By Mitch Weber
"Ed, I can hardly hear you...the
wind is howling up here...giant cracks are shooting out all around
us...we'll call you when we get lower...gotta go for now..."
I slid the little Talk-About radio back
into the front pocket of my parka and zipped it up. I didn't
realize that I had inadvertently hit the channel change selection
button and switched it to 3-20 from 2-20. A little mistake that
would cause big worries for a few people later that afternoon.
The day had started off in a most excellent
fashion, as most powder days do. All of the ski partners met
at the base of the mountain a little before 7:00 am. We had 5
cars to drop this day, that meant four runs with up to 3,000
vert each would be possible, all without any shuttling. The gate
was open, there was a terrific base, it had been snowing overnight
and was still snowing lightly right now. The forecast was for
it to stop, then pound again later that night. The five of us
quickly decided to leave my car, Len's truck and Matt Kalin's
new AWD van at the bottom. We stashed Steve's old Subaru at a
place we call "the mid drop", a little pull out parking
spot where, with a little climbing, we can exit back to the road
after grabbing a quick 1,200. We continued up to the top in Ed's
Explorer. Once there we jumped out and waxed up. You know you
are in for a good day when you pull out the "green extra"
and that is what we were using.
After the first run to the bottom, we were
all grinning like fools. We had enjoyed fresh tracks through
nearly a foot of fresh, taking an old favorite route down through
"Church Camp Bowl". We were so stoked, we hardly noticed
that it was snowing pretty hard now. As we were putting our skis
into Matt's van for the trip back to the top, old George, a Forest
Service ranger, pulled up and told us they were thinking they
would close the gate soon and that we better plan on calling
it a day. His heart was not in chasing us off the mountain though,
and in any case he knew we wouldn't really listen anyway, he
had been there before. We all nodded that we understood, then
waited for him to drive down around the bend before we jumped
in the van and headed up. Twenty minutes later we were back on
the snow and skiing to the mid-drop. The snow was even more glorious
than the last run. We couldn't believe how great this day was
going, it was early, with two cars still at the bottom. And it
was flaking big time now. Half dollar size flakes floating lazily
down to the ground! We were all in a near dream state, pumped
from the skiing and awed by the white beauty around us.
"Oh man this is bad what do you
want to do" I asked Len,
as we both looked down at my skis where a crack had shot out
20 feet in front and 10 feet behind. We were just off to the
side of the ridge top, so we were not in any immediate danger..."I
don't know, we can't go back, we don't have any other way down,
let's just go slow, and when we get to Chestnut Chute we can
check it out." I cinched my hood tighter around my face
and continued to try to pick my way down the ridge, with Len
Once again, as we loaded the skis onto the
roof rack of Atwater's ancient blue Suburu, we were jolted back
to reality by the appearance of another Forest Service truck.
This one with James at the wheel. He is the winter recreation
manager in the area, we knew our goose was cooked. There would
be no bs this time. "We are closing the road and the gate,
everybody else is off the mountain, we have been waiting on you
guys, you have to get your cars and go down, now. I'll follow
you." A collective low groan went up from the group.
As we drove to the top, Len and I were both
silently thinking the same thing. Our cars were at the bottom.
We could ski down! We could even go backside! (down to Pine Mountain,
a little town to the north where I used to live). I whispered
this to Len, riding behind me, scrunched up in the cargo area.
He nodded. The bummed silence was broken by Matt who said, "what
a drag, this sucks, all this snow, the cars in place and now
we have to leave, we have to drive down." Len diplomatically
interjected, "well, not all of us". Groan, guffaw,
hurumph, "that's right you guys can ski" said Matt,
in almost a whine. I asked "Ed, do you think you could pick
us up if we go backside?", "yeah man, of course"
he answered, you can always count on Ed, he is that kind of guy.
Poor Matt could hardly contain himself "this sucks"
he said again, and now it was a full-on whine. "Sorry"
said Len, quietly. And we all laughed at his understated insincerity.
I gave him my best cat-that-ate-the-bird grin.
"The doggers become the dogged" said Len with a nervous laugh as we stopped again
to consider our options. Whenever we dropped off to the leeward
side of the ridge to escape the driving wind and blowing snow,
cracks would again shoot out from our skis and we would move
back over to the windward, crusty side. It was nasty, no doubt
We got to the top and said goodbye to our
partners. Before leaving we confirmed that we would call them
on the radio for a pick-up when we got close. "We'll be
in the Jacuzzi so just give us a shout" said Ed, who lives
in Pine Mountain, in a beautiful log home, just minutes from
our expected exit point. As we kicked up the two mile trail to
where we would jump off to hit the backside, Len and I tried
to decide on a route. It came down to a decision between the
"Slide Area" (so named because it is a giant bowl,
cleared of trees from an awesome mud slide, many years previous)
or Chestnut Chute, a steep, direct plunge right to the top of
Chestnut street in town. Since we didn't have a rope with us,
or descenders and harnesses for the rappel over the waterfall
at the bottom of the slide area run, and since we liked the idea
of doing a chute, we opted for Chestnut. In retrospect it is
hard to know which would have been the better decision. Conditions
turned out to be very weird all around.
