The Avalanche Review, VOL. 6, NO. 4, MARCH 15, 1988
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA

How Many Chances Do You Get?
by Matt Krane

It was early winter, 1979. I was out with a fledgling helicopter skiing service in Mammoth California doing terrain profiles and snowpack studies with other guides. All of a sudden, there I was at the top of a 900 foot northfacing bowl which had not responded to three, three-pound hand charges. I would make the first ski cut.

My heart was beating in my throat even though three others were watching close by, and my safety point was a mere one hundred feet away. I paused to check my Skadi. I paused again, then leapt into it with a big bounce, and bounced hard several times along the way to the safety of the ridge. Nothing happened--no settlement, no fracture, and no slide. As I turned around to watch the others, my heart beat quickly for them. The third man across, just forty feet below my track, released a potentially disarming three-foot slab. It was a hard slab and barely broke up in its short run down the upper part of the bowl. He calmly kept his nerve and seemed to skate up out of it and cross to safety. I could have been that third man!

The snowpits we had dug on north aspects showed an easy shear on top of a thin ice crust, outlined well by red pumice dust. Stiff, early season winds had put a good snow load on top. We were to see similar action on similar slopes most of the day, but this was my first deliberate adventure into avalanche terrain.

A season or so later, just one day before the mountain's opening, two locals would make a deliberate foray up Mammoth's "Cornice Bowl" to ski twenty inches of new snow laid down over a rainhardened base. One of them would not come home that night. The bowl broke larger than it ever does during the season, sweeping both men away and eventually killing one. I can remember the feeling of that day well; the weather was ominous and closing in. The search lasted well into the late afternoon when the body was recovered. There was no second chance that day.

As I write this, local Summit County newspapers in Colorado are writing their seasonal lip-service about the extreme early season avalanche danger in the Rockies. Ironically, people in an avalanche field seminar on Loveland Pass are witness to an avalanche, caused by utter foolishness and lack of awareness, trapping a backountry skier. It is absurd, the number of people driving up Loveland Pass and skiing in November or December who have absolutely no clue as to what effects slope aspect, storm histories, or snowpack stratigraphy have on avalanche formation; or even how to use good route finding techniques in potentially dangerous terrain. Loveland follies.

But how many chances to you get? I personally cannot believe the number of ski/snowboard tracks in the wrong places, at the wrong time, in and around Summit County. Most people get away with this, but eleven backountry recreationalists in Colorado didn't last season. I'm ashamed to admit what I've gotten away with myself, although most times were calculated risks with the normal precautions.

All it takes to learn real well is to get caught one time--if you are given a second chance. The small gully slide in the Sierra that spared me once was a great eyeopener. Things happened so suddenly.

But what really plastered me to the wall-offear was a settlement of snow on Peak Seven near Breckenridge. Three of us had gone there four seasons ago in late December to "look" at the snow. The surface was hard and windblown all around. We ducked over to the first east facing chute, up in the rocks, one at a time. They went first, and we all eased close to the exposure we would ski so two of us could watch the first man go. We were barely a third of the way up the mountain when there was a muffled "crack" and a slight movement under our feet. The entire exposure had settled and fractured five feet above us. And we though we were being cautious! This unnerved us all. It was very cold and clear. Winds were sweeping around the bowl with airborne snow everywhere. Needless to say, we escaped in an orderly but quick fashion without any further exposure to ourselves, or movement in the snowpack.

Had we dug a pit, we would have known not to continue our folly. A week later, the entire Peak Seven area fractured by itself, much as it did last season when four out-of-bounds skiers were killed there. But, this time it was a natural catastrophic failure of the snowpack from the load of only one subsequent storm.

These have been my second chances. My heart pounds just reliving them. The year I worked with the Bredkenridge professional ski patrol happened to be a very sobering season. At the same time, I worked some days for Colorado Heli-Ski and had a fine time guiding firsttimers around the backcountry in and out of some great snow--and some not-so-great snow-safely. These people will be back.

With as fine a snow safety program as Breckenridge has, there is virtually no chance for an in-bounds avalanche accident. This goes for all areas dealing with class "A" avalanche terrain unless warning signs go unheeded, and this happens occasionally by foolhardy people who belong up at Loveland Pass.

In my last eight years skiing, I've grown to respect not only the snowpack, gravity and mountain, but also the quirkiness of nature and weather. Avalanche forecasting is far from an exact science, but its practice, and learning from it, can only benefit us all. Call an avalanche information center if there is ever any question about snow conditions. Then proceed with caution, if you proceed at all.

The Avalanche Review, VOL. 6, NO. 4, MARCH 15, 1988
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA