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Author Topic: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche  (Read 106966 times)
shawnskis
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Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« on: 02/26/14, 07:12 AM »

The Prologue
I’ve been contemplating whether to post this report for many reasons, one of which is due to the fear of the negative reactions we may get from others in the community. After submitting our report on NWAC there have been comments via their Facebook post that made me reluctant to share more. It seems that with the anonymity many web boards provide today, it is easier to post comments that are judgmental, ultimately discouraging others from sharing. But, it’s for this specific reason that I’ve chosen to post our story. My hope is that you read through the events below and think about how we can learn from them. Let’s begin a healthy conversation which replaces judgment with curiosity. I encourage you to ask questions to better understand why we made the decisions we did, and how we could have done better.


The Account
our research
This past Saturday, 2 friends and I went up to Alpental with the intention of heading into the back country. 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. Because of the unusual amount of snow fall, I consulted a friend who is a very experienced BC guide and is respected by the guiding community. He happened to have been out that day with clients and observed extremely stable conditions; skiing on many different aspects, slope angles, ridge lines, and altitudes. With many attempts to test the stability he observed no slides. During the conversation he also mentioned that he had plans to head out to Mt Roosevelt the next day. Based on initial research, our plans were to stay closer to Source Lake and climb towards Pineapple Pass or Chair Peak, but because of my conversation with my guide friend we added Mt Roosevelt as an option to our list of potential goals.

leading up to the slide
On Saturday, we met at the Alpental parking lot and discussed the new option of Mt Roosevelt, ultimately agreeing to make that our primary goal but being open to other options.

As a side note, it’s important to add that while I have what probably is more education than most with regard to ski mountaineering as well as a handful of years of experience, my friends did not. They are relatively new to BC although well informed and knowledgeable given their level of experience. 

After gearing up, we left the parking lot at 7:45am. The conditions were absolutely amazing with great visibility. We made it to Source Lake in about 45 minutes and decided to continue towards Chair Peak. The goal was to gain access to the Snow Lake area by way of one of the two high saddles.

Throughout our ascent, we continually discussed our options and shared our observations. We saw no evidence of instability. The snow seemed incredibly stable. On the switchbacks up to the saddle there was no sign of slide danger, nor any other slide debris. The snow layers seemed to have great cohesion. 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.

We made good time and topped out in the saddle (47.460662, -121.461107) at about 11:00am. We stopped to refuel and transitioned. We headed down towards Snow Lake with our route to the northwest. The snow was beautiful, light and deep with no signs of any slides. We picked our lines and one at a time made some beautiful turns and met at a designated transition point below. We quickly moved to skin west to a slightly higher plateau and transition (47.462936, -121.463950) for a ride down the couloir to the west side of the lake just below the Chair Peak summit.

the avalanche
NWAC Observation Posting: http://www.nwac.us/observations/pk/101/

As we stopped for our transition, we chose a location on a shelf to the right of the couloir entrance that provided some deflection to a potential slide. It was still exposed, but the best option given what was available. At that point we discussed our options, ultimately agreeing to ski down the couloir. Towards the end of our transition we heard what originally sounded like a jet flying overhead. We looked uphill towards the sound only to witness a title wave of snow accelerating towards us. The sound continued to get louder and we turned to flee. “The only thing I remember hearing was Run… Avalanche!,” my friend recalled.  After 2 or 3 steps we were quickly swept up by the slide. All three of us fought the snow and each of us tried to swim to the top. To my surprise, so many thoughts went through my head in that short amount of time. I tossed my poles, tried to kick off my skis, and wished I had an airbag. As the slide slowed I thought about what I needed to do to save my friends.

We were carried about 50-60ft and were partially buried up to our waists. We quickly located each other, ensuring no one was buried or needed help. After confirming everyone survived without injury, there was a noticeable pause as the realization of what just happened came upon us.

survival mode
After digging ourselves out, we noticed that we stopped at the very edge of the slide path. We felt extremely lucky as most of the slide banked to the left and traveled into the couloir. The slide started at the rock face of Chair Peak and travelled approximately 1900ft down to Snow Lake. We started to look for our gear so we could head back after being rattled by the slide. I fortunately had my skis on and my friends were able to recover their skins and bags as they were on the snow surface, but a Pryor Khyber splitboard and Vokl Nunataq skis were nowhere to be found. We probed for close to an hour trying to locate our gear to no avail. It was critical to locate our gear as without it would make returning back to the car difficult at best. We found nothing and at 1:00pm decided to abandon our search and start the long slog back to the parking lot. We wanted to ensure we returned to the parking lot before nightfall.