The kick up was a pleasure, my wax was working
just right and I was getting excellent kick and glide, a rarity
for the fat Snow Rangers and beefy step-in bindings I was using.
The snow was still falling lightly and the forest was peaceful.
There was no one around for miles. Mt. Pinos was closed-down
to the outside world. No snowplayers at the parking lot, no cross-country
skiers on the trails, no nordic patrol at their base. We had
the mountain all to ourselves.
We got up to First Meadow, one of the big,
open alpine meadows on the Mt. Pinos summit ridge. As soon as
we came out of the trees we were hit with a blast of wind that
took us by surprise, it had been relatively calm at the parking
lot and on the kick up. It was the first warning sign, but so
often we drop off and it is calm. Not today.
Starting down the ridge leading off the top
and to the north, the snow was powder and fun. After we had gone
about a quarter of mile down towards the top of Chestnut Chute,
things began to change, the snow on the leeward side was wind
deposited and began to show signs of instability. We knew we
had a potential problem but continued on with caution. As we
moved down the ridge it began to blow harder and harder, the
snow got crusty. We tried to duck out of the wind, seeking better
snow and shelter from the storm. Big cracks began to appear beneath
our skis and we realized that the slide potential on the leeward
side was high. This realization was alarming and it was at this
moment that my radio crackled to life, it was Ed checking in.
By the time I got it out and answered him I was really worried
and the fear in my voice was obvious as I told him about the
howling wind and the cracks shooting through the snow.
I skied down to Len, waiting a dozen yards
away. We had a quick conference. We had few choices. The snow-gate
at the bottom would be closed and locked by now, and in any case
we had no car at the top. When we said goodbye and headed out
for the backside we had left ourselves with almost no options.
This was not the first time we had done this. We had both been
dropped at the top before over the years, and we always knew
that it was an extra level of commitment, but this was the first
time we had ever been faced with more than a theoretical situation
of wanting, even needing to beat a hasty retreat and being car-less.
Not just without a vehicle, but with the gate closed and a bigger
storm moving in, we had to ski down. That was the only option
it seemed to us at the time.
"Let's just go slow and when we get to
the chute we can check it out", Len smiled and tried to
be cool. "I suppose that is about all we can do, maybe it
will be better down lower on the windward side" I said hopefully.
"Probably not" Len answered and we both laughed a bit.
Twenty minutes or so later we were approaching
the top of our chute, we poked around trying to make sure we
got the right one and being careful not to find our way into
it before we wanted to. I crossed above the entrance to a dead
end couloir--more cracks. So much for better conditions on this
aspect. Moving further to the right I saw Chestnut. "There
it is Len, we're here". He skied over to me and we looked
down the long steep gully that was our route out of here. Even
though it was only afternoon, down below the first lights were
twinkling on in Pine Mountain. The cabins and houses 2,000 vertical
feet below us looked warm and inviting. "Lets ski around
that little outcrop and enter the chute from the side, that looks
like a safe spot to check it out", Len suggested and I agreed.
Once there, we found ourselves about 40 or
50 feet below the top of the chute, there were small trees above
and below us, with the wide, open beginnings of the chute stretching
across in front of us with a few more small trees on the other
side. We briefly considered ski cutting the slope but quicky
ruled that out when we realized how much unstable snow was above
our position. Looking up we could see snow swirling into the
chute off of a little wind lip. Len said, "I'll tell you
what, I'm going to make a quick jump turn, pretty much in place
and head right for that tree, the one on this side directly below
us, we can see what happens, what do you think?" I answered
that I thought it was a good idea, "but make sure you get
right to your safe spot and stay out of the chute" . "Don't
worry, I'll land the turn right below us and grab the tree."
At this point I told Len to wait while I got out the camera,
but then changed my mind, deciding to stay focused on this critical
moment. I told him to go ahead. "OK, here I go...",
Len planted his left, downhill pole, leapt up, drove his outside
hand down and around, his skis snapped around in the air and
landed with a thud...
