Avalanche kills five snowboarders in Colorado today


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steve shea

Apr 23, 2013 - 10:52am PT
Coincidence then?

Social climber
Ridgway, CO
Apr 23, 2013 - 10:53am PT
A stretch for sure as those conditions do not exist every year.

Trad climber
Santa Cruz
Apr 23, 2013 - 12:12pm PT
Can't believe it, one of the dead is from Santa Cruz and I worked with his Mom for many years. He has an unusual last name and when I saw it on a previous article I just really didn't think it could be her son.


Big ouch.


Trad climber
greater Boss Angeles area
Apr 23, 2013 - 12:21pm PT
I'm still not clear how the Glen Canyon Dam affects the water in Lake Mead, unless the water sent down-stream from Lake Powell is colder than it otherwise would be.
Bruce Kay

Gym climber
Apr 23, 2013 - 12:21pm PT
all this talk of climate change offers a perfect analogy. Both subjects (climate change and avalanches) are best understood as sciences examining wildly variable natural processes and materials, which have direct impacts on our lives.

The public (bless their pointed little heads) has other ideas. In the case of climate the natural world is expected to behave in a manner which supports a variety of predetermined and often unwavering world views based on culturally developed myths and illusions that have been developed over time immemorial. When these notions are challenged by our ever increasing awareness and understanding of reality our first reaction (and for some people, only reaction) is to deny the reality in defense of our world view.

Avalanche hazard is handled similarly. How we behave in avalanche terrain often has much more to do with how we want things to be, not necessarily how they are. Much of how we want it to be has to do with the myths and illusions peddled by our own minds and fed by the drug peddlars and bible thumpers of the ski industry. Nothing wrong with that - unless the less savory realities are ignored, down played or more insidious, mythologized into a whole other spin engineered to perpetuate our world view.

Someone up thread mentioned the Tunnel creek NYT article. This was widely heralded as a insightful enquiry into the human behavior causes which led to the accident. I generally agree with one glaring exception. There was one theme constantly presented with no substantiation - that the people involved were "expertly" qualified to be where they were. It is assumed by our ski culture that kicking around the block for a number of years is all that is necessary to expertly contradict the public avalanche bulletin based on an assumption that by now they must know what they are doing. I don't doubt that many of the individuals involved were expert skiers, or expert ski magazine marketers, or even had a reasonably well developed background of back country skiing but none of that will qualify one as an "expert" in avalanche safety. From what is known of the Tunnel creek accident it could be well argued that the only people who should have been anywhere near the Tunnel creek avalanche path would be a true expert - and a true expert would certainly not have actually been in it under those conditions!

Fortunately, like climate science, we have a well established system of true expertise that provides guidance for the general public in the form of the public bulletin. True, we should all endeavor to increase our own abilities but it must always be recognized that to overstep our abilities in such a hazardous environment (like global climate change for instance) is to court disaster. Whatever their faults, the public hazard bulletins provide the best baseline understanding of reality upon which to start your day. Climate science is the same. Only an idiot would presume to contradict the prevaling wisdom without the required tools to do so.

There is a reason that the subject of expertise is deftly avoided by the so called investigative journalists. The whole ski industry promotes the notion that we are all eminently qualified to be out there in tiger country, making our own decisions in a world of beautiful danger. It is an awesome mythology, one I buy into as much as anyone - i mean who dosn't want to be a master of their own destiny in such a fantastic environment? Hell thats what its all about.... until suddenly, it isn't.

Todd Eastman

Bellingham, WA
Apr 23, 2013 - 12:36pm PT
I am generally more comfortable ski touring with skiers that have lots of mountaineering experience than skiers whose primary background in the mountains comes from skiing.

The risk analysis in mountain terrain takes time to develop as a skill. Mountaineers (climbers) usually spend more time in the Alpine zone.

Trad climber
Western America
Apr 23, 2013 - 01:42pm PT
bad news good news. We all have a disease called risk taking but its treatable.



Trad climber
Apr 23, 2013 - 01:49pm PT
Group think and desire to ski the goods scares me. I am certainly not going to judge the folks tragically impacted in this case but why would you not space out and expose 5 people to a slide path. Seems like fairly simple protocol but I have personally made poor decisions based on the " stoke" factor of the day and group think.

If another highly avi educated person thinks it is safe, does this mean I should contradict him/her? Often it does but we can get lured into these traps fairly easily. How about if 3 of the 5 in the group think it is stable? You know someone in that group was apprehensive about making that traverse. I have seen stuff slide that should have never ever slid using the standards that are taught in avi classes. I have also seen a totally stable day go to completely unstable when the temp reached XX degrees in the sun and then back to relatively stable all over the course of an hour or two. Such an inexact science with sooo many variables. These days I am so overly cautious as I probably should have met the reaper a long time ago when I was less experienced with more testosterone.

Colorado has a nice dust layer in the snowpack right now too. Another variable that may or may not be related to climate change. Scary stuff right now.

steve shea

Apr 23, 2013 - 02:09pm PT
Big slide on Nez Perce here in the Tetons. No one dead but once again triggered by humans. Local BC "experts".

Grey Matter
Apr 23, 2013 - 02:14pm PT
I think your point is actually agreeing with the NYT article. He calls them expert and experienced skiers, leaving it a little more up to the reader to figure out what that might mean in terms of "avalanche hazard expert." Some of them did avoid the direct descent thinking it was too risky.
Big Mike

Trad climber
Apr 23, 2013 - 02:47pm PT
true expert would certainly not have actually been in it under those conditions!

+1 MILLION! the people who chose the safer route in the tunnel creek incident made it out safely, even if it was by the skin of their teeth. They knew they shouldn't have been there, i'm sure they would rather have avoided that expedition all together if they could do it all over.

