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Avalanche -- The Wrong Side of Safety


The Wrong Side of Safety
by Rob Mullins

I saw the avalanche start when a small cornice fell from a rock face above our safe crossing. We were just minutes from zero hazard — but on the wrong side of safety.

We were climbing on randonnee skis back up Skyline Ridge in the Alpine Lakes Wilderness. The morning of powder skiing had been nice and now a safe zone with a quick ski run down to the car was about 300 vertical feet above us.

For years, this quick trip had literally been my backyard tour; a quick trip to and from the cabin where I lived (red flag = too much familiarity with the area). Moreover, I’d done quite a few years of nearby professional avalanche control work so, in theory, I knew what I was doing (red flag = those with higher skill levels get caught in more avalanches).

The air was calm, but it was snowing nearly an inch per hour, and cold. We had four to five inches of fresh, cold snow on a strong, slick, supportive crust that had formed when wet Cascadian snow froze over. It’s a common occurrence that such a crust gets coated with surface hoar before it’s buried under new snow. This sets up awesome avalanche cycles as the tension caused by the new snow eventually exceeds its bonds with the crust. In the north central Cascades, you often need to enjoy powder turns before warming temperatures loosen those bonds, or before falling snow builds up to depths that guarantee avalanching.

In this case, it had been cold and clear, and the light cold snow falling at about one inch per hour on the hard crust would certainly sluff and avalanche when 7 or 8 inches of new snow accumulated. This would occur around noon by my estimates but, in the meantime, the 20- to 30-degree slopes would hold the new snow and offer nice powder turns.

I had spent a lot of years chasing powder turns in this fashion. When we topped the ridge and were at my favorite chute between the rocks above a bowl. I explained to Jim that the 40-degree entry slope would clean off down to the crust when I ski cut it. It did.

To the left was a cliff and some 50-degree snow-covered faces, so I warned Jim not ski left of my track because that slope would slide naturally any time. It did. Later, when we skied past the slope on the way out, we saw debris from a natural avalanche that had fallen 400 vertical feet only ten feet away from our downhill ski tracks.

So, there we went, me all flush with my superior understanding of the terrain and snowpack, climbing up after a nice ski tour, minutes from safety. The snow continued to fall, hard. Jim traversed up the slope 75 feet ahead of me while my avalanche dog and I waited, as was my habit, under a small tree for safety (red flag = a small tree is a joke when it comes to real protection).

At this point we had traversed a ‘safe route’ toward a pass, unlikely to avalanche, that was away from the chute and the bowl we had descended earlier. I had been blind to the short, steep starting zone beneath the rock beside our route. I do not believe that the slope below the starting zone would have gone with ski cutting, but it did go when a small cornice dropped onto it.

Seconds before the avalanche hit, I commented, “It’s good we are almost out-- this new snow has piled up enough that when it goes it will be big enough to knock you over.” Jim, being Jim, argued, “I don’t think so.” Just then I looked up, saw the cornice fall, and noticed the white cloud that I anticipated to be a loose-sluff coming toward us.

“Look up!” I yelled. In my logger-speak, that meant, “We’re about to die.”

Jim looked up just in time to get slammed in the face by the whirling white wall of snow.
I leaned aggressively into the slope, dug both pole tips into the crust, and hoped that the loose sluff might flow around me as had happened a few previous times in my life. Just before the maelstrom hit, I ducked my head.

The slide was far more powerful than I expected, and I was thrown end-over-end three times. The world went black, white, black, white as I tumbled . On the second tumble, I caught a glimpse of my black lab avalanche dog swimming downhill with the avalanche -- it seemed like she was wagging her tail.

I had gone perhaps 75 feet in the avalanche when everything stopped. I was sitting on debris without skis or poles, goggles pulled off of my head, hands braced to my sides, feet downhill, looking at the small trees 30 feet lower that could have killed me (as happened to a snowshoer about a mile away some ten years earlier).

Jim had slid 150 feet and his trajectory threaded him past several small trees before he was deposited in a heap. My memory is that he looked as if he had been shoved, head-first, into the snow and that his skis were sticking up. My trusty avalanche dog, without a command, flew by in front of me in a black blur and went to Jim. With assistance from the dog, Jim extricated himself.

We screwed up. I, a terrible safety nag, had been too confident and complacent. With full understanding of increasing hazard and observed avalanche activity (red flag = duh), I continued ski touring for powder turns. In my former work, I had thrown perhaps 300 hand charges on avalanche paths each season and had ski cut countless avalanches. What a ridiculous failure this was on my part.

By a slim margin, and through Grace, our bodies hadn’t been smashed against the slender hemlock trees as we rode the avalanche. I thought to myself after that, “Every safety rule, every time, Dumbass.”

Jim continues to argue with me about nearly everything, but he has never argued with my more conservative avalanche assessment since that day. He, too, has been strong at emphasizing, “Every safety rule, every time.” After reading this, he’ll probably add the ‘Dumbass’ part. Good.


Editors Note 1: Rob posted this story a few years ago on Wildsnow.com. Because it was a local incident and a good cautionary tale, we asked to re-post it on this site. Rob says, “My motto after this experience has been, ‘Stay scared.’ Even now when I think I have the avalanche potential absolutely nailed, I second guess myself and think about what I’ve missed. And now I often break-up a good line with some ski-cuts and some dodges to the left or right to gain shelter from trees or rocks."

”Editors Note2: A similar story to Rob's that just took place east of Stevens Pass Area on the opposite side of Highway 2 from Merritt Lake was posted on March 7, 2011 on Turns All Year. This report is initially about a successful ski trip on the Swath (aka Funnelator) taking place on March 4 -- read down in the report, however, to the comments posted on March 7 where a skier posts about the slide he created, discusses the conditions of the day, and analyzes the errors made.