This one will be short but sweet. For all of you that have to get through these summers, here comes a light at the end of the tunnel. I know it won't last but it's still exciting stuff! This is the first snow forecast for the 2013/2014 season:
This is what I found at 10:06 pm on the 21st of September on the Alta 9400' weather forecast.
"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
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
Here is a Google map of the area and spread of the avalanche:
here, for my hundredth posting on this blog, is Mike's detailed analysis of
what happened that day (for more picturesclick here).
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
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
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:
"Avalanche" may have prevented Erich and Scooter from being caught.
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.
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
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
later in the day you get, the less margin for error.
weather had been bad/cold like it has been, the exit would have been much more
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
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.
was nothing exciting about the experience; it was simply horrible.
an avoidable error in choosing to ski this line.
Thoughts on our group
highly competent bc travellers, and expert riders.
scarfing relatively huge amounts of vertical, terrain, and varying conditions.
us (me/Don) have become focused on getting to the biggest lines and completely
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
·I have wondered out loud if we are always
"right" or "getting lucky". For
Erich and Scooter lucky to not trigger the slide?
all lucky that we did not trigger the slide mid-slope, bringing, say, 1000 feet of hard slab
down into our group?
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.
lose discipline too often?
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.
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
• 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.
üOn 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.
üOn 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.
üIn 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.
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.
Mike, thanks for the
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.