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Author Topic: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche  (Read 106978 times)
Chamois
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #25 on: 02/26/14, 04:12 PM »

Thanks for the report - food for thought.

IMO - this is the take-away:

*With conditions like that I think it really comes down to deciding how much risk we want to accept as individuals, and then rolling the dice. This is why a lot of people, despite wonderful snow conditions and seemingly quite stable snow, chose to ski rather mellow slopes, tree covered terrain, etc. Chances are most people could have gone on steeper slopes and been totally fine given the lack of self-triggering slides, but chose not to. Again, it just comes down to the decision of personal acceptance of risk, which is hard to criticize somebody on in either direction


---You only have to be wrong once; how important is that powder run, really?
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T. Eastman
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #26 on: 02/26/14, 04:46 PM »

Quote
Again, it just comes down to the decision of personal acceptance of risk, which is hard to criticize somebody on in either direction

In many ways I agree and have pushed the risk zone myself, BUT others beyond the crew taking the risks get involved when things go south.  Nearby parties are often the first-responders and S&R teams get activated when snow gets mean and usually feel a strong obligation to help in frequently hazardous consitions.  In increasingly busy BC ski areas, other parties taking lower risk options can be exposed to the decisions made by less risk adverse parties. 

Having lost plenty of friends to the mountains, their acceptance of risk has impacted me and other friends and families.  A well considered risk pulled off is an amazing accomplishment, but a steady diet of increasingly riskier adventures fueled by failing to prove the negative makes the line between experience and bravado seem mighty thin and porous.

It hurts every time I read of severe injury or death where accustomed behavior directed the risk assessment and route choice.  Call it quarterbacking or "WTF" but I always appreciated being told bluntly by my peers or mentors that I had screwed up.   
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avajane
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #27 on: 02/26/14, 05:02 PM »

Just some observations of my own. Rather than tell you what you did wrong, or judge, or criticize, I'm going to share with you the elements of your trip that are common to trips where avalanche involvement resulted in a fatality. Except for the fact that no one was killed, your accident report is a carbon copy of several accident reports I was asked to review over the past three months. All these reports follow the same general template, and they all contain the same information. To this point:

* "We're experienced, we're educated"
* "We met somewhere and discussed the avalanche report."
* "Our friends are guides" or "we saw guides".
* "Throughout our ascent, we continually discussed our options and shared our observations."
* "We saw no evidence of instability."
* "The snow seemed incredibly stable."
* "While not completely ruling out the persistent slab, we felt comfortable pressing on."
* "Other people were doing it too."
* "The snow was beautiful, light and deep with no signs of any slides."
* "We were surprised by the avalanche."
* "We extracted ourselves from the scene safely."

These reports are usually incredibly revealing, in terms of what is said and also what is not said. Usually the main part of the text is focused on all highlighting one's actions in a way that will reinforce the reader's perception that the touring party is/was smart and experienced, and that what happened was either unexpected, or was an unusual edge case that arose from the confluence of seemingly unrelated or unforeseeable factors.

I want to be clear: I'm not saying that you are an amateur, or that you were overly concerned about how this would read. I'm saying that your accident report very closely matches accident reports written by backcountry ski parties that demonstrate low skill despite self-assessing their education, experience, and skill as better than average ( or even high ) across the board. Very often, backcountry parties with low skill who are involved in an avalanche accident want to make sure that everyone knows they got the details exactly right, but they fail to see how they got the fundamentals absolutely wrong.

It's very tough to use one's hard-gained skills to turn a sow's ear into a silk purse.

I for one thinks this about sums it up.

Well spoken Cookie Monster. For the few that think this is too harsh... Perhaps you haven't yet seen or experienced firsthand the harsh reality of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Or perhaps you don't have children that could have been followers on such an outing. When I see a report like this, it's not long before I start thinking about how I'd be feeling if my son or daughter was one of the followers that almost - and could have easily died. That would be harsh!
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Brian Izdepski, Facebook TAY
jj
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #28 on: 02/26/14, 05:43 PM »

* "We're experienced, we're educated"
* "We met somewhere and discussed the avalanche report."
* "Our friends are guides" or "we saw guides".
* "Throughout our ascent, we continually discussed our options and shared our observations."
* "We saw no evidence of instability."
* "The snow seemed incredibly stable."
* "While not completely ruling out the persistent slab, we felt comfortable pressing on."
* "Other people were doing it too."
* "The snow was beautiful, light and deep with no signs of any slides."
* "We were surprised by the avalanche."
* "We extracted ourselves from the scene safely."

