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Rad

Avalanche discussion thread

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As a courtesy, the other thread should be limited to condolences and a celebration of the lives of those lost in recent avalanches at Stevens and Alpental.

 

This one is a place you might explore the ideas you've been incubating.

 

................

 

Context: in this arena I am very conservative and rarely head into the backcountry because I am anxious about avalanches and recognize that I don't have the skills or knowledge to be confident I can make the right decisions to avoid making a fatal error. This means I miss some fantastic experiences, I'm sure, but I'm willing to make that trade-off.

 

My thoughts are that the risks of backcountry skiing and boarding can be very high at times, but part of the essence of those experiences, like others in climbing, is that each person takes responsibility for his or her own actions and accepts the consequences without blaming others. IMHO, every aspect of our society could use more of this attitude of assuming responsibility. I just hope it doesn't result in more lives lost. But it will.

 

Personally, I was impressed with the airbag system that supposedly saved the life of one of the Stevens party. It would seem (again from my uneducated perspective) to be far more useful than an avy beacon. That said, it could create a false sense of security. It's not going to save you if you're swept over a large cliff as apparently happened in the Alpental accident. It's not going to protect you from slamming into trees or other obstacles at high speed. It's probably not going to prevent you from being injured or killed during the slide, particularly a wet/heavy slide. But it might greatly reduce the chance you'll be buried in a slide.

 

This is an excellent scientific article on the impact of safety training on avalanche-related accidents: Avalanche safety article

 

 

Live your life with open eyes.

Edited by Rad

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Knee jerk reaction to the accident:

 

1) Underestimated the risk.

2) Overestimated ability to mediate the risk.

 

Definitely a sad deal for everyone involved and I feel it to be important to reiterate the point that "experience breeds complacency". These are dangerous pastimes. Don't forget the basics.

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It isn't just individual skills/knowledge. Group mindset can kick in. Beautiful day, nice snow, we're having a great time...

 

Sometimes a group will take risks that each individual might not.

 

Choada_Boy is right. Accidents can happen when people with lots of experience let down their guards. I can relate to that one. This one time I was standing on an 8-foot ladder and...

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It isn't just individual skills/knowledge. Group mindset can kick in. Beautiful day, nice snow, we're having a great time...

 

Sometimes a group will take risks that each individual might not.

 

Choada_Boy is right. Accidents can happen when people with lots of experience let down their guards. I can relate to that one. This one time I was standing on an 8-foot ladder and...

 

Human factors can indeed play a huge role and are worth study and repeated review.

 

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In regards to the Stevens Pass incident the part that would make me the most nervous was the group size. Especially coupled with shooting photos, the size of the group considerably slows everyone down and leaves individuals exposed to danger for a much longer time.

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I'd be interested in hearing more about the slide survivor that was using the avy airbag. I've now heard two different things:

 

1.) The woman who had the airbag was the one who set off the slide which buried the three victims below her.

 

2.) A fifth skier above both the woman with the airbag and the three victims triggered the slide.

 

Anybody know if there has been a definitive report on the incident that covers this? As is typical with these events, the various news accounts are either the same copy of an original story or contain statements that contradict one another.

 

I'm not asking in an attempt to assign blame, just curious because it would shed a bit more light on the difference the airbag made in the respective outcomes.

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I read an account attributed to the woman stating she had skiied the line and was waiting in trees when another skiier set off the slide entraining her and her companions.

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I saw a video that had the survivor using the same kind of airbag system. It was theorized that another benefit of this system is that the victim tends to stay in one orientation while going downhill (head up) vs the usual tumbling which causes trauma.

Seems like this airbag would work better in thick cascade concrete than lighter fluffy powder. Won't it be more buoyant in thick snow?

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I'd be interested in hearing more about the slide survivor that was using the avy airbag. I've now heard two different things:

 

1.) The woman who had the airbag was the one who set off the slide which buried the three victims below her.

 

2.) A fifth skier above both the woman with the airbag and the three victims triggered the slide.

 

Anybody know if there has been a definitive report on the incident that covers this? As is typical with these events, the various news accounts are either the same copy of an original story or contain statements that contradict one another.

 

I'm not asking in an attempt to assign blame, just curious because it would shed a bit more light on the difference the airbag made in the respective outcomes.

 

I believe that the woman was below in timber, and that Jim Jacks sert off the avalanche that killed him

 

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/sports/2017557870_apuswashingtonavalanche.html

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I believe that the woman was below in timber, and that Jim Jacks sert off the avalanche that killed him

 

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/sports/2017557870_apuswashingtonavalanche.html

 

That contradicts the ESPN article. I'm not sure which is correct.

