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10/22/17, 07:36 PM

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Author Topic: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)  (Read 5191 times)
MattT
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"Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« on: 12/05/16, 12:59 PM »

Fully prepared to get super flamed here...but FWIW not looking to call out, just understand.

(Jealously) checking out all the fun folks had touring this weekend (especially in the xtal BC), but I can't help but wonder...what was going through folks' minds?

NWAC listed avy danger as "considerable" at all elevations, with concerns about wind slabs and storm slabs. http://www.nwac.us/avalanche-forecast/avalanche-forecast/631/
1.5-2.5'+ feet of new snow fell throughout the area

Post trip -
Inbounds reports at xtal mention "point releases all over both natural and triggered" (myikat, http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=37204.0) and even show inbound slides (http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=37207.0)

Multiple touring groups report fantastic skiing but at least two reports of triggering slides.
http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=37206.0
http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=37202.0
http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=37205.0

These reports appear to show groups spending time on slopes plenty steep enough to slide. Considering the conditions, isn't this a bit quick to be stepping onto this terrain and getting after it? It at least seems counter to what I have been taught. I was inbounds for that very reason, but curious to know if my gut and intuition were wrong on Sunday's conditions. Primarily west winds prevented wind slabs on east facing peaks, but the winds were light enough to not ruin the pow on those slopes? Storm slabs were evaluated but found to be non-problematic? Everyone was super cautious but avy conditions better than expected/forecasted? You never know till you go?

Love seeing folks have a good time. But sometimes I'm fearful all the good vibes, skiing was awesome without mention of what went into groups feeling comfortable to step into avy terrain sends an incomplete and potentially dangerous message to the interweb viewing masses.

My $0.02, flame on!

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Jason4
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #1 on: 12/05/16, 02:30 PM »

No reason to flame, you're asking good questions.  I think it comes down to risk tolerance, familiarity with terrain, and knowledge (or lack of it).  it sounds like your tolerance for risk is lower than the people that you saw out in uncontrolled terrain which is a wise choice for you and possibly something that the rest "got away with" this time.  Keep making conservative choices and you'll last longer than those who are pushing their luck.
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toddball
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #2 on: 12/05/16, 03:36 PM »

For anyone who hasn't read the linked TRs, I wrote the Dec 4 report on Snoqualmie Mtn:
http://www.turns-all-year.com/skiing_snowboarding/trip_reports/index.php?topic=37205.0

I apologize for the long reply.  The bottom line is that we observed only good snowpack conditions, until we accidentally ended up on a slope that was steeper than we had planned to be on, which is where the slide was triggered.  It is also noteworthy that "powder fever" was a factor and may have impacted our decision-making process for the worse.

My partner and I didn't have a defined objective, beyond "Snoqualmie Pass", but were thinking about the Slot Couloir on Snoqualmie if conditions were good (i.e. safe).  Our back-up plan was Humpback, since I had heard it has good low-angle terrain; neither of us had ever skied there, though.  We couldn't see Humpback at all from the highway, so we decided to keep going to Alpental.  The idea with Snoqualmie Mtn was that we could head up to the summit/Slot entrance if conditions were good, and if not we could always do laps in the trees or even head down and ski Hyak or something low-angle on the south side.  Or, if we got up to treeline and didn't like the look of the slopes above, we could check out the Phantom Slide.  Looking at the NWAC forecast the night before, we agreed the Slot was too steep, but perhaps the Phantom or further west slopes (i.e. the line of ascent) would be okay.

On the ascent to "treeline" (~5000') we could not detect any slabs or instabilities at all in the snowpack.  By the time we got to treeline we decided that we didn't want to traverse to the Phantom and that the slopes above would provide good skiing around 30 degrees.  There was a possible line of ascent that was reasonably well-protected by large trees, up to a another dense wall of trees at ~5500'.  The two skiers setting the skin track we had been following were already halfway up this slope; we eventually caught up to them and my partner broke trail up to the trees at ~5500'.  We were careful to only cross open slopes between trees one at a time in case a slide came from higher up.  We were also probing and hand-testing the snowpack all the way up the ascent, although we did not dig a pit.

