Dragon’s live under the hills. Address them properly and they’ll tell you all they know. Ask them the wrong questions and they’ll burn you up. — Fredric Lehman
We are imperfect beings. No matter what you know or how you operate 95% of your life, you’re not a perfect person. Sometimes those imperfections have big consequences. – Mary Yates
I wanted to start this post with a great quote that hasn’t previously been used for a write-up about an avalanche. Not being able to come up with anything great, I referred to Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain as I know Bruce has a world of quotes he uses when talking about snow and avalanches. So, thanks to Bruce for the 2 quotes above.
This may be one of the most difficult blogs I have ever written even though it is on one of my favorite topics to talk about — snow and avalanches. It is difficult to write about an accident our group had on January 12 and to try to shed some light on why this happened and identify the mistakes we made.
To get the good news out first, our avalanche accident did not result in any injuries so we are extremely lucky. Family and friends who already think the backcountry is dangerous, please do not read on.
The entire details of the weather leading up to our accident and the analysis performed by Drew Hardesty when Andy, Emily, and I went back to the avalanche location with him the following day can be found on the UAC avalanche page.
On Friday night, we had a party of 6 (Chad, Emily, Evan, Andy, Nick, and Gemma) who had planned a touring day on Saturday. The Wasatch had experienced an odd storm that brought more snow to the mid elevations than higher up. We thought Porter Fork would be a great location as it should have received significant snowfall and had some safe areas to ski. On Saturday morning, we visited with several friends at the park and ride. Three of them had skied Porter Fork the prior morning and said the snow was too deep on the less steep aspects to turn and we all knew the steeper aspects were not safe. We had a quick discussion and decided that Alexander Basin would be a great location to ski. This would be a little bit higher up than Porter Fork and therefore should have a little bit less snow making the lower angle terrain enjoyable to ski and there were lots of options in that area.
We drove up Mill Creek on the unplowed roads and reached the Bowman Fork Trailhead. We donned skis and skins and started to break trail. After about 90 minutes we stopped for a quick snack and 2 groups of about 12 skiers passed us. This was a huge surprise to us as this area usually would not see that many skiers due to the long approach. After about 30 minutes the 2 groups split and we followed a group of 4 up to Yellow Jacket. We had a few short discussions with them about where they were skiing so that we could go to different places to avoid feeling ‘crowded’. They were going to ski something in the vicinity of Toots to Boot and over to Wilson Glade. We didn’t have an exact plan, but thought we would ski a run in Yellow Jacket, and determine our day by the safety of the snow pack. The ~3,600’ climb up to the ridge between Yellow Jacket and Alexander Basin took us only about 2.5 hours which we felt was good time based on the deep trail breaking. At the top of Alexander Basin, we had low light and poor visibility due to the snow still falling. We looked into Alexander Basin commenting on that being a nice line to ski a second run if the snow felt good on our first run. Due to limited visibility and not being as familiar with this area as other areas of the Wasatch, we didn’t realize that we were at the top of Depth Hoar Bowl which had slid the day before. We made a run into Yellow Jacket all commenting at the bottom how the low angle slope was not steep enough to make turns in due to the deep snow.
Evan skiing powder on our first run in Yellow Jacket
When we reached the ridge the second time, our group had a thorough discussion about if we should ski the line below us into Alexander Basin or not. We all agreed that we would not ski higher up the ridge as it was steeper and too risky. We talked about the potential to ski 1 line a few feet further up the ridge, but also discounted this. In my opinion, this is where we made our mistake, we didn’t know that this was Depth Hoar Bowl and that it was the location of the Friday slide. We all discussed that this was at the steeper end of our comfort level based on the avalanche forecast that day, but we felt this could be safely skied by slope cutting, moving into a couple groups of trees, then skiing into a safe zone at the bottom. We had some discussion and all agreed that if we were alone, we would never consider skiing this line, but in a group we felt more safe as we had the ability to watch each other and in the worst case scenario, help out.
Andy skied first. He dropped in, did a hand pit, was surprised to find only 6” of snow on the surface, then continued on cautiously. Once past the last group of trees he realized he was skiing bed surface from a previous avalanche. Emily skied second following Andy’s line closely. They met at our island of safety and both commented on having skied over debris from a previous slide.
Evan skied third. He dropped in, made a couple turns and fell (most likely from hitting a chunk of debris). He then cut right towards Andy and Emily’s tracks. Realizing he was in debris, he cut further right into fresh snow. After descending about 2/3 of the slope, he was overtaken by a powder cloud. He at first thought Nick or myself had dropped in on top of him and had passed him (as a note, our group would never drop in on top of each other). He had started the run with his Avalung in his mouth, but after descending just over ½ of the slope onto a lower angle slope, he had removed it. He was then hit from behind by the avalanche. As he was pushed head first down the slope, he fought and swam and tried unsuccessfully to get his Avalung back in. While this was occurring, Andy and Emily also realized there was an avalanche as the snow and powder cloud passed by them.