All of these things (except perhaps the last two) are also mentioned in a large number of trip reports where there is no avalanche or injury.  I'm not sure how I would use those to differentiate a non-threatening situation from a threatening one.  To be a useful predictor of hazard or non-hazard a particular attribute has to be unique to a particular type of situation.  Maybe you didn't intend them to help discriminate between safe and unsafe.

I guess I'm a bit more charitable in my interpretation of the report.  Or perhaps I can't see how my decisions would have been much different.  The group did pre-trip research and was making an effort to manage the hazardous terrain by picking what they thought was a safe spot to transition.  It sounds like they were caught on the very edge of a pretty massive slide path.  Had the crown ripped at only 8 feet instead of 10 would they have safely watched the slide go by?  In that case would we be praising their terrain management?  Who knows?

What I am certain of is that there is no black and white in terms of assessing risk.  Why do most of us choose to cross open slopes one by one?  Because we know there is always risk (even when avy risk is moderate or below).  Over the years I've read NWAC and TAY reports of avalanches ripping through treed areas and all kinds of other places I'd never have expected.  Risk is inherent in our sport.  Of course, we all choose to manage it in our own way.

As I read the report from Chair Peak I can't help but wonder if there but for the grace of god go I.  I'm not sure how long it will take for the deep instability to become "safe".  I do know that with each passing day it becomes "safe" for more people while for others it remains "unsafe".

I think the best one can do is take an avy course, digest all the pre-trip intel available, manage hazard conservatively in the field, and, uncomfortable as it may be, hope for a little good luck on the mountain.

Be safe out there.
« Last Edit: 02/26/14, 06:17 PM by jj » Logged
Chucksan
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #29 on: 02/26/14, 05:56 PM »

Thanks for sharing this.  It has already added to the community at TAY.  

I have been troubled by the large amount of recent snowfall, in terms of how would I go about assessing the avalanche risk.  Would I need to dig a 10 foot deep pit to check the January layer?  I don't think I'll be doing that, so does that mean I shouldn't consider traveling in avalanche terrain?  I know that everyone's process for risk assessment is different, but would you mind sharing a bit more detail on the specific stability tests that were done?

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blackdog102395
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #30 on: 02/26/14, 06:36 PM »

I am continually confounded by the vitriol spewed by people towards those with more risk tolerance.   I skied steeper terrain compared to another party that I shared the Tatoosh with on Sunday (http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=30932.0).  Am I an idiot or just less risk adverse?  We chose not to ski one particular north facing slope on that day, but what if another party decided to?  Are they fools that demand a little of the what for?  I know this has been discussed countless times, but the discussion always plays out the same way.  Experienced and knowledgeable backcountry skiers who went out last weekend knew the risks.  Some chose to take more risk while others chose less.  I don't believe that the ones choosing more risk deserve our reprimand. 

My thanks to the OP for his sharing his story.  Accident review is a very valuable tool.
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sprice
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #31 on: 02/26/14, 07:01 PM »

I think it is worthy to make a point about the discussion, and not the avalanche itself.

You stated:
">>>>>>Lastly, in general, there doesn’t seem to be a community that allows for healthy conversation and debate for the purposes of education and safety. There is, what I hope, a small number of individuals that discourage reports such as this one with judgmental comments that don’t add to the conversation. I was encouraged to see a healthy discussion about the Chair Peak slide on TAY over the past few days (http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=30876.0). Although the conversation is mostly positive and educational, it also serves as an example of how there’s a small group of individuals who are not there to learn and understand."

"Healthy" is in the eye of the beholder and certainly any Internet discussion involves a number of commenters who should be ignored. But TAY and other discussion boards are actually a pretty good forum for learning and comments. But of course, you do have to be your own editor.

I say this from the background of having been on a guided trip in Canada where five out of six of us were caught in an avalanche. Amazingly, we had no injuries and the one person who was fully buried 1.5 m down survived the 13 minutes it took to eliminate the interference from the transmitters of all the partially buried people and then find him and dig him out.

I will not say what the organization was, but they are large and significant. The mere mention of my posting the details of the accident on a forum like TAY sent them into spasms and I had to "harass" the guide by email for four weeks after before he would actually post the event to the CAC website. Even then, he reported a slide much smaller than I remember and did his best to make the report fairly bland.

The slide and the recovery had some unusual aspects that would have provided good future lessons. It also occurred on a slope (which I discovered when I did my research once back in town) that is both commonly traveled and commonly unstable.

