It had been a weird and variable winter across the West. Ten people had already died in avalanches nationwide, four in just the last three days. In the Wallowas, a rugged playground of vertical granite and basalt with at least 31 peaks that rise above 9,000 feet, tucked away in northeastern Oregon, it'd been warm and then cold and then warm again, with early season snowfall significantly below average. Finally, at the end of January, the jet stream shifted south, bringing a steady winter cycle: 18 inches, then six, then another 18 to 23 as it grew progressively colder and drier. In the end, nearly four feet of new snow fell over 10 days at the Schneider Meadows SNOTEL plot, located at 5,400 feet, 1,800 feet below the old miner's cabin.
Then it warmed up again. Two days prior, on the morning of the 9th, as the group set out on a six-mile snowmobile tow-in to start the trip, it was raining in the town of Halfway. Higher up, the gods dropped four inches of heavy sludge on top of a frozen crust. The usual skin track, covering the last two and a half miles from the drop-off point to the cabin, was blown out by a natural slide. So they'd blazed an alternate, safer route to the cabin, then spent the first afternoon practicing avalanche rescue protocol and taking a short, low-risk tour near the cabin.
The thing about the Schneider Cabin, tucked as it is in a stand of old-growth whitebark pines on a high shelf below the steep southeast face of 8,643-foot Cornucopia Peak, is that there's really no moderate terrain. From the cabin upward it's all fairly burly and exposed. Which is great in the right conditions. But when things are sketchy, options are limited.
It was a big group: six clients and two guides. The clients—"guests" in the delicate parlance of outfitters—were each connected in one way or another to 26-year-old Quinton Dowling and his mother, Susan Polizzi, 60. The pair had both skied in the Wallowas before. Dowling worked for a medical research nonprofit in Seattle and was thinking about going to grad school. Polizzi was a longtime backcountry skier and outdoor enthusiast who'd worked as a nurse in Wenatchee, Washington. Skiing with them was Bruno Bachinger, 40, an avid road biker and triathlete from Snohomish, Washington. Allen Ponio, 36, Ray Pinney, 32, and Shane Coulter, 30, had come down from Seattle. Coulter's wife was supposed to be there, too, but had broken her toe the day before and had to bail.
The outfitter, Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH), provided the snowmobiles to get from Halfway to the end of the road; gear and liquor portage (extra); basic accommodations at Schneider Cabin; and two professional guides to break trail and cook and generally keep the group from getting into trouble—all at a price well below what you'd pay for comparable services in any of the more popular ranges.
The lead guide, 30-year-old Chris "Sunshine" Edwards-Hill, was on his sixth full season in the Wallowas. Jake Merrill, a keen, lovable young "goofball" (as friend and former employer Chris Gerston of Backcountry Essentials put it) from Bellingham, Washington, was the tail guide. Merrill had a solid resume in the outdoors—especially for a 23-year-old. He'd grown up skiing and climbing on Mount Baker. He'd completed his Wilderness First Responder, Single-Pitch Climbing Instructor, and AIARE Levels 1 and 2—in addition to a number of guiding internships. This was his first trip as a full-fledged assistant guide, but everyone agreed he was more than ready. Ultimately, there's only one way to gain real experience as a guide, and that's by working as a guide.
That morning, everyone was out of the cabin and on skis by 9 a.m. The wind gusted across the plateau from the west. Given the potential for major loading on the opposite side of the ridge, the guides made the call to stay on the closer south-facing slopes. They would lap a couple of runs, see how things felt, and then maybe head over to another aspect in the afternoon. Edwards-Hill stamped out a track to where he could start a series of switchbacks through the sparse trees. The clients followed. One after another, they levered up their heel risers and leaned into the climb. As tail guide, Merrill came last. His job was to give encouragement to anyone who needed it on the way up, to tell jokes and run sweep.
Thin ribbons of snow streamed across the slope as they climbed, compacting the new snow. Both guides took note of cross-loading in gullies and depressions. They dug pits into some of the pillows to see if they could get a slab to shear off. Everything seemed fairly stable. When the group reached the main ridge they ran through downhill travel protocol: Edwards-Hill would drop in first; then one at a time, five to 10 turns apart, the others would follow, with Merrill bringing up the rear. And so it went.