We made the decision that going up the slide path was the best exit path, as this was the only firm snow to travel on. All other options put us in waste deep snow which would make it too difficult to efficiently travel. We made our way up the slide path on the firm compacted slab passing several large snow/ice blocks that were the size of refrigerators or bigger. It was apparent that the snow slid on the January layer as we climbed the wall of ice on the approximately 70 degree slope. My friend lead the way cutting steps with an ice axe as we climbed towards the avalanche crown. Visibility dropped to almost zero which slowed our ascent considerably. We continued to talk through our options as we moved. Before reaching the North rock face of Chair Peak, we saw the fracture line and a 10ft crown that traveled to our right about 70-100 ft. (47.460473, -121.465420).

We realized that our exit to the left through the high saddle that gave access to Source Lake below meant that we had to travel approximately 150ft across the fresh snow that had not fractured off. I being the only one in our party who had not lost his skis gingerly skied across the snow field to the ridge and high saddle. (47.459991, -121.463950). One at a time my friends slowly and cautiously followed across the snowfield up to their waists in deep powder. Once we hit the saddle we felt confident we would get back to the parking lot before nightfall. We travelled through the pass and came across our ascent tracks.

Trudging through the deep snow was the ultimate tease, we ran across multiple parties heading up and conveyed the events of the day. Three and a half hours later we hit the parking lot and collapsed into our vehicles. Definitely a day to remember and although we lost gear, we were all thankful to be alive and uninjured.


Map of Route – maps.google.com


The Epilogue
As mentioned above, I decided to post this story for the purposes of education. With the beers that followed our experience, we met up with my guide friend to discuss the day’s events and our decision making. And, as expected the conversation still continues today. From those conversations came some interesting observations that I believe would be valuable to add to this discussion.

nwac forecasts
Firstly, I learned that very well respected guides, were skiing with their clients on similar terrain last Saturday. All of them assessed the same conditions and made similar decisions that we did.

This leads me to discuss the information available on NWAC. The information provided by NWAC didn’t seem consistent with what we observed that day. NWAC forecasted human triggered slides as ‘considerable’ while from our account, they were extremely difficult to initiate. Also, naturally occurring slides weren’t mentioned in the NWAC forecast although we know that there was at least one. I do not point the finger at the individuals who have an extremely difficult job of forecasting the conditions and assessing the risk. But, I think it’s interesting that many well respected and experienced professionals are making decisions that contradict the NWAC forecasts. Is it possible that NWAC is generalizing their forecast because they need to cover such a large area? Conditions can vary within a few miles of each other.

To be fair, I do not have deep knowledge of NWAC’s process but it’s my understanding that they have roughly 5 professionals in the field, assessing conditions across the North West. From my laymen’s perspective, that seems insufficient. What changes can NWAC make and how can we participate to improve their forecasting accuracy? Would it be beneficial for more professionals in the BC to report conditions to NWAC and/or the public on a daily basis? There doesn’t seem to be a community that encourages experts to share knowledge more broadly. For example, my understanding is that the Alpental ski patrol are on the mountain daily, assessing avi danger. But, they do not communicate their assessments publically. Should they?

a community of learning
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.

At the risk of belaboring my point, I thought I would add another interesting observation. Another post on TAY described 3 people who skied the Slot on the same day of the Chair Peak avalanche (http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=30882.0). In my opinion, the Slot is arguably as risky as traveling out to the North side of Chair Peak. Interestingly, our experience produced countless comments on TAY while the Slot post received two, neither of them judgmental. Why do posts that highlight a positive outcome get no scrutiny even though the risks were just as high? I’ve read comments on TAY that congratulate individuals who have taken the same risks we did but ended up with a positive outcome.

Ultimately, I would like to see our passionate community show a thirst for knowledge and understanding along with compassion. Only this way will we all be fortunate to do what we love and come home to our friends and families each night.

conclusion
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.




I wanted to thank my guide friend and 2 skiing friends who helped think through our story and co-wrote this report. I also wanted to give special acknowledgement to my 2 skiing friends who shared this life altering experience with me. Thanks for your support and saving my life.

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Charlie Hagedorn
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #1 on: 02/26/14, 07:20 AM »

Awesome writeup. Thank you!  Glad you decided to ski a little before dropping into the couloir down to Snow Lake!
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ski2fly
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #2 on: 02/26/14, 07:35 AM »

Agree, excellent write up, I think TAY is a great forum to share as it very much hits your target audience. Regarding ski patrol, Crystal Mt. will occassionally share some avy information on their blog, http://www.blogcrystal.com/ but not in a structured or regular basis.  The danger of ski patrols posting observations is that in-bounds conditions can vary significantly than backcountry, so any inclination that those observations apply equally to backcountry could be bad.  Sidecountry observations would certainly be more relevant.

