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Author Topic: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial  (Read 25410 times)
zenom
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February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« on: 02/21/12, 11:21 PM »

In the backcountry east of the Crystal Ski resort on February 19, 2012, our party of three triggered two slab avalanches on two different aspects in the Union Creek basin. The second slide event buried all three of us. Two of us were partially buried chest deep but not injured and the third completely buried. We were able to rescue ourselves and travel out with no significant physical injuries, though we were shocked by the events we experienced. We later learned of the deadly avalanches near Stevens Pass and Snoqualmie Pass that had occurred the same day. 

Details
Our party was Z, Ms. P and J. We have been backcountry skiing together, including in this area for 10 years. We broke trail from the parking lot to the col at Bullion Basin that looks down to the Union Creek drainage to the East. At the ridge we kicked a few cornice edges (one close to body size) down onto the east slopes. Up to this point, we observed no signs of instability, no natural slides, no cracking, no settling. We continued to skin up the ridge traveling south and then descended the east facing slope. We had all skied this slope many times in the past. We skied the top half with no incidents and still no signs of instability. Snow felt a bit dense. We regrouped at the top of the lower section which becomes a steeper rollover. Z skied first to the bottom with no incident and still no signs of instability, and waited at the base of run - in not the safest zone. J then started to descend near Z’s tracks and the slope fractured just at or below  J about 80-ft across with a 12 inch crown (this was about 10 am).  The slide did not entrain J.  Seeing a slide above coming down, Z quickly moved to a safer spot and the slide ran about 250-300 feet vertical.   J and P then skied down the crusty bed surface and we regrouped. At the bottom, we discussed and agreed to avoid any big bowls, steep slopes and east facing slopes.


Photo above: 10AM slide on E facing slope.



Photo above: 10AM slide from later in the day vantage.

A second group of three then descended the same slope we just did, stopped at the rollover, observed our slide, yelled if we were all ok, then skied down the bed surface. At the base, our group and the other briefly chatted. The other group said they did an Extended Column Test at the top, and indicated some surprise to see the slide lower down the slope.

Our group decided to continue skiing but to stick to lower angle treed terrain on a nearby north facing aspect slopes. These were also slopes we had all skied many times in past. We continued to break trail where we proceeded to go. We made two skinning ascents and ski descents on the nearby treed north facing slopes and did not observe any further signs of instability, aside from our first run event.

Our fourth skin climb up was to ski another north facing run, with a “small mellow” bowl near the ridge line that lead to old growth tree slopes. As we climbed out of the old growth, we ascended the low angle east side of the bowl and were going to make one switchback to gain the saddle of the ridge. At about 2 pm, Z was breaking trail and was about 25 ft ahead of the others, and maybe 100-ft vertical shy of the ridge saddle. Immediately after making the one switchback turn, the whole bowl fractures about 20-ft above Z, and we are now all caught in the snow pack sliding down. (~20 in. crown , ~250 ft across)


Photo above: Taken in Jan 2012. Lightning bolt shows slope that slid at 2PM on Feb 19. Lightning bolt shows trigger spot. The star is Crown Point and is included for reference. Photo is looking west.



Photo above: Looking up from near where Z came to rest. J and P were buried on other side of yellow coat behind tree on left.

