Around this time of year, the snow has begun to fall but not enough to ski except for the most dedicated. For the backcountry community in Lake Tahoe, the California Snow & Avalanche Workshop has become the kickoff for the upcoming season. It’s an opportunity for all winter sports enthusiasts to catch up with each other and get a stern reminder that the mountains are a dangerous place to play and we’re not the ones in control out there… Mother nature is.
The host of the workshop and a leader in the backcountry community, David Reichel kicks off the event. With a somber heart, he let everyone know we’ve already had our first death of the season in Montana and to thank each one of us for taking safety seriously. And with that, he introduced the first speaker: Steve Reynaud to provide a season recap for the Tahoe region.
2016-17: The Season of Atmospheric Rivers
Steve Reynaud, a Sierra Avalanche forecaster/observer and owner of Tahoe Mountain sports, summed up last winter in one sentence – A Season of Atmospheric Rivers. In fact, 2016-17 set multiple records:
- Wettest water year on record
- With 50 feet of snow, it was still nowhere near the snowiest. But, a few places in the area did break snow records like Mt Rose, receiving over 750 inches of the white stuff!
With the storms coming in hot and heavy all season, 47% of forecast days had avalanches reported. That’s WAY above normal! Fortunately, because of how big these weather systems were, access was shut down during some of the riskiest avalanche periods which may have helped keep the total down to 25.
Big Rains AND Big Snows
Early season started with a deep persistent slab, lasting through mid-December. With the snow level up to 9000’ and a storm delivering nearly 12+ inches of rain, everything seemed to slide that could. Luckily, it was followed by 6-8 FEET of snow. Then January happened… storm after storm hit Lake Tahoe and it became known as #Januburied2017. February and March continued the cycle of weather yo-yoing with a few 8500′ snow level storms along with the typical rapid warm up we expect in our area. The season will definitely go down as one to