Crack! The sound
was like a tree limb snapping in half, a big tree limb. I saw
the crack run 40 feet across the chute in a flash and I looked
over to see that Len was safely out of harms way, holding onto
the tree, in fact he was behind me! I shuffled back a bit and
I watched, amazed, as the lower half of the slope, below the
crack, seemed to drop an inch or so, like one big plate. A plate
40 feet across and at least 60 feet long. Slowly the entire slab
began to move downhill. "There it goes!...holy shit",
I looked up and, what seemed like two full seconds later, the
upper slab seemed to drop just like the first and then it to
started to slide. There was a tremendous sound as both slabs
crashed down into a narrow, rock walled area below and broke
up into chunks. The snow continued down out of sight but we could
hear it for quite awhile.
Len turned around and side-stepped up a to
my position and we both were alternately speechless, laughing,
shaking, and soberly evaluating our next move, everything at
once. "Well, we cleaned it out didn't we?" I said.
I looked up to check for hang fire, and to see if there was much
more up there waiting to rain down on us. I could see a 20 to
24 inch crown but it looked like the chute had slid right near
to the top and there did not appear to be much more up there.
The snow was still swirling off the wind lip, which now now looked
like a snarling lip!
There was a feeling of mountain peacefulness
that had returned right after the snow stopped sliding. The contrast
between this and the violence of just a minute earlier was striking.
If you have never been in this situation it
is hard to understand what was going though our minds. Logic
told us that the chute was clean and safe, but neither of us
had the least bit of desire to be the first one in. "Well
bud, go ahead, it looks good now"...I had to try. "No
way, it is your turn, I did my part" said Len. I had to
admit that he had a point.
"OK, I'm going to ski straight over to
that tree on the other side and grab its branches." I stood
there for a minute or two more, screwing up my courage and then
shot across as fast as I could, almost in a tuck. By the time
I got to the tree, grabbing the branches seemed kind of dumb
but I did it anyway. Len waited for me to get turned around and
then he joined me. We picked our way down a bit in this fashion,
from safe spot to safe spot, until we got past a little crux
and around a bit of dog-leg where we felt safe to resume more
normal skiing. We took no joy in the descent. All we wanted to
do was to get out of there.
In all the hub-bub we completely forgot about
the radios and spaced out calling Ed and the boys for our rendezvous.
Nearing the bottom it did cross my mind that it was odd we had
not heard from them, but I figured I would deal with calling
when I got off the snow, which was really all I wanted to do
We came around the last corner, out of the
forest and onto the cul-de-sac at the end of Chestnut Street
in Pine Mountain. Matt was there waiting and he wasn't too happy.
"What is wrong with your radio? we have been calling you
for almost two hours with no answer (I had no idea it had been
that long) ....give me that thing..", I surrendered my radio
and he said "what a couple of gapers, your radio isn't even
on the right channel, no wonder you didn't hear us, we have been
really sweating it, the last thing we heard was 'there are cracks
all around' and then nothing but silence...".
All I could say was, "Matt, I'm very
sorry, I can see you are pissed but we really don't have any
emotion left to give at the moment, all I can say is 'I'm sorry'
but I don't really have the capacity to worry about it right
now...you wouldn't believe what just happened..." And we
started to tell our story.
Right and Wrong; Lessons Learned:
First, let me make clear I understand that,
to some of you, our little story will not seem like much. There
are skiers, in the Wasatch in particular, who actively seek out
avalanche prone chutes. These skiers will saw off a part of the
cornice and use it as a kind of "backcountry bomb",
triggering a slide to clean out the chute before they ski it.
We are not that kind of backcountry skiers. Like most of you,
we try to avoid going out in high risk avalanche conditions,
but if you participate in this sport long enough there is a good
chance that you may find yourself in a situation similar to the
one outlined above. I think it is useful for us to analyze this
account and see what the lessons learned might be.
Len is adamant that our first mistake was
to be anywhere near Chestnut Chute on that day, and he has a
good point. In our neck of the woods (southern California), the
window of high avalanche danger is a narrow one. With our low
latitude and maritime snowpack, the risk is high while the snow
is falling, especially during wind events. As soon as it stops
snowing the danger drops off pretty quickly. Wait a day and you
will almost always be fine (but of course one should not assume
anything and let one's guard down). We were definitely in the
wrong spot at the wrong time. The unfortunate thing is that during
storms is when the best snow is to be found, we routinely ski
during storms, what we don't always do is ski steep, north facing
chutes while it is snowing. And with limited options for retreat.
Looking back, the turn around decision point,
the point we skied right past, was when we hit First Meadow.
We got there and found that it was blowing hard and still snowing.
