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Author Topic: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call  (Read 4926 times)
mikemiller
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March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« on: 03/24/14, 09:56 PM »

Fleur De Lis

   My skiing partner got caught and carried in an avalanche in the Stevens Pass backcountry yesterday, on 3/20/2014.  She was not buried or injured.  Our plan was to ski 7-9 inches of cold fresh snow at Stevens Pass until things got chunky and then go on a tour somewhere in the vicinity.  We had a couple of good runs on low density pow but kept hitting a few too many tracks and crust for my liking.  I really wanted to  tour that day.  We decided to head to an area that we were both very familiar with, but had not skiied this season, adjacent to the ski area.  At the end of the tour there are two options, you can ski down 35 degree, sheltered old growth and glades named Fleur de Trees, or a steep, 40 degree doglegging chute called Fleur de Lis.   
   We paid a lot of lip service to keeping our options open between the two, but we were really excited about the Fleur de Lis.  We both kept saying “Man, I love the Fleur-de Lis, I didn't think I was going to get the chance to ski it this season!”   Being so excited about the run blinded me to the one clear sign of instability we saw that day.  On our last run in the ski area we skiied over plenty of debris from control work on Cowboy Ridge.  Oops.  In retrospect by that point I think we had already made up our minds about what we wanted to ski.  I am booked with work, weekend plans and a climbing trip to Utah for the next month.  Yesterday was my last chance to ski winter conditions this year, which made me want to ski something memorable. 
   The skin up to the summit was a really nice change of pace from the ski area scene.  I was glad to be out of the ski area and getting some exercise.  Some friends and acquaintances of ours had used our skintrack and arrived just a minute after we topped out a little after noon.  We briefly discussed conditions and both groups separately decided that we were going to ski the lee slope on the far side of the ridge, but because of potential windslab we would avoid the steep convexities near the ridge and ski moderate, sheltered terrain below.  The run was awesome!  The combination of good people, sunshine and  beautiful snow was confidence inspiring.
   We parted ways with the other group and skinned back up the ridge towards our summit.  Our plan was get to the top of the Fleur de Lis then make a final decision on what to ski.  As we climbed up we both realized that we had gone past the chute.  The entrance is in a very confusing spot.  There are several turns worth of trees above the entrance to the line, so from the ridge the entrance is super hard to spot.  We never had the intended discussion of what to ski.  Instead we ripped our skins and fixated on where the top of the chute was.  We meandered around, found the entrance, and at that point we had dropped off the ridge.  At this point, without any real communication or discussion we had committed to skiing the line, psychologically and physically.  It was 2:10pm.
   The entrance of the chute was wind-scoured, but the slopes below were obviously cross-loaded.  I didn't listen to the doubt in my head and we made a plan of how to ski the line.  I dropped in and skiied the top choke and into a wider section a few hundred vertical feet below, then cut left into a safe zone in some thick trees, on a lower angle rib.  I'm not going to lie, it was really, really good!  We were out of eyeshot but within earshot wen I reached the safer zone so I hollered up her to ski.
   Before I saw her, I saw a small sluff come down the chute.  It wasn't an alarming amount of snow, but it was followed a few seconds later by enough snow to call an avalanche.  My partner was riding the tail end of this avalanche.  She was on top, her feet were forward, knees bent, head up.  She kept yelling “I'm OK, I'm OK” as she slid past and I yelled something absurd but reassuring like “Don't worry, I've got you” 
   At that point, a slope adjacent to the chute released.  The slab was about 6 inches deep and 75 feet wide.  This slab combined with the one she was riding on top of and she disappeared into a powder cloud.  The chute dogelgged slightly and fanned out onto a wide apron out of my sight.  I waited for an endless moment to make sure nothing else was coming down the chute and started my search.  I skiied straight to the point where she was engulfed in the cloud.  From there I could see her, about 400 vertical feet below, standing and yelling “I'm OK” waving her arms.  She had gone for a terrifying ride for at least 600 vertical feet.
   She was walking and talking and gathering her poles and hat by the time I got to her.  Her skis were buried.  The debris had fanned out onto a treeless apron and was possibly 150 feet wide but surprisingly shallow. We called a friend on ski patrol, let them know the situation and started arranging a download for my friend.  Where she came to a stop was only a few hundred feet above the bottom terminal of Southern Cross, and it took about 5 minutes to walk there.  My friend rode Southern Cross up and over the top, and downloaded Double D and we were back in the base area.  It was really surreal to be in a base area full of obliviously happy resort skiiers 20 minutes after being in such a frightening situation.

