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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Avalanche off of Peak 9924 in the Wasatch


Close call at then end of a long day out

"A few inches more or less and we were talking dead people". Those were Mike Florance’s words shortly after his avalanche ride. Having experienced my own close call three years ago (for that post click here) I know exactly how intensely you can feel when contemplating that very real possibility. 

On February 2nd, 2013 Mike and three buddies were out on one of several hundreds of tours in the Wasatch back country. They triggered an avalanche with a 3 - 4 feet crown, that dropped 2,000 feet and was 200 feet wide. Mike got caught, partially buried, got his knee broken and a smattering of less significant injuries. Mike is not only an experienced skier, he has hundreds of bc days under his belt and he takes avy risk very seriously and has a deep understanding of risk assessment and the procedures involved. Below, In his report you will find an analysis far more detailed than most official avalanche reports. 

There are always several poor decisions leading up to getting caught in an avalanche, rarely do we have the satisfaction to be able to point to that one single predictable factor as the culprit. Avalanches are messy and capricious and anything but an exact science; even experienced avalanche forecasters get caught. Although there are always several poor decisions leading up to getting caught in an avalanche, you can just as well make all those bad decisions repeatedly and not get caught. What I am trying to point out is that these things are just not predictable and the chances of getting caught just increase proprtionately with the numbers of outings we do. As simple as that. The way I look at it; it's not if we are going to get caught, but when. Knowing this and understanding that these beasts aren't predictable my sole remaining objective is to try to make sure that my next encounters are not lethal ones. I focus my procedures, terrain choices, selection of safety equipment etc. solely with this objective in mind: Making "my" next avalanche a non-lethal one to me or to my ski buddies. Is that the best way to go? With the characteristic unpredictability of avalanches, the future may or may not tell...

Here is a Google map of the area and spread of the avalanche:
So here, for my hundredth posting on this blog, is Mike's detailed analysis of what happened that day (for more pictures click here).

Mike’s report:

Guys - thanks for expressions of concern, sending good vibes my way, etc.  Clearly, I have time on my hands, as you'll see by the length of this missive (even puts Scooter to shame).

My status is:  broken medial tibial plateau, although the break is not displaced enough to require surgery, plates, and screws; 6-8 weeks non-weight bearing on crutches.  Very good news.  Next week, when swelling subsides, doc will determine if my ACL is history.  I am very banged up on arms, legs, and lower back where I think I took brunt of snow blocks and moving trees.  Very sore in kidney area, but CT scan shows no damage to kidney or spleen.  Cuts on forehead are pretty deep.  Similar to how Don described his experience, kinda feel like I've had the shit beat out of me.

I've had a couple days to think about the events:

We had a typical, really good day in the backcountry during which we were aggressive, but paying attention, and generally made good decisions.  Once I was comfortable with the conditions on Bonkers, most of my focus was on "keeping up"...not red-lining, monitoring water/nutrition intake, figuring out how to do shorter laps, etc.  I wanted to ski a "southerly" aspect where I thought the sun may have softened the rime crust, which lead us to considering a Mill B exit.

At the top of 9924, I decided I wanted to do the Eeny, Meanie exit because I wanted to "learn" it and didn't really want to ski Big West again.  I was enjoying the absolutely perfect weather and view.  I was pleased that I have done about 8K of up track and still felt very strong.  (Thanks partly to y'all's mellow assault on Bonkers).

I did not think about the avy conditions of the pitch we were headed for.  I did not take into account that the aspect was true north and therefore different than our other lines.  Although the upper pitch immediately in view was not steeper than anything we had been skiing, I did not consider the cliffy, broken up terrain below.  Although Erich alerted us to a rock, about 20 meters below our transition, that damaged his ski, I did not correlate that to a dangerous, shallow snowpack.  I vaguely thought that my south aspect goal was gone, that the slope was fully in shade, and that the snowpack was changing temperature.  I did not initiate any discussion of the situation.  Don did call to buddy up, he and I, Erich and Scooter.