As for slot, and really any report on steeper terrain, I am pretty much thinking the same thing. The deep layer is there in many spots, and catestrophic.  Lastly, can't comment on the specific report from NWAC but in general they have been calling out the deep layer threat.

As for sharing, TAY has been the most relevant forum I have found, as folks will share their snowpack observations and locations, and occassionally throw in vid or pic of snowpack analysis, but you can be sure there are many more being done than posted.
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Oyvind_Henningsen
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #3 on: 02/26/14, 07:49 AM »

Thank you for sharing your story.  I am very happy that this had a happy outcome.  It certainly makes me reflect on my own evaluations/decision making/terrain selection.
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Lytt til erfarne fjellfolk!
Jonn-E
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #4 on: 02/26/14, 08:14 AM »

It's buried in the text but in my TR from the previous day,
http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=30859.0 (Feb 21),
 I mention running into an NWAC pro who warned us of the deep layer on big slopes. Dunno how or if that got communicated through the system though, and I got a feeling it was a "lower probability but high consequence" kind of threat.

This is perhaps the best avi writeup I've seen to date. The lessons I take away from your story is that your prudent decision to transition on a ridge feature saved your lives, and that there will be some sweet gear at the bottom of Snow Lake this summer.

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BillK
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #5 on: 02/26/14, 08:18 AM »

I'm curious....you state many examples of why you guys decided that it was OK to be where you were that day.  In hindsight, was there any information you had that would have made your decision a no-go for that day? 
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RonL
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #6 on: 02/26/14, 08:34 AM »

Thanks for stepping up when you know there will be some criticism. I don't have any criticism for what you guys did. I can only say the reasons that I chose different terrain that day and similar ones. After a few years of this sport many of us have begun to focus on what we don't know about the risks and to find ways to mitigate it more rather than to find the true barriers of what is safe or not. One rule of thumb I have fallen back to is to ski lower angled older treed terrain following a storm like this until I have more assurance that a layer like that is stable. That assurance wasn't there for me with this storm because the only dramatic change throughout the storm cycle was that more and more new snow continued to pile on top. The nwac rating, people's pits, trip reports etc. we're irrelevant too me until I saw some sort of warming or soaking event that would thoroughly test the bond on that layer. I likely would have kept to less open slopes until such an event occurred and even afterward I would have had some concern about that layer until after the first large warmup in the spring. I am not an expert and unfortunately I have not always been smart enuf to take my own advice but for what it is worth that is why I chose to stay away from terrain like chair and even the slot. I would not have posted on a trip report about chair or the slot on days with similar risks simply because I am not an expert and couldn't tell those people whether or not they made a decision that was unsafe. It is that that inability to know whether it is unsafe however that kept me in more protected terrain. Thanks again for sharing and I am glad you all came out ok. You are in good company with people who have made mistakes.
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dberdinka
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #7 on: 02/26/14, 08:40 AM »

It's the Internet.  People will be caustic.  

The NWAC has to paint with a broad brush.  And frequently theory as much as observation seems to drive their forecasts.   Agreed that stability in the upper snowpack was great.   I think there forecast was influenced by the fact that that much snow simply renders normal paradigms  about snowpack insufficient.

Everyone was or should have been aware of the potential for these catastrophic slides.  Most people probably realized (as did NWAC) that a skier triggered slide on the crust was highly improbable. Yes post storm slides of this scale were documented in a few spots across a huge amount of terrain  but I'd say you got extremely unlucky!   Many, many other BC skiers put themselves in similar positions whether they realized it or not.

Your incident reminds me of the 1999 Valentines Avi at Baker.  Yes there had been a ton of snow but no one could have predicted that.   So is the layer still suspect?  Will more enormous slides occur?  No one knows and no one is going to be able to credibly assess the threat.   Here on out (as always) everyone's going to have to make their own decision on whether they can operate with a certain unassessible level of risk.
« Last Edit: 02/26/14, 08:45 AM by dberdinka » Logged
Micah
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #8 on: 02/26/14, 08:41 AM »

Thanks so much for posting up (both here and at NWAC). We all understand your reluctance, but your excellent, detailed write up is of great value. Don't worry about the negative comments -- it's very easy to say 'It would never happen to me' from the internet. I don't know about other folks, but in our costal climate my investigation of snow stability is usually directed at the top couple feet (which I think is a good practice that I intend to continue). Your experience shows that deep instabilities can play a role in real-life skiing situations.

I'm very glad your party was not hurt or killed by this large slide.
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Gregg_C
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #9 on: 02/26/14, 08:51 AM »

Excellent report.  Thank you for taking the time to post this so that we can all learn from your experience. 
As per your comments:  "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."

