Before we begin, I’d like to extend heartfelt condolences to those involved in this accident, especially the loved ones of those deceased. The pair of friends who died sounded like vital young men who were most surely taken before their time.
It is always difficult to write about our fatal avalanche accidents. I get nasty-grams from those involved, and indeed am uncomfortable about focusing on tragedies that so horribly impact the extended circle of those involved. That said, I can make a long list of the dead who were friends, sometimes almost family. It’s personal. Thus, I continue to be motivated to share and analyze avalanche accidents with the goal of helping us all — including myself — improve our safety and count less tragedy.
That’s why we went to the trouble of analyzing last season’s Sheep Creek tragedy, the worst backcountry skiing avalanche accident to ever occur in Colorado. Avalanche professionals didn’t like my take that “the avalanche education system is broken.” Those close to the Sheep Creek event just plain didn’t like my writing an opinion about what was done wrong and caused five deaths. But I wrote it anyway and stand by the purpose of those efforts, as well as my take. If you read those reports, you’ll see they constantly bring the focus back to us, you and me, and how we behave in avalanche terrain. That’s the idea.
Further, as you’ll see below we’re taking a “once removed” point of view here, by discussing the ACCIDENT REPORT authored by Ethan Green for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
An important thing to get with all this: it is our editorial and philosophical point of view that when an avalanche accident happens (including my own) it’s almost always the result of mistakes or poor choices. For example, even the recent event of a home being hit by an avalanche in Montana was the result of perhaps a failure in land use planning, or perhaps a lack of public education about how far avalanches can run. To call out those points is not “finger pointing” or “judgement,” it is just reasonable discussion that could save lives in the future. Likewise, when CAIC comes up with a report on a fatal avalanche, we will discuss it here. To do otherwise, to ignore it for fear of being perceived as “judgmental” or a “Monday morning quarterback,” would be absurd.
Unfortunately, an event eerily similar to Sheep Creek occurred this past February 15th on Star Mountain, just over the mountains east from here in Colorado. Star Mountain again appears from the CAIC report to have involved a number of tragic mistakes that I assume have to be the result at least in part from our avalanche education and forecasting system simply not getting the point across — as well as individuals not correctly practicing what safety techniques they may have learned.
In a word, many individuals have called Sheep Creek “baffling,” and the same is being said about Star Mountain. Both are “baffling” because it appears so many critical mistakes were made that fly in the face of everything taught these days in avalanche safety — as well as what’s become basic conventional wisdom. Human nature? Human factors we could all succumb to? Yes. Worth examining? In our view, yes.
Yesterday, Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) published their excellent report on the Star Mountain accident, hence a few ideas the report stimulates.
The similarities between Sheep and Star are haunting. Beyond excessive group size, perhaps the most fearsome was both groups reported dependence on “safe areas” and “islands of safety” that turned out to not be safe. In the case of Sheep Creek, for still unknown reasons the group had decided to take a direct route up a drainage to a supposed island of safety which ended up being over-run by the fatal avalanche. At Star Mountain, CAIC reports that while the (large, in our opinion) group of 7 riders had decided to “regroup in safe areas” and “avoid open areas,” all but two of the group were taken by the slide. The two who were not caught were said to be “skiing” when the avalanche occurred. Somehow the pair ended up on one area that didn’t slide.
The Star Mountain event was obviously compounded by the group’s reported decision to place numerous skiers concurrently on the avalanche path they’d decided to ski. They staggered the skiing and attempted to use what they thought were safe areas, all turned out to be for naught. The whole situation was a rather dicey proposition any way you look at it. The CAIC report for that day indicated that overall avalanche conditions were obviously unsuitable for skiing avalanche paths.
What is more, upon reading the CAIC report I have to assume (due to the number of people involved in the slide, and the final outcome) that for some reason the skiers and snowboarders were not consistently seeking out truly safe zones for stopping or leap-frog skiing. Perhaps they didn’t feel at-risk, or perhaps some of them knew little about avalanche terrain route finding and were mistaken about what they thought was safe. In either case, I have to think that more experience or education would have helped — or, as always helps us all, a strong attitude of conservative caution for a day with such a dicy snowpack.
Introspective: As shown by many close calls and deaths over the years, it appears that backcountry skiers and riders frequently do not recognize the difference between truly safe areas and hazard zones. Or, they simply don’t think about it even if they do have the knowledge. If you do choose to ski avalanche slopes during high hazard, it is IMPERATIVE that every person in your group knows how to find 100% safe areas for stopping and waiting, and that the slope is enjoyed by ONE person at a time with the group leap frogging between those zones. Time consuming? Yes. Group of more than three makes it difficult? Yes.
If group members are unable to identify safe zones and practice safe skiing techniques, they should be following a guide or experienced leader who helps make those things happen.
Another thing that leaps out of the CAIC Star Mountain report is the group’s dependence on a snow pit and sheer testing to make a go no-go decision to ski a huge certain-death avalanche path. Apparently, the group did (correctly) do their snow evaluations in the starting zone and took turns as pairs working the pit so as not to place the whole group in the starting zone at one time.
Yet digging snow pits in avalanche starting zones is just plain dicey and has resulted in documented accidents in its own right. Often, ropes should be involved. Most importantly, as the CAIC report states “In the case of a very large avalanche path, particularly one with non-uniform terrain features and a start zone heavily affected by wind loading, it is unlikely that one profile at the top would yield enough information to make a life and death decision.”
In fact, it appears in this case the that snow pit gave the group false confidence. So my using the word “correctly” above is perhaps a misnomer. From my own experience, the only way to use snowpits to evaluate the safety of skiing a known avalanche path in the Twin Lakes area snow climate, in winter, would have been to dig multiple pits and carefully analyze each one. Doing so takes hours, and is entirely impractical if the day’s goal is to actually do some skiing.
(Blog post update) Lastly, I missed something in the report that should alarm us all. From the report:
He [rider 3] had been buried to his chest but had dug himself out with his hands. His snowboard was destroyed and he was injured…Rider 3 did not have any avalanche rescue equipment, but Riders 5 and 7 turned their transceivers to receive and got a signal and distance reading of 43 m. The three of them descended and located Rider 1. He was buried under about 2 feet of snow. All three worked together to dig Rider 1 out of the snow, but they only had two shovels…They lifted Rider 1 out of the hole and looked for signs of life but found none. They took Rider 1’s transceiver and gave it to Rider 3…
In my own reality, and I pray the same for most of you reading this, to proceed into major avalanche terrain and ski an avalanche path with one group member having NO beacon shovel or probe is unthinkable. That’s why I missed this in the report, my mind just skimmed over it assuming that the guy had lost his gear during the rescue or something like that. Thanks to one of our readers for pointing this out.
For the group to proceed from the trailhead and ski where they skied, having one group member with no avalanche safety gear? This defies belief. It is indicative of multiple problems in decision making, group dynamics, overall knowledge and training in avalanche safety, and more.
(To be fair to those involved, perhaps other factors were in play, e.g., perhaps Rider 3 was an outsider who joined the group after they began their tour. More, it can be inferred from the report had Rider 3 carried safety gear it would not have changed the rescue outcome, though this is not entirely clear.)
Swinging back to our own behavior, beyond basics such as being sure all group members are properly equipped, I think the biggest take-home from the Star Mountain CAIC report is we as backcountry riders need to be able to meld avalanche forecasts, snowpack history, recent observable weather and knowledge of recent natural avalanches to determine when skiing actual avalanche paths could be a poor decision. This before we even leave home. After that, if we decide to go anyway, which is our right, we need to at least practice sometimes inconvenient or downright unpleasant safety techniques.
If 7 people ski a large slope one-at-a-time that takes 8 minutes each including rest stops, falls, or fiddling with equipment, the first person down and the last person to ski are looking at stand-and-freeze wait times of around an hour! Or, break the slope up into a leap-frog scenario and you don’t get the continuous powder turns you’d fantasized about and you may even lose hard-won elevation doing traverses to safe zones. Thus, it is nearly impossible to safely ski big complex avalanche terrain with large groups. This alone is a red-flag no-go in decision making.
To be clear, during days with avalanche danger a group of 7 simply can not ski big avalanche terrain safely without an unusual level of knowledge, skill, leadership (and perhaps technology such as two-way radios). If your group is large, it is usually a no-go red flag in decision making. If nothing else you will simply not have enough time to ski safely and comfortably. In my view a “large” group is more than 3 and I start changing my behavior as a result. For a rule of thumb skiing with more than 4 people is when you should become truly concerned. You can still ski as large groups, you simply need to be realistic about what you’re involved in and adjust goals and behavior accordingly.
Or, you park at the trailhead. Everyone climbs out, snaps into their boots. You circle and do a beacon check. One guy has forgotten his beacon, and doesn’t even have a shovel. You send him home, or he waits in the car, or you all head over to the meadow skipping tour with zero avalanche danger. (Tip: Stash a “go bag” in your vehicle with spare beacon, shovel, probe, goggles, hat, gloves — but bear in mind that it’s still a red flag when someone shows up without gear.)
Again, condolences to all involved in both Sheep Creek and Star Mountain. In deference to them, let’s all try to do better.
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.