(Ed’s note: Find The White Blog archives here.)
By John Clary Davies
I recently went on a hut trip in Eastern Oregon’s Wallowa mountains. As Arthur Bradford wrote in the February issue of Powder, the Wallowas are big (9,000-plus feet), snowy (400-plus annual white) and desolate (the nearest town is Joseph, pop. 967). Sure enough, it dumped 18 inches the night before our 5-mile skin into camp, and continued to snow throughout our stay in the Wing Ridge Huts.
Unfortunately, with a weak layer causing ubiquitous “whumpfing” and the avalanche danger considerable to high, the group stuck to well-treed slopes around 30 degrees. While the skiing footage probably won’t make MSP’s next film, the trip wasn’t exactly a bust. We skied powder and got to enjoy some of the finer things in life—namely, the sauna tent, a half-gallon of Knob Creek and the eight pounds of bacon we hauled in… amid one of the truly unsung mountain ranges in skiing.
On the trip I met Tom Hazel, a software engineer from Boston. The trip was Hazel’s first backcountry skiing experience. Before he came west, Hazel attended an Avi I course where they showed the film, A Dozen More Turns (watch Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3). The documentary recounts the death of Blake Morstad and the amputation of Sam Kavanagh’s leg with footage recovered months after an avalanche ended their hut trip in Montana. It’s a tragic story. At the time of his death, Morstad’s wife was 8-months pregnant with their son. He also knew what he was doing. Morstad was level-3 certified and studied avalanche engineering as part of a master’s program at Montana State University.
The slide happened on a 34-degree wooded slope that they had skied the previous two days. When Morstad went a little higher to get a few more turns, the snow ripped out from underneath him. His friends found him quickly, but Morstad had died from trauma. The film is a reminder that it doesn’t matter how much knowledge or experience we have in the backcountry (as this study shows), but instead emphasizes the human element, the decision-making process we face while making choices in the backcountry.
This film was fresh in Hazel’s mind as we skied on an analogous trip in the Wallowas. His account of the experience is both candid and thought-provoking. I liked this:
“There was an easy pitch at first, and I made some nice turns before rounding a corner into another slope. It was much steeper, just the sort of thing we were supposed to avoid. I can remember my brain splitting into two parts: one part of me knew it was some of the best skiing I’d ever experience, the other half was petrified about starting a slide.”
Hazel says he’ll be even more cautious next time he’s in the backcountry.
“I’ve talked to the guy who taught my avi course and he basically said we got lucky, which I tend to believe,” says Hazel. “I don’t think we made great choices…”
During that same trip, some members of the group also questioned the choices area snowmobilers were making as they high-marked a nearby slope. One of the members of my group made a disparaging comment about sledders and avalanche safety. In my experience, the ski community holds a lot of misconceptions regarding our powder-seeking brethren.
Dale Aktins is a longtime former forecaster with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, currently with RECCO, and the recently elected president of the American Avalanche Association; he says skiers are just as likely to die in an avalanche as snowmobilers. Between the 2000-01 and 2009-10 seasons, 108 skiers and snowboarders died in avalanches, compared to 125 snowmobilers.
The apparent misunderstanding is a result of the way records are kept, says Atkins. Ski and snowboard fatality numbers are broken up not just between the two disciplines, but whether the avalanche occurred in-bounds, in the sidecountry or the backcountry. Atkins said that snowmobile avalanche accidents receive more media attention too, because they often include multiple fatalities.
Atkins’ statistics also show that despite the dramatic increase of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers in the backcountry, fatalities over the past twenty years have remained relatively stable. Atkins attributed this to better and more widespread avalanche education and forecasting.
Now onto other avi-related stories, videos and random sh*t around the web:
• Chin Music: Jimmy Chin, renowned mountain photographer and adventurer, recently took a 1,000-foot ride, wet-slide style, in Grand Teton National Park. Chin was OK; so were his partners, the accomplished backcountry snowboarders Jeremy Jones and Xavier de le Rue, according to the Jackson Hole News & Guide.
• Tree Wells: As detailed in an early White Blog, tree wells really are not your friend. Here’s some footage of a snowboarder who went in and came out, with footy.
• Ski with girls: Because girls are nice to look at and talk to. And because being with women helps keep us out of avalanches, while taking avalanche courses does not.
• Get out the way: Russian soldiers fire artillery to create an avalanche. And then start running…
• I hope they have AAA: A small slide takes out a car in Tahoe.
• It’s in The Book: Andrew McLean on Dave Hanscomb and Alexis Kelner’s book, Wasatch Tours, the bible of backcountry skiing in the Wasatch.
• Terrain trap: Photos from a slide in Mount Hood Meadows’ Heather Canyon that ripped 5 to 12 feet deep and ran 3,900 vertical feet.
• A day in the life: Just another day on Kootenay Pass with the Ministry of Transportation.
• Cornice Failure: A gentle reminder to watch yourself on cornices.
• Making it a reality: Solitude patrol on controlling Fantasy Ridge.
• Survival Window: Study reveals that denser snow leads to an earlier onset of asphyxiation.