I heard/felt the whumpf on the 1st or 2nd turn after Erich's rock.  I saw the snow ripple in my left peripheral vision about 10 - 15 feet away and thought "no problem, I'll ski out that way".  In a nano second I was on my ass with skis pointed fall line; I was smashed by something big and hard. I was moving very fast instantly.  I tried to grab a smaller tree that was bent down slope but had no chance of holding on.  I remembered what Drew had told us and that Erich and Scooter were below and yelled "avalanche".  I thought, "oh, yeah my airbag", and went for the trigger, and then thought "it's going to be tricky to even grab it", because I was moving so fast and violently.  As I was focused on pulling the trigger, I mashed into a tree.  Instant stop.  A tree had snagged me.  Snow slammed into my back, up and over my shoulders, and then over my head.  I slammed my upper body backwards to get to the top.  I did think about Don telling us how hitting the tree had slowed him down, allowing the snow to pile up on him.  Never had any trouble breathing, but quickly, I noticed the snow showering over my shoulders was just faceted shit.......no more chunks.  And, it was slowing down.
Which allowed me to realize my knee hurt like crazy and I was immobilized.  I yelled out everyone's name and got response from Erich and Scooter.  I asked if they knew where Don was.  I looked up slope to see Don coming toward me and that the moving snow had stopped.  My right ski had gone on the left side of the tree while my upper body went on the right and then crumpled over the top of my right thigh.  I was able to shift my left leg a bit to take some of the pressure off the right knee. Don reached me.  We were able to muscle an uprooted tree that had wedged my boot against "my" tree. The root ball of that tree was on top of me and loose dirt covered my pants.  I knew my knee was injured.  One ski was buried with me, and I went mental about finding my other ski because I thought I could sideslip down.  I looked at my watch.  It was 3:40, I figured 2 hours before dark.  I flailed around digging with my shovel to find the second ski while Don went up slope to look for it. He returned and snapped me out of my useless shovelling effort.  Both my poles were missing.

Now I looked down to see that I was above a small cliff band and that there was no way I could make it on one ski, so I started to butt slip holding my ski.  I immediately realized the bed surface was very hard, lost traction and proceeded to tumble the 100 or so feet below the cliff band to near where E and S were, losing my ski and sunglasses in the process.  I believe my pole was there up against a tree.  Erich retrieved it, and Scooter recommended using the handle to jam into the bed surface for self arrest while he managed my single ski.  The pole self arrest technique was indispensable as a brake and rudder as I worked my way down.  I tried to move quickly and got way ahead of the other three.  I found my other ski in the middle of the slide path, lying upside down on top of the surface about 800 - 1000 feet down.  The slide path was full of steep gullies, roll overs, and small cliff bands that would have been no problem to negotiate on skis, but that were very tricky on my ass with one useless leg.  Scooter took my second ski.   Don began side slipping below me so that he could catch me when I lost control.  The slide went full distance, about 2000 feet.  When I was not concentrating on my own shit show of a descent, I could see that the path deep and wide, maybe a couple hundred meters in places.  There were several areas with uprooted trees.  I do not remember the terminal debris pile being very large.

When we reached the bottom of Mill B, we put my skis on with skins.  The snow shoe track was mercifully firm with soft edges to control my speed.  Don put his board on his back so that he could walk behind me.  We would link arms when the track became too steep and narrow for me to spill speed.  Erich went ahead to notify Richard who was waiting for us.  We were back to the car before 5:30, I believe.

