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My (first) Big Scare

Posted on March 19 2011

Below is an email that I sent out after triggering a large avalanche a few years back. After it happened my fellow skiing partners and I agreed that it would be a good idea to put down some thoughts about what happened and most importantly what went wrong. Since it was originally intended for just the three of us I have had to make some changes so that it reads more easily for you.

Now, reading back through this email I realize there are some other mistakes that were made, like not checking CAIC forecast, and are not mentioned.  Point being, I know my assessment was not perfect but reading back it still serves as a stern reminder of how easily it is to get yourself in a bad situation in the backcountry.  Read below. 

3/19/11

I was thinking it might be a good idea for all of us to write down some thoughts about what happened just to seal into memory some pretty major mistakes that were made yesterday. Don't feel obligated, but I feel like its something, at a minimum, I want to do.  

First, we were entering new terrain that I had never been into before.  That should have immediately caused me to be more cautious and more observant.  As we began climbing the ridge to the bowl we saw two small, sluff slides and then saw a skier, in a different party, kick off a slide.  This was an indication that the snowpack had instability.  But, we pushed on doing only two small hand sheer tests, which gave us a bit more confidence to ski the treed ridge.  While skiing the treed ridge, I ski cut a rollover and got 4+" of snow to move.  By looking at the bowl we knew that there had been significant winds and there was going to be some loading.  So I knew there was instability, but did not consider that the snow would have loaded more heavily in spots, like for example the 6' crown that broke 1.5' from my feet.  
After skiing a safer line along the ridge and feeling that, at worst, some minor sluffing would occur, I felt safe to venture further towards the bowl.  I did not consider the differences between the ridge and the bowl and was definitely not thinking about wind loading.  We should have done more snow tests (dug a pit) to gather more information.  We were taking on higher risk but did not take in more information to make sure that it was a calculated risk.  Once we started skiing I was not thinking about safety.  I did not have worst case scenarios in mind and did not have a safety plan in mind.  When the slope began to slide, I noticed snow moving around me and turned into the trees so that I could stop and let, what I thought was just sluff, pass me.  By sheer luck, I stopped in a spot that did not slide. Just seconds earlier because of my helmet I did not hear my partners yelling "AVALANCHE, SKI RIGHT!"  I made what I guess was probably 3-4 turns while it was sliding and had no idea it was sliding.  I stopped and looked to a ski partner stopped on the slope below me and thought that he would be alright since not that much snow was moving right then. I then looked back up the slope, then back at my feet and saw a 6' wall rip a 1.5' down slope from my feet. I then looked back for ski partner below me and he was gone.  As soon as the snow stopped moving, I jumped down onto the slab and was in search mode.  I skied immediately, to the last point of sight for the skier below me and had nothing but static on my beacon.  Looking down at the size of the debris pile, I was really worried that he was totally buried.  I was scared to death that it was going to take us awhile to find JLD and was praying that he was using his avalung.  Thank God, within seconds, I heard and saw him.  Another ski partner in the group did an amazing job taking the lead and getting everyone to calm down.  It was great to see him take great care of the half buried partner and make sure that we did not exacerbate any possible injuries. 
This has me pretty shaken up, not because it is a risk to ski BC, but because I had become so complacent about the risks I was taking.  It seems to me that there were a few small mistakes/oversights that led to as serious a situation as it gets.  I was not as cautious initially as I should have been. I entered new territory and was personally doing nothing to log observations.  Skier confidence built only because nothing bad had happened and not because I had gathered more information.  Lastly, as we were skiing I was not thinking,"if this slides is everyone safe?"  the two skiers above me and I, mostly by luck, were safe when it slid, but had not picked the spots we were standing as safe zones.  The skiers spot below me obviously was not safe and had we thought about it we would have recognized it immediately.   
It probably goes without saying, but I apologize for being complacent while in the BC.  You all have my word that from here forward, I will do more to have open dialogue about conditions, snow pack, and everyone's feelings/opinions about what everyone is willing to ski.  I could probably go on for much longer about all this, but I think this email is long enough.  I look forward to hearing anything else you guys have to say. 
Rando 
Randy

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