* Hopefully it is the waning days of the "WTF" crowd as we move to a more sophisticated and  constructive discussion about avalanche incidents. 
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tabski
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #10 on: 02/26/14, 09:25 AM »

Thank you for sharing. Sounds absolutely terrifying. You and your friends are blessed to survive a brush with an avalanche of this nature.

Unless we're in the care of a mountain guide, its important to remember that when we're in the mountains we are 100% responsible for our own actions, and the outcomes of those actions. A mountain guide's green light and NWACs warnings were all pertinent pieces of information to assemble your plan for the day, but in the end it was your choice that put you in harm's way.

I find the mixed signals you discuss to be very interesting (NWAC's report vs. guide's report). I myself have made bad decisions due to just such mixed signals. When the discussion gets focused on one particular subject (in this case the storm snow instability) it can cause us to forget to consider other, equally important, dangers (the deep slab). 



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avajane
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #11 on: 02/26/14, 09:26 AM »

Thanks for stepping up when you know there will be some criticism. I don't have any criticism for what you guys did. I can only say the reasons that I chose different terrain that day and similar ones. After a few years of this sport many of us have begun to focus on what we don't know about the risks and to find ways to mitigate it more rather than to find the true barriers of what is safe or not. One rule of thumb I have fallen back to is to ski lower angled older treed terrain following a storm like this until I have more assurance that a layer like that is stable. That assurance wasn't there for me with this storm because the only dramatic change throughout the storm cycle was that more and more new snow continued to pile on top. The nwac rating, people's pits, trip reports etc. we're irrelevant too me until I saw some sort of warming or soaking event that would thoroughly test the bond on that layer. I likely would have kept to less open slopes until such an event occurred and even afterward I would have had some concern about that layer until after the first large warmup in the spring. I am not an expert and unfortunately I have not always been smart enuf to take my own advice but for what it is worth that is why I chose to stay away from terrain like chair and even the slot. I would not have posted on a trip report about chair or the slot on days with similar risks simply because I am not an expert and couldn't tell those people whether or not they made a decision that was unsafe. It is that that inability to know whether it is unsafe however that kept me in more protected terrain. Thanks again for sharing and I am glad you all came out ok. You are in good company with people who have made mistakes.

I really like and agree with what Ron said. I'm also glad you decided to talk about your experiences. Like Ron, I was actually surprised to hear about people skiing "the Slot" recently. I didn't say anything because I haven't skied it myself and am no expert either. I decided that perhaps because of it's steepness it runs fairly regularly, so was maybe OK to ski.

I've got a couple of points to make. First of all, although I don't consider myself an avalanche/snowpack expert, I feel very qualified to assess dangerous locations in a variety of conditions. I know what objective dangers are, and how to try to avoid being caught by one. A lifetime of rock climbing overhanging, vertical, and low angle rock has taught me (sometimes the hard way) where the danger zones are. Guess what? Anywhere under a steep tall mountain is one of them! I used to climb the "day climbs" at the bottom of El Capitan. One day I had 2 or 3 pitons dropped towards me from a few thousand feet up. The buzz sound of that angle coming down at terminal velocity is still in my mind. I decided right then that it was only worth being at the base of a wall if you were there to climb it - not just hike or practice. A few years later this was reinforced when I had stupidly taken my family to a great viewpoint I knew in Yosemite. Again, this was under a cliff of great proportion, and some stonefall came down and nearly took us out. Snow and ice fall far more often than rock, so for me it seems very obvious that one of the worst possible places to ski during a period of high danger would be directly below a large, steep, mountain. Your report shows you knew this could be a problem by your life saving decision to move out of the way a bit more. But you still don't seem to realize that you were in the wrong place to began with. Perhaps your guide is the best guy in the world - but if he was taking me under a face like that in a period like this, I'd turn around every time!

The other point I have to make is that there are lots of great reasons to be up in the mountains skiing. When making daily objectives we need to remember that skiing doesn't have to be steep to be fun. The lines don't need to be long and continuous. The powder doesn't need to be the lightest, or the sun the best angle. Those days will happen when the conditions are right - and if we are still there to enjoy them.

Brian
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Brian Izdepski, Facebook TAY
tabski
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #12 on: 02/26/14, 09:31 AM »

Well said, Brian.
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powhound
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #13 on: 02/26/14, 09:36 AM »

Thanks for sharing.

A couple thoughts. I went up in that area the day before and noted good cohesion, but I was also aware of rapid loading and wind. We chose to stay in the trees, and I would say my level of risk acceptance is higher than most. I've definitely put myself in bad situations, and probably will again, it's kinda the nature of the beast.

