Friday, December 3, 2010

The Great White Tumbler

Pre Season Tour

Last Sunday I was “pre-season” touring at the Combe du Grand Cret in the Aravis mountain range with my ski buddy Skadi (my dog). This was supposed to be one of those solo conditioning tours getting fit and ready for the thick of the season to come. This was also my very first tour in the Aravis range and I was excited to get to explore this touring rich area. Up until now I had only been focusing on the Mt Blanc range around Chamonix with its, so far, very sparse snow cover making you almost wish for an avalanche risk of some sort which would imply some level of snow cover. The only avy report available was one for our entire area that dated from the 25th (three days old by the time of my tour) that said “moderate” avalanche risk. In any case I get myself to La Clusaz, the closest resort and I park at the furthermost parking lot.

The Up Track
I start skinning at 4,700 feet aiming for Tête Pelouse at 8,320 feet. The first thing I noticed, is that this thing was in its first part a lot steeper than I gathered from the guide book I had read, and also that we here had more snow than in Chamonix which was a bit of a surprise to me. As I get up the mountain on a track cut by two guys quite a bit up ahead, and a third halfway between me and them, it keeps getting steeper and the snow pack is made of a crust about two to four inches deep with two feet and a half of crisp, light powder under. This was at an elevation of about 5,500 feet a lot more snow than I had experienced in Cham just days before. Using my pole I can feel that the pack is a bit upside down with softer snow starting about a foot under the surface. Now I start getting a bit nervous, the skin track was solidly in the 35 degree range and the snowpack felt like it had a potential for some instability although I get no cracks nor any naturals in sight. I still get my Avalung out, fit it to my mouth and test it then leave it there just in case. I am now almost two thirds up the mountain and I know that soon I am getting into a traverse on pretty level ground so I keep going rather than turn around as I have reasons to believe that the snowpack on the far right side of the gully is less wind affected. I can now see three more people this time below me on the track. On one of my last conversions up I hear a woompf which I absolutely hate… In any case I am now on my traverse and breath a lot better, the terrain feels really flat and safe and I am moving towards the right of the gully where I will leisurely make the safest decision between continuing up if the conditions are different and good enough or just ski down from there in the light (as in not wind affected) powder to the bottom. The snow pack is now 3 – 4 feet deep depending on the spot which is a lot more than Cham and that’s remarkable to me considering this is lower elevation. But the terrain being so benign I now get to enjoythe views and the feel of this gully and I take a fair amount of pictures as I am trying to learn this, to me, new environment.

Suddenly, I hear a thundering “CRACK” and everything under me and around me is in motion and accelerates at an amazing rate. I immediately realize what’s going on and the first thing I do after going No! No! No! is to try to kick off my skis but just can’t do it (gave it a second or so). My next objective is to stay standing up as long as I can (that worked for about quarter of a second), finally I just decide I am going to swim furiously to try and ride this thing as high as I ever can although it is pulling me down hard. I go under and swim very frantically and hard to get back up. Once up I try to leverage the larger chunks of snow hitting them hard to pull myself up as much as I can and stay there as long as possible. Everything is moving at really high speed now. I get dragged down under again, and again I swim with all the rage I can muster and once more get back up, hit the big chunks and feel myself getting dragged down again but now I feel the movement slowing down a little, I swim, thrust and kick hard to the surface as I feel the snow closing in on me while squeezing irremediably harder, snow is now getting around my moth and nose and it is getting hard to breath just before the snow comes to a complete stop.

