Saturday, January 7, 2012

I bung'ed er up good

Hi, some of you may have heard about my avalanche incident at purple prince.

Pretty much what it boils down to is that I skied a steep (50deg according to KCPS) , windloaded and unsupported feature in the trees and triggered a size 2 (according to KCPS based on destructive power). It released on the depth hoar and I went for a ride through the trees and got banged up pretty good (required 11 stitches to my chin, and my back is pretty sore and possibly a broken collarbone). One of my Dynafit Manaslus w/ Vertical st bindings is still up there. When I consider all of my body parts that are currently hurting, I feel extremely lucky that I didn't break my pelvis, femur, or my spine.

We had a skied a line at similar aspect and elevation earlier (but probably not simlar slope angle). We dug a pit on that same slope we skied earlier (got some medium partial planar results), and I even kicked some small cornices down on to the slope that I eventually triggered and got no results. All of these turned out to be false negative results.

I first really saw that the slope had a skiable line while observing it from the highway with Bill earlier in the week, but I did not have the picture with me on the day of the incident. I was determined to ski this new tree line.

That day the avalanche danger was High in the alpine, Considerable at treeline and moderate below treeline. As purple prince is below treeline, I figured that the local avalanche danger would probably be either Considerable or moderate. But I neglected to think about the wind (something that is kind of considered at treeline forecasts, and not really considered at below treeline forecasts) even though the clues were right there in front of me! Cornices...

I also didn't really consider the slope angle. Steep slope angle = thin snow (think about the extreme example of a cliff face), thin snow = easy trigger point. As fun as it is to slash a turn on a steep rollover, it is not very much fun getting strained through some trees.

I also didn't consider the consequences of getting caught in a slide in the trees. Trees are not soft. I made the wrong decision.

I let my guard down in the trees where it is usually assumed that the snowpack is well supported by the surrounding trees. About a week and a half earlier while skiing Vermillion Peak with Bill, we stopped before an opening in the trees, and got the snow in the opening to release about 15cm down with a ski cut. The trees on Vermillion are burned and have no branches to provide additional support to the snow, but it was a great example: Just because you are in the trees does not necessarily mean you are safe.

I was with a new partner, and he did an awesome job helping me get out of there. But not only was it his first time skiing with me; it was his first time skiing in K-Country. I would understand if he was naturally apprehensive to question my decisions (and I’m not even sure if I would have followed his suggestions; trying to reassure him that it will be fine). Now some of you probably have figured out that I am a pretty goal oriented person, and it takes a lot for me to walk away from something (Bill has been on some good deathmarches, he would know!). From A Dozen More Turns (an excellent case study) a good rule to follow is to back off if even one person in the group is uncomfortable.

In the future, to offset my goal oriented attitudes, I want to see my partners step up and plan the touring days instead of trusting my judgement. I’m also going to stop posting backcountry skiing pictures and talking about descents that we have done on my Facebook or my blog. I don’t want to feel like I have to ski the deepest pow or the steepest lines. 

Carry an inclinometer. Look for the red flags. Don’t ignore the red flags (steep slopes, possible trigger points, wind loading). Think of the consequences (terrain traps, trees).  Plan escape routes and pinpoint safe zones. You can’t ski the backcountry the same way you ski at the hill.

Helmets are a good idea in the backcountry. Mine took a couple of good dings. I wear a Buff and take the earflaps out, therefor no complaints about impaired hearing.


  1. Wow - so glad you were alright and thank you for a harrowing post about the very real dangers of avalanches. I'm taking the AST 1 this weekend and while stoked to get into the backcountry, continue to be reminded that with fresh pow also comes a multitude of risks rarely seen inbounds.

  2. Yeah, it was a learning experience for sure. The backcountry has to be approached with a different attitude, and respect. Patience is key.