In your write up it seems that you take no blame, and still think you did everything right. Agreed while the upper snowpack seemed stable, just putting yourself in that area was a bad call IMO. I wasn't on the armchair quarterback committee, and wanted to hear your story before commenting.

Also if you read the forecast discussion and not just looked at the danger rose, while it was a considerable rating, it warned of a possible deep slab, and the possibility of a natural trigger such as a cornice fall that could create a large destructive avalanche that could propagate to old crust layers.

What happened to you is exactly what the NWAC forecasted, so to blame them for a bad forecast is a cop out IMO, just the day before some friend and I were on a tour and commenting on how their forecasting seemed conservative this year.

Plus the definition of considerable "Dangerous avalanche conditions. Careful snowpack evaluation, cautious route-finding and conservative decision-making essential."  The majority of avalanche fatalities are on considerable days.

I'm glad you made it out OK and appreciate the write up, and it seems you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, but that could have been avoided
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Saign
kamtron
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #14 on: 02/26/14, 10:13 AM »

When I saw the report from the Slot, 2 things crossed my mind:

1) Those lucky *****s! I bet the skiing was awesome.
2) That was not the kind of terrain I chose to be in on Saturday.

The Slot, more than any other serious tours I know, tends to get hit early after the storm. I think people are "getting away with it" more often that they might know. However, when we hear about the tours like this that go well, I think most of our reactions are first in category (1) because we know that everything went okay, and we wish we had gotten after it, too. People aren't going to be critical (especially on a forum like this) when things go well, because they don't want a reputation as a nay-sayer weenie-pants. I think the _lack_ of responses to the Slot post probably is due in part to the conflicting feelings people have between congratulating the party and wanting to warn them about the dice game their decision was.
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Mofro
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #15 on: 02/26/14, 10:18 AM »

Thank you for the honest write up, we're all glad this one didn't turn out with injuries or worse.

Also a  couple of points -

NWAC forecasts are general forecasts and cannot target micro terrain and aspect that experience large fluctuations in wind, snow fall, and transport. They are very helpful for general awareness and are a great resource to include in trip planning, but still rely on field observation and communication from ski area patrols, which I guarantee goes on between NWAC and Alpental patrol, several of which are members on this site.

About differences between the Slot and that slope on Chair peak and the differential treatment- well a report of a natural D3 avalanche with a 10 ft fracture is always going to draw more attention.  However even when trying to compare one "risk" with another "risk" they are not equal, again due to differences in loading and in shedding. The Slot is more prone to frequently clean itself out and so is less likely to be affected by a persistent deep layer, but because it does clean out more regularly it also increases the chance of going for a ride. Accessing it on those S. facing slopes of Snoqualmie has it's own set of issues entirely different from dropping off the back.   That face of Chair above snow lake doesn't slide as often, but that gives it the potential to go big when it does.  This is not to say you made a poor choice and those that chose to ski the Slot made a good choice, just that the choices are not equivalent when considering surface vs deep slab avalanches.

Your transition zone off the back is a little odd. One usually doesn't have to skin and de-skin coming off the saddle down to Snow lake, I have only done that when lapping the rollers down to that last bench.  However, it may have kept you out of the deposition zone.  Again, glad it turned out mostly ok.  
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not always bad
haggis
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #16 on: 02/26/14, 10:44 AM »

I’ve been down that couloir a few times, never in epic conditions mind you and only a couple of times in actual decent powder but nothing like what had fallen leading up to your trip.  I can’t make the judgment whether I would have gone or not since I’ve been laid up so far this season.   The usual route starts from your exit col as I’m sure you are aware and gives the option of skirting the traverse and then dropping the couloir for a “cleaner fall line” or dropping to where you ended up transitioning and entering there neither of which require an extra transition.   I have seen big fractures along the traverse although these were likely caused by big cornice drops given the truck size chunks of ice we observed.  However, every time I’ve been through it there has been evidence of a slide.  It’s a tough one to call since you rightly said that the new snow was stable and whoever routinely digs down 10+ ft doing a pit to test that weak layer?  It that weak layer wasn’t there (which by the sounds of it we all knew it was) then even with that large snowfall it probably would have skied just fine judging by your observations and nobody could fault you on that one.  My takeaway, if there is high probability of a weak layer down deep and it’s an avalanche prone slope then wait for it to slide or settle and get new snow before trying it again.  Whether I can stick to that mantra is another thing of course.

Thanks for the write up, hits home given its one of my local spots.
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cons
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #17 on: 02/26/14, 11:07 AM »

Thanks for stepping up when you know there will be some criticism. I don't have any criticism for what you guys did. I can only say the reasons that I chose different terrain that day and similar ones. After a few years of this sport many of us have begun to focus on what we don't know about the risks and to find ways to mitigate it more rather than to find the true barriers of what is safe or not. One rule of thumb I have fallen back to is to ski lower angled older treed terrain following a storm like this until I have more assurance that a layer like that is stable. That assurance wasn't there for me with this storm because the only dramatic change throughout the storm cycle was that more and more new snow continued to pile on top. The nwac rating, people's pits, trip reports etc. we're irrelevant too me until I saw some sort of warming or soaking event that would thoroughly test the bond on that layer. I likely would have kept to less open slopes until such an event occurred and even afterward I would have had some concern about that layer until after the first large warmup in the spring. I am not an expert and unfortunately I have not always been smart enuf to take my own advice but for what it is worth that is why I chose to stay away from terrain like chair and even the slot. I would not have posted on a trip report about chair or the slot on days with similar risks simply because I am not an expert and couldn't tell those people whether or not they made a decision that was unsafe. It is that that inability to know whether it is unsafe however that kept me in more protected terrain. Thanks again for sharing and I am glad you all came out ok. You are in good company with people who have made mistakes.
Quote

I agree with Ron too. I used to backcountry ski over 100 days/year and would get caught in a couple slides/season. One was scary. All on "low" avalanche days. Friends have died in avys. And after a few years like that I did a calculation. What I'm doing might be 99% safe, but I'm doing it over a hundred times. The numbers will get me if I don't change. So I changed to a rule of only going into real avalanche terrain when the danger rating was low for at least 3 days in a row. Obviously, just waiting for spring is the best. But humans do not have good perceptions of risk and numbers. 99% feels pretty damn safe. But a 1% risk of a catastrophic event is actually an insane risk. I had a strong feeling I would not live another 5 years at the rate I was going.

There are plenty of ways to theorize about things. To justify conditions and choices. But neither guides, NWAC, nor ourselves doing assessments on the mountains, are very good when comes to calculations of odds like that. It's a numbers game. Numbers and emotions don't mix well, so it's hard to follow the numbers instead.

Thanks for the great post. For this great discussion. Glad you're all OK.
« Last Edit: 02/26/14, 12:31 PM by cons » Logged
aaron_wright
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #18 on: 02/26/14, 11:15 AM »

I looked at the archive forecasts for Friday and Saturday for both Snoqualimie Pass and SP near and west of the crest and near and east of the crest and found nothing inconsistent with the forecasts and what happened to the OP's party. The forecasts basically described what happened as a possibility/probability. I agree with whoever posted that blaming NWAC for this is a cop out.

It wound be curious to know where the "guide friend" was skiing on that day on the same aspect and if he exposed himself and his clients to the same objective hazards and consequences.

The recent reports of people "getting after it" given the weather history and forecasts is a bit puzzling to me, but I have a much lower risk tolerance than I used to.

It took a lot of courage to post this write up, maybe edit it to be a bit more objective about your decision making after some more reflection.
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JoshK
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #19 on: 02/26/14, 11:38 AM »

Thanks for stepping up and providing this write-up, knowing that there would be people who would criticize, some productively, others not. It was a very helpful write-up, especially that map, which is awesome; probably the best one I've seen included with an incident report.

A few general comments, many of them repeating what others have said:

*First and foremost, I am really glad you guys made it out unharmed with nothing more than a scary experience and incredible story. We are all certainly glad to be discussing a close call rather than a horrendous accident which claimed lives. Losing people who are in our communities and share similar interests is tough, even if we don't know them personally.

*What you experienced actually fit well with what NWAC was forecasting, rather than contradicted it, at least as I remember the forecast. They mentioned the lowering probability that humans would trigger slides, but still the very real (though smaller) risk that slides of mammoth proportions would occur naturally. They have featured this warning nearly daily for weeks, and included quite a few videos showing evidence of natural and explosive triggered slides that ran huge, but would likely not be triggered by a human. These may be the most truly misleading type of conditions to judge, since any stability tests we can do will show promising results, but the unknown chance of 'the big one' is difficult to see or understand.

*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

*Guide is pronounced "guide", not "god." Sorry if I get flack from people who guide (which includes friends of mine) about this, but I just have to say it. Because somebody guides for a living doesn't necessarily make their knowledge, logic or decision making inherently better. How many guided trips end up with avalanche fatalities? Plenty. The Wallowas accident earlier this season was a guided trip. Remember the 7-fatality incident in BC from 2003? Guided, and led by a very experienced guide at that. The list goes on. I have read several times that statistically, the more avalanche training education one has, the more likely they are to fall victim to a slide. There are plenty of people who participate on this site that have more practical experience than many guides. Who's advice would you trust more, a 24 year old guide who has, let's say, 7 years of experience in the mountains, or a 60 year old lawyer, engineer or whatever who has traveled in the mountains for 40+ years and is still alive to share that experience? It could be either, given the circumstances or the individuals. We could just as easily be reading about this incident having happened to one of the mentioned guided groups, instead of yours. I think it would be wise to not factor in a guide's comments to increasing your level of risk acceptance, be it conscious or not.


