to gain enough hours to sit for their blasters exam. At Crystal, new patroller usually get enough apprentice hours in a single season.

Jack’s Call

Every night a ski patroller stays at the Summit House. Back in the day, the late Jack Lewis lived there, and we still refer to the night patroller as “Jack”. It can be a sweet gig with views of alpenglow and starlight or it can be windy and stormy and full of calls to cat drivers and midnight walks along the ridge to the top of Grubstake to determine the snowfall. If Jack determines we’ve had enough snow for AC, he or she will call our Snow Safety Director. If Chet agrees, Jack gets on the phone to wake us all up to come in early.

The Decision

But how does Jack decide? That’s the 5 Million Dollar question. The snowpack is likea layer cake. Sometimes that cake is hard and dense and well compacted. Other times a light layer sits pretty on top of denser layers. We do not usually go out then.

72 Hour Snowfall Total

72 Hour Snowfall Total

When we have dense snow on top of weaker snow, that’s a recipe for avalanches.

Dense snow can come from the sheer weight of the snow–a foot of new snow in any form will almost always bring us out for AC. Dense snow can also be transported by wind onto lee slopes.

A few inches of new snow with just the right wind direction can increase avalanche hazard dramatically. Wind, water amounts and temperature all play a role in avalanche control.

Avalanches happen when the stress on the snowpack outweighs the strength. Those days we wake to the sound of booms in anticipation of great skiing.

Looking Ahead

Ski patrollers are looking at the forecast, anticipating some early mornings in the coming days. It is already snowing as of 8AM Saturday and should continue for the next several days. The 72 Hour snowfall total, above, shows over 20 inches of snow in the next few days. Monday morning could be our biggest day yet. The hills will be alive with the sound of avi bombs.

B.A.S.I.C.S. Avalanche Awareness Video

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Last year 44 people died last year in the U.S. from avalanches. Since most of these fatalities happened to those that were familiar with the risks and how to mitigate them, many avalanche education programs are shifting their focus to the human factors involved in accidents. If we have all the equipment and the knowledge and are still making the wrong choices, there must be more to the equation. The problem must be our judgment. The High Fives Foundation B.A.S.I.C.S. program (Be Aware Safe in Crazy Situations) recently released this video on avalanche awareness. Check it out. It’s worth a look.

Getting Out Alive

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What is Judgment?

Teaching Judgment at Stevens Pas

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, judgment is “the ability to make considered decisions or come to sensible conclusions.” In the backcountry that usually equates to knowing when to forge ahead and when to turn around. Having good judgment might help us decide when the risk is just far too greater than the reward. Judgment helps distinguish between what we need and what we merely want. The adventure will be here tomorrow, and our judgment can help us return another day to take it on.

How do you gain judgment without getting yourself killed in the process? Look at any aging adventurer and he or she will tell you about the time they almost died, or the time their climbing/skiing/parachuting comrade nearly bought the farm, or the time when, at the last minute, they couldn’t join their friends for a trip and someone got killed in an avalanche. It could have been them.

Experiences such as these–if we live through them–give us the ability to notice risk. We gain judgment by sheer proximity to death. The closer we get, the more humble and cautious we become. But then there’s the opposite effect. Being close to death can make us feel immune. Perhaps its like sugar to a diabetic, slowing them down rather than hyping them up. Maybe those that feel immune to death in the midst of it lack some important hormone, like insulin or humility.

Where Does Judgment Come From?

As a ski patroller, I’ve seen my fair share of accidents; some ending in injury, others ending in death. Does this lend me judgment? I think it has. Instead of feeling like I’ve cheated death and won again, I marvel that there but for the grace of God go I. This season I felt that especially, with the loss of such luminaries as Jamie Pierre and Sarah Burke and friends taken in the avalanche at Stevens Pass.

Some day I was going to ski Everest

When I was very young, I thought I could conquer the world. I was pretty sure that by age 20 I would be skiing Everest on a weekly basis. Give me a mountain, and I would ski it. Give me a river, and I would kayak it. Like any teenager I was oblivious to risk, and ready to take on the world. I was immune to judgment.

Then I developed Type 1 Diabetes, and all that changed. The first doctor I went to wasn’t an endocrinologist and didn’t know much about the disease. When I asked if it would kill me, he sighed. “While the threat of immediate death is controllable, diabetes does lead to a myriad of other complications.” He was kind enough to list them for me–heart disease, blindness, amputations. I imagined myself in a wheelchair, unable to walk, unable to see and really hankering for a bag of caramel corn. For the first time in my life I saw my own death. I grew humble in about fifteen minutes.

While living with a disease like T1D might temper one’s ability to take risks, it also taught me judgment. I was no longer immune. If I was going to work this hard to stay alive, I didn’t want to just throw it away in a risky ski descent. Not that I haven’t taken risks. I have. But I’ve also learned to listen–to really listen–to my fear. Fear is a gift reminding us that at the heart of it we want to live.