The other two skiers we met descended below treeline before our high point.  When we did reach the denser trees at ~5500', we began to observe a light but cohesive slab about 5" deep at the top of the snowpack.  That was enough to convince us to descend.  We were concerned about descending right above the skin track, in case anyone was below us, so decided to veer skier's right around a clump of trees.  This slope turned out to be significantly steeper than our ascent, around 35-38 degrees, and there was significant sluff in the first few turns.  After two turns or so I began to worry that I could trigger a loose-dry slide on the steepest part of the slope, so I planned an exit to skier's left under a small cliff and into a more gradual slope.  I ended up triggering the slide described in the TR (D1, 30' wide x 8" crown x 150' runout) as I turned towards my escape zone, and skied out of it with no issues.  I had still not felt any slab so I thought it was a loose-dry slide until seeing the crown.  

After we regrouped, we decided to ski on the left (east) side of the skin track where the slope was more gradual and where we could keep in visual contact.  We did three more laps in this area with no issues.  One of the big takeaways from this experience was the importance of visual contact between partners for the entire ski pitch.

To be clear: skiing the slope that ended up sliding was a bad decision and not part of the plan.  Had I known that that was the slope I was about to drop into, I would have gone further left.  Perhaps I should have bailed as soon as I saw the convexity rolled over much more than I had thought it would, but at that point I was worried that trying to sidestep/wallow my way back up to our transition point could put me in a bad place if something did slide.

I am interested in feedback on everything above, and in particular on the following two statements:

1. Given that I could see the runout and there was a nearby safe zone, I decided it was safer to just get down the slope into the safe zone rather than escape upward.

2. I felt confident that the slope was safe for my partner, since it had already slid when he skied it.

Thanks MattT for starting the discussion.
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natefred
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #3 on: 12/05/16, 03:45 PM »

Don't worry it's not just you. Forecast vs. objectives in some of the TR's is a little bit of a head scratcher, for me. I didn't read the forecast until your post, though, so it all looked like good fun with a few minor instabilities at the top of the storm snow. Maybe telemetry indicated less wind than was forecast and that influenced people's decisions, I didn't look too far into it. I wouldn't have planned to spend much time exposed below potentially loaded slopes with that forecast, myself, but to each their own. Best skiing conditions being a bit hazardous sometimes and all.

It's been a few years for me, but the approach up Snoqualmie in particular I don't see how you can assess the hazard at the top (or above you, for that matter) during the ascent until you reach a point at which you could trigger something above you, when you're exposed to taking a ride through trees or nasty terrain. The activity noted on the slope accidentally skied does indicate to me that, yes, it was fortunate that stability didn't happen to be any worse than it was, and if it was, it might have been difficult to realize that fully on the ascent and bail.

So, my two cents is that you don't need to be too quick to recalibrate your risk meter based on what other people are doing. Considerable conditions will probably continue to be at the top of the accident bell curve.
« Last Edit: 12/05/16, 04:16 PM by natefred » Logged
Blizz Mountain
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #4 on: 12/05/16, 08:11 PM »

I'm with you MattT -
1. Considerable means 'dangerous avalanche conditions' and 'human triggered avalanches likely'
2. The majority of avalanche deaths occur during 'considerable' forecast - 47% according to Utah Avalanche Center (I tried attaching the graph - not sure if it will show up in the post).

Yes, I believe you can be relatively safe in considerable conditions with conservative terrain choices.  Just because someone has a higher risk tolerance, does not mean they have bigger balls than you - they can die just as easily as anyone - it just the choice that they make.  True, many are very knowledgeable and make good choices and come home safe... and unfortunately, some of the most knowledgeable go out in 'considerable' conditions and make only 1 bad decision, and that's the last decision they will ever make.
In my opinion, just looking at the amount of snowfall the night before and during the day, the wind, etc led me to make my own decision  that validated the considerable forecast.  I had my touring gear in my car and headed to Stevens Pass Sunday AM. there were plenty of skiers and snowshoers heading up Heather Ridge.  I decided to leave my touring gear in the car and resort ski for the day.  Stevens Pass did a considerable amount of avy contorl work late into the morning, again confirming my choice.
I would consider my self very conservative and on the very low risk side of the scale. It's just my nature and affects my decisions. I am by no means condemning those that are out there skiing in 'considerable' or worse conditions - the point I'm trying to make is trust your own instinct and decisions when you decide to 'stay home' instead of go out - don't follow the crowd if it doesn't feel right to you. Don't assume that 'it must be ok because those with more knowledge, experience, skill, etc. are out there'. No flame's for those that decide to stay home, and no flames for those that decide to go out.



* Capture_Considerable.JPG (41.24 KB, 994x489 - viewed 805 times.)
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Onward.
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #5 on: 12/05/16, 08:37 PM »

I have fewer years of touring experience than many others but I just get the sense that the day immediately following a really big storm is usually a good day to ride the chairs unless you know with absolute certainty that you won't be skiing/riding something steep enough to slide (which in yesterday's conditions would have been difficult anyway). For me, that means I would only go out touring in those conditions in a place I am extremely familiar with, (hopefully) making it less likely to run into the situation described here encountering unknown terrain and finding yourself on something steeper or sketchier than you expected. One thing I've learned about backcountry skiing it's that route finding is far more complicated than it appears on the surface and even seemingly small or simple terrain can be very dangerous in the wrong situation.

I have found it really helpful to practice decision-making framework that NWAC has described at many of the Going Deep workshops. The idea is you red light certain terrain based on the forecast before you go out into the field. It reduces the amount of on the fly yes/no evaluation as you travel across the terrain. For example, if wind slab is likely above treeline on east aspects, I've decided im not riding or climbing any east facing slope above treeline that day  before my splitboard is even in the car.

Other terrain is green lighted, and based upon pre-trip evaluation, goes unless yellow/red flags are observed. You can always red light previously green lighted terrain but as a rule you never, ever, green light terrain in the field you decided was a red light while you were at home. This method takes a lot of the decision-making out of the field setting because you make the decisions before you go and there is less to decide on the skin track. I try to avoid evaluating terrain in the field with the mind set that "it could be really dangerous but let's go take a look at it" because honestly, once you're out there your ability to objectively evaluate a slope is often clouded by human factors and not reliable. On the other hand, if I've decided a certain aspect is good to go based on the forecast, but I discover on arrival that it's loaded or I see cracks or hear whoomps, I can red light that terrain. This should never happen the other way around, per the theory.

At the end of the day, it's true that you have to decide your own risk tolerance. I decided not to tour yesterday because there was, yes, too much fresh. Anything steep enough to ski was steep enough to slide yesterday. Conditions were epic yesterday and I don't blame people for getting after it. But even though you didn't experience any red/yellow flags in the field there were plenty of them before you left; rapid loading, wind, etc. 

To the OP, good on you for recognizing that people decided to go out in reasonably dangerous conditions yesterday. That's their choice, and if they felt confident in their ability to manage the terrain and avoid dangerous slopes power to them. I'm not personally that comfortable with my terrain management skills, yet. If others are willing to simply take the risk that's their choice too. Im sure there are plenty of high IQ Backcountry skiers that had a safe fun day yesterday. I had plenty of fun off chair 6 with no complaints. That's the beauty of the sport, it's whatever you make of it.
« Last Edit: 12/05/16, 09:53 PM by Onward. » Logged
T. Eastman
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #6 on: 12/06/16, 09:16 AM »

Good discussion!

The normalization of risk can be a tricky genie to get back into the bottle...
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khyak
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #7 on: 12/06/16, 09:57 AM »

I tend to look at ratings as being somewhat location dependant.   Like a blue square at one area might be a black at another.   Considerable in Washington is not the same as Colorado.  Now I could be totally an idiot, and feel to flame on me.   However, avalanche awareness in the Rocky Mts seems to be different than In Washington.   Our snowpack is a helluva lot safer than those colder interior snowpacks.   Due to our safer snowpack, and less avalanche deaths, people are much more complacent about avalanche ratings.   We generally do not deal with depth hoar, which can be a season long issue in Colorado or Wyoming.  Our avalanche issues are usually much more obvious than a sinister layer that might be several feet deep.   Usually our issues are only skin deep.   Perhaps a good ski cut might have mitigated that convex rollover on Snoq?   