Thoughts on the accident:
·  Yelling "Avalanche" may have prevented Erich and Scooter from being caught.
·  If Don had not been above me, it would have been some time for anyone below to reach me. In other words, if the last man is buried in steep/difficult terrain, many minutes will be lost just to get to him, even if he is "located" by beacon right away.
·  The corollary to this is that safe group travel protocol in this kind of terrain is largely a pipedream.  My sense is that the slide broke pretty wide, pretty quickly.  Getting the first skiers off to the side would require a level of caution probably not available to us.  To maintain that level of caution for the full 2000 foot descent would be even more unlikely.
·  I have 2 solid gashes in my forehead.  That fact, and that I could have hit that tree head first, leads me to consider wearing a helmet.
·  If my leg had been more seriously broken, e.g. compound, or if I had been knocked unconscious, or if I had sustained other more serious injury, the "rescue" stage of our outing would have taken on a very different flavor.  I carry a very simple first aid kit.
·  It was fortunate that Don was able to manhandle me on the exit.  If the big guy had needed that level of assistance or greater, it would have become a real sufferfest.
·  The later in the day you get, the less margin for error.
·  If the weather had been bad/cold like it has been, the exit would have been much more serious.
·  Radios would have been handy.
·  I had very little time to think vs. what I know of Don's and Pierre's experiences.  I think I was "in the slide" for 50-60 meters and about 5-8 seconds.  I lost my Whippet right away.  It was not simple to pull the air bag trigger.  No way could I have accessed an Avalung mouthpiece.
·  The tree caught me, not the other way around.
·  As I butt slid down the path, through gullies, trees, cliff bands, boulders, I realized there is absolutely no way I would have survived.  I think the airbag would have been shredded.
·  There was nothing exciting about the experience; it was simply horrible.
·  We made an avoidable error in choosing to ski this line.
Thoughts on our group travel:
·  We are highly competent bc travellers, and expert riders.
·  We are scarfing relatively huge amounts of vertical, terrain, and varying conditions.
·  Some of us (me/Don) have become focused on getting to the biggest lines and completely untracked terrain.
·  Most of us (not me) are so fit, we are able to get to all this goodness before anyone else, because we can break trail all day long and still maintain speed.
·  We have now had 2 serious accidents in two years.  Obviously, everyone has to make their own risk/reward determination.  Statistically, this has now become uncomfortable to me.
·  I have wondered out loud if we are always "right" or "getting lucky".  For example, 
o        Were Erich and Scooter lucky to not trigger the slide?
o        Were we all lucky that we did not trigger the slide mid-slope, bringing, say, 1000 feet of hard slab down into our group?
o        Were we lucky that Bonkers did not rip? (Unlikely, due to skier compaction and cohesive non-convex nature of slope).  Irony is not lost on me that this is the first day in several years that I have dug a snow pit.
·  Do we lose discipline too often?
·  Is there a way to change our decision making so we, for example, safely ski Bonkers and Big West, but do not enter the Eeny, Meanie, Miny, Moe shit storm?
Not for a minute am I considering not touring.  I think I enjoying being in the mountains, with friends more than anything.  Doing a lot of vertical and skiing quality untracked is fantastic.  Skiing steep, burly lines is exhilarating.  I'm not making any decisions on how to change my behavior at this point in time.  I am somewhat embarrassed, and clearly chagrined.

For those of you who haven't seen it, here's Tremper's report which is based on my interview: http://utahavalanchecenter.org/avalanches/accident-eeeny-meeny-miny-moe

Comments, arguments welcome.
Make some turns for me, Mike

From Erich:

Mike thanks for your write-up and for keeping us updated on the status of your injuries.  I look forward to getting out again even if that means mellow biking to start.

•    Are we are always "right" or "getting lucky?"  There’s no doubt we are taking bigger risks than, for example, the avi forecasters but not as big of risks as others. From my point of view there’s not much in being “right” so much as there is in mitigating the hazard because a certain amount of risk will always exist no matter what.   That said, on considerable days I wouldn’t mind getting more creative with more of a focus on covering ground than on skiing.

•    Were we lucky on Bonkers? Were we lucky on mid slope 9924?  We correctly identified the day’s hazards when we stopped to discuss them after reading the avi report just before starting up bonkers: 1) wind slab and 2) buried weak faceted layers especially on shaded slopes above 9.5k ft.  
ü      On Bonkers the bigger concern in my opinion was wind slab, and Scooter and I were constantly probing the snow with an upside down pole doing the best we could to detect any changes in the snowpack.
ü      On Peak 9924, I was concerned with the northerly shaded slope and chose to avoid the fall line, instead skiing from safe-zone-to-safe-zone intent on skiing skiers left away from what I perceived to be the greatest danger. I was ski cutting when the avalanche broke and the tails of my skis were actually hanging off into the void created by the missing slope next to the tree where I stopped.
ü      In the future we could dig more pits.  However, digging a pit high on 9924 would have been foolhardy by exposing us to the hazard itself.  We were still at risk mid slope on 9924 but by mid-slope the odds of triggering something would have decreased a lot. All but one of the post Jan 31st slides happened around or above 9,500'.
•    Do we lose discipline too often?  We do a good job of practicing safe travel when we are focused which is most of the time, but not all of the time.  I expect this will be our come to Jesus moment and we will be more careful going forward.