Truth is even if the Colorado party had followed proper procedure it would have been unlikely that anyone caught in the slide would have survived. The snow most likely killed them before the avy even stopped. The one survivor was extremely lucky.

Digging them out would have been a nearly impossible task, with that amount of snow and how hard it sets up.
Bruce Kay

Gym climber
Apr 23, 2013 - 03:14pm PT

Splatter - interesting point. There is much layering and nuance that is left to the reader to interpret and to an extent, there's only so much stuff you can cover in any magazine article so maybe its a reasonable strategy. It would be interesting to discuss it with the author.

Still, I think there is a reason that some subjects are avoided being directly confronted. One is out of consideration of the reputation of those involved. I think this is a perfectly valid consideration and one worthy of care. The risk however is avoiding a significant truth. My observations and assertions are not just based on just this one article but a general pattern of how we as a culture determine expertise and the liscence that that provides. Bear in mind that we are discussing the concept of expertise in a non professional context. If that particular group was professionally guided they most likely would not be there at all and if they were, the guide would have a very big job explaining how it was justified. The explanations offered in the Tunnel creek article would not go over well in court.

A group of recreationalists is certainly not held to the same standard of accountability, but that dosn't make the need for quality decision making any less necessary, as the potential for disaster is just the same. In other words, in some situations the demand for expert level decision making is required, yet it is assumed that non experts have the chops to carry on. This is a cultural assumption that I think is significant and deserves addressing directly.

Exactly the same thing happens with climate change policy. People way out of their field of expertise are driving the policy, licensed by inexpert public opinion. My basic point is that if we are honest about our own expertise / knowledge we would be much more prone to defer to the expert opinion, best exemplified by the public avalanche bulletin.


Trad climber
'cross the great divide
Apr 23, 2013 - 03:28pm PT
I remember that winters in northwest Wyoming typically started with moderate snowfalls, such that by Thanksgiving there was enough snow to ski with your rock boards on Teton Pass. During the winter, in addition to the temperatures generally staying quite cold (with the exception of the annual Jan./Feb. thaw), the snowfalls tended to come in moderate dumps throughout the season. We always listened to Rathole's recorded Bridger-Teton avy on the phone, and used that as a reference, in addition to the observations we made skiing nearly every day while the snow stayed good. I found the snowpack there to be fairly consistent.

I have found the snowpack in Colorado to be very inconsistent, starting with the first day of backcountry skiing on Berthoud Pass many years ago. By that time I had pretty much mastered telemarking in powder due to five Teton winters, and found myself flailing at Berthoud skiing breakable crust on top of a bunch of faceted snow.

In Colorado, in addition to much more wildly swinging temps., the snowfall tends to come more sporadically. At the beginning of fall, it is not uncommon to get a pretty big early dump, but not necessarily followed by the consistent moderate snowfall that I witnessed in Wyoming. The result is that it is common for TG snow to form at the ground level, that remains in the snowpack throughout the winter. With relatively long streteches between storms not uncommon, TG snow also forms at other layers throughout the snowpack, remaining for the duration of the winter. I have seen bigger dumps here in Boulder (not located in the mountains) than I ever saw in Jackson or the mountains around Jackson. Consequently, the snowpack here typically has numerous TG layers that get stressed by sporadic large dumps of snow. I have collapsed TG layers more than one foot thick here in CO while approaching ice climbs in relatively safe places. I never saw anything like that in hundreds of days of backcountry skiing on and around Teton Pass.

I've heard tales of 6 feet of TG snow in the San Juans, which is probably a bit of an exxageration. However, the point is made that the snowpack here truly is a different beast.

Gym climber
sawatch choss
Apr 23, 2013 - 05:51pm PT
Regarding the dust layer in Colorado:

The frequency of dust storms has increased with vehicular traffic upwind on the Colorado Plateau, which is due mostly to two factors: exponential increases in OHV use, and increased roadbuilding to support hydrocarbon extraction. The combination has produced unprecedented disturbance of the fragile desert soils, lots of which end up in the air until they settle out over the CO mountains.

Climate change and brown snow are actually symptomatic of fossil fuel/vehicle use.

Trad climber
Western America
Apr 23, 2013 - 10:52pm PT
Cannot understand why the avalanche poodles did not work?

Trad climber
Apr 24, 2013 - 12:26pm PT
A good article profiling those that we have lost

Bruce Kay

Gym climber
Apr 24, 2013 - 12:38pm PT
Really sad. They sound like a great bunch of guys.

WBW - just last spring I was tromping around in a full 2 meter snowpack of depth hoar and facets top to bottom. That was in the northern Rockies of BC where such a thing is not unusual at all. Fortunately there was no slab on top of it, but when the sun came out the stuff started flowing like water! Ultra shitty skiing too

spectacular terrain - too bad about the crappy snowpack!  There's a re...
spectacular terrain - too bad about the crappy snowpack! There's a really good reason there is no heli ski tenure here!
Credit: Bruce Kay

Trad climber
Apr 24, 2013 - 12:39pm PT


Trad climber
The great state of advaita
Apr 24, 2013 - 12:51pm PT
The NYT Tunnel Creek article won a Pulitzer recently. It really was well put together.

Trad climber
vancouver, bc
Apr 24, 2013 - 01:44pm PT
Maybe I missed it - what's the word of the single survivor? Is he still recovering?

Another question in my mind is, given that these guys seemingly knew what they were doing from an avy perspective and the conditions were pretty spicey out there, you would have expected them to have skied the slope one at a time, maybe they had all completed the run and were at the bottom of the slope when the avalanche cut? Any word on where they were when it happened?
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