Learning from Close Calls
The fastest way to learn about avalanches is to almost get nailed by one. Not killed or hurt, just really scared. Where you can brush off the dust, thank Ullr, and micro-analyze the shit out of what happened.
Psychologists say we learn best from instant feedback. An example of instant feedback is pulling on a small handhold while climbing. If we don’t fall off, we get instant feedback that we made right decision. They also say—notably Malcom Gladwell in his book Outliners—that we need 10,000 hours in an instant feedback environment to become an expert. That means you can be an expert sport climber after 10 years of clipping a lot of bolts.
Not so easy with avalanches.
The problem with avalanches is they rarely provide instant feedback to the backcountry skier. If we ski a massive powder slope during Considerable Danger and it doesn’t avalanche, the feedback we get is that we made the right decision. But what if we skied within a meter of a trigger spot and ripping out the entire face? Then the feedback we got was wrong.
For us backcountry skiers, our primary instant feedback learning opportunities are when we actually start an avalanche. If you survive, and can accept the mistake you’ve made, it’s time to debrief and learn. In the past couple years, I had three of these close encounters with avalanches. I survived, and learned.
Avalanche Crash Course 1: Flattop Mountain
In March 2015, two 18-year olds from Florida joined me for skiing around Anchorage. We first tried Turnagain Pass, but it was pouring rain. We drove back to Anchorage and tried the Chugach Front Range from the Glenn Alps trailhead. This trailhead often has 100 cars, many of the people climbing Alaska’s most popular mountain: Flattop.
To introduce them to the backcountry we toured to the 20-degree edge of a 150-meter long wind slab to look at snow layers. I probed the pencil-hard slab with my pole, feeling a hollow layer of facets between the slab and rocks. It was the ideal place to demonstrate a weak layer in action.
As I dug a meter to the ground, I felt a collapse and the entire slab began to move, slowly breaking into massive blocks. One client was off the moving slab. I ran three steps over to him. The other client, who was with me on the slab, looked up at the moving blocks and laughed, like a rabbit in the car headlights. I ran back to him and drug him off the slab. The massive blocks moved 10 meters and stopped. We probably could have ridden the blocks, but getting sucked under would have sucked. After an hour of digging we found my skis and poles.
What Flattop Taught Me
This was my big wake up call about hard slab avalanches. They let you get way out on them with no feedback, then they’ll crack far uphill from you. They seem to catch more avalanche professionals than any other avalanche type.
I figure this slab collapsed on the 20-degree slope where we stood and propagated to where it was steep enough to move. The slab’s rigidity allowed it to pull out all the way back to the 20-degree slope where we were standing.
That night Florida brothers came to the conclusion that it was a rogue event. They’re right. It was a rogue event. An outlier. They say snow is stable 95% of the time. That means avalanches are outlier event by definition. Avoiding avalanche is about recognizing outlier conditions and backing off. This windslab was five days old. Windslabs often stabilize in a day, but not when they’re over persistent weak layers like a thick layer of advanced facets. An outlier situation that I hope to recognize next time.
Avalanche Crash Course #2: Coffee Glacier
In mid-April 2015 I was on my third Denali Ski Base Camp in a row. This trip was with the Eagle Ski Club, a huge organization from the UK. It was our third day of skiing in a zone I’d also skied the week before. The weather was clear, calm and warm. Powder from the recent storm was plopping off the solar aspects.
We started the day with a low angle glacier run down to a steep moraine headwall. I stopped on the flat crest of the moraine and looked down to the powder field below. Ross skied up to me on the flat moraine bench and said, “That looks good! Should we ski it?” I collected my thoughts, trying to balance the desire for the powder and a feeling the slope was not right. After all, I stood at this same place the week before and not skied the slope, but the powder looked so good….
Phil skied up and joined us on the moraine. We heard a small collapse and the moraine wall below us fractured a meter deep. The avalanche sliced the top of the moraine, ripping out of sight around the corner, spilling deep and heavy into the valley below. “Yeah, I guess we won’t ski that.”
What the Coffee Glacier Taught Me
This avalanche was another reminder to watch the first warm day after a storm. What is warm? It’s when you drag your skip pole and the snow lumps from wetness, instead of piling around your basket like dry sand.
This first warming and wetting of the snowpack from warm—either solar or air temperature—can re-activate dormant weak layers. The wetted snow is creeps and pulling downhill like a glacier, magnifying the stress on weak layers below.
The day remained warm and beautiful as we skied northerly aspects, away from the runout of sun warmed slopes. We saw many avalanches rip out on other solar aspects. The next days were cooler, allowing us to ski steep chutes and powder field without seeing any more signs of instability.
Crash Course #3: Ruth Mountain House
The second half of March 2016 was storms, rain and avalanches in Southcentral Alaska. A return client, one that I really cared about, Brint Markle of Mountain Hub, came for a week in the Alaska Range. Despite a horrendous weather forecast, we flew into the Alaska Range for the experience. Legendary pilot Paul Roderick took us to our first choice location. It was too windy to land. He took us to our second choice location. Avalanches had ravaged the slopes. Eventually, we landed near the Mountain House in the Ruth Gorge, a place best for climbing on big gnarly walls or flat glacier touring. Near the Mountain House is a small slope called Ski Hill that is the normal place to make runs.
Despite the gnarly weather, we had a blast camping and pumping 100-vertical meter runs on Ski Hill. The driving snow and raging wind made Ski Hill exciting and welcomed exercise. At the high point of Ski Hill, where the slope steepens up to Mount Dikey, I probed with my ski pole and felt a hollow layer 50 centimeters down. I looked up and wondered if I was too close to the steeper slopes above.
The next day, in the raging storm, we climbed a rocky ridge madding exciting by the dynamic wind and snow. We went to bed with the tent banging around like a bear was trying to get inside. The morning dawned clear, calm and cold. North America’s most rugged mountains glowed white under a deep blue sky. I saw a fracture line cuting across the slope rising to Dikey. The debris has splattered across Ski Hill. Not down Ski Hill, but sideways across Ski Hill. I felt ill.
What Ski Hill Taught Me
The Ski Hill avalanche was another reminder to look for outlier conditions. Ski Hill is probably safe 350 days a year. That means the outlier avalanche conditions occur 15 days a year. It’s those 20 days I need to watch out for. Like when it’s storming hard, I feel a weak layer and I’m feeling the pressure to satisfy the clients. Then I need to adapt and listen to the mountains.
Guide’s feel the pressure to please their clients. We want every client to say “That was the best day of my life.” The problem is our #1 job duty is safety. Pleasing clients is second. The trick is to put safety before client satisfaction. Unfortunately, this can mean saying no over and over, and trying to not take it personally. Keeping in mind that saying no is easier than a fatality.