Its too early to worry about avalanches right? WRONG! #dontbedumb
After my scathing comments in the last blog entry, about the guys who triggered the hourglass avalanche, you would think I'd know better. Nope. I guess that we are just as eager to ski as anyone, and can ultimately overlook the same warnings.
The day started off innocuously enough. We got a nice lap on broken glass bowl, and found that the snow was remaining quite pleasant on shaded aspects. Really good actually! Maybe 6-8 inches of sugary stuff on top of nice consolidated base. We were all hoots and hollers to the bottom.
Someone left these poles at the top of Tamarack...
Then we opted to head up to Mt. Houghton, to check out the north face. None of us had been there yet this season, but we agreed that with the northern aspect and high elevation it would probably be quite good. We didn't really discuss snow stability, but I don't think any of us were too concerned. The snowpack felt bomber and very consolidated. It was quite a bit windy though, and once we reached the summit ridge we had to work hard to stay warm. We got a good look at the line we wanted to ski, and determined that it looked good.
Up to Houghton
Scoping out lines on the NE bowl
At the top of the ridge it was windy and cold. We had discussed the line we wanted to ski, a chute that dropped in from near the apex of the bowl, and had mentioned other potential options. We neglected to talk about wind loading, and had all previously agreed that the snowpack felt stable where it was sheltered. Looking down in, the chute didn't look very steep, and I didn't think that there would have been much snow to transport for wind loading anyway.
Not wanting to hang around and get colder, I dropped in first. I made a little ski cut, but the top of the chute was firm, and even icy in spots. I skiied maybe 100 feet and stopped in a safe spot under some cliffs to watch Theresa and Dan drop in.
Dan came next, and ripped a couple turns to where I was. I mentioned that he should keep going if he wanted, and he nodded and dropped into the next bit with some heat. Below me the chute steepened and choked, and I couldn't see Dan for a second. Looking down I noticed that the snowfield suddenly had a checkerboard appearance, and then I realize that I was looking at cracks and an avalanche. Shiiiiiiiiiitttttt, heads up heads up! I yelled. I was in a fine spot, and it wasn't sliding above or near me. I looked up to see Theresa still on the ridge, also safe. Then I looked down and breathed a sigh of relief. I saw Dan perched out to the skiers right on a rib, on his feet and startled but safe. He had used his momentum to ski across the top and out of the slide. I then proceeded to watch the snow funnel down the chute and slam into the trees at the bottom. Had he been taken for a ride, those trees almost certainly would have hurt. I'm not sure it would have been enough snow to fully bury him, but I'm glad we didn't have to find out.
The scene from afar (prior to incidence).
I yelled to make sure Dan was ok, and he affirmed that he was. Theresa skiied down to me, and we discussed a plan. There was about a 1-2 foot crown in the steepest section of the chute, right where the wind had blown in a bunch of new snow. The break was only on the wind slab. Key signs: wind loading, convex roll, steep chute, rocky trigger point. DUH. I thought how stupid we were.
With Theresa and Dan watching closely, I skiied down to the crown and stomped on it a bit (keep in mind the crown was maybe 10 feet wide). I managed to release most of what was left of the wind slab (just a small pocket), and then cautiously skiied over to Dan. Luckily, most of the snow had already slid out of the chute, so we were no longer concerned about snow moving. Theresa then joined us. From there we skiied out the bottom, and enjoyed some great turns on the apron. We had a snack and discussed our folly.
View from where Dan stopped
Dan Skiing the bottom Apron
It was a highly unsettling experience, and caught us all a bit off guard. We were still cheery after the incident, although I am sure things would have been different had someone gone for a ride. We took a couple more laps, but on much easier terrain, and making sure to avoid all wind loading. On the skin out and that night I had plenty of time to think about what transpired. I think we got lucky. Lots of time spent in the Sierras (with very few signs of instability) had made us complacent. It was also early season, we were rusty. Heads not yet in the game fully. When backcountry skiing you can't afford that! Our slide was pretty small, but I certainly wouldn't want to experience it again, and definitely wouldn't want to experience one bigger.
Lessons and take-aways.
1. Wind slabs and pockets. Don't underestimate them. Pay attention to variable conditions, terrain, bulges, trigger points. Just because the snow is firm or scoured at the top doesn't mean it will stay that way.
2. Don't get powder fever. Our desire to ski the line definitely outweighed our desire to talk about avalanche safety on the cold ridge top.
3. Use safe spots and zones, and go one at a time. This really helped us. Only Dan was truly involved in the slide, and he was able to use a safe zone to escape it.
4. Have a plan if the slope were to break. How would you get to that safe zone? Dan was able to ski out across the top of the slide. Its lucky that he was already turning right and not left. He is a really good skier, but also had a little bit of luck on his side.
Be safe out there, and enjoy those early season conditions! We had a little scare, but the snow was excellent. I consider it a good wake up call and learning experience, and I am still excited to get out there for more (with perhaps a heightened sense of awareness). Pray for more snow, and less wind.