Never Gonna Be The Same
Story and photo by Mitch
December 13, 2007-- Last week we finally got the big, Sierra-style
storm we had been waiting for since opening day a month earlier.
By the weekend, the sun was partially out, and three feet of
fresh snow coated the upper part of the mountain. We skied some
lower runs in the morning, while the ski patrol prepared the
upper sections. Shortly before noon it was game-on, and not long
after we were already on our second powder run off the top. We
were in an open but fairly remote area on the hill where we knew
we could count on getting steep, fresh tracks. It had been so
good the first time in that we went straight back to the same
"Sounds like patrol is still
doing control work, they must be somewhere on the backside,"
I thought to myself as I began to get my camera out. Staying
focused on the task at hand, my next thought was, "This
would be a good angle to have Tim ski right to me this time."
I turned my head uphill to tell him this, but never got a word
out. Instead, my jaw dropped open in shock and awe. It was a
sight I will never forget as long as I will live: a wall of snow
10 feet high and some 100 feet wide rushing and rumbling down
the wide gully known as "P3," heading straight for
*Rob, a good friend and ski partner of ours who had just taken
a fall at the top of the wide apron below. He was still cleaning
out his goggles and gathering himself up as I shouted over to
him, "ROB, AVALANCHE!!"
Rob looked back over his shoulder,
saw what was happening and tried to get up and out of the way,
but the slide was moving much too fast and it was already nearly
upon him. In my last view of him, again, another sight that is
now burned permanently into my brain, Rob was about 50 feet down
and to my right, he was almost half way up on his skis, kind
of in a crouch, when that now 12 foot+ wall of snow hit him full
force. Instantly, Rob was swept away. I strained to catch a glimpse
of him in the maelstrom, hoping to have some idea where to look
for him once the slide stopped. It was useless, I saw nothing
but rushing snow below a kind of fog from the stirred up powder
floating in the air.
Then, as the slide spread out over
the apron and began to slow, about 1,000 feet down slope, I saw
a lone figure rising up out of the snow. The fog around him cleared
a bit and, miraculously it seemed, the figure was now skiing
on top of the still moving slide. "Wow, look at that, Rob
made it out on top, and he is even on his feet," I thought.
"Everything is going to be okay, thank God." I was
Then I turned back up the hill to
check in with Tim, waiting above. There was just one problem:
Big Tim wasn't there.
"Oh my God, where's Tim?"
I shouted down to *John, a fourth member of our party who was
not far below me, also out of the slide path. No answer. Extreme
panic began to set in. "Where's Tim? Anybody know?"
I shouted again, this time at the top of my lungs, voice becoming
shrill. Confusion had set in as John seemed to point over toward
P4, and I thought maybe he was indicating that Tim had gone around
and down the next shot over. I moved over to my left for a better
view, hoping against hope to see Tim skiing down. Nothing.
Turning back toward the deposition
zone I thought, "I need to organize a search right now,"
my heart sank as I considered for a moment just how I was going
to do this without transceivers, shovels or probes. It was the
worst feeling in the world. I can't even begin to describe the
awful feeling of helplessness, and the utter and complete despair
which was washing over me at that moment. Hoping for another
miracle, which was exactly what I thought it was going to take,
I shouted down to the two below, "Do you guys see any sign
"I'm right here," shouted
Tim with a wave. The fog had cleared enough for me to tell now
that the figure I had seen standing up out of the snow was indeed
Big Tim. Of course my relief was short lived, "So where's
Rob? Any idea?" Tim signaled that he had Rob in sight, another
hundred feet or so below his position. Skiing down to him, Tim
found Rob fully buried, except for most of his head and part
of one shoulder. As I skied down the chunky deposition zone,
Tim signaled that Rob was okay before returning to helping Rob
dig himself out.
The entire time, from the moment
I first saw the figure I thought was Rob and I turned to check
on Tim and saw that he wasn't there, to this point where I now
knew everyone was accounted for, probably wasn't more than one
minute. It seemed then like an eternity though, and it still
does, actually. As shocked and awed as I was by the avalanche
itself, and in seeing it sweep Rob away just yards from my position,
the truly horrific part of the experience was the immediate aftermath.
The confusion, and the nightmarish thought that my best friend
was buried in the snow, and that I had no realistic way to even
begin to find him, well, words fail me right now, except to say
that it was a feeling I wouldn't ever wish on even my worst enemy.
It was absolutely horrible.
Rob had lost one ski and both of
his poles, so we looked around for his missing equipment as he
sat there on the snow, dazed and in stunned silence. Suddenly
we heard a shout from above and looked up to see yet another
wall of snow coming down from above. A skier shot out to looker's
right, letting out a yell that sounded much more like a howl
of fear than a whoop of excitement. Some others who had gathered
around us down low scattered, but this second avy lost steam
quickly, most of the loose snow having already come down in the
first slide. We decided at that point to cut the gear search
short, it was time to get the hell out of Dodge.
After getting the badly shaken Rob
up onto his one remaining ski, we gave him a couple of our poles
and began the long, slow slog back to the main lodge. I found
myself shivering at every stop as we waited for Rob to pick himself
up from his latest one-ski spin out, but it wasn't really all
When an account of an avalanche
incident is made public, the natural reaction from those who
weren't there is to look for mistakes, errors in judgment and
signs missed. We want to believe that our level of safety while
skiing fresh powder on the steeps can be significantly enhanced
to the point that it becomes manageable within our own individual
tolerance for risk, so it's comforting to consider what could
or should have been done differently in the hope of avoiding a similar
Conversely, it's unsettling to consider
the role luck plays in all of this, especially after a serious
slide with actual or potentially awful consequences. And make
no mistake, this was a serious avalanche.