And one final comment on something you said:

In my opinion, the Slot is arguably as risky as traveling out to the North side of Chair Peak. Interestingly, our experience produced countless comments on TAY while the Slot post received two, neither of them judgmental. Why do posts that highlight a positive outcome get no scrutiny even though the risks were just as high? I’ve read comments on TAY that congratulate individuals who have taken the same risks we did but ended up with a positive outcome.

You hit the nail on the head here. This was discussed pretty extensively on another thread about the culture of risk and "going big." The responses people give to these more-risky endeavors tend to reinforce the behavior and lead to more of it. Occasionally you'll hear criticism but more often you'll hear "way to go", "sick, bro!", "badass!", "you guys rock", or something along those lines.

In the interest of giving fair treatment to a report with a positive outcome, I'll restate what I said in the other thread about your incident: I think skiing the slot that day was stupid. I wouldn't have done it, neither would most of the people I ski with. However, some people are willing to bite off more risk, and I certainly understand that. That party likely saw the same results displaying relatively stable snow, but they also ran the risk of the exact same thing that you experienced.

Though as you note, the positive outcome didn't result in the same condemnation and armchair QBing. It would probably be fair if people gave the same treatment of criticism (hopefully constructive!) of positive outcome endeavors, but I doubt we will see that, since it will widely be painted as jealousy, or being a wet blanket.

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Jim Oker
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #20 on: 02/26/14, 11:50 AM »

Thanks for sharing this writeup. I'm glad you guys got through it intact, and that you managed the snow slog out before being benighted.

Some of my thoughts mirror those of kamtron, Aaron, and RonL, fwiw.

Two winters ago, I was fortunate enough to glom on to a guided hut trip in BC that was guided by Ken Bibby, a very experienced guide who also teaches for the CAA. I suckered him into giving our group a version of a lecture he'd done for one of their workshops. He walked through his mountaineering history from before guiding through early days guiding to the current era. He focused on the impact of ego on decision-making. He also had a nice powerpoint presentation to go along - his early era self-image was of a gnarly mountaineer, illustrated by a photo of himself doing a "cliffhanger" type move of jumping a crevasse with two ice tools in hand. Gnarly. Then he moved to his first experiences guiding, including being tail guide on a heli trip where he had reservations about the conditions but he was the new guy and he followed along and they lost a client that day. His self image photo for this phase was of a clueless dufus. He kept working though, and built his experience and instincts, and told a story of a trip in a big fat spring snowpack where he decided to be extra cautious about checking a bridged 'schrund with a probe, one that is apparently regularly crossed via the bridge in spring, but he had a funny feeling and wanted to be careful. As he was probing, the very thick bridge dropped away in front of him into the abyss. He sheepishly returned to his waiting clients above and calmly led them the long way around. He then showed his current self-image photo - him with his wife and kids. And he talked about the importance of humility and maintaining a healthy margin of error that is in proportion to the potential risks at hand. He noted that all his experience and training told him that skiing across that bridge was fine on that day, but it turns out it wasn't true.

I'd contrast Ken's conclusions with this quote from the NYT article about the Tunnel Creek incident:
Quote
“It’s a cultural shift, where more skiers are going farther, faster, bigger,” said John Stifter, the editor of Powder magazine, who was a part of the group at Tunnel Creek in February. “Which is tending to push your pro skiers or other experienced, elite-level backcountry skiers that much farther, faster and bigger, to the point where there’s no margin for error.”

My impression is that committing to terrain that empties a broader slope leading to a loaded ridge crest into a relatively narrow and long couloir that piles its poops onto a flat below when we have such a deep load of snow over the last bomber crust is putting a LOT of faith in one's ability to assess the probability of a slide. I too wonder if those experienced guides were leading clients into truly similar spots; if so, I hope I'd join RonL in balking. As it was, on Saturday we were very careful in picking our way down meadow-skipping style terrain that was in the 20+ degree range for the most part, and which was very broken up by benches, despite seeing no classic signs of instability. The depth and apparent complex layering just spooked us and we felt that our usual heuristics were likely to fail us. We wanted a healthy margin of error. I'd add that on the ridge crest we reached, I noticed a fair bit of snow on the move in the wind. Another party which explored a bit further along the ridge noticed larger-than-usual cornices. I don't know where the snow would have been depositing along the ridge crest above you, but in any case could the fact of blowing snow have significantly changed the picture, up well above your transition point, from what your guide friends saw the day before?
« Last Edit: 02/26/14, 12:31 PM by Jim Oker » Logged
cons
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #21 on: 02/26/14, 12:44 PM »

Thanks for sharing this writeup. I'm glad you guys got through it intact, and that you managed the snow slog out before being benighted.