The skiing was good enough on the first run that they put their skins back on and headed up the same track for another lap. This time, they continued out along the ridge, into the wind, to just below the next summit. To the north, massive cornices overhung the dramatic cirque at the head of the West Pine Creek drainage, where they'd skied the day before, nearly 1,000 feet below.
As the clients suited up for the second run of the day, per the Wallowa Avalanche Center report, Edwards-Hill did one more shear test just below the ridge, on the south aspect. This was the point at which a final decision would be made whether or not they would ski that slope. He found a weak layer about 14 inches down—no surprise—but it was rough and didn't break off easily. The day before, on the north-facing side of the ridge, his test blocks had slid off with barely any compression—and yet in three successive runs they'd not triggered anything. Comparatively, the risk seemed lower. "Looks good," he said to Merrill.
Edwards-Hill was keenly aware of the terrain. He pointed out the deep gully that fell off to skier's left. It wasn't easy to make out in the blowing snow. He stressed that everyone needed to stay to the right, away from the gully, and follow his tracks toward an open glade of gnarled whitebark a few hundred yards below. He reiterated protocol: Wait five to 10 turns before jumping in. There were varying accounts afterward; some recalled that he'd said five to 10 seconds. Go slow enough that you can stop above me if I stop. Follow my tracks.
Edwards-Hill made a ski-cut traverse to the right, heading across the convexity below the ridge before carving a series of turns toward the trees. The first client, Ponio, angled closer to the fall line—"along the edge of the no-go zone," as the report would later put it. Merrill reminded the next skier—Dowling—to stay to the right, to follow Edwards-Hill's tracks. One after the other, Dowling and then his mom and then Bachinger farmed successive lines tight and to the left of Edwards-Hill's. Then it was Pinney's turn. Pinney was on a splitboard. Stay to the right, Merrill said once again. Heeding the reminder, Pinney traversed farther out across the slope, beyond Edwards-Hill's initial cut, and grabbed the line to the right.
Coulter and Merrill were the last to drop in. We will never know which lines they took. In a clearing at the bottom of the run, as Dowling stopped next to Edwards-Hill below the rest of the group, a voice crackled briefly over the radio to say that a slab had broken. It was Merrill. Then the radio went silent.
Dowling and Edwards-Hill watched as three of the skiers upslope—Polizzi, Bachinger, and Ponio—were swept off their feet and carried down by debris. At first it didn't seem like a huge slide; from below, Dowling and Edwards-Hill were able to track the skiers' positions on the way down. Then they saw the main avalanche, a huge powder cloud rocketing down the gully just to the east.
They scrambled to put on skins, to pull out shovels and probes. They switched their beacons over to search mode. They called out and established that the four skiers directly uphill were breathing and conscious. Pinney, who had been the one to ride farthest to the right, had stayed out of it completely. Ponio was OK, but shaken. Polizzi had deployed an airbag, but in the tumble on the way down had broken both legs and smashed her shoulder. Bachinger ended up partially buried with his head above the surface, a bruised shoulder and a broken femur. There was no sign of Coulter or Merrill.
Moving fast, Dowling skinned uphill to Polizzi while Edwards-Hill began a beacon search. Dowling marked Polizzi's position then proceeded to search downhill. Below, down in the gully, scrambling across the massive debris pile, Dowling got a signal. His probe struck a soft object at about four and a half feet down. They were able to dig the body out. It was Coulter. They cleared his airway, but he was already gone. It was about 10 minutes after the slide. Then, about 150 feet away, Dowling got another signal. It was Merrill. He was buried five feet below the surface. They dug him out. Merrill was gone, too. "Both suffered obvious and severe trauma," the report said. The whole episode had taken about 20 minutes.