So our American system may not be the best, but at least we are willing to hash things out in public, even if it is unseemly at times.
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aaron_wright
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #32 on: 02/26/14, 07:02 PM »

I don't think the OP's party accepted more risk, they didn't appreciate the risk by their own admission. I'm not trying to judge them, it's what they put in their report.
I am continually confounded by the vitriol spewed by people towards those with more risk tolerance.   I skied steeper terrain compared to another party that I shared the Tatoosh with on Sunday (http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=30932.0).  Am I an idiot or just less risk adverse?  We chose not to ski one particular north facing slope on that day, but what if another party decided to?  Are they fools that demand a little of the what for?  I know this has been discussed countless times, but the discussion always plays out the same way.  Experienced and knowledgeable backcountry skiers who went out last weekend knew the risks.  Some chose to take more risk while others chose less.  I don't believe that the ones choosing more risk deserve our reprimand. 

My thanks to the OP for his sharing his story.  Accident review is a very valuable tool.
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blackdog102395
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #33 on: 02/26/14, 07:07 PM »

I don't think the OP's party accepted more risk, they didn't appreciate the risk by their own admission. I'm not trying to judge them, it's what they put in their report.

From the Conclusion section of the OPs report:

"In summary, I believe we followed our education and did many things right. We conducted our research and continued to communicate as we moved through the terrain. We observed that the conditions contradicted the NWAC forecast to some extent and believed moving forward was an acceptable risk for our party. Skiing in the BC is inherently risky. We do our best to stay safe, accepting a level of risk that is specific to each individual and group."
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andyrew
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #34 on: 02/26/14, 07:08 PM »

One lesson I am going to try to learn from this report is to make explicit what the Hazards Of The Day are, and no, these aren't  always avalanche. I believe this is now a prominent part of the AIARE I curriculum.  The involved party was looking for storm slab/wind slab, and was getting favorable signals on this front, but (in retrospect) the Hazard of the Day was deep slab.

In any case, I'm very glad that everyone ended up OK, and appreciate sharing the incident report. I will certainly keep my eyes out for gear if I make it onto the North slopes of Chair this year.

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aaron_wright
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #35 on: 02/26/14, 07:12 PM »

But what happened to them is exactly what the NWAC forecast warned about and they didn't appreciate that risk it seems. They claim the forecast was inaccurate.

From the Conclusion section of the OPs report:

"In summary, I believe we followed our education and did many things right. We conducted our research and continued to communicate as we moved through the terrain. We observed that the conditions contradicted the NWAC forecast to some extent and believed moving forward was an acceptable risk for our party. Skiing in the BC is inherently risky. We do our best to stay safe, accepting a level of risk that is specific to each individual and group."
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Jim Oker
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #36 on: 02/26/14, 07:20 PM »

blackdog - I haven't noticed any vitriol on this thread; just healthy but as far as I can perceive respectful discussion, which at times can still be challenging in nature.

And I think Aaron is putting his finger on a key question any of us should ask about our own ventures - did this group understand the level of risk they were accepting with their route choice on this day? I don't know that we have all the evidence, but we have enough evidence to wonder. Again, I think this is mostly of interest WRT reflection on our own choices, as humans are apt to repeat each others' behaviors.
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blackdog102395
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #37 on: 02/26/14, 07:24 PM »

But what happened to them is exactly what the NWAC forecast warned about and they didn't appreciate that risk it seems. They claim the forecast was inaccurate.


Again, quoted from the report:

"I did my homework the night before to ensure I understood the conditions and risks. I reviewed NWAC, TAY, and consulted Topo maps despite the few years of experience I’ve had in the area."

If I take the OP at his word, I believe he knew the risks, including the risk of something deep and big breaking free, as he did his "homework" and "reviewed" NWAC.  
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avajane
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #38 on: 02/26/14, 07:27 PM »

Black Dog wrote
I don't believe that the ones choosing more risk deserve our reprimand. 

My thanks to the OP for his sharing his story.  Accident review is a very valuable tool.

Maybe your right. The climber choosing to go climb a hard route is looked up to rather than reprimanded.  Why does the skier have to choose the safe route or be  preached to?