•    Not entering the 9924 shit storm?  9924 was a verbatim representation of the hazard on shaded aspects above 9.5k identified earlier in the day so in that sense changing our decision making could be as straightforward as stating the greatest risk(s) to start the day and then do our best to avoid it.

From Scooter:

First of all Mike, we are all munching humble pie :)  And thank you for updating us on your injuries as well as your very honest and detailed reflections on both the day and accident.  We are walking too fine a line at times and those times need to be recognized and discussed openly.  We need to focus on what the mountains, snowpack, and mother nature will let us do instead of what we want to do.  Time restraints (i.e. work, family, spouse, etc), individual/group goals, egos, tick lists, cutting corners on route finding up and done, and any other types of distractions have no place in the backcountry if one wants to stay alive and or enjoy this form of recreation into the golden years.  The problem is statistically one can get away with it 95% of the time.  So, this causes positive reinforcement and in turn causes us to lose focus.  We did well for the majority of the day keeping that focus.  But group dynamics prevailed in the end and that's got to change.

Here's my take on the events leading up to the avalanche:

There was evidence that Bonkers had ripped out during the latter part of the storm.  When Don got a collapse while skinning near the thin snow in the rock band prior to entering Bonkers proper, that was the first red flag.  Wind loading and scouring were the second red flag.  That's why Mike and I picked a representative spot in a relatively safe location to do a snow pit.  While the test score was high, the failure results of that snow pit and the confirmed poor structure were the third red flag.  Mike even nailed the number of taps it would take to cause the failure as well as how deep and the layer involved before we even dug the pit.  We were all aware of the poor snowpack structure thus far this season.  I kept note of all these red flags and only agreed to go up Bonkers if we kept the skin path on the snow covered avalanche debris.  That plan changed when we neared the last section.  I took over for Erich leading the skin path through the crux near the top when we left the avalanche debris and it was like moving through a minefield.  I told Erich where I planned to go and why.  It's a stressful feeling trying to find a safe route in a questionable snowpack.  There's a lot going through my mind during these moments (everyone’s safety, results of snowpack pole probes and quick hand pits, possible islands of safety, using the terrain to minimize exposure and communication with the group).  I am extremely focused and all senses are firing during these times (observations are being made on a continual basis).  Those observations include body language from others in the party.  We may not always voice something, but we do pick up on body language.  This is good and bad... good that we know what's going on and think that everyone is on the same page; bad that we don't vocalize and discuss and make sure everyone is on the same page.  In the end, we finally all topped out but I shouted down a few times while we were moving through the crux to stay away from a convex rollover on the ski down and also to spread apart when moving through the crux on the up.  I wanted to make sure that we were all on the same page.  I ripped my skins and got prepared as quickly as possible while I watched you all top out (again for safety reasons so that if something happened, I would be ready to deal with a situation more quickly).  I rode down first while Erich stood ready in ski mode keeping his eyes on me.  I descended within the up track for safety in the steeper zones and then headed left about halfway down when the slope angle slackened.  On Big West, I took over for Don on the last leg when heading up the crux.  Again, it is like travelling through a minefield and there is stress involved on picking the right route on the up to minimize exposure.  Usually there is safety in numbers, but when travelling in avalanche terrain, the less people the better.  More weight (i.e. more people) concentrated on an area of the snowpack can tip the balance of triggering an avalanche.  And dealing with a rescue scenario gets way more complicated as the number of people increase in the touring group.  The last segment of the day with exiting into Mill B South was not a good idea for many reasons.  I had my reservations.  We'll discuss that at some point soon with the crew including the playback of our individual points of view before, during, and after the avalanche.

