(photo credit: Mark White)
I cribbed the name from an essay by Iain Stewart-Patterson, a mountain guide and faculty staff member of Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia. His dissertation: The Role of Intuition in the Decision Process of Canadian Ski Guides. You can find his essay in a recent issue of The Avalanche Review, the publication of the American Avalanche Association here (page 18).
I imagine most of you reading this are familiar with the very close call in the Birthday Chutes from a few years ago. The report can be found here. Long story short, a party of two triggered a very large avalanche to the ground in mid-White Pine canyon of Little Cottonwood. One of the two was caught and carried for over 500′ and was uninjured.
That night, I received an email from a backcountry skier who that same day had skiied the northwest face of Red Baldy – the steep open face lording over upper White Pine canyon in LCC and sitting just up-canyon from the Birthday Chutes. As I respect and value his self-reflection, I thought it might be of interest to share his email and my thoughts back to him.
I’m wondering if someone would help me analyze my decision to ski Red Baldy on the day that the Birthday Chutes slid. In hindsight, I still feel it was a reasonable decision. But if someone is inclined, I’d like to know if you see any mistakes in my process, so I could avoid repeating them. Before I hit the snow: I’m a regular bc skier carrying beacon, shovel, probe and 10 essentials familiar with the terrain familiar with the weather and this season’s snow in the central Wasatch, but not upper White Pine. I had a goal — NW Red Baldy that day — (but not set in stone)
My strategy for making good decisions under stress:
go w/ the most conservative judgment
read weather and avy reports from UAC and other sources that morning and each day since the most recent storm was on a similar aspect and elevation the day prior,
On the approach: look around a lot/keeping awareness focused on physical environment specifically looking for signs of recent avalanches, sun and wind effects, effects of prior skiers travel observed no signs of recent avalanches, only infrequent sightings of point releases below cliffs, trees; no cracking or collapsing on skin up
Looked at the Birthdays from the summer road skin track: suspected it would be loaded in parts and scoured in others — could see westerly winds transporting snow up high — sensitive and have the potential to slide leaving no easy escape.
no noticeable effect from sun on snow on Red Baldy: wind was stiff and swirling with a slightly west prevailing direction above the forest at the base of RB. NW face had up to half a dozen faint, wind buffed ski tracks, some starting just under the ridge line rocks, others going only half way up the face, and running down the center of the face.
No sluffing seen near any of the old ski tracks. NW face showed only small, isolated areas of wind loading. Mostly, swirling wind transporting snow in all directions. The only drifts encountered were avoided by changing the path of the skinner. just below the top of the NE ridge, I traversed west below the ridge line rocks. Rocks above were scoured and not holding much snow.
Transitioned in a rock outcropping mid-way across the NW face First turn was a fast, left cut to the bottom of the summit rocks. Looked over the shoulder for trailing snow. 2nd turn was the same, traveling over to the rocks that form the skier’s left boundary of the face.
Skied the far skier’s left (west) side of the face reasoning it would’ve been sheltered from prevailing westerly winds and sun by the rocks. Looking back up at my tracks from the flat, nothing slid or even sluffed. One and done. Lastly, while the Red Baldy face and the BirthDays are a similar aspect and elevation and location, while planning my tour I felt RedBaldy would be in different and safer condition than the BDays b/c of the contour of the terrain — a flat, open face versus funneling gully chutes — and that the line I planned to ski, the far west side abutted by the rocks, would be sheltered from wind effect whereas the BDays were hammered.
Thanks for helping me cover my blind spots, if you can!
Thanks for writing in. We’ve all had our close calls out there and we’ve all had times when we got back to the car and realized that maybe we got away with something. I appreciate your self-reflection and awareness of how you “go about the work” in order to make good decisions and avoid the avalanche problem. Seems you’re as diligent as they come in regards to your approach to the mountains. Sometimes, however, we feel like we do everything right and then still something bad happens. (It’s driven me to read more of the Old Testament over the past couple of years, but I digress.) After a well-publicized avalanche fatality in the Tetons a few years ago, I wrote at length about it for Backcountry magazine and I’ll link to it here.
The avalanche in the Birthday Chutes may have been one of the most surprising avalanches that I’ve seen in almost 20 years of avalanche forecasting. I know that I’m not alone in that sentiment. As far as I know, only a few avalanches ripped to the ground during the storm with only one or two that stepped to the ground (on Saturday) with explosive control work. These were of similar aspect and elevation, but there are times when we feel that while storms, explosives, very large cornice fall, etc may trigger deep slabs, a single skier on the slope will not. Or it’s very unlikely that they will. I made a slight mention of this on that Monday mostly in the fine print of Storm Slab in the advisory. Still, certainty is the enemy of wisdom, and this is what makes this profession or pursuit so compelling. Risk and uncertainty are always a part of mountain travel.
At some point, one must decide (or not) that the poor structure is now dormant. Recent human triggered slides? Cracking? Collapsing? Tests? These are all part of the calculus. It’s my personal view that none of this type of information was evident. It was conveyed to me that the Birthday Chutes avalanche took out previous tracks on the slope, but I can’t confirm this. What I do know is that depth hoar has bedeviled avalanche practitioners since before it was even called depth hoar…and it will continue to do so. You simply cannot trust it. When you enter this terrain with this type of snowpack, you’re playing the game…and it’s just a matter of odds – or risk – and then it’s a matter of understanding your own level of acceptable risk. 1:10? 1:1,000? 1:10,000? Most of us are pre-maturely grey because we are tasked with helping the public reduce their odds or exposure.
But before I get back to your original question I want to say that I particularly appreciated your use of the term hind-sight...because in my view, the hind-sight bias is nearly always damning because the outcome is already known -How could this person miss all of the obvious clues leading up to the incident? My opinion is that if you could go back and re-live that Monday 100 times and ski Red Baldy, you would come back to the truck at the end of the each of those days.