Maybe it's skill versus simply risk taking? Skill is looked up to. Standing under a potentially deadly slope is not. If one guy had found a way to ski the North Face of Chair I'd have been impressed. For me, a skilled athlete taking risks is cool. I've read lots of books they've written! Skiing with others under a large, unpredictable objective hazard at a dangerous time is not. Maybe it's as simple as that.
« Last Edit: 02/26/14, 07:45 PM by avajane » Logged

Brian Izdepski, Facebook TAY
blackdog102395
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #39 on: 02/26/14, 07:28 PM »

Jim, I have found this thread respectful.  We all know that this is not always the case.  This thread for example contains a few choice posts:

http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=30876.25
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trees4me
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #40 on: 02/26/14, 07:40 PM »

Many good posts here, thanks to the OP for contributing and making this a more meaningful review that is based on your account.


Cookie, I'm sure you only intended the best by your post, but it really strikes me as more of a indictment of the state of avy education then this particular party.  Your list is basically the "checklist" of criteria that AIARE and others have been pushing towards.  What you're saying is that the common thread of fatal avalanches is that parties involved appeared or believed they were following best practices of avalanche education.  Should we not follow these best practices and instead (as many anecdotes in this thread attest) trust our gut and ignore the signs and science?  While this can clearly work when a person's gut says "danger!", it has historically not worked when the message is "go for it".  


My take on the problem is that when there's a deep slab there are few if any tools available to reduce uncertainty in risk assessment.  If you're lucky you'll get natural failure observations, otherwise there's just time or evidence from other parties venturing out to convince oneself of a lowered risk.  Some people will wait for spring.  Some people will wait for a significant rain event, or a new formation of a thick hard layer that will provide bridging.  Others will accept a week or two of time as enough "proof" the snowpack has gotten stronger.  But really, until the spring cycle breaks this layer down, there will be some chance of deep failure.

We also don't really know if this was naturally or remotely triggered.  Many people travel beneath cornices or in other high risk areas for short spells, choosing to temporarily accept the potential but unlikely catastrophic risk of a cornice failure from above.  Deep slabs aren't all that common a problem in the PNW, and don't tend to be very predictable by nature.  

For reference, snowpack depths were doubled by the mid-February storm at some snotel sites.  The Chair Peak party chose to accept the perceived unlikely event of a deep slab failure.  NWAC presented it as possible, but not all that likely.  That's the kind of risk framing that some people are going to be comfortable with.  

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chill people, skiing is fun
blackdog102395
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #41 on: 02/26/14, 07:55 PM »

Good post Trees.  It sums up our assessment on Sunday, especially this piece:

"For reference, snowpack depths were doubled by the mid-February storm at some snotel sites.  The Chair Peak party chose to accept the perceived unlikely event of a deep slab failure.  NWAC presented it as possible, but not all that likely.  That's the kind of risk framing that some people are going to be comfortable with."

As my partner and I traveled the north and south sides of the Tatoosh, we found a very consolidated snow pack with occasional sluffing of a storm layer on steeper north face aspects on the descent.  At one point, we discussed that if anything  more than the storm layer broke free, it would be really big as suggested by NWAC.    We understood the risk, deemed it possible, but not probable and continued ski these slopes, although we avoided the heavily corniced ridge.  We were comfortable with our assessment and the risk.  If we had gotten it wrong, and it went it big, would we have deserved criticism?
« Last Edit: 02/26/14, 08:03 PM by blackdog102395 » Logged
prestonf
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #42 on: 02/26/14, 08:20 PM »

Thanks for posting your story.  I think we can all agree that the most important takeaway is that you and your partners are alive.  All the rest is incedental.

I was wondering about one thing: it looks like you might have been lost on your initial descent?  Looking at your map you went down only 400 ft while staying way too far to the right and then had to skin.  If that's the case and you were lost, it might have saved your life.  Crazy!  (Of course if you had made your way straight down to the lake, you might have been clear of the runout in time, but who knows.)

It does sound like you need to accept more personal responsibility in your adventures, but the key thing is that you get to keep having them!
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alpentalcorey
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #43 on: 02/26/14, 09:10 PM »

I wish you guys good luck finding your gear.  I've lost two skis in the last five years and wasn't able to find them.  It can be surprising how difficult it can be to travel on ski lines without any snow.  Hopefully they are resting somewhere open and accessible, it's pretty easy for a ski to get swallowed by the underbrush.
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jpLingo
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #44 on: 02/26/14, 09:11 PM »

Coming from an area of learning and discussion.

As I understand it the point of origin was 500 feet above where the skiers were.  What are peoples thoughts from this as a Naturally Triggered Slide, as was reported via the NWAC site http://www.nwac.us/observations/pk/101/?