That being said there are plenty of people that are just unaware.   Especially at the beginning of the season, when people are excited to get out on new equipment.   With more knowledge, comes more fear.   With more experience comes more fear.   Greg Hill has 8 tips to stay safe, with keep fearful, as one of his guidelines.   Only you can judge your risk tolerance.

Terrain management is the key to safe backcountry skiing.
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philfort
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #8 on: 12/06/16, 11:43 AM »

The slope above the dense forest on Snoqualmie always scares me a bit, especially if there are others up there. The terrain is complex... open and steep enough to slide easily, treed enough to make it hard to see partners (and provide big obstacles to hit), lots of different slope angles.
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samthaman
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #9 on: 12/06/16, 01:02 PM »

I've been exclusively touring for quite a while now and frequently get out on considerable and high days. It can be easy to get carried away, but I think that it's important to realize that a considerable/high rating doesn't mean you'll cause a slide, jus that the margin for error is smaller and your terrain choices are more limited. With the right attitude, I think that going out on considerable and high days can be a great learning experience as it really forces you to focus on what is and is not safe terrain. After a level 1 and 2 class, I think the best way to improve your skills is to make a focused effort to plan tours for all conditions, and then get out (carefully) in those conditions. Not saying that the choices last weekend we're right or wrong, but that's how I approach the issue personally.
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Koda
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #10 on: 12/06/16, 01:28 PM »


NWAC listed avy danger as "considerable" at all elevations, with concerns about wind slabs and storm slabs. http://www.nwac.us/avalanche-forecast/avalanche-forecast/631/
1.5-2.5'+ feet of new snow fell throughout the area


Its almost always considerable here in the PNW. Considerable rating is just one element of instability of many to look for.

Quote
Love seeing folks have a good time. But sometimes I'm fearful all the good vibes, skiing was awesome without mention of what went into groups feeling comfortable to step into avy terrain sends an incomplete and potentially dangerous message to the interweb viewing masses.
would it be equally dangerous to say you felt comfortable when in fact you got lucky?

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andyski
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #11 on: 12/06/16, 02:59 PM »

I've been exclusively touring for quite a while now and frequently get out on considerable and high days. It can be easy to get carried away, but I think that it's important to realize that a considerable/high rating doesn't mean you'll cause a slide, jus that the margin for error is smaller and your terrain choices are more limited. With the right attitude, I think that going out on considerable and high days can be a great learning experience as it really forces you to focus on what is and is not safe terrain. After a level 1 and 2 class, I think the best way to improve your skills is to make a focused effort to plan tours for all conditions, and then get out (carefully) in those conditions. Not saying that the choices last weekend we're right or wrong, but that's how I approach the issue personally.

Same here. The reduced margin for error and extra discipline needed are key elements. Some would argue that those two elements alone are enough to merit a day on the lifts or the couch. Others not so much.

If you're going to say you'd never tour on a high danger day, don't be so arrogant to think that riding a lift and staying within ropes excludes you from avy risk. Doing so rationally reduces your exposure to risk, but doesn't eliminate it any more than touring mature trees without overhead exposure does. Yet people howl at others who tour low-angle trees on high or considerable days, but then charge all over the resort on the same day.

The touring option on that day absolutely requires a bit more planning, knowledge and discipline, but with those things in place, it's quite possible that the objective risk is about the same as skiing Central that day.

If you just toured Gold Hills at Crystal on Sunday, is that OK? What if the Yodelin old growth was in?

Better or worse than skiing near ropes anywhere at Crystal that day? Is a "controlled" and skier-compacted Powder Bowl that much safer to hang out at the bottom of (hello Lucky Shot) than your favorite old-growth stash that doesn't have open slopes above it?

I doubt it, but everyone is different.

But we usually assume people are either morons or not as experienced as we are and resort to scare tactics almost immediately, out of understandable laziness. It's easier to just say "don't ever tour on a considerable day" than express all the nuance involved with touring in relative safety on a day with elevated risk or in an area with greater exposure to risk to someone whose experience isn't clear.

