Post sponsored by Cripple Creek Backcountry, now with three locations in the Colorado Rocky Mountains.
Axiomatic: when a backcountry skier dies in an avalanche, mistakes were made. Such mistakes are of course not always avoidable, as we are only human. But they are mistakes nonetheless; mistakes we can learn from.
First, our condolences go out to the people involved in the Senator Back Basin avalanche here in Colorado, January 5, 2019. We have no wish to over-emphasize this accident, but it had a number of educational and now well communicated aspects, thanks to the involved group having documented their entire day in a trip plan for their avalanche safety course, and the subsequent Colorado Avalanche Information Center report. Be sure to read the entire report before commenting. Below, a few highlights from the report:
Assessing and managing slope angle
“The difference between a representation of the terrain and the actual terrain is a very important issue for everyone using these tools for route planning. The same issues hold for everything from paper maps to the most sophisticated digital tools. These are very useful tools, but they have limitations and they are most useful when coupled with observations of the physical terrain…”
WildSnow comment: Indeed! In days of old, to assess slope angles we used inclinometers of various configurations, along with crude interpolations from topo maps. As we knew our map takes were imperfect, the inclinometer was useful. I’d suggest it would still be so — especially in an institutional setting when going by the book (and the trip plan) are the mission.
I’ve noticed a trend here in Colorado. Within the last 24 months, I’ve heard an obvious increase in skiers talking about seeking out low angled “hippy” powder, due to persistent weak layers. This is a good game to play — I’ve done it for years — but accurate assessment of angles is key.
“Skier 2 ((the fatality)) was wearing an airbag backpack. After the accident we determined that the system was functioning properly, the trigger out of the pack strap, but the bag was not deployed. Skier 3 was also wearing an avalanche airbag backpack. He pulled the trigger when he was caught in the avalanche. The airbag did not deploy…”
WildSnow comment: If Skier 3 (who survived) had deployed his airbag the media and airbag company X would have been all over it. As it is, the lesson is something I’m taking a stronger stance on, as follows:
When buying an avalanche airbag backpack, get one you can practice with and test — multiple times. That could be an electric, or a gas unit you learn how to get filled. Do not simply buy any avy airbag pack, skim the instruction pamphlet, and try to remember where the trigger handle is as you tumble down the mountain in a jumble of thousand pound snow blocks or a 90 mph powder cloud.
One other regarding avalanche airbags. Relatively small avalanches such as those in this accident don’t allow you much time for triggering an airbag. More, you need to be in a moving flow for it to work. It sounds like the deceased might have been knocked over and covered by one or both of the avalanches, without a chance for the airbag to help.
WildSnow comment on the overall accident: According to the CAIC reporting, these guys were dancing with the dragon, dealing with challenges that perhaps were not appropriate for conditions that day. The large size of the group is what I’d view as most problematic. But they were also attempting subtle “micro” route finding based on a few degrees change and slope angle. All things I have done, and gotten away with. Nonetheless, lessons can be learned and we can all improve.
Again, read the report and feel free to comment. We’ve had a few years with nearly no recreational avalanche deaths in Colorado. Learn, and apply. Let’s keep the trend going.
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.