ON A NEAR MISS, THE LITTLE DECISIONS THAT MATTER
I drop into the chute, feeling the familiar rush as gravity takes over. The snow billows around me, and I am lost in the white room, obscuring the panorama of Mt Shuksan and the cerulean blue of the pacific northwest sky. It is steep, pushing 50 degrees, and as I reach the bottom of the chute I have a decision to make- to cut right to arc up onto a small tree island on a bench beside of the chute, or stay in a gully feature and ski down to valley bottom.
I feel the familiar pop and hiss as the sluff picks up speed around me, and I pay attention to the moving snow. Skiing some of these steeper lines requires a knowledge of sluff management to ski safely, as the snow sheds from the steeper slopes, and I have much to learn about these mountains. The sluff today, though, is minimal, as the storm snow is light, cold, and unconsolidated, and the exposure to the fall line is negligible – I arc left lazily, crossing the path of my sluff and under a small terrain feature above me – as the terrain mellows to a bench feature above the gulley.
Suddenly, I as I cross left below the chute, the snow beneath my feet become unstable and picks up speed, and then I am suddenly hit by what feels like a truck from the left. I’m immediately waist deep in blocks of moving snow, and it takes my brain a second to compute. This isn’t just a heavy sluff I’m currently involved in, this is a full on avalanche. I realize that another slope must have triggered, and I am in a survival situation. My immediate instinct is to ditch my poles and kick off my skis, realizing I cannot point it and ski out of this.
With my skiis gone, I am pushed forward and my world becomes snow, moving snow, filling my mouth and nostrils. I have enough time to think about trying to slow my breathing, but then I am tumbling again and I know I have to fight to stay on the surface. My defensive swimming instincts kick in from years of raft guiding and I fight to stay upright, feet forward, swimming, swimming- I bend down to try to put the mouthpiece for my Avalung into my mouth- but realize that I need to keep my head up to see where I am headed, and think about tucking up as the flow slows to make sure I have an air pocket.
I can see the edges of the flow now, and I realize that I am in the gully and will likely ride all the way to valley bottom, as the snow is not slowing. I swim hard and gradually make it to the edge of the flow, and then it is over- I see the tumbling blocks rolling down to valley bottom but I have stopped, waist deep in rapidly hardening snow. I give a shout to let Scott know I am all right- and he crests the ridge, transceiver in hand, breathing hard. Holy shit, he says, am I glad to see you. We collect my gear- my skiis have both surfaced, about 100 meters above where I landed- and, though on ski pole is broken in half and the other is nowhere to be found, and I shakily gather my gear and compose myself. The sky is still cerulean blue, and I feel each heartbeat in my head, can feel each breath down deep into my alveoli, and I realize that my throat is actually sore from coughing out the snow. Hot damn, Scott says, that was close.
The day had started with picture perfect bluebird skies. It had been dry and cold on the coast- high pressure- for a week, and and when a buddy messaged me that Baker had gotten a surprisingly light 30 cm snowfall, I was stoked to get back to one of my favorite zones. We checked the snow report and avalanche forecast carefully before heading out to ski Mt Baker – it was rated yellow, or moderate. The concerns with the day were wet snow slides on solar aspects under the warming spring sun, with multiple crust layers below the storm snow from sun effect and little new snow. On northern slopes, the concern was a surface hoar layer, at treeline, formed by cold clear nights and buried by the storm snow. This layer had proved quite reactive in wind affected areas, as the storm snow consolidated into slabs. There was little to no danger of a step down effect, as the costal snowpack below the storm snow was well bonded and now, two days after the storm, and a natural cycle had occurred and cleaned out most the wind loaded pockets.
Throughout our day, we saw the expected – point releases and wet snow slides on steep solar aspects, but we stayed in the shade, and found nothing but fresh, cold, unconsolidated storm snow, with no evidence of wind effect. Just before dropping in for the final ski out, we dug a hasty pit, which showed 30cms of fist density, completely unconsolidated storm snow, on a thick pencil hardness crust layer. HS was 300 plus cms, and well bonded, with no other crusts or other concerning layers.
As we skied out and talked about the near miss, we decided that, even in retrospect, we made the macro decisions for the day correctly. Our risk assessments were good, our objectives were reasonable, and we managed the day well. Given the stability and complete lack of observable wind effect, it was even reasonable to ski the chute that we skied. It was my micro decisions that caused the near miss; I dropped into the steep terrain casually, without having a concrete plan for a line, and then turned into my sluff on the mellow terrain and under the overhead hazard as the terrain eased back, completely exposing myself to the fall line gully.
Turning right as I exited would have put me safely on a ridge, and away from any overhead hazard, and would have been a much safer choice. But I approached it casually, without giving the terrain the respect it deserved. I was complacent, and thought I understood the snow conditions that day. We completely did not notice the small pocket of wind affected snow: the crown was only about 20 meters across and down 30 cms, but it was enough that, riding on the moving snow of my sluff, it could accelerate across the less steep terrain and push me well down the gully, entraining the storm snow as it went. The slide ran about 200 meters down to valley bottom, after I managed to get to the side of the flow and shuffled out across the flats with no ski poles, I realized that it was a big lesson in respecting the snow: play the games, win the prizes. Treat the mountain with respect, or it will show you how small we humans really are.
As I reflect, I wonder if we are often like that in life. We make the big decisions carefully and well – career, finances, vehicle purchase, partner selection. But do we make the micro decisions well? Are we careless in little things? Waking up and rolling over to check our phones instead of rolling over to kiss our lover. Neglecting exercise or good diet for a few days that become a few weeks. Irresponsible spending on little luxuries day after day. Forgetting to call aging family members, or not telling the ones we love that we care. Then, one day, it all ends; a breakup, a critical illness, an empty bank account, and estranged family member, and we sit amongst the chaos and wonder where we went wrong.
So here’s to taking risks. Big risks. But here’s to making the little decisions well, and remembering what matters. Ski safe!