The Outcome
The verdict? I am immobilized with part of my face and almost 80% of my right arm outside; everything else is in a non-negotiable vice. I spit and blow to get the snow out of my mouth and nose and with a lot of relief take a deep breath. From there on I worked on trying to stay calm and focused. I felt a needed to get out of here fast because I knew I could not afford a second slide given my position (I couldn’t turn my head so there was no peeking up slope to see if there was any danger of that or not). The only objective was now to dig fast. Well that was a lot easier said than done. I found out that it is very awkward to dig with one arm sticking straight out and away from the snow. I was also feeling a lot of pain in my right leg and left shoulder as my position was one of a contorted corkscrew but with my skis still attached to my boots in a 190 degree angle where the right leg took “the extra 10 degrees”. My left shoulder was twisted in the opposite direction of my extra-10-degrees-right-foot. My left arm was in the vice stuck far up behind my back. Overall not your most comfortable tequila-drinking-lounging-on–the-beach position. I couldn’t even move the fingers of my left arm. I kept scratching as best as I could with my free hand till I finally was able to dig out my entire head, then my upper body and finally I was able to free my left arm (count 10 min.). That was a moment of some relief since freeing my left shoulder freed half the torsion on my right leg (the rest being due to both legs being at a 180 degrees plus angle). Now I was able to lean forward, get my back pack up over my head and get my shovel out so I could in no more than two or three minutes dig out my legs and finally, with the shovel, hit my Dynafit toe piece. That felt really good. I then digged out the other leg. From the slide stopping till now I would say about 14 – 16 min passed. Now I hear a voice from above asking me if this is an exercise or if I need help? I go “WHAT EXERCISE!!!” and indicate some help would indeed be welcome, and the guy asks if I am hurt, I look at my right foot and it looks as if it is in an unnatural alignment situation so I tell him “given the alignment my leg could be broken but the pain doesn’t seem severe enough so I guess I got a bad ankle twist”. In short order another three guys come over and with Skadi’s help find almost all my gear spread below me all over the slope. I get into some hyperthermic situation (shock?) and am very glad to have my down jacket in my pack, it heats me back up in 30 sec or so.

Two really nice guys decide to escort me down on my ski-out about 2,000 feet down. Another not really comfortable experience. I get to my car, drive to Annecy, Jana gets me to the hospital and I check out 48 hours later with a cast covering a plate and six screws on my fibula… FINALLY OVER! With a little luck I am back on my skis somewhere between mid to end of January.

Was I scared?
Naaah, of course not! Well, maybe a little. Actually quite a bit when I heard the BIG CRACK! That was the moment of realization that I was in some potentially really big trouble. It was quite freaky but I was so busy trying to figure out how to get out of it and taking the correct action that this fear lasted almost no time at all. The second moment of fear (terror?) was when I felt the snow closing in on me and breathing became an issue. That was by far the scariest moment and that one lasted several seconds, the time to spit out snow, starting to breathe better and finally realizing everything stood still. Paradoxically enough, this was also the moment of the highest relief through the whole incident as now knew this was a partial burrial. The third moment of fear, but this one lesser than the two prior, was the worry about a potential second slide but that one felt more remote. After that it was all work anyway so neither room nor time to feel any more fear.

Now what?
The trick now is to try to learn the (right) lesson(s) from this incident. For starters how about don’t tour alone in an area you don’t know and don’t have a fresh avy report for? OK, that’s a start.
I do replay this in my head every now and then partially because this broke on a slope that at its steepest but also smallest part is probably no more than 27-28 degrees and then (where I was) less than 20-25 (see pictures below). This was not the kind of slope where, as a group, we would have decided to go only one person at a time.
I think it must have been a perfect storm” combination of loose, very dry snow and a lot more wind on elevation than expected. I did notice that just before everything went to hell there was an upwind (more like a draft really) blowing on me so it could be that this was a bit of a wind tunnel kinda spot?
We all know that the safest routes are on ridge tops, looking at the pictures below maybe I should have gotten off the cut track and up and around? You do want to stay high and near the top if you must cross dangerous slopes or avalanche path however I completely failed to identify this spot as a dangerous slope.

Obviously there are a ton of factors that can contribute to avalanche conditions and the possible combinations of factors are endless. This clearly makes the forecasting of a possible avalanche somewhat tricky (trying to stay modest here). One thing I don’t like here is the fact that an environment that seems so benign can yield a not insignificant slide, what is that supposed to do for future assessments?

Your comments are welcome as I would love to get as many perspectives on this as possible to turn this into as effective a learning experience as ever possible.

Here are the pictures, (the crown is about 450 – 500 feet wide, up to 2 feet high and the total slide is on or about 1,000 feet) click to enlarge:
Here is part of the crown:
Here is a view of most of the slide with notes:
...and the would be sarcophagus:


  1. for the first second I couldn't say what I would have make different - maybe not go on a skitour without a buddy which could digg me out ..
    thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Wow - what an experience! Glad you're okay (except for the cast...) This will definitely make me pay more attention next time I'm on a similar slope. Do you know what type of layer it slid on? Did you try to get the avalung in your mouth?