Maybe that's the right call for the internet, but it's a very reductive one for real life. It's same thing as your parents telling you to never drink or do drugs ...then they do.

That's the risk of this approach. "Official" stomping of feet and yelling "NEVER NEVER NEVER" and then 20 reports about how rad it was, including one from you.
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0321Recon
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #12 on: 12/06/16, 09:12 PM »

I'm hoping one of the smarter people in the room read and review "The Undoing Project" by Michael Lewis.
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CookieMonster
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #13 on: 12/06/16, 11:20 PM »

I'd like to try an experiment here.

Who can look at the forecast and conditions on the days in question and write a few sentences about the physical processes going on during the storm, during the wind, and in the snowpack. If a little prodding would help, here are some questions:

What is the name for the type of snowpack instability we're discussing here?
What are some key facts about this type of instability?
Was it a cold storm? What are the implications of this?
Was it a warm storm? What are the implications of this?
Did the amount of water vapor and/or temperature change during the storm?
How would you figure this out?
What might it tell you?
What about crystal forms and layers?
Did anyone use hand pits to check density? If so, what would you want to see?
Was it windy?
Where was it windy?
How can you look for signs of wind transported snow without looking at the snowpack itself?
Does wind promote instability? If so, how?
Do cold temperatures promote instability? If so, how?
Do warm temperatures promote instability? If so, how?
What was the run list?
What runs were red?
What runs were yellow?
What runs were green?
How many people used a written trip plan?
How many people are religious about using a written trip plan.

These are the things I think about on a considerable day with lots of storm snow. I personally felt like avalanche danger was moderate in most places with a fairly uniform distribution of high avalanche danger on steeper slopes regardless of aspect.

Note that I would think about all these things, along with other things, and I'd have a written trip plan with two alternates.
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aaron_wright
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #14 on: 12/07/16, 06:28 AM »

Always good to see a CookieMonster post.
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MW88888888
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #15 on: 12/07/16, 03:51 PM »

I like TAY because you can actually have a discussion. 

I ski BC in considerable danger all the time.  I live in Colorado, which absolutely has a more challenging snowpack (our danger can last ALL WINTER LONG, not just days after the storm).

How do these two statements jive and I'm still alive to write this? 

For me it really is terrain knowledge and terrain choice.  I wouldn't go out of my way to ski unknown terrain in considerable (or Moderate for that matter if the objective is wild), or ski anything that would slide, so mellow runs in the trees is usually where I'm at on a considerable day.  Low danger is when you test those new ideas and new areas. 

Yeah, it gets "boring" year after year skiing the same ol' mellow spots in untracked snow....but I'm still alive!  Wait, did I just say skiing untracked powder was boring?  Shame, shame, powder snobbery: it's a Colorado thing. 

   
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bwalt822
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Re: "Armchair" touring on a considerable day (12/4/16)
« Reply #16 on: 12/08/16, 12:47 PM »

I was part of the platinum peak tr linked above.


I'm not an avy expert by any means but this is what our groups decision making was.

We went up there aware of the nwac forecast and assessed as we went with the plan to find some trees or  lower angle slopes to ski if things were uncomfortable.  I did several quick arm pits along the skin track and the snow was not cohesive at all.  It just fell apart when you pushed on it.  We had also noted the natural sluffs on very steep terrain across the basin but there was no propagation to them.

There was essentially no evidence of wind effects more than a few turns down from the ridge where it wasn't as steep and we were skiing the windward slope of the mountain.  Sluffing was the main concern.  Finally a couple of people had already skied the slope we went down.  So with all off that info we all felt fine but tried to maintain proper spacing as much as was practical.    On my first steep run my sluff did run on the steepest part but didn't expand our accelerate too much.  (Before that we went a few hundred feet down the backside of the hill on low angled terrain but it was to deep and not steep enough to really be able to ski.)

I hesitate to call the small side in the pictures a slab.  My wife essentially did a ski cut on the small roll and a 15'x15' area kind of started moving all at once but only released from under the ski cut.
« Last Edit: 12/08/16, 01:23 PM by bwalt822 » Logged
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