 

http://espn.go.com/action/freeskiing/story/_/id/7593035/avalanche-washington-stevens-pass-kills-three

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I believe that the woman was below in timber, and that Jim Jacks sert off the avalanche that killed him

 

http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/sports/2017557870_apuswashingtonavalanche.html

 

That contradicts the ESPN article. I'm not sure which is correct.

 

http://espn.go.com/action/freeskiing/story/_/id/7593035/avalanche-washington-stevens-pass-kills-three

 

I don't believe so. From the ESPN article

 

The group was descending a popular route outside the resort boundary accessed via a 10-minute hike from a backcountry gate off the top of the Seventh Heaven chairlift. The avalanche was triggered about noon by one of the skiers who perished in the slide.

 

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From here:http://www.adn.com/2012/02/20/2327695/sole-avalanche-survivor-we-werent.html

 

'We weren't being idiots,'

 

"I pulled the trigger," she said, inflating two air bags attached to her backpack.

 

"Unfortunately, the freak accident happened," she said. "One of the skiers (above me) set off the avalanche."

 

 

"I was lucky. I'm alive because of a safety device that a lot of people aren't aware of," Saugstad said. "I want to get the word out that these packs are available and they work.

 

"If this wasn't a good example, I don't know what is."

Edited by DPS

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Certainly the human factor is a major component of overall risk; after all, it was the presence of people on those slopes that made this particular avalanche a tragedy, and not just an otherwise ordinary, commonplace winter backcountry event. And I think that's the big shift in both individual and group mindset that needs to happen if accidents like this are to be avoided in the future. There has to be a stronger sense of being temporary visitors to that environment, that we are guests who MUST play by the rules of nature or risk everything.

Regarding group mindset, that implies respect and consideration for others,and a responsibility TO them, so that the motivation/optimism/desires of one or a few don't override the safety of all, AND vice-versa. For some who are extremely talented, strong and ambitious, it can be very difficult to learn and understand that other people are far more than just a support to our own success. Many younger climbers and backcountry skiers have a very hard time with anyone who counsels caution; one of the basic rules of the group that I first heard in the Mountaineers some 40 years ago, was that (1) the party can only travel as fast and far as it's slowest member, and (2) that if even just one member of the party felt insecure or sensed a dangerous situation, the entire party was obliged to consider it seriously, and in some cases even to turn back, or modify the objective if that person's opinion is based in implicit factual conditions. At the time, I was just 17, and I really hated that idea. I just thought it was ridiculous and completely unfair that any one person ( or "chicken-shit worry-wart asshole", as we termed them) should ever be the cause of losing an opportunity. And it led to my leaving the club after just a couple of years. But over the years, as I saw one after another of my cherished boyhood friends and former climbing partners fall by the wayside, now to the number of 14, and saw the causes of those deaths return to haunt me with the very rules I'd heard during the Mountaineers courses, I began to see the practical, level-headed, common sense wisdom of those rules. I am only extremely fortunate that I survived my early climbing years, some times by the narrowest of margins, and have not been, so far, the object of those bitter lessons.

 

To me, an NWAC forecast of not just High, but Extreme avalanche danger, would be just exactly the kind of factor that should warrant an entire group heeding the advice of a single "worry-wart"; and indeed it seems that at least one person, the woman wearing the safety device, was concerned enough to take responsibility for her own safety. We don't know, of course, but I have to wonder if she had to put up with any criticism or joking about it.

 

I'm also very impressed at the fact that this woman's life was saved by that device. And that's a step in the right direction in terms of some increase in the margin of safety. But I hope that people won't now get yet another false sense of security from another advancement in gear."Oh yeah, all you have to do is have one of those things on, and you'll be fine. Sweet!". I say, THINK AGAIN. I have seen, in the debris-fields of large avalanches in Glacier Park and the Wasatch Range, green trees of up to three feet in diameter, smashed and broken into small chunks no more than 2 or three feet long, with all the bark and branches stripped and shredded off, and the carcasses of deer, bighorn sheep, and elk flayed and mangled, torn in half, missing limbs, heads, hide, skulls crushed or exploded, etc., all mixed up with stones and boulders ranging in size from big pebbles to the size of footballs, engine blocks, large appliances and cars. The violence and power is just incredible.