My thought is  this is a human triggered slide, since the group was on the slide area and therefore loading the slope.  What do others think about this?

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Lowell_Skoog
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #45 on: 02/26/14, 10:20 PM »

Kudos to shawnskis for posting such a thoughtful report. It's not easy putting yourself out in public like this. I hope you'll take my comments constructively.

In your original post, you wrote:

"We realized NWAC’s forecast was very different from what we were observing. There was no sign of natural or human triggered slides. While not completely ruling out the persistent slab, we felt comfortable pressing on."

It seems to me that the key lesson for all of us "coasties" (and I include myself in this) is that persistent deep slabs are really a different beast. The fact that you didn't observe any evidence of deep slab instability is COMPLETELY CONSISTENT with the NWAC forecast. When you say that the forecast was different from what you were observing, you can only have meant the near-surface instability. What you observed didn't (and couldn't) tell you much about the deep instability. This is also true of what your guide friend told you.

My suggestion is that you may have subconsciously transferred the apparent lack of surface instability into unwarranted confidence in the deep instability. I can imagine myself doing the same thing. It's not easy to separate them, but I think the lesson (to all of us) is that we need to do that.

I haven't bothered looking up the NWAC forecast for last Saturday, but it's worth noting what the current forecast says about the Persistent Deep Slab problem in the Snoqualmie Pass area (emphasis added by me):

Quote
Deep, persistent slabs are destructive and deadly events that can take months to stabilize. You can triggered them from well down in the avalanche path, and after dozens of tracks have crossed the slope. Give yourself a wide safety buffer to handle the uncertainty, potentially for the remainder of the season.
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Susan Ashlock
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #46 on: 02/26/14, 11:22 PM »

FYI for those reading this thread:

Last Saturday's forecast for Snoqualmie Pass actually didn't call out a persistent weak layer as a concern (wind slabs and storm slabs were).  Persistent weak layer was called out as a concern east of the crest.

http://www.nwac.us/avalanche-forecast/2014-02-22/cascade-west-snoqualmie-pass/
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andybrnr
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #47 on: 02/27/14, 01:09 AM »

Thanks for pulling the link to the day's forecast, Susan. The January weak layer is only briefly mentioned at the top of the forecast discussion. However, near the end, I think this is the key sentence:
Quote
It will have been many days since there have been many people in the back country so conditions are a bit uncertain. Careful snow pack evaluation and caution should still be essential on Saturday.

As has been pointed out above, NWAC's forecasts are by necessity for broad, general areas; they are also not infallible. As Lowell mentioned, those of us who primarily deal with a maritime snowpack (forecasters included!) do not have a vast amount of experience with deep slab instability. These are the "black swans" of the avalanche world, especially in the coast ranges, so predicting the behavior of this particular avalanche dragon at the local/micro level is an awful lot to ask.

On the whole, this just reinforces the idea that unusual conditions require extraordinary caution. A persistent weak layer deeply buried under the rapid loading of 12 feet of new snow in two weeks is "out of sample" for most of our mental models of snow behavior in a maritime snowpack, and our usual approaches aren't going to give us the safety margin we might expect. It's one thing to know the risk and accept it, but I don't think we really can quantify or know the likelihood of the deep slab instability... most of us aren't in the habit of digging 12 feet down and doing a PST. Given that the consequences are so catastrophic, a given margin of safety just demands a totally different approach to terrain selection.
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Floater
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #48 on: 02/27/14, 06:31 AM »

Awesome story and thanks for sharing. I was out taking risks during this last big cycle and could easily have had the same thing happen.  I actually believe some of your choices saved your butts.  I hope more folks write up reports like this one. The one thing I have learned there are no experts when it comes to avalanches.  Tremper was right.  At least I am not one.  Thanks.
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aaron_wright
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #49 on: 02/27/14, 06:41 AM »

Ok, given the forecast, weather history and terrain they still wound up where they got caught. When I say they didn't appreciate the risk, it's just like Jim said, they didn't fully understand the risk. So in my opinion they didn't assume more risk, they thought they were safer than they were. If this isn't so they report would read differently.

Again this isn't an indictment just an observation relevant to this conversation. I've put myself in similar spots before and gotten away with it.

Again, quoted from the report:

"I did my homework the night before to ensure I understood the conditions and risks. I reviewed NWAC, TAY, and consulted Topo maps despite the few years of experience I’ve had in the area."

If I take the OP at his word, I believe he knew the risks, including the risk of something deep and big breaking free, as he did his "homework" and "reviewed" NWAC.  
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