We should have bagged it then, turned around and skied the east
flank down to Pine Ridge, where Len and Steve both live. We could
have taken the same route we did earlier that day, or even another.
It would have been a long ski down and there is a good chance
we would have arrived after sunset, but it would have been safe,
the snow conditions were much different and the wind was calm
over there. It is a route we have done dozens of times in the
last 10 or 15 years, we could have easily made the last part
in the twilight or even partial darkness. Once we had descended
down the ridge towards the chute we were committed. Lesson learned,
be aware of your go/no-go point.
As I mentioned in the story, we have left
the top parking lot, after being dropped off, bound for the backside
, many times. It has always been in my mind that having no car
at the trailhead was not the safest situation, the level of commitment
that this approach requires is pretty high. Still, usually there
are other skiers and folks at the trailhead, in fact I can't
remember a single time that we have dropped the backside when
the snow-gate was closed at the bottom and the mountain deserted.
This fact really upped the ante, and frankly, that thought never
entered my mind as we shoved off. Another lesson learned.
What did we do right? I think the number one
thing we had going for us was the fact that both Len and I have
spent many years learning about avalanche safety. We have taken
multi-day avalanche courses, have attended refreshers, and we
spend time at the beginning of each season re-reading our avy
materials. It has been said that the most important avalanche
safety gear you can carry is between your ears, and never has
this been more clear to me. We recognized what was going on and
approached the area of mortal danger with extreme caution. If
we had jumped right into that chute from the top, and ooh it
looked good, there is a very good chance that I would not be
writing these words today.
Approaching the gully entrance we stopped
down, evaluated the conditions carefully and came up with a plan
to enter it from a safe spot. We made the right decision to not
attempt a ski cut that far below the top. We correctly identified
the island of safety below us that we could jump-turn down to,
and we were expecting that the chute might let go. If the slope
had not slid after the first turn we would have continued to
hug the side, hop turning down as safe spots became available,
but we were, in fact, lucky that it let go right off.
After the slide, we were smart to ski down
carefully, one at a time, from safe spot to safe spot, watching
each other carefully. We only resumed normal skiing when we had
gone further down and around the bend, but we still went one
at a time, with the non skiing partner watching carefully both
the skier and the upper part of the chute.
Oh and one other thing, I really wish that
I had an mpeg of that slide to share, but perhaps had persisted
in my desire to get the camera out, things might have turned
out differently. Maybe I would have moved further out for a better
angle. Ironically, before starting to write this story I pulled
out the floppy disk I was shooting on that day to put together
a little movie. There was a cool scene with Len kicking up over
a rise on the way down the ridge. You could hear the wind blowing
and see the snow flying. The disk froze in my computer and would
not write to my hard drive...I would have lost the shot of the
We have been using radios for many years.
And for what we do they are almost a necessity. Recently we switched
to the little Motorolas and I am only partially satisfied with
them. Our original radios were full size, single channel, 1 watt
affairs that we bought from the local volunteer fire department
when they upgraded. We wore them on our chests in radio packs
like the ski patrollers at the resort use. They were always handy,
you could even answer a call while in motion. They were fool
proof and twice as powerful (the Motorolas are only a half watt).
Their massive five cell rechargeable battery packs would last
for days in receive mode. The small size of the new radios is
both good and bad. The bad thing is they are really easy to lose
(that short term memory loss thing) and we tend to put them in
our packs or in a pocket, making them hard to get to. Even on
a lanyard around your neck you still have to keep the unit inside
a pocket to keep it from bouncing around. I miss the old radios.
I'm thinking I am going to take my two, and put new battery packs
in them and bring them back for situations like this. The Talk-Abouts
have let me down too many times now.
Of course, I could have stayed in touch with
Ed if I had used the "lock" feature that keeps accidental
channel changing from happening, but it seems like it is always
something with the Motorolas. They are fine for at the resort,
I suppose, or for a family at a theme park, but they are not
serious tools. After he heard the last message and then we then
went overdue, Ed had called a couple of other ski partners and
they were about to mount a search for us. Others may have been
put at risk due to my oversight and that is not cool at all.
If you take nothing else from this story I
hope that those of you who have not taken an avalanche course
will do so. Make plans right now. Don't wait. I know too many
backcountry skiers who have all the gear, beacons, shovels, probe
poles, inclinometers, etc, but who have not spent a weekend learning
from an avalanche professional. I had not given it much thought
lately but after the above incident I can't tell you how incredibly
foolish this now seems.
It is clearer to me than ever before that
given a choice between having all my safety gear with me or having
in my head the accumulated knowledge gleaned from experts in
avalanche awareness, I would choose the latter without a moments