On October 18, 2014 the Sierra Nevada Mountain Community took a big step towards snow safety. Backcountry enthusiasts, community leaders, industry professionals and emergency personnel gathered to share knowledge and prepare for the snow season at the first annual California Avalanche Workshop. To be considered such a cutting edge state, California sure is behind the curve regarding avalanche awareness when compared to the Pacific Northwest, Utah and Colorado. Being a backcountry rider with novice avalanche knowledge I was in.
Reason for this 1st Workshop of its kind – Bring the industry and enthusiasts together to keep backcountry travelers safe
According to the American Avalanche Association, 35 people lost there lives due to avalanches last season. With improvements in technology and equipment, more are venturing further into the backcountry away from emergency services. This being the case, Lake Tahoe Community College’s Wilderness Education Coordinator and AIARE instructor, David Reichel, decided to take action. He organized a pre-season avalanche and snow safety awareness workshop at Lake Tahoe Community College in South Lake Tahoe, CA. David felt the need to bring all the different players from each end of the spectrum together to share information in order to help people make better decisions when traveling in this dangerous terrain.
It was hard to tell this was the first event of its kind in the area. The workshop was a sellout with standing room only. Looking at the presenters and agenda there were no questions why. The top snow scientists, forecasters, members of local avalanche centers, pros and avalanche survivors were all on hand. Many had just returned from International Snow Science Workshop in Banff, Canada. Check out the full agenda below. Included are links to each presenter for more information.
California Avalanche Workshop – Overview of Meeting Schedule
LTCC Board Room
8:45 – 9:10 Check in, coffee and mingle
9:10 – 9:20 David Reichel: Welcome and Overview
9:20 – 10:05 Alex Do: Sharing his account and lessons learned from the December 2013 Pucker Face avalanche accident in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
10:05 – 10:20 Break
10:20 – 11:05 Ben Hatchett : Diagnosing upside-down storm events in the Sierra Nevada.
11:05 – 12:00 Elyse Saugstad: Drawing on personal experience
discussing airbags as a safety tool.
12:00 – 1:10 Lunch
1:20 – 2:20 Avalanche Center Panel Discussion: Nick Meyers, Brandon Schwartz, Andy Anderson, Adam Babcock, Sue Burak (Sierra Avalanche Center, Shasta Avalanche Center and Eastern Sierra Avalanche Center)
2:20 – 2:35 Break
2:35 – 3:10 Ned Bair Ph.D: Stability tests and their relation to the avalanche failure process.
3:10 – 3:40 Sue Burak : Discussing decision making.
3:40 – 3:55 Break
3:55 – 4:15 Don Triplat: Backcountry culture
4:15 – 4:50 Brennan Lagasse: Guiding remote heli access ski touring in the Chugach.
4:50 – 5:00 Wrap Up
The goal was to transfer as much expert knowledge as possible, with emphasis on explaining and demonstrating the practical uses that can be adopted to help backcountry snow travelers stay safe.
Tragedy the Day after Christmas – Lessons Learned by Alex Do
While the entire event was educational and informative, one of the presentations is still running through my head. This is Alex Do and his recollection of the day after Christmas 2013. The impact of his story is beyond words. I’ve tried to provide a brief recap of his experience.
After a short intro Alex began to paint a picture to bring the audience on his journey.
A buddy recently moved to Jackson, WY and invited him out to ski. Not having any ties Alex decided to head up to Jackson for an adventure. No one had been able to get out in the backcountry for a period prior due to storms in the area. On December 26, 2013 the weather was perfect. Bluebird skies with moderate avalanche danger seemed like the perfect day. Alex met up with his buddy Mike at the tram. Originally, the group was to be four, but when Alex arrived it had grown to six. Everyone jumped on the tram to head to the top where a set of backcountry gates awaited. Some untracked couloirs off Cody Peak were the target. The stoke on the tram was electric. He even recalled AC/DC blaring through the speakers as the mass of people sang and talked over the music. Upon exiting the famous Jackson Hole Tram it was a mad dash to get out of the gates to get first tracks. Even though the whole group had never skied together before a false sense of security developed. Most had diverse backcountry knowledge; skied with at least one other in the group and all had emergency avalanche equipment.
On the ascent someone noticed tracks in the couloir they planned to hit. Without consulting the group a few decided to change the destination to a still untracked stretch known as Pucker Face.
The run is very technical with a considerable cliff band and has even been featured in films. When Alex arrived one of the members had began to drop a cornice. The group joined to assist. A piece of the cornice about half the intended size broke off and bounced down the face. Most were content with the results. Alex recalled being uneasy, but since it wasn’t his home mountain and not coordinating with the group he didn’t speak up. No further strategy regarding avalanche danger or safety was discussed. There was only eagerness to ski the face. Alex’s buddy Mike offered to do one final test. He volunteered to ski cut the slope to test the stability. Mike made a partial cut then charged into a hard right turn. Stoke was high from seeing the spray of that first turn, but by the second and third it was apparent the snow was moving. Instinct kicked in as Alex tried to spot his friend before he lost a visual when Mike was carried over the cliff.
The group made it down to Mike quickly where they were met by a guided party. They all worked together well and located Mike surprisingly fast. His airway was cleared within 16 minutes of the burial, but it was too late. Mike died from suffocation.
All experienced backcountry travelers, but errors were still made. How did this happen?
Following the event the group reflected on the main mistakes that lead to the avalanche. They cited these as some of the major factors leading to this accident:
- Group size
- “Moderate” avalanche danger rating
- Poor communication
- Proximity to resort
- Ho defined leader
It was evident this was difficult for Alex. It was also evident that he didn’t want anyone to have to experience what he did that day. Avalanche awareness is more important to him now than ever. When traveling in the backcountry today he makes it a point to be organized, points out clues and signs and ensures group organization to minimize risks.
To read Alex’s full story and lessons learned check out The Avalanche Review Volume 32, No. 4, April 2014 Pg. 20.