I kept thinking to try to stay on top but felt the snow pulling down on my skis like anchors. My head was always above in the slide. As the slide continued I got pulled in deeper. Came to rest after about a 150-ft vertical foot slide with snow around my chest, my two arms were free. I couldn’t see anyone. I called out and  J responded, he was ok but buried. J was blocked by a tree from my view, and now I was about 25-ft down slope of him. We confirmed that neither of us could see P. This was bad. J said he was stuck. I was stuck too. I knew I had to find Ms. P and fast. I dug down to my bindings by hand and punched the Dynafit levers to release from my buried skis. Stood up. Pulled my shovel out. It felt like it took too long to assemble, fumbling with the webbing in the way of shovel assembly. I called to J to switch his beacon to search mode. I tried to switch my beacon (Tracker) to search and saw a “--“. Why no “SE”? Eff!  J called out that P was near him. I turned my beacon off thinking it not working, no time for beacon forensics - J had a hit anyway. I hurried over to where we thought she might be buried. Started shoveling quickly. Nothing. Where is she? J, get me your probe. J assists even though he is buried up to his chest with his skis anchored in about 4-ft down. We fumble to assemble the probe. Seems to take way too long to deal with the requisite screw threading to get the probe assembled. Start probing, no hits. Where is she? Thinking that time is of the essence, panic and frustration creep closer to mind. J, get me your beacon again. 0.7 m. She’s near. Probe again - hit! Dig. Dig into a ski pole. Kept digging. Probed again, hit again. Keep digging. I dig into a pant leg and I see slight movement. I keep calling out to hang in there and we’re coming.  I then dig into her backpack. Now I go to dig out her head and get her air. She is face down, head down slope and breathing. J is very near P and although still anchored to his skis, he has better upper body mobility by now and can reach downslope into the pit to assist clearing snow away from Ms. P. At this point I know we’re all alive.

We dig out knowing we’re ok, find everything and discuss the best route out.



Photo above: P standing in the pit in which she was buried. J was buried just on the other side of P's green jacket.

Mistakes:
Despite the clear warning from the first slide, and our group decision to stick to low angled treed terrain, we ventured into an open bowl where the second slide occurred.

Only J had a probe. Two of us consciously did not bring ours.

Hadn’t practiced beacon search in several years. The seconds required to switch to search seemed an eternity and I failed at the simple task.

Allowed entire group to be caught.  At other times we did skin with intention to expose only one, we let our guard down.

Lessons:
Deep burials can happen in “small” slides.

Beacon AND probe can save a life. Practice with both.

Big events can occur with NO field observable warning signs (not talking about NWAC Warnings/Forecasts).

Limit group exposure. Only expose one person at a time especially when skinning in avalanche terrain.

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Amar Andalkar
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #1 on: 02/21/12, 11:49 PM »

Thanks for the frank, detailed report and photos. Scary stuff. Glad that you're all alive, safe, and uninjured.

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Stugie
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #2 on: 02/21/12, 11:55 PM »

Thanks for the frank, detailed report and photos. Scary stuff. Glad that you're all alive, safe, and uninjured.

Ditto Amar.  Pretty humbling, given the outcomes for the rest of that day.  Good work looking out for each other.
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JimD
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #3 on: 02/22/12, 05:22 AM »

Thanks for the frank analysis.
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Marcus
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #4 on: 02/22/12, 07:30 AM »

Terrifying.  Thanks for sharing the details Zeno and glad you guys are all okay. 

The location of the first slide looks pretty close to where Kevin, Phillip and Devlin were found in June '09.  I kicked off a similar slab on that same roll a few years back.

I'm probably going to link to this thread from the Weak Layers area to folks can find it easily down the road, if you don't mind.
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ron j
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #5 on: 02/22/12, 07:35 AM »

ditto...
Thanks zenom.
I really appreciate your taking together the detailed version of your mishap... especially the decision making processes. I think many will benefit from that brave and selfless effort.
Glad you're all still with us.
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mc
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #6 on: 02/22/12, 09:01 AM »

yikes.  hard to believe we were one ridge over from you while all this went down.  scary indeed.

i need to go to some deep breathing and reflection now.

thanks for the report, z.

-mc
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Scotsman
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #7 on: 02/22/12, 09:32 AM »

Yikes... glad you are OK.
I've always avoided that area every since we lost the three guys, Kevin, Devlin and Philip....just a bad vibe in that area and I don't like it.
An avy while skinning has always been one of my fears as my toes are locked in my dynafits and I feel I have less ability to try and get out and have potential anchors on my feet.

