I once had a good friend remind me, when events didn’t turn out as I planned… “Sometimes you eat the bear…and sometimes the bear eats you”. Ya, today was a “bear eats you” day!
Today’s list is rather long… from the mundane; forgetting my tea mug in the garage as I was loading into Rick’s rig… to the annoying; icy roads north of Mud Lake and getting one of the snowmobiles bogged down on the ride in…to the distracted; forgetting to turn my beacon on as we started uphill, Mark losing a ski that sailed down to the bottom of the slope…to the consequential; setting off a wind slab avalanche that swept 3 of the 4 of us 10s to 100s of feet downslope.
Mark, Dean, Rick and I ‘biled from Gilmore Ghost Town to Meadow Lake in the Lemhis. The winds were vigorous on the ridgetops and blasted us intermittently as we crossed the lake and ascended towards a couloir on the NE side of Gilmore Pk. The snow up to and into the lower 2/3rds of the couloir was firm and we transitioned from skinning to booting, continuing up. We all felt comfortable with the snows stability.
We were within 100 feet of the top of the couloir with me in the lead on the right side of the couloir and Dean, slightly below and to my left; we both became aware that we had crossed into the lower edge of a wind slab lying over softer snow and just as the thought formed that we should stop and evaluate this change, the slab triggered.
As I started sliding down, I twisted to my right to plunge my pole picks into the firm snow but was knocked back again by a block of snow. I was able to plunge again to my right in another 10 to 20 feet and stop my slide. Rick was slightly higher on the couloir side and was able to step above the sliding mass.
Meanwhile, Mark, below me, and Dean in the couloir, were swept along by the sliding slab, tipped backwards and tumbled by the snow. Mark came to rest 50 to 100 feet below when his skis, still strapped on his pack, plunged into the surface and arrested his fall.
Dean was tossed and turned for several hundred feet, hampered from getting to the side of the slide by his skis on his pack; when they finally broke loose he was able to fight to the edge of the slide…shaken…bruised but all in one piece and on top! One of his skis stayed near him, Mark found the other later, on the frozen lake!
I won’t presume to speak for Mark, Dean or Rick but I felt we were using appropriate judgement as we progressed up. We knew to be watching for wind slab, we looked for signs of instability, and we found it but it reacted almost as soon as we encountered it. In my mind, an analogy might be: driving a highway at prudent speed, watching the road, wearing a seatbelt and a deer leaps from the roadside brush.
This incident hasn’t dissuaded me from seeking backcountry turns but it does remind me that this endeavour is fraught with risk. Risk that can be tempered with applied knowledge and sound judgement but cannot be eliminated.
I was profoundly thankful to be with Dean, Mark and Rick; as the event unfolded, there was never a moment I doubted their abilities.