How do we develop judgment?

Stevens Pass Memorial

I’m not sure there is a single path to gaining the knowledge of when to go and when to retreat. No GPS unit worn on our sleeve can worn us when the risk is too high. No amount of gear, not an Avalung pack or an Airbag System or Avalanche Transceiver will grant us immunity to slides. Sure, we take classes and sharpen our skills, but when the risk gets too high, more often than not we go anyway. A few get caught, but many don’t. They can mistake luck for judgment, and it isn’t the same at all. Years of accumulated luck will eventually catch up with a person.

Judgment isn’t about years so much as it about experience. The more experience we carry with us–being sure to carefully glean the lessons–the more likely we are to make it back home. Because isn’t that the goal? Willi Unsoeld said it best when considering why he didn’t just stay in the wilderness.

Why don’t you stay in the wilderness?  Because that isn’t where it is at; it’s back in the city, back in downtown St. Louis, back in Los Angeles.  The final test is whether your experience of the sacred in nature enables you to cope more effectively with the problems of people.  If it does not enable you to cope more effectively with the problems – and sometimes it doesn’t, it sometimes sucks you right out into the wilderness and you stay there the rest of your Life – then when that happens, by my scale of value; it’s failed.  You go to nature for an experience of the sacred…to re-establish your contact with the core of things, where it’s really at, in order to enable you to come back to the world of people and operate more effectively.  Seek ye first the kingdom of nature, that the kingdom of people might be realized. -Willi Unsoeld

Often, we gain judgment through close calls. There’s nothing like a heart-to-heart with the Grim Reaper to bring about some calculated decision-making. What about you? How have you gained judgment in order to keep returning to the adventure you love?

So You Think You Can Avoid Avalanches

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This ski season was a deadly one for avalanches in North America. With the shallow snowpack of much of the West and the deep snowpack of the PNW and Alaska, conditions were all too ripe. Included in anybody’s backcountry arsenal should be good practices and plenty of avalanche awareness. “Safe” route finding in avalanche terrain isn’t easy. Many factors come into play–including weather, snowpack, and human factors. Here’s the thing about avalanches: they are avoidable. Well, obviously. If you don’t ski in the backcountry, chances are pretty good you won’t run into an avalanche.

But the backcountry holds some sweet rewards for those that can safely navigate it. All the latest ski industry trends point toward releasable heels and slackcountry gear that allows skiers and riders to ski inbounds or backcountry or a combination of the two on any given day. In other words, the Holy Grail of your own private skiing Idaho has never been closer. The difference between playing at a ski area and playing in the backcountry is more than the light fluffiness of the snow. In addition to explosive control at ski areas, the snow is also work hardened, compacted day after day by skiers and snowboarders breaking up the slabs and reducing avalanche hazard. While this might be one reason skiers are heading for the off-piste, it keeps the pistes dummy-proof.

Can you find the safe route from the green point to the red point? Click on the photo to get started.

In the backcountry, however, you are on your own. Backcountry travelers must know not only the daily conditions, but preferably track the last few weeks of weather to truly understand the snowpack. They should also dig pits and follow safe route finding techniques. Even experienced backcountry users can be surprised by avalanches. So the more you know, the better off you will be.

The Canadian Avalanche Center wants to test you on your route finding. They offer an online avalanche course meant to hone backcountry user’s skills. Here is one of the route finding exercises in which you can track your route from point A to point B. When you veer into dangerous territory, the tutorial alerts you and you must start over again.

This is worth your time. Just click on the photo to start your test.

Leftover Stashes and Playing to My Strengths

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Roses for us, PBR for them

You might think that I haven’t posted anything in the last few days because I have been too busy skiing powder at Crystal. According to Facebook it’s been off the hook up here. And that’s probably true. But I wouldn’t know.

Instead, I’ve been sharing my story with various groups across the state. That’s right. I’m becoming a Motivational Speaker, which is kind of an oxymoron (more about that next time).

I did sneak in a day of skiing at Stevens Pass on Tuesday with a dear friend of mine that I haven’t seen in ages. We visited the new memorial site for Jim, Johnny and Chris, the recent avalanche victims. The frozen roses were beautiful and tragic.

Afterwards I spoke to a group of High School Journalists all with bright futures ahead of them, and I’m pretty sure I convinced at least one of them to scrap her plans for college and instead become a ski bum (sorry Mom).

Then later I drove over three mountain passes in a single day. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a world-wind. Now I’m back at Crystal, hoping to find some leftover stashes today (if I ever find myself at a job interview, I’m afraid I will claim this ability to find powder turns two days after a storm as my BIGGEST STRENGTH).

The forecast looks pretty settled for the weekend, with another cold front arriving Monday. Perhaps March will live up to the hype. Fingers crossed.