Looking up at the slide path. The crown is just below the trees. Evan was caught at the X and buried at the O
Emily and Andy quickly got into the rescue mode mentality making sure they slope looked safe, calling out to Evan, and going through their mental checklist of what they would need to do (get their beacon into search, getting their shovel and probe out, etc). When the snow stopped, they carefully edged out of the trees towards the debris. By time, Evan had his hand out of the snow, had cleared snow from his head, and was yelling for them. This was an immediate and major relief for Andy and Emily as they knew it would make for a faster rescue since his head was out of the snow and he had an airway. While this was going on, at the top, Nick and I had decided to ski a line to skiers left. Since this was a difference avalanche path, Nick dropped in when Evan was about half way down and prior to the slide. Realizing there was a slide, I told Gemma I was going down as fast as possible and for her to wait there until she saw me at the bottom. I dropped in, not know for sure where the crown was and followed as close as possible to Andy and Emily’s tracks. As I was descending, Andy thought it would be faster to take his skis off and walk up what we all assumed to be rock hard avalanche debris. He quickly realized it was a soft slab as he post holed up the hill. Emily kept her skis on and side stepped up. They both were able to yell to Nick who also started to descend to them. All 4 of us arrived within a few seconds of one another. Nick start to dig with his hands to get a better air pocket for Evan and look into the source of the blood on the snow next to his head. Andy and I got our shovels out and started to dig. Based on the position of his head, we thought he was buried standing up. We were lucky that he was actually horizontal so no part of his body was more than 2’ deep. As we completed digging Evan out, Gemma arrived safely at the bottom after having fallen on her descent.
Digging Evan out. He was not as deep as it looked as he was laying sideways
We were able to confirm that Evan was not injured and had only lost his poles. We all started to put skins back on to ascend the debris and investigate the crown when we heard and felt the loudest collapse any of us had experienced. The collapse was large enough that Gemma who was standing on the edge of the debris dropped 2’ into the snow. As quickly as possible we all headed down slope through the debris to get out of any future harms way. We found a safe area just down slope to dig a pit to analyze the snow that had just cause this slide.
Snow Profile from a pit we dug just below the toe of the slide
We were all amazed at the snow pit results. The layer that broke was not very reactive and had we dug this pit at the top with the same result, we all felt we would have felt it was safe to ski the line.
Shaken up from the events, we all decided it was best to take the most direct route back to the car and call it a day. The descent from Alexander Basin is long (~5 miles) so we knew it would take us quite a while to get out (it took about 1.5 hours). We got to the car and decided it would be good to get a beer and submit the avalanche/accident report to the UAC together and it would also give us a chance to debrief. We spent a lot of time discussing the accident and all agreed that our largest mistake was not knowing that we were on top of a slide from the previous day. Having said that, skiing 1 day old debris is typically a safe descent route since it would be a rarity to trigger another deeper slide. We feel our slide was probably caused when we ventured off of the old slide surface and triggered adjacent weak snow that had not slide the day before.
On Sunday, Andy, Emily and I went back to the scene with Drew from the UAC. We spent most of the day discussing the accident and the events that lead up to it as well as looking in detail at the slide crown. The photo below was our first view of the slide and it wasn’t until then that we realized it was much larger than we had initially thought (due to the poor visibility on Saturday). The crown was only slightly larger (we estimated 16” and it ranged from 11”-22”). We were also able to get a look at the slide from the previous day. Here is a good annotation from Drew of the 2 slides.
Slide patch from the ridge
Drew examining the crown
Crown from the slide adjacent to our’s from December 11
The biggest thing that surprised us on Sunday were the additional tracks right next to our slide path. These tracks were both on slopes that we had decided were far steeper than we were comfortable skiing. The slide to the lookers left of ours could have either been sympathetic or triggered by one of these 2 groups.
Tracks (circled in red) directly next to and just upslope from our slide. Both slopes were steeper than what we skied and were skied the same day.
Since Saturday, we have all spent a lot of time talking and thinking about the accident. We have tried to determine if we made any huge errors and we do feel that our 2 biggest errors were in not knowing we were at Depth Hoar Bowl (Alexander Basin is a huge area and confusion of terrain in this area has been the cause of numerous accidents in the past) and that even through we knew there was weak snow beneath the new snow we thought we could find a safe descent route We also felt that we may have been clouded by the very stable snow we all skied for 2.5 weeks over Christmas. We were happy that we felt like we didn’t fall into any of the common heuristic traps (familiarity, acceptance, commitment, expert halo, tracks/scarcity, social facilitation). We went into the day with no agenda, just interested in skiing safely. Of our party of 6, only 1 person had been involved in a prior accident. With over 60 years of combined backcountry experience, we are lucky for this to have been our first accident and we all hope that we will take the lessons from this and not have another accident. It is very important to us to keep the friends we ski with and ourselves safe as we consider our friends are our family.
Summary of lessons learned
- Take extra time to know the names of the slopes you are on. In the past this has been difficult as there was not a single resource to find this. With the new Wasatch Backcountry Skiing Map, this is now possible.
- As our backcountry skills get higher, we venture onto terrain that has the potential to pose a higher risk. As Evan stated, ‘We didn’t see the forest for the trees.’ We knew there were dangers and thought we could safely pick a route down. This almost worked. As a group, in the future we will be looking more closely at our risk acceptance.
- Don’t let fall into the trap of thinking things are safer than they are based on pre-storm conditions. If the pre-storm snow is stable, it does not mean the post storm snow is. On the other side of this, if the pre-storm snow is unstable, the post storm snow will likely be more unstable.
Please feel free to comment on this blog if you want, but please keep comments constructive.