Here's my take at the top of 9924.  First, I was not happy about going down this route for several reasons (convoluted steep open and tight treed terrain with cliff bands, snags, and a shitty shallow snowpack).  I had been down it a month ago with Don.  In ideal conditions in a stable snowpack, it would be fun...but not today avalanche wise or not.  Second, I knew that Erich and Mike were tired from skiing all day in difficult crusty conditions and that this was going to be an extra burden for them while Don and I had the luxury of being in cruise control on the downs all day on snowboards.  At the top, we all noticed the hard wind slab which is common as we know on ridgelines.  I decided to split ski this instead of board mode for better navigation in the convoluted terrain.  I let Erich know that I was not happy with this exit route but did not voice this to Mike and Don.  This was a mistake on my part for not being vocal to everyone and having a discussion.  I'm sure this did not instil confidence in you, Erich.  But, it may have made you increase your focus.  Erich and I partnered up.  I started down first and went into a mode of skiing to avoid punching through the wind slab near the top.  That means very subtle weight shifts, smearing/sliding the turns to avoid imparting any unnecessary energy into an already suspect snowpack, and staying away from rocks which harbor weak snow and are trigger points.  In any terrain with consequences, hard slabs are nothing to fool with.  They usually break well above you unlike a soft slab that breaks at your feet.  Slope cutting a hard slab is not an option when there are consequences which mean that they are only done on test slopes and small rollovers where islands of safety can be confidently and easily reached.  I soon realized that the wind slab extended farther down slope than anticipated.  It was too late to turn back and skinning back out would have put us all at greater risk.  At this point I was at about 9700' and I began lining up with trees in close proximity directly in my fall line in case something let go.  I noticed some areas where the new snow had already released during the latter part of the storm and worked these areas to make my way down.  I looked back a few times to keep an eye on Erich.  Things were starting to get better.  I stopped at 9550' is some sparse trees and decided to wait for everyone to come into sight while looking downhill for the next plan of descent.

Then I heard two shouts 'AVALANCHE'!... one well above me in the trees (150 vertical feet sounded like Mike?) and one well to climbers right (sounded like Erich).  THANK YOU GUYS FOR YELLING 'AVALANCHE!'  It gave me a few seconds to take evasive action and without a doubt saved my life!  I immediately looked uphill and saw an explosion of snow several feet high cascading through the trees and over small cliff bands at an extremely high rate of speed.  It looked like a dam broke.  I scanned left and right for the extent of the width of this train wreck coming down on me and came quickly to the realization that I was in the middle of a 200 foot wide monster and had no time to escape to the side.  I traversed skier's right 20 feet to the biggest tree I could find and braced myself on the uphill side of a 10-12 inch diameter conifer.  I stood sideways with ski tips pointed skier's right while leaning the left side of my body against it with my left hand and pole wrapped around the skier's right side of the tree.  I took one last look uphill and then turned away as the torrent engulfed me.  I tried to remain calm as large hard slab chunks pounded my body and well above my head.  Glad I had my helmet on.  The unrelenting pounding and force eventually ripped my upper body to the skier's left side of the tree forcing my torso and head downhill and now laying on my right side while dense snow continued to pound me washing over and well above my head.  My skis and feet were still hooked on the tree and my left hand with pole was hooked around the skier's right side of the tree and holding on for dear life.  I kept hold of my other pole and used it with my downhill outstretched right hand as a rudder to keep me afloat.  I was holding on to my poles with a death grip to aid in balance and hooking the tree (I never use my pole straps in avalanche terrain).  Just when I felt that I was losing the battle and was going to be ripped from my tenuous grip, the snow became lighter (facets) and it began to slow down.  As it slowed to almost a stop I let go of my pole and punched my right hand and arm to the surface and then braced the same hand off the bottom to push my head and upper body through the snow to the surface.  I yelled 'Hey guys, I'm okay, I'm fine' several times.  I heard Mike and Erich acknowledge.  I shouted 'Is everyone unaccounted for?' several times.  I got a yes response.  I yelled 'are there any injuries?'  And then heard that Mike's knee was hurt.  I shouted 'Erich, is there any hang fire?' and he said yes but everyone was now below it.  I then began to dig my knees and feet out and assess my situation.  I looked to the left and noticed my left ski was in a strange position.  The shovel was on the other side of the tree with tip pointed at an angle downhill while my right ski was against the tree with tip pointed up.  My right boot was still in the ski.  My left boot was hooked to the back of the binding but the toe of the boot was free.  I then found that my left ski had fractured and was bent behind the binding heel, and the ski was wrapped around the tree.  The force and speed of the dense hard slab debris had busted it when it released my boot toe from the binding toe.  I dug for my right pole and found it six inches down.  I yelled 'I've got one broken ski'.  And yelled again 'Come down the slide path!  We'll be exiting on the slide path the whole way!'  Erich yelled 'Mike lost a ski'.  Erich came down to me and started searching.  I put my skins on and started climbing up to search.  Erich found one of Mike's poles just skier's left of me.  I told him to stay on that fall line to look for his ski while I began ascending.  Mike then appeared directly above me through the trees sliding down on his butt while holding his ski and took a nasty ride rag dolling through a steep rock infested bed surface for about 100 vertical.  Don then boarded down and poles were given to Mike.  I saw the look on Don's face and I knew he had seen a ghost.  He and Mike quickly recounted the event and said that Mike was trapped in a beaver dam of bent over and uprooted trees and packed in snow.  From scanning the flanks, I thought the crown was at least 2 feet plus.  Don said it was more like 3-4 feet.  I skinned up to retrieve Mike's ski while the rest headed down; attached his ski it to my pack and ripped my skins.  Locked my right binding heel in and tried with the left but it would not work with the fractured tail.  So, I place it in tour mode and side slipped down the bed surface.  Erich waited for me down slope and we worked are way down.  A few hundred vertical from the bottom, we caught up to Don and Mike.  I then told Erich to switch his beacon to search mode and sweep the bottom and look for any tracks in case there was any innocent bystanders caught.  When we got down to Erich, he said that the area was clean (no signal, no tracks).  Erich then told me that he had pulled his calf muscle prior to the avalanche when he hit a rock hard with his ski.  Someone needed to go down to tell Richard that Mike hurt his knee and to inform his wife that he's running late.  We volunteered Erich since we figured he'd be the fastest on his skis even with a painful calf injury.  Don worked with Mike on the trail down and I went ahead of them.