Good reminder to observe good skinning and spacing protocol.
I salute you for your frankness and honesty in the above report .
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Joedabaker
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #8 on: 02/22/12, 10:05 AM »

Oh man....
Great detailed report, I can sense the anxiety from my own experiences.
After the 1st slide that forced your group in the hole is when I would have been nervous. I hate the bottom of Union...one of the biggest traps out there.

We ran across a large, 1ft plus deep north facing fracture at Crystal that was sympathetically activated by skiers traversing on the slope 20 ft above.
We analyzed the hangfire and it was sitting on a hoar frost layer or depth hoar on a slightly fauceting frozen layer. Those North slopes were touchy too.
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gravitymk
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #9 on: 02/22/12, 10:07 AM »

Excellent report as well as conclusions, thank you for sharing.
I'm glad that you all made it out OK.
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pabloson
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #10 on: 02/22/12, 10:39 AM »

Thanks for providing this public service with the analysis of your mistakes.  We can all continue to learn and be reminded of the basics.

What I have been hearing a lot this week from the media and from skiers are the phrases:  'we've skiied this slope many times'  or  'skiers were very familiar with the area'.  I know this can create a sense of security that may not be accurate.  Simply being familiar with an area, psychologically speaking, can reduce stress and anxiety - maybe to our detriment.  The unknown however usually creates more stress and anxiety.  Therefore, entering into the backcountry should always be approached as if for the 1st time because, in reality, the conditions are never the same and are indeed unknown. 

I know that I am prone to these thinking/feeling errors and it is a good reminder for me.  Thanks again.
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Pete A
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #11 on: 02/22/12, 10:58 AM »

very glad y'all made it through that unharmed. 

i imagine it was tough to put this report together and post it for the community to read & review..... thanks for doing it though, there are definitely lessons that everyone can learn from it.


What I have been hearing a lot this week from the media and from skiers are the phrases:  'we've skiied this slope many times'  or  'skiers were very familiar with the area'.  I know this can create a sense of security that may not be accurate.  Simply being familiar with an area, psychologically speaking, can reduce stress and anxiety - maybe to our detriment.  The unknown however usually creates more stress and anxiety.  Therefore, entering into the backcountry should always be approached as if for the 1st time because, in reality, the conditions are never the same and are indeed unknown. 

i've been thinking a lot about the same thing the past few days.... reminds me of the "Evidence of heuristic traps in recreational avalanche accidents" report that talks about how we can all unknowingly let our guard down.
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ryanl
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #12 on: 02/22/12, 11:08 AM »

Thank you for this- very informative. I can tell from your writing that you were close to if not in panic mode while searching for P. Nice job of holding it together. You're a good partner.

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Koda
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #13 on: 02/22/12, 11:15 AM »

I am thankful everyone made it out unharmed. Thank you for posting this detailed report, it highlights many valuable details like group exposure. I also agree about being in familiar terrain and this brings that element in the spotlight. It's important to keep all the elements of avalanche awareness up front on every tour.
Thank you again for sharing.
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jdclimber
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #14 on: 02/22/12, 11:34 AM »

 Thank you for posting up and for your frankness and honesty. I know that there has been much speculation about the heuristics involved in the Stevens tragedy and I hope that when the time is right, some of those involved will share their thoughts in the way you have shared yours. I appreciate you publishing this account while avalanches and group dynamics are fresh on everyone's mind.
I am glad that you guys all made the round trip.
Like Scotsman, I have not spent much time in Union Creek drainage since the snowboarders were caught down there. I returned once to prove that I could but have not been drawn there since. The terrain in there is just the right size/angle/aspect to be great skiing and perfectly safe a lot of the time and as your trip report reinforces, not at all safe at other times.
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jimmyjam
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #15 on: 02/22/12, 11:41 AM »

My heart raced while reading this.  I am happy that you and your group can ski another day.  

