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11,300 in the Alaska range with mountain madness

A scary story and time to starting thinking about how to make it safer in the backcountry this winter

MM guide Jake Skeen’s qual­i­fi­ca­tions speak for them­selves- he knows snow, avalanch­es and how to get around in the moun­tains with the best of them. But, some­times even the most expe­ri­enced get tak­en down. His sto­ry below is a reminder of how things can go wrong when you least expect them.

This past April, I was caught in an avalanche that car­ried me 1,500’ through com­plex ter­rain (WS-AS-R1-D2‑O). It was in the mid­dle of the COVID lock­down and I argued the case to myself that I could still ski tour respon­si­bly, make good deci­sions and avoid any inci­dents that would require res­cue and med­ical per­son­nel to come into con­tact with each oth­er unnec­es­sar­i­ly. I clear­ly stretched that assump­tion too far. Some of my friends thought back­coun­try ski­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic was irre­spon­si­ble, and oth­ers thought it was a rea­son­able social­ly dis­tanced activity. 

Three friends and I had a fun link up planned on Sno­qualmie Pass — we were going to ski the east face of Mt Thom­son and the south face of Alas­ka Moun­tain. Both involved a bit of top-down route find­ing and up to 45 degree ski­ing with some expo­sure. We had been in a spring diur­nal cycle for weeks, and although the pre­vi­ous cou­ple days had been espe­cial­ly warm, the fore­cast indi­cat­ed we would get a sol­id freeze for our ski day. 

The overnight freeze was not as good as we had hoped for. Boot­ing up Thom­son was punchy, how­ev­er it was sup­port­able to skis and we enjoyed corn snow on a nice E fac­ing run down to Edds Lake. We then skinned up a frozen N/NW aspect to the top of Alas­ka moun­tain with the hopes of tim­ing sim­i­lar corn con­di­tions on our S face descent (typ­i­cal­ly E fac­ing slopes get cooked quick­er than S fac­ing due to the sun angle in the morning). 

We were greet­ed to ripe corn snow at the top of Alas­ka. With­out wast­ing much time, I dropped in first elat­ed by the prime sur­face con­di­tions on a beau­ti­ful moun­tain. After a cou­ple hun­dred feet of fall line ski­ing we began tra­vers­ing skier’s left to avoid cliff bands below us. The face is con­vex and it was hard to tell exact­ly which exit couloirs went clean so we hedged our bets and tra­versed a bit fur­ther to get to an obvi­ous weak­ness that went clean with­out a doubt. We kept our dis­tance and I was in front. 

There were a cou­ple of spine/​rib fea­tures that we had to tra­verse across and I could feel a huge dif­fer­ence in the SW fac­ing side of these spines vs the SE side. I skied across the SE side of the first spine quick­ly and was eas­i­ly able to push a small wet loose slide off my down­hill ski. One more spine to cross, same tac­tic — I thought. This one was a lit­tle big­ger and I felt the wet snow entrain­ing more than the pre­vi­ous spine. Feel­ing spooked, I skied fast to get off of this sun-cooked aspect but my skis were get­ting pulled downs­lope. I looked uphill and saw a slab fail above me and I was a part of this mov­ing mass before I knew it.

I was mov­ing very fast, there were moments of com­plete dark­ness and glimpses of day­light. I tried to keep my head uphill to avoid impact as the slope I was careen­ing down was lit­tered with rocks and cliff bands. I felt one ski pop off and the oth­er snapped in half instead of releas­ing because my toe pieces were locked. After what felt like an eter­ni­ty in the wash­ing machine I start­ed slow­ing down. The debris fanned out on the low­er apron of the face and I came out just fine. I pulled myself out of the path and sat on an exposed dirt out­crop­ping, shak­ing with adrenaline.

I yelled up to my friends a cou­ple times but they were out of sight. They didn’t see me get swept away as I was hid­den by the ter­rain fea­ture that ini­ti­at­ed the slide. A few min­utes went by and I saw them ski­ing down spaced out with bea­cons out. After get­ting their atten­tion, they grabbed my oth­er ski and two poles and we grouped up. Get­ting out with a bro­ken ski was no easy task but we were able to splint it togeth­er well enough to make it work with hose clamps and a probe.

I can pin­point numer­ous heuris­tic traps/​mental short­cuts that ulti­mate­ly result­ed in a lack of delib­er­a­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion regard­ing snow sta­bil­i­ty that day. There were no glar­ing red flags, we were in a group of 4 expe­ri­enced guides and avalanche pro­fes­sion­als, and we were mov­ing quick­ly. We had our sites set on a tour plan and we didn’t take enough time to dis­cuss the nuances of the ter­rain and the chang­ing conditions.

Wet avalanch­es are sta­tis­ti­cal­ly less dan­ger­ous to peo­ple than dry avalanch­es for a num­ber of rea­sons. The insta­bil­i­ty is less like­ly to per­sist as long, it usu­al­ly coin­cides with bad ski­ing con­di­tions, and the major­i­ty of wet avalanch­es don’t involve a slab. I’ve always respect­ed the destruc­tive poten­tial of wet slabs in par­tic­u­lar, but most­ly in the con­text of his­tor­i­cal events. For fore­cast­ers, wet slabs are a total headache to accu­rate­ly pre­dict. How­ev­er, for recre­ation­al skiers, avoid­ing ski­ing either after extend­ed peri­ods of warm weath­er with­out overnight freezes or big rain events seems like a win­ning strat­e­gy. There’s always a mid­dle ground though — it’s not just either easy to man­age wet loose or big scary wet slab haz­ard. Going back to the basics and choos­ing sim­pler ter­rain for a mar­gin­al overnight freeze is my biggest take away. Also, while out­door recre­ation seems wide­ly encour­aged now dur­ing this pan­dem­ic — avoid­ing risky activ­i­ties will cer­tain­ly help curb the spread of the virus.

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Join Jake this win­ter on a Lev­el 1 avalanche course and you’ll undoubt­ed­ly hear some more sto­ries and be able to take home some valu­able lessons learned by Jake in real time.