     
Scooter

From Richard:

Mike,   thanks for the comprehensive summary.

Interesting questions you pose.  I, too, am not considering not touring.  Having said that, I think we should evaluate the protocol.  I was not up there at the top with you, so cannot comment on how I might have reacted to the situation, but I tend to defer to you.  I must say I was impressed by Scooters attentiveness.  

Thinking about how to adjust going forward.  We should agree at the start of the day on parameters and limitations.  Its just too hard to contain the enthusiasm when we are out in the field - we see good stuff and want to go get it.   And, as you note, we get lulled into complacency when we don’t see the snow reacting or giving off signals, so then disregard what is in the avy report.    I am thinking it would be smart practice and good discipline, before we set out from the parking lot, for the team to discuss the day’s conditions, the general terrain sought after, and then set parameters.   Easy now in retrospect, but given the avy report that day - considerable danger on steep slopes over 9500 -  we should have stipulated at the beginning that we would not ski anything over X degree slope if its north or northeast at the higher elevations.  In reading the avy summary of your event and others, the picture below is what most got my attention.   According to this we were pushing it.   I would think that Bonkers lies in the upper of middle terrain, and sounds like 9924 is at the low end of low end of dangerous terrain (due to pitch and cliffs?)

Two close calls in the last year is really unnerving  (if you ask the wife - its three because she includes Pierre). Your experience, and email serves as the wakeup call and I think it comes down to reviewing the pre-trip protocol.  Since we are converging from multiple directions, convening in the parking lot and setting parameters before we set out would seem prudent.  That way we are making decisions in the field based upon our agreed upon parameters.  

2 comments:

  1. I don't know who you are or anything about this incident(just wandered here via the Tognar blog) but I think that with some polishing this could be a phenomenal write up that a lot of people could learn from. The level of introspection and honesty is far beyond most write ups. Thanks for posting it.
    John

    ReplyDelete
  2. You are most welcome "anonymous" and I think you're right; there is enough detail and depth of reasoning in this story that it may be useful reading for others (which is why its posted here :). In any case we may edit the snot out of it and offer it to Backcountry Mag or someone else with readership a bit beyond The Whippet...

    ReplyDelete