Your inward reflection on your experience is refreshing.  I hope everyone reading your report will learn from your experiences, practice their beacon skills more, and think twice about venturing into questionable situations.   The courage to say, "no, it's not worth it" should be rewarded more often.

Thank you again for sharing.  
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VerticallyInclined
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #16 on: 02/22/12, 12:39 PM »

This TR should be stickied with "READ THIS FIRST" in the title.   

Thank you for sharing your rather humbling story.   I'm very stoked that you all got out physically uninjured.   I hope you can get your ski game back on soon with a hard lesson for you (and all of us) as a reminder on why we practice snow safety.

Thank you for sharing. 
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flowing alpy
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #17 on: 02/22/12, 12:56 PM »

the reward is being able to ride again
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JoshK
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #18 on: 02/22/12, 01:17 PM »

Thank you for the very frank report and glad you were able to get your friend unburied quickly and ski out safely. Probably going to spend some time practicing with the beacon this weekend...
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Oyvind_Henningsen
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #19 on: 02/22/12, 01:41 PM »

Thank you so much for sharing the account of your accident.  Very detailed and well written.  We are all second guessing and trying to figure out if we would have made different decisions.  For me, I know I have found myself making similar decisions.  Thank you again for letting us learn together.  So happy you are all safe!
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #20 on: 02/22/12, 04:49 PM »

We are always so vulnerable on the skin up. It is an incredible experience I can emphathise with. A few years a go some good friends of mine had a similar thing happen. I can say it changed all of us significantly and the lessons learned  from that day echo with me every trip.

http://www.doglotion.com/blog/it-was-going-be-best-day-year

*fixed URL - Marcus*
« Last Edit: 02/22/12, 09:11 PM by Marcus » Logged
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #21 on: 02/22/12, 05:15 PM »

Thanks for sharing.  Interesting to see the radical response of the Crystal snowpack considering it received significantly less snow (thanks to the Rainier rain shadow) during that stormy period.  

My observation is that snow does not like "rapid change" -Bruce Tremper.  That being said, the amount of snow received during the massive dump that we all witnessed can certainly be classified as rapid change, and all the more the reason to avoid avalanche terrain i.e. open slopes of any nature after such an event.  That's one facet of the lesson learned from your experience and the Stevens Pass tragedy, or at least that's what I'm taking from it.  

Glad everyone is ok.  Very scary stuff considering anyone one of us is vulnerable to dropping our guard for the lure of fresh powder, even if the mountains are putting up obvious warning signs....
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jtack
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #22 on: 02/22/12, 09:57 PM »

Thanks for the fantastic report, so glad you are all ok. You have given a great reminder to never let your guard down. thanks again
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Jim Oker
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #23 on: 02/22/12, 10:05 PM »

Thanks for sharing this thoughtful writeup. Very glad you all made it back. I imagine this must be a bit of a haunting memory now.

Regarding search practice - I've done it most years since about '95 due to going on one guided hut or yurt trip or another where we start the trip with search drills, and even though we do nice full drills that involve multiple burials, group self-organization, beacon search, probing, and digging, it feels like once/year even is not quite enough. It's great to do in bigger groups where you have a few crews at it at once and there's an element of comparison and everyone compares notes afterwards. But of couse we'd all prefer to never have to rely on these skills... By the way, we did this exercise a few weeks ago up in BC and as part of it we also taught each other how to turn on/off all our beacons as well as how to switch from transmit to receive. It was a tad daunting given how much the beacon designs varied across 12 clients.
« Last Edit: 02/23/12, 09:24 AM by Jim Oker » Logged
Gregg_C
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Re: February 19, 2012, Crystal BC Avalanche Burial
« Reply #24 on: 02/23/12, 06:43 AM »

Thanks for the write up.  You have done the community a great service and continued a precedent started by Marcus with the Phantom slide.  Too many incidents get unreported out of embarrassment.  There is great appreciation for this kind of imformation being shared.
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