The Good:
--We both had all of our avy gear and knew how to use it.  We read the forecast.  My partner has taken an AIARE 1.  I have taken an AIARE 2 and spent last winter assistant teaching AIARE 1 courses.  We did not dig a pit that day.  The avalanche hazard that day was windslab.  We did not have to dig a pit to find it because it was right in front of our noses.
--We did travel wisely while skiing the Fleur de Lis.  Many people ski right out of the chute instead of left to find a safer zone.  This “safer zone” produced a much larger avalanche than the intial start zone.  Had I gone right both of us could have been caught and the situation could have been much worse.
--The runout of the path is a big treeless apron.  This lowered the consequences of the slide a lot.  Trees or a terrain trap in the runout could have been deadly.  The apron spread out the debris and helped keep my partner on top.  And we got lucky of course.
--We had a good travel plan.  We traveled efficently in terrain we were comfortable skiing.  Unfortunately having a great plan for skiing the wrong terrain is a dangerous combination.
The Bad:
--We did not choose good terrain that day.  We should not have considered skiing Fleur de Lis in the first place.  It was foolish to ski a steep chute during a storm with a considerable danger rating and recent windloading.
--Our teamwork and communication were awesome until it really mattered.  At the top we simply let our enthusiasm and gravity make decisions instead of taking control of the situation.
--We created options such as the Fleur de Trees which would have kept us safe.  I cannot speak for my partner but I think I had already decided what I wanted to ski that day.
We ignored our one direct sign of instability, the avalanche control results in the ski area.
Human Factors:
--Familiarity:  I skiied Fleur de Lis 4 times the previous season.
--Consistency:  We decided Fleur de Lis was an option early in the day and did not back down from that decision.  For me this was a combination of ego, laziness and willful ignorance.  I think when you really want to ski something you put the blinders on so you don't see the evidence that you are making a bad decision.
--Scarcity:  We could have had fun in the ski area or gotten amazing, safe backcountry turns in the trees and glades nearby.  On the other hand, knowing yesterday was the last pow day of the year for me made me feel like it was my last chance to plunder a scarce resource.
--Social Facilitation:  I felt reassured that a friend and mentor in another party made the same choices as me and ended up meeting up with us at the summit.  I think her presence and our awesome first run helped validate our bad decision making an hour later.  The other aspect of social facilitation is doing something to get noticed.  Lots of folks have skiied this line and frankly, nobody cares.  I don't feel like this was one of the reasons I dropped in yesterday.
--Expert Halo:  I co-instructed my partner's AIARE 1 course last year. I would like to think that we were sharing in decision making and skiing as friends and equals that day.  However, there is lots of evidence that “expert” males make riskier decisions when in the presence of a female.
--Sidecountry mentality:  There is no way I would have skiied that terrain in those conditions if I was 10 miles from the trailhead.  Proximity to a ski area made me willing to take risks I otherwise would not have taken.
Photo 1:  This is the entrance of the Fleur de Lis.  The initial slide was probably triggered somewhere near the narrowest part of the chute, 50 feet below where the photo was taken.  The adjacent slope below on the right was where the second slab fractured.  The “safer zone” that I was in is out of view on skiiers left of the chute.  From that perspective I could not see my partner when the slide started, or the bottom of the runout.  The bottom terminal of Southern Cross is in the bottom of the valley, just left of the frame.
Photo 2:  Overview of the scene.  These pictures were taken by a friend of mine years ago.  We took no photos on the day of the incident.