One of our regular crew, mountain
guide and avalanche course instructor Lee Frees, went out to
the scene the next day and reported that the crown was approximately
40 inches high and that the initial slab which triggered the
slide was about 80 X 80 feet in size. The avalanche covered about
1,500 vertical feet and ran about 2,500 feet across the underlying
Rob says that he immediately began
cart-wheeling, twisting and turning within the slide, and that
his throat soon filled up with snow. He added that as things
began to slow down, he tried to get a hand up to his mouth to
create an air pocket, but that he could not raise his arms up
against the force of the snow. Rob was convinced that he was
going to die.
Big Tim reports that the avalanche
broke 5 to 10 feet above where he was standing, and that he briefly
tried to ski out of it before being pulled down onto his back.
He says that at its deepest part, before the snow spread out
onto the apron, the sensation was that of swimming on his back
down a river of rapids.
A = Big Tim, B = the author,
C = "Rob," D = "John." After the slide, A2
= Big Tim, C2 = "Rob."
Tim fought to keep his skis out
in front of him, paddling with his arms, but at one point, indicating
the depth of this river of snow, he says his body was pretty
much vertical, with the snow up to his chin, and he was floating,
with nothing under his skis (which stayed on). Struggling to
stay focused on remaing afloat, Tim was very much worried that
he was going to get sucked down into the maw of the slide and
suffocate. As the snow spread out, Tim felt the "ground"
(or base snow) come back up under his skis, and it was at this
point that he was able to start to get back up and ride out the
remaining slide atop his boards.
With the size and unexpected nature
of this avalanche in mind, it comes as no surprise that even
those of us who were there are second-guessing ourselves. I've
asked myself time and again if I missed something, some important
stability clue that went unnoticed. Once I get past the basic
fact that we were skiing at all on 3 feet of new snow over a
frozen rock and dirt base (far, far from the first time and likely
not to be the last), the answer always comes up no. I don't think
I did. Despite the intermittent sunshine, the temperature had
remained cold and the snow had not changed much from earlier
in the morning, something that is often a concern when the sun
comes out after a big storm in our part of the world. We found
out later that the head patroller in charge that day had also
skied P3 in between our first and second runs, because, as he
put it, "I knew that's where the best snow would be."
Rob has been particularly hard on
himself, stating repeatedly in a private written account he put
together, and in subsequent email exchanges, that "the bottom
line is, knowing better, I stopped in an avalanche path."
I had to remind him that he didn't choose to stop where he did,
he fell. And unfortunately, the spot in which he fell happened
to be directly below Big Tim, who had skied out of the gully
and onto a low ridge that ran from top to bottom. This ridge
was a relatively safe spot for Tim to wait quietly, in that if
a slab did happen to rip out, Tim would be at the top of the
slide (which is exactly what happened), but it was not a good
spot for anyone who, for whatever reason, might find themselves
In retrospect, Rob should have gotten
up as quickly as possible after his fall and moved to the side,
out of the mouth of the gully. And the rest of us should have
encouraged him to do so, but we were being considerably less
than fully backcountry-like vigilant. It was our second time
through the same shot, inbounds, on an open run,
and on an avy controlled slope (I noted at least two bomb holes).
This brings up an important point, and the reason we have decided
to go public with this account, despite knowing full well that
we will likely fall under the withering criticism of the internet
kind: as a result of this experience, we have decided to modify
our approach to inbounds powder days. In the future we will carry
our full complement of avy gear in our Avalung equipped backpacks,
and we will pay far more attention to our own stability assessments,
as well as adhere closely to the basic protocols of safe travel
in avalanche country. In short, we are going to ski inbounds
powder as prepared and with the same attention to avoidance as
we currently do in the backcountry.
I'm sure there will be many who
will read this last statement and their first thought will be,
"well, duh." Especially those based in Europe and other
areas outside of North America. But here in the U.S. and Canada,
skiing and riding in an avalanche aware manner is generally not
the way things are done at the resorts, and for a very good reason:
the risk of being killed in an inbounds avalanche on controlled,
open terrain here has been, at best, statistically miniscule.
In 2005, a skier was killed in such
a situation at A-Basin in Colorado, and yet it was the first
time in 30 years that this had occurred in the state where more
than one third of all U.S. avalanches take place. Even more worth
noting is the recent study, "Risk Trends at U.S. and British
Columbia Ski Areas," by Paul Baugher of the Northwest Avalanche
Institute. According to Baugher, there were just 4 inbounds avalanche
fatalities on slopes designated open at North American resorts
in the 16 years covered by the study, ending with the 2005/2006
season. Three of these took place in the U.S., and one in Canada.
For U.S. skiers, that works out to somewhere in the neighborhood
of 1 inbounds avalanche fatality per 300 million skier days.
Is it any wonder that North American
resort skiers have come to take inbounds avalanche awareness
and safety for granted? Still, at the same time that we and others
elsewhere have noticed an apparent increase in post-control inbounds
avalanches, more and more skiers and snowboarders are pushing
out to the edges of the resorts in search of untracked powder,
especially when conditions in the backcountry are sketchy.
For us, the takeaway here is that
the supposedly homogenized and pacified North American resort
powder day experience is anything but, and those that would try
to convince us otherwise, from the marketers to the backcountry
elitists, aren't doing anyone any favors. Things are never gonna
be the same. Our days of romping around, feeling nearly carefree
in steep powder at the area are over for good. And yet we can't
help but feel that for those of us who crossover from backcountry
to area skiing, knowing this is not necessarily a bad thing,
it's simply an opportunity and a challenge to stay sharp, and
to be prepared on each and every powder day, no matter the venue.
*Out of consideration
for the personal privacy of our friends, their names have been
changed in this account.