Riding out an avalanche makes the heart beat faster
Snowcat skiing on a sunny, crisp day after a 30-inch dump over the high Sierra Nevada. Second or third turn after the jump in, knee deep powder snow, light and fresh, late afternoon sun glancing off the northwest slope, last run of the day. I tell myself it just doesn’t get any better than this!
Then the slab breaks loose and starts to slide down, right under my skis, moving downhill much faster than I am.
My first thought. My second is that this is just a little loose “sluff” that will stop on its own after a few feet of slipping down the mountain. Wishful thinking.
This is not just some sluff. This is going good. This is the real thing. This is an avalanche! And I am in it!
Boots are already buried, but they were before the slide started. Knees are still out in the air, still visible, but they are going to be buried very soon I think. Don’t lose your balance now. This is not the place to fall. Stay forward, keep hard on that ski edge into the hill, keep control.
Dave, our lead professional guide and principal of Swayback Adventure Services, Inc. out of Truckee, had told us at the top of each run where the escape route was if the slope started to slide.
Now, just where had Dave said our escape route was?
“Ski right on this run. Right is your escape route.” Yes, that was what Dave had said a mere minute ago, just before he started his run by jumping into the untracked line straight down the almost vertical face at the top of the run. Like someone possessed by demons, Dave had jumped up and down twice, pouncing on the slope with all his natural weight and then some momentum force weight created by his jumping. Dave was trying to break loose a small “pocket” slide at the top. He had said he thought the pocket at the top was likely to slide, if anything was.
The pocket didn’t slide even with his jumping, so Dave had flashed downward in his gracefully strong deep powder style, “cutting” the slope with his first tracks. First tracks on any run were not only the most enjoyable tracks but also the most dangerous tracks. If a slope was going to slide, it was most likely to slide with these first tracks.
That’s why the lead guide always went first. (As I found out, there is no guarantee the slope won’t slide under subsequent tracks.) The other guides and the clients all had waited at the top, breath held, waiting for Dave to clear out at the bottom of the run.
We all had our avalanche beepers or transceivers set on “Transmit,” as did Dave. Beepers are essentially compact radio-like devices that strap on one’s chest and continuously transmit a signal that can be received by other units when those units are switched from “Transmit” to “Receive.”
Whenever a backcountry skier, snowboarder or snowmobiler is buried by an avalanche, the buried person’s companions switch their beepers to “receive” and search for the buried person by locating the signal transmitted by the buried person’s beeper.
To avoid multiple buried person searches, we had skied each run alone, one person on the slope at a time. As soon as one person cleared out at the bottom, another person could start his or her run.
This is it! I am in an avalanche! Ski right! My edges are holding. I am still upright. I don’t want to try that avalanche swimming technique I had read about. The rock studded spine of the ridge to the right of the sliding slope is a mere 20 feet away. So close. Still on my feet. I think I will make it, upright and not buried. There. Glide to a stop.
Look down at the slide. It isn’t stopping. It’s big. It’s gathering force, bulk and speed, shooting down through the narrow, rocky chutes near the bottom, tearing loose more slabs from adjacent slopes, a top fracture line at least 16 feet deep, and then it flows down across the run out by the far trees and grinds to an almost gentle halt.
The avalanche is over in less than 20 seconds. It seemed much longer than that.
I notice my knees are shaking. No one speaks. We are all in awe. I see all this and somehow I am surprised that the slide occurred. Silly me.
Soon I need to get down to where Dave is standing, or I fear I may never gather the nerve to move from my safe perch on the ridge spine. Dave shouts up to me that the safest line for me now is directly down over the slide’s path. This seems intuitively correct. I shove off, knees still shaking. To my surprise, there is still good powder in which I cut first tracks, albeit shakily. Style is not my main concern now; getting down to Dave in one piece is.
One by one, Dave coaxes his group of clients down the slope and to the safe point midway down the run. After that, we all follow instructions as to the safest line to follow down to the run out and the trees. One smaller slide is started by one of our skiers; the slide dissipates in some trees. The sweeper guide Ken follows at the end. We are all down safely.
That same day, about three miles to the west of our group and three hours earlier than our last run, another skier was not so fortunate. That skier died after being buried in an avalanche on the eastern side of Mt. Judah just south of Donner Summit. According to press reports I read, the skier and his two snowboard companions had ignored the out of bounds signs posted at the ridge behind Sugar Bowel, looking for untracked powder. (See avalanche.org/av-reports/index.html)
Looking for untracked powder without adequate preparations and skills can be deadly. From one amateur backcountry skier to others considering going in search of untracked powder and the truly magnificent beauties offered by the backcountry, here are my tips:
— Never go into the backcountry alone.
— Hire a professional guide, especially when you are a beginner. (See Swayback Adventure Services, Inc. at swayback.com)
— Take an avalanche safety course; read about avalanche safety; learn snow bonding tests to assess the avalanche risks yourself. (See Alpine Skills International located at the top of Donner Summit at alpineskills.com/mountainguides. ASI offers several courses each year.)
— Equip yourself properly for avalanche safety, including especially: transceiver (avalanche beeper); snow shovel; snow/avalanche probe. (See Backcountry Access, Inc. at bcaccess.com/fmain)
— Know how to use your transceiver, shovel and probe; practice using your transceiver to find buried transceivers so you are proficient in an emergency.
— Check the current, local avalanche conditions on the day of your trip. (For Truckee Forest Service Ranger District Station Office Report: r5.fs.fed.us/tahoe/avalanche or call (530) 587-2158.)
— Stay well back from and away from cornices; watch out for wind loading (windblown snow buildup); look for and avoid paths of past avalanches (avalanche paths swept free of mature trees); access slopes one by one to avoid multiple burials.
— Understand the concept of how avalanches relate your own mortality.
There is possibly nothing more awe inspiring in the world than high alpine country blanketed with a fresh layer of pristine snow. Skiing, boarding or snowshoeing in this wonderland is an experience to live for, but hopefully not to die for.
There is risk in most everything we do, even eating our daily meals or commuting into work. True, there are avalanche risks in the backcountry, but with proper training, proper equipment and exercising sound judgment, those risks can be managed to levels that are acceptable, acceptable at least to those who truly delight in the backcountry experience.
Those risks will never be eliminated. Last week’s firsthand experience with my avalanche has left me somewhat humbled. I won’t intentionally seek out avalanches in the future, but I will return to the backcountry, looking for that perfect line through the untracked deep powder.
Chuck Farrar’s parents started him skiing when he was 3 years old on Granlibakken’s rope tows, near Tahoe City. Chuck is a local freelance writer and practicing attorney who adventures into the backcountry as often as he can find a partner to join him.
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