Soon we had crossed Meadow Lake and began traversing eastward up the slope on the backside of the lake. The snow was firm, supportive and showed no signs of stress as we skinned slowly on its surface. Eyes open, and ears tuned in, but we could not locate any bulls eye data; no shooting cracks, no collapsing, and no recent signs of avalanche activity on any of the slopes around us. This information, along with personal feelings of the situation were being constantly voiced as we moved upward.
Booting up the arpon. Turbo shooting video. A frozen meadow lake below.
Soon, the angle became steep enough and the snow firm enough that we switched from skinning to boot packing upward toward the entrance of the couloir. Rick and I lead on while Mark retrieved his rogue ski. Turbo held back a bit to shoot some video as we pushed upward. Near the mouth of the couloir, soft snow deepened to 10″ to 12″. I dug into the snowpack and preformed several quick stability tests which furthered our comfort level with the snowpack we were experiencing combined with the absent signs of instability around us. I repeated this process a couple more times as we continued upward.
As our group of four moved up the climbers right side of the couloir, communication about our surroundings, the snow and each of our comfort levels were a constant buzz in the air. This informative information exchange is a staple travel habit that we have fostered together in our quest to do things right and not push each other beyond comfort zones or miss any possible signs hiding from a single pair of eyes. All of us felt the comfort of a green light and continued upward, constantly paying attention to the snow underfoot and around us; sharing observations as soon as they registered.
High into the couloir, Turbo took the lead and i followed closely behind while Rick stopped just to our right with Mark a few body lengths below. Quickly Turbo realized the snow had change. He stopped his upward progress and looked a bit closer, realizing he just crossed into a layer of wind transported, denser, snow. I looked up at the few boot tracks separating us and could see a 1″ to 2″ soft wind slab over top of soft snow outlining his footprints. Up to this point the snow was composed of a light to increasingly more dense with depth constancy and showed no signs of instability despite the angle being 40 degrees or better.
In hopes of quickly collecting more data i reached out to my left and felt the snow. It was soft and void of the layer Turbo had just encountered. I stepped left toward the interior of the couloir and felt left again only finding soft snow. Thinking that Turbo’s slab might be isolated to the right edge of the couloir i stepped left a third time, feeling the same thing to my left again, i then reached above me and felt the bottom edge of the the slab; again about 2″ thick above soft snow. I started to say… “yes, it’s over here too.” but before i could finish, a loud “WHOA…” rang out from Turbo, just above me and to my right.
That WHOA had only one tone… the ohh shit tone.
Within that same split second i was airborne from the thrust of heavy snow into my chest and face. I caught a glimpse of Turbo and Rick out of the corner of my right eye before i cartwheeled around and on to my feet; hoping to leap to the left edge of the slide. But my leap was met with another big push of snow; knocking me into another spin. On my back and with my head down hill i looked up at Rick and Turbo as i quickly sped downhill and away from them. In another instant i remember passing Mark.
Realizing i was in a bad position and thinking i was grateful to be wearing my helmet as i accelerated head first down hill in that turbulent wave of white, i tried to right myself which resulted in one or two violent back flips landing me on my back with my head down hill again. One last glace upward as i was carried further down the couloir and around the corner… out of sight from my companions.
Quickly the weight across my body and the dimming light took hold. Conscious of what was happening, i thought to myself… “don’t panic. don’t panic. i know they will get to me quickly.” It’s difficult to explain the calmness that came over me at that moment, knowing that my best mates are prepared and practiced for what will surely come next.
Chocking on snow and the fear of suffocation startled me into bringing my arms in front of my face and creating an air pocket. That motion seemed to raise me up; registering that i was still moving down hill and fast. The earlier clarity of my mates and not panicking along with the pressure of snow over my body had slowed the event to a crawl, but this new information slapped me in the face and sped up time again. I fought hard to stay on top of the snow but i could tell that my skis which were strapped to my pack in a diagonal carry, anchored me down. Quickly i tried to scuttle my pack and at that moment (still on my back, head down hill) the tips of my skis either dug into the bed surface or caught on a rock which catapulted me into the air while ripping the skis from my pack at the same time.
Free from my anchor and floating on the surface, i was able to tumble, roll, and jump toward the left flank of the slide path, landing again on my back with my head down hill. (I wonder if my head weighs more than the rest of my body??). As i slowed to a stop, i quickly sat up and rolled out of the debris, looking up hill to see if i needed to escape further left to avoid anymore sliding snow. Realizing i was safe for the moment, i did a quick survey of my body as the slide continued down its path skiers right of me, reaching Meadow Lake another 300 vertical feet from my stopping point. My quick body survey reveled i was functioning properly and i turned toward the slide path to scan the scene for my companions. With nothing visible other than my own ski stuck in the snow up hill of my location, i started moving up the slope knowing my mates would be moving down the couloir as soon as they were able to try and get a visual of me.
What felt like many seconds of time, Mark soon appeared at the mouth of the couloir, covered in snow from being tumbled a few times. I waved up to him, yelling that i was okay. He waved and shouted they were all okay. Relief for all.
We collected my lost gear and skied to the other side of the lake, well away from any hazard… other than the possibility of falling through the ice (which is my biggest fear in the world. I’d rather get caught in an avalanche).
Talking with Turbo and Rick it sounds like the slab of snow propagate 50′ to 60′ feet above us in the couloir with a crown of what looked like 24″. The slide ran for nearly 1,000 vertical feet in which i was part of it for 600′ to 700′.
Many concepts that i already value have been heavily reinforced by this experience. The right partners are critical. Education is a must. Helmets for skiing are REALLY COOL. I already knew this about helmets but when you are on your back with your head down hill traveling fast toward exposed rocks that you know are peppering the slope below… helmets for skiing are REALLY COOL! Triggering and/or being part of any sort of avalanche either big or small is NOT COOL. Respect. Respect. Respect.
Despite our attempts to mitigate the hazards of ski mountaineering by using our knowledge and assessment skills and making valid decisions based on collected data, there are still variability’s out there lurking in the shadows. For me, it’s a lot easier to accept what happened knowing we were doing everything in our collective power to avoid this very thing rather than if we had walked into it blindly, uneducated, and/or ignorant of what could happen. I do not know everything or claim to know everything about avalanche safety, but i do my best to get informed, further my education and understanding in order to make safe decisions with the soul purpose of returning home safely along with my companions.
Also, the simple fact that your life depends on people with the knowledge of fast and effective rescue skills. It makes no sense traveling in an environment filled with hazards with out the practiced skills and knowledge to rescue one another. In my moment of deep despair, i found comfort in knowing my companions are well skilled in avalanche rescue and first aid.
I am humbled and embarrassed by the situation. Humbled knowing i am part of a close group of friends who trust each other. Embarrassed that i unintentionally triggered and was caught in an avalanche. I am an advocate of safety and it stings a bit knowing i was the victim of an avalanche and put my best friends in jeopardy.
Despite doing our very best to avoid being caught in an avalanche, we still got nailed. Do your best to educate yourselves and try even harder to make prudent decisions in the backcountry. Travel with the right people, the right rescue equipment and an arsenal of information to use for decision making. Even with all of this, bad things can happen. Trust me, you will feel better knowing you did your very best to avoid it rather than feeling guilty for not doing enough.