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.