Some of my thoughts mirror those of kamtron, Aaron, and RonL, fwiw.

Two winters ago, I was fortunate enough to glom on to a guided hut trip in BC that was guided by Ken Bibby, a very experienced guide who also teaches for the CAA. I suckered him into giving our group a version of a lecture he'd done for one of their workshops. He walked through his mountaineering history from before guiding through early days guiding to the current era. He focused on the impact of ego on decision-making. He also had a nice powerpoint presentation to go along - his early era self-image was of a gnarly mountaineer, illustrated by a photo of himself doing a "cliffhanger" type move of jumping a crevasse with two ice tools in hand. Gnarly. Then he moved to his first experiences guiding, including being tail guide on a heli trip where he had reservations about the conditions but he was the new guy and he followed along and they lost a client that day. His self image photo for this phase was of a clueless dufus. He kept working though, and built his experience and instincts, and told a story of a trip in a big fat spring snowpack where he decided to be extra cautious about checking a bridged 'schrund with a probe, one that is apparently regularly crossed via the bridge in spring, but he had a funny feeling and wanted to be careful. As he was probing, the very thick bridge dropped away in front of him into the abyss. He sheepishly returned to his waiting clients above and calmly led them the long way around. He then showed his current self-image photo - him with his wife and kids. And he talked about the importance of humility and maintaining a healthy margin of error that is in proportion to the potential risks at hand. He noted that all his experience and training told him that skiing across that bridge was fine on that day, but it turns out it wasn't true.

I'd contrast Ken's conclusions with this quote from the NYT article about the Tunnel Creek incident:
My impression is that committing to terrain that empties a broader slope leading to a loaded ridge crest into a relatively narrow and long couloir that piles its poops onto a flat below when we have such a deep load of snow over the last bomber crust is putting a LOT of faith in one's ability to assess the probability of a slide. I too wonder if those experienced guides were leading clients into truly similar spots; if so, I hope I'd join RonL in balking. As it was, on Saturday we were very careful in picking our way down meadow-skipping style terrain that was in the 20+ degree range for the most part, and which was very broken up by benches, despite seeing no classic signs of instability. The depth and apparent complex layering just spooked us and we felt that our usual heuristics were likely to fail us. We wanted a healthy margin of error. I'd add that on the ridge crest we reached, I noticed a fair bit of snow on the move in the wind. Another party which explored a bit further along the ridge noticed larger-than-usual cornices. I don't know where the snow would have been depositing along the ridge crest above you, but in any case could the fact of blowing snow have significantly changed the picture, up well above your transition point, from what your guide friends saw the day before?

Great description of how one deals with risk throughout the course of their life Jim.
As others said earlier, people have varying levels of risk tolerance. But if one is leading a group of less experienced people, one must lower their tolerance to at least the lowest common denominator.
In group situations, I don't think this happens too often, and the quiet and risk averse people that don't know enough to speak up or are shy to, get led into dangerous positions. I've played "guide" in these group situations and it's always hard to lower risk tolerance in the moment. But it's wrong not to.
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mc
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #22 on: 02/26/14, 01:16 PM »

thanks for the write up.  stoked on the good fortune your group saw that day.

re the slot report from that day....as soon as i saw that report and heard about the chair slide i was going to post a reply in each to link the two. mostly as a holy shiz you (slot poster) just got lucky.  realized that i've also been lucky so i held off on posting that link.

nice to hear how many folks backed off as these storms rolled through.  here's to this week's weather helping rid us of that nasty bond deep down.
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samthaman
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #23 on: 02/26/14, 01:27 PM »

Thanks for posting this. I've been finding that my usual rules of thumb for avalanche safety in the PNW need to get re-evaluated in winters like this. Your report further hi-lights that point. I've become very used to skiing and managing storm snow risk, but get little to no practice with deep instabilities

If you aren't already aware, Second Ascent is hosting a series of talks by NWAC forecasters and one happens to be tonight. https://www.facebook.com/events/586714731411293/?previousaction=join&source=1
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CookieMonster
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Re: Saturday February 22, 2014 Chair Peak Avalanche
« Reply #24 on: 02/26/14, 03:11 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.
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