 

For that avalanche device to do any good, it has to remain unpunctured and otherwise intact and undamaged, and it has to STAY ON. I don't care how well it's made, I still think that's asking an awful lot of any comparatively flimsy man-made piece of equipment in the face of forces that can tear apart large trees and big game animals. Another thing to be noted is that, depending where you are on a large slope, the presence of timber may or may NOT be a protective feature. If you're still high on the slope, where the avalanche may not yet have gathered a large amount of material, you might be OK, in fact you most likely will be, if you're in the trees. But if you're well downhill from the trigger point of an avalanche, especially a "ground-release" slab avalanche, and you can't get out of the slide path, you're in big trouble. As I think someone said earlier in a post above, the avalanche just doesn't care.

 

Yet another security falsehood is contained in the idea that you're skiing on a "small" or "short" slope, or maybe the snow isn't very deep, so even if it did avalanche, you're safe, because it couldn't do much. Again, NOT SO. If the snow is up to your knees, and the slope is taller than you are, that's more than enough, especially in wet, heavy conditions, to knock you down, cover you up, set up like concrete as soon as it stops moving, and of course smother you to death. Obviously big slopes can kill. But little ones can be just as deadly, maybe even more so since everyone thinks they're harmless.

 

Finally, the factor of highly skilled and experienced people caught in fatal accidents cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Just a few years ago, it was none other than famed BC guide Rudi Beglinger who was involved in an accident in which one, or perhaps a couple, of his clients died in an avalanche. (For those of you in Portland, there's a film about this, this coming Friday evening at the Mazamas' clubhouse,527 SE 43rd(at Stark)at 7:00 PM. I highly recommend going to see it.)

 

Long experience and a high level of skill can certainly be a big risk factor for anyone who allows it to engender a sense of comfort and security that ignores or diminishes the importance of warning signs, whether those signs come from NWAC or just from subtle on-site indications, as if the long experience and skill would just automatically take care of things by themselves, somehow. Again, the skill and experience are only as good as the USE YOU MAKE OF THEM, moment by moment, day by day. YOU have to be the one driving the ship, constantly, tirelessy vigilant, not some idea that just because of who you are and what you've done,everything is all taken care of, and the outcome is assured.

 

And, this goes as well for the idea of depending on anyone else, a famous guide, or more experienced partner,to ensure your own personal safety. You HAVE to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR OWN SAFETY, and some times that of others. This means, as the woman survivor did in this incident, having the right equipment and knowing how to use it, but even MORE so, educating and training yourself so that you hopefully don't get into bad situations in the first place, and knowing what to do if the worst does happen.

 

It's also a well-known principle that the last hour or last mile of an outing can be the most dangerous. I'm not sure what part this factor may have played in this accident, but it seems likely that the rise of temperatures later in the day may have had something to do with it, which could also add a fatigue/relaxation factor to the mix regarding judgment and decision-making. But as I say,I don't know that for sure, just a guess.

 

Years ago, I heard this little tale of the Ancient Chinese Tree-Climbing Master:

 

It's said that in Tang dynasty China, word began to spread of a great tree-climbing master of great age and wisdom, hidden deep in the mountains. One young man decided to seek him out, and after some years of searching, found him far into the remotest reaches of the Tien-Shan mountains, and asked for his instruction. Taking the young man farther into the peaks, after several days they stood at the base of an immense pine, the largest of a giant grove of ancient trees. Turning to his student , the master gestured upward and said simply,"Now climb...", and the young man began his ascent.

 

From time to time the young man paused to look down and ask the teacher how he was doing, but the old man said not a word, just silently motioned for him to continue upward. Finally, over 300 feet off the ground, he reached the very top of the tree, and shouted down to the master, "What do I do now?". The old man said,"Stay as long as you like, and when ready, come down." After enjoying the exhilaration and tremendous view for a while, the young man started down, and as before, would ask the teacher from time to time how he was doing, but again the master never said a word, just gestured to him to continue his descent.

 

As he climbed down, the young man began to discover a certain facility and skill in his movement, and began to increase the speed of his descent. The old man, was watching, but never said a word, until the young man was less than ten feet off the ground, when he suddenly and unexpectedly brought his right hand above his head with index finger raised to the sky and roared in a booming voice, "BEEEE CAAAAREFUL!!!!!!", scaring the young man nearly out of his wits. The student then climbed the last few feet to the ground with extreme caution, and thus learned the deep, deep secret of successful tree climbing, and many other things as well. :grin:

 

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From here:http://www.adn.com/2012/02/20/2327695/sole-avalanche-survivor-we-werent.html

 

'We weren't being idiots,'

 

"I pulled the trigger," she said, inflating two air bags attached to her backpack.

 

"Unfortunately, the freak accident happened," she said. "One of the skiers (above me) set off the avalanche."