It would take three weeks for volunteers from the Wallowa Avalanche Center in Joseph, Oregon, to compile an official report, based on post-incident interviews with the survivors and rescuers. High winds, new snow, and continued poor visibility not only hampered rescue efforts but also precluded investigators from getting to the site to make proper assessments. It would ultimately prove impossible to piece together exactly what happened in the moments before the slab broke. (The immediate survivors declined repeated efforts by the author and staff to confirm the events of the day.) The report estimates that the avalanche ran about 1,200 vertical feet. According to preliminary testimony by Edwards-Hill, who had to skin all the way back up the ridge to get cell service to call for help, the crown where the slide started was about a foot deep and 300 feet wide. By the time it came to a stop near Coulter and Merrill, it had scoured the snow off the slope, more than eight feet to the ground.
The report, like most in the genre, is long on details about snowpack, terrain, and procedure, but short on the actual factors—human factors, social and psychological factors—that led the victims out onto the slope in the first place. To hazard theories or guesses about how certain decisions were made is considered beyond the purview of the avalanche investigator. As a result, as one of Merrill's mentors, John Minier, said months later, avalanche reports tend to follow the same basic template: "We did everything right and then disaster struck."
Looking back, there were enough red flags along the way, in the days and moments leading up to the accident, that it can't simply be explained away as a group of ill-fated skiers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Neither was it ignorance or recklessness. And so the question remains, as it does in a disturbing number of other avalanche incidents: Where was the inscrutable gap in good judgment? What made these skiers—in this case, well-trained, competent, and professional outdoor leaders—overlook the variety of clues before them, and instead decide that it was safe to ski that slope?
"We've realized that a lot of these accidents are being caused by human factors that we don't really understand," Bruce Tremper, director of the U.S. Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center (UAC) and author of the seminal book Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, told me. "Just because we know the facts does not mean that we make the right decisions."
Watch: Engineer and avalanche educator and researcher Ian McCammon explains the reason behind his research of psychological factors involved in skiing in avalanche terrain.
Tremper's friend, Salt Lake City engineer and backcountry skier Ian McCammon, was one of the first to recognize, back in the mid-1990s, that in order to get at the root causes of such accidents, in order to try to mitigate the risks we all face in the backcountry—and maybe even save lives—we need to look beyond snow science into the murky terrain of human psychology. As it happens, we rarely make decisions by sitting down and carefully, rationally weighing all the evidence before us. Instead, most of the decisions we make in our daily wanderings, from the most mundane right-hand-turn-on-red to a high-consequence gap jump on a mountain bike, we make unconsciously and in rapid sequence, based on well-worn mental shortcuts—what psychologists call "heuristics." These cognitive rules of thumb are hardwired into our brains to enable us to navigate efficiently through infinite amounts of input without having to constantly stop along the way to think about things. But sometimes, without us realizing it, they can lead us headlong into dangerous, even fatal situations.
Crunching data from over 700 avalanche accidents that occurred in the United States between 1972 and 2003, resulting in 504 deaths, McCammon went on to isolate six heuristic cues that skiers often use in the mountains. "What I was after was not just any heuristics," he told me—psychologists have identified dozens—"but the ones that would cause you to make a mistake when your life was on the line." The ones that kept showing up in avalanche scenarios—the "rogue's gallery," or F.A.C.E.T.S., he calls them—were familiarity; [social] acceptance; commitment/consistency; [the] expert halo; tracks/scarcity; and social facilitation/proof.
McCammon's numbers provide ample and disturbing evidence that these mental shortcuts, all of which may prove perfectly reliable—even necessary—in other activities, often become deadly traps in avalanche terrain, allowing skiers and riders to convince themselves they are safer than they actually are. If the cues we're reading are not relevant or appropriate to the actual hazard we're facing, especially in high-consequence situations such as those faced by the skiers in the Wallowas, McCammon explains, "our decisions can be catastrophically wrong."
The first step, then, is to try to recognize the heuristic pressures that are present every time we head into the backcountry. Then—and this is the much more difficult part, the exciting part, the part that gets McCammon out of bed in the morning—we need to come up with ways to mitigate our innate vulnerability to them. "We can't engineer all the uncertainty and variability out of the medium of snow and weather; there's no way we can make that risk zero," Tremper says. "But we can get very close by practicing a rigorous system."
When Merrill set out for the Wallowas on the last day of 2013, after accepting his first guiding job as a freshly minted college graduate, he was filled with hope. That he wouldn't make it through the winter was the last thing on his mind.