* fleur_de_lis_4.jpg (231.51 KB, 600x800 - viewed 2127 times.)

* Fleur_De_Lis_Final.jpg (156.83 KB, 753x620 - viewed 2060 times.)
« Last Edit: 03/24/14, 10:28 PM by mikemiller » Logged
sastrugi slicer
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #1 on: 03/24/14, 11:44 PM »

Wow, so glad you're both OK. I really appreciate your detailed analysis, especially of human factors. This is the part I find so hard to become totally aware of during a tour. It takes some reflection, and that is difficult to do when in the middle of the action. Yet that's when it counts.
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Cold cuts anyone?
Andrew Carey
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #2 on: 03/25/14, 08:00 AM »

You can lead a horse to water ...
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... want your own private skintrack? Better move to the yukon dude. (B'ham Allen, 2011).
...USA: government of the people by corporate proxies for business.

Andy Carey, Nisqually Park, 3500 feet below Paradise
Floater
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #3 on: 03/25/14, 08:18 AM »

Excellent report.  I was out that day as well near Stevens and it was awesome skiing.  We chose other options, but it could have been us.  I am leery of chutes everyone thinks due to the steepness and the chute being protected they are OK, but I find them restricting should one come.

However, I have skied this very run a couple of times so it could have been me.  Glad it worked out.  Your report is why I read TAY.
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BillK
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #4 on: 03/25/14, 08:41 AM »

Excellent write-up and analysis...glad everything turned out OK.  Good reminder for me to not ignore my instincts and observations. 
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tomtom
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #5 on: 03/25/14, 09:53 AM »

Nice report.  Thanks for sharing.
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Jim Oker
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #6 on: 03/25/14, 10:05 AM »

Thanks for sharing, and of course I'm glad your partner is OK. Your write-up reminds me of my own tendency toward goal orientation as well as the challenge of slowing down and thinking and talking before entering significant risk zones (often the most fun part of a tour which has been the aim of the goal orientation, and thus group excitement tends to be peaking).

Mike - I'm wondering if you or your partner know whether the initial pile she was riding was her sluff or if it was a slab she had triggered?

everyone thinks due to the steepness and the chute being protected they are OK
???Do people really think this? I guess the more a slope goes above 45 degrees, the lower the probability of slab formation, but of course it is a continuum and not a hard boundary. And sluffs can still be an interesting challenge in the restricted terrain of a chute. There is of course a reason that the trees aren't growing there despite growing on either side of that terrain feature...
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mikemiller
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #7 on: 03/25/14, 07:28 PM »

Mike - I'm wondering if you or your partner know whether the initial pile she was riding was her sluff or if it was a slab she had triggered?
 

I really don't know for sure Jim. I could not see my partner, and she cannot remember.  My best guess is there was a little sluff, then a small slab that caught her and then the whole shebang triggered the larger slide from the adjacent slope.
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Floater
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #8 on: 03/25/14, 08:03 PM »

Jim

I agree and that is why I am leery of chutes.  In the northwest I think also due to the snow being wetter and more dense I think the steeper slopes greater than 45 degrees here in the PNW have greater risk of slab avalanches than in the continental climes.  However, I am no expert so I often avoid these restrictive areas of terrain.

I can not blame folks for skiing them they are fun and the snow often stays nice since they are protected.  I am just happy folks share their close calls here, I learn a lot by reading them.
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shred
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WWW
Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #9 on: 03/26/14, 07:18 PM »

Thanks for the great Overview, Mike! Glad you two came out of this unscathed.
We skied a chute very close to the fluer the following day. We popped a 8" slab on our initial ski cut, which popped a few other micro slabs lower down the chute.
Here is a video that I took.
http://thesnowtroopers.com/2014/stevens-pass-wa-rooster-comb-ridge/
« Last Edit: 03/27/14, 02:56 AM by shred » Logged
Bird Dog
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Re: March 20, 2014, Stevens Pass BC close call
« Reply #10 on: 03/27/14, 11:49 AM »

Thanks for taking the time to write that, well written and good lesson for all. Glad everyone is OK.
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