 

 

"I was lucky. I'm alive because of a safety device that a lot of people aren't aware of," Saugstad said. "I want to get the word out that these packs are available and they work.

 

"If this wasn't a good example, I don't know what is."

 

 

Here's part of the attitude that I think needs to be "adjusted", if you will. First of all, it wasn't "a freak accident". We all know, or should know, that avalanches are an extremely common hazard, they can and do occur EVERY season without fail, as long as there's enough snow. It's absolutely, completely normal and inevitable as part of the alpine environment.

 

Secondly, say what you will about the airbag device, although it seems to be a major factor in this woman's survival, it's equally possible that, especially had this been a larger event, the airbag could just as easily have not made one bit of difference. I have to reiterate that it's just as easy to get killed wearing the latest gear, as it is without it.

 

Please DON'T depend on your gear to give you permission to take unwise chances. And don't credit it with saving your life when you were in a place you probably shouldn't have been in the first place. There's a lot more to it than that. It's this very kind of simplistic thinking that gets people killed in the backcountry all the time. One last time, folks, the mountain, and the avalanche, DO NOT CARE. YOU have to do that.

 

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Wow. Excellent article, thanks so much for the post. :tup: This ought to be required reading for not only beginning climbers and skiers but for anyone and everyone at all levels in alpinism and similar pursuits.

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[video:youtube]

 

Skip to ~3:35 to see an avy test with dummies.

 

-It's been established over and over again that things that mitigate the consequences of taking risks lead to more risk taking - but it's also easy to determine that their net impact is to save many more lives than whatever false sense of security that their use might create actaully claims.

 

It's interesting to me that there's still such an active debate regarding the utility and limitations of avalanche safety equipment, but no one in their right mind would waste any discussing the potential for modern nylon kernmantle climbing ropes to encourage excess risk relative to woven hemp, and thus lead to more deaths.

 

-On a related note, I find it odd how much time we talk about beacons, probes, avalungs, etc encouraging excess risk taking behavior, and how little we talk about the risks associated with the false sense of confidence that avalanche education can instill.

 

From what I've observed in myself and others, presuming that you can assess the stability of a slope with enough accuracy to ski slopes that you'd avoid if you had less confidence in your expertise drives waaaay more, and more serious risk-taking behavior than having beacons, probes, etc.

 

In terms of safety, knowing that you can't possibly know enough to make the right call every single time when the hazards are elevated, and staying off of avy-slopes or just out of the BC all-together until the snowpack settles down, is way more likely to keep you alive than pursuing a level-3 cert and operating under the assumption that you'll be able to make the right calculation 100% of the time.

 

Of course nothing beats being the level three-guy who behaves as though he knows next to nothing about how to evaluate high risk slopes and just stays off of them when the risks are elevated - but I have to wonder how many people fall into that category.

 

 

 

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Been skiing all my life, and never met anyone who got more 'overconfident' as a result of avalanche training.

 

I have met a whole bunch of folks who dig pits and assess the situation in a rational manner, and ski more safely as a result, however.

 

The more you know about avalanches, the more you don't want to get caught in one.

 

Never even hear this argument, actually.

 

It's a weird one.

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Great article. It covered anything I had to say and a whole lot more. Thanks for posting!

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Been skiing all my life, and never met anyone who got more 'overconfident' as a result of avalanche training.

 

I have met a whole bunch of folks who dig pits and assess the situation in a rational manner, and ski more safely as a result, however.

 

The more you know about avalanches, the more you don't want to get caught in one.

 

Never even hear this argument, actually.

 

It's a weird one.

 

It's entirely possible that that's the case for you, but that certainly hasn't been my experience.

 

I find the argument that people who dig pits and make rational decisions about which slopes to ski based on their considerable experience and training don't ever get buried and die on slopes that they've just evaluated particularly strange given the nature of the fatalities that occur in the backcountry every...single...year.

 

I suspect that Rad has a beacon, probe, shovel, and avalanche training and yet he posted the following:

"I am very conservative and rarely head into the backcountry because I am anxious about avalanches and recognize that I don't have the skills or knowledge to be confident I can make the right decisions to avoid making a fatal error. This means I miss some fantastic experiences, I'm sure, but I'm willing to make that trade-off."

 

There's lots of people that fall into that group. They're less likely to take calculated risks based on confidence in their expertise. Consequently they're less likely to get caught in an avalanche and die than people who are prepared to assume those risks on the basis of their skill, training, etc.

 

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To me, an NWAC forecast of not just High, but Extreme avalanche danger, would be just exactly the kind of factor that should warrant an entire group heeding the advice of a single "worry-wart"; and indeed it seems that at least one person, the woman wearing the safety device, was concerned enough to take responsibility for her own safety. We don't know, of course, but I have to wonder if she had to put up with any criticism or joking about it

 

To clarify:

 

The avalanche danger at the time was classified as "considerable", less than "High" or "extreme". Media or inter net claims not withstanding, no one knows if Elyse Saugstad was saved by her avalanche balloon.

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Been skiing all my life, and never met anyone who got more 'overconfident' as a result of avalanche training.

 

I have met a whole bunch of folks who dig pits and assess the situation in a rational manner, and ski more safely as a result, however.

 

The more you know about avalanches, the more you don't want to get caught in one.

 

Never even hear this argument, actually.

 

It's a weird one.

 

Ian McCammon apparently didn't think it was that weird:

 

The Role of Training In Recreational Avalanche Accidents in the United States

 

ABSTRACT: Avalanche education has become widely available in the United States, and yet trained recreationists continue to comprise over a third of avalanche victims. Does avalanche education really make a difference? This study investigated the relationship

between avalanche education and victim behavior in 344 recreational U.S. accidents, and found that victims with more avalanche

training did in fact take fewer overall risks. However, all of the risk reduction in trained recreationists can be attributed to better mitigation measures taken by these victims. None of the risk reduction appeared to be the result of trained groups exposing themselves to

less hazard. In fact, victims with basic formal training exposed themselves to more hazard than any other group, including those with

no awareness of avalanches. In light of recent findings in decision science, these results suggest that behaviorist and naturalistic

teaching strategies would be effective in improving avalanche education.

 

Edit to add: I have no idea what factors led to accidents over the weekend and make no speculation as to what I would have done differently or what the victims should have done differently. The risks I took when I was younger were inordinate, and Ian McCammon's work over the last 10 years has shed a lot of light on why I took the risks I did.

Edited by E-rock

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Lots of good info in this thread - obviously it has been a tragic event, god bless those involved. I know very well what the death of friends does to your mind set, and continuing doing what they enjoy doing. It's hard shit.

 

Mtguide - your excellent input is well taken and I hope others can feel the risk assessment nature of your input is very real. Even in my own case, as I look back on my accidents - it was overconfidence and letting my guard down that caused them all. It seems as though it is always the most experienced that it happens to - again 'god bless' and I express my greatest sympathy. I do not know 'who' makes the call when it's time to go - the loss of friends has nagged me a lot, even more so when in a spooky situation; and the demons of doubt start their mantra. It's really hard to turn back, and comes down to knowing when to hold em' and when to fold em'. Adios to some good people.

:yoda:

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Been skiing all my life, and never met anyone who got more 'overconfident' as a result of avalanche training.

 

I have met a whole bunch of folks who dig pits and assess the situation in a rational manner, and ski more safely as a result, however.

 

The more you know about avalanches, the more you don't want to get caught in one.

 

Never even hear this argument, actually.

 

It's a weird one.

 

It's entirely possible that that's the case for you, but that certainly hasn't been my experience.

 

I find the argument that people who dig pits and make rational decisions about which slopes to ski based on their considerably experience and training don't ever get buried and die on slopes that they've just evaluated particularly strange given the nature of the fatalities that occur in the backcountry every...single...year.

 

I suspect that Rad has a beacon, probe, shovel, and avalanche training and yet he posted the following:

"I am very conservative and rarely head into the backcountry because I am anxious about avalanches and recognize that I don't have the skills or knowledge to be confident I can make the right decisions to avoid making a fatal error. This means I miss some fantastic experiences, I'm sure, but I'm willing to make that trade-off."

 

There's lots of people that fall into that group. They're less likely to take calculated risks based on confidence in their expertise. Consequently they're less likely to get caught in an avalanche and die than people who are prepared to assume those risks on the basis of their skill, training, etc.

 

 

Knowledge is power.

 

Judgement, however, varies.

 

No one here has made the strawman argument you framed above, so I'll leave that debate to its creator.

 

The folks I ski with are conservative. Even in the worst avi conditions, however, there are lots of safe places to ski, and that's where we go. If conditions are marginal, we stay off the more prone slopes, and tend to save most of the steep skiing for when the spring corn shapes up.

 

I'm not sure what the point of the whole The More You Know The More Danger You'll Incur argument, other than Don't Be An Idiot.

 

The more you know, the safer you can be...if you're not an idiot, I guess.

 

OK. Got it. What am I gonna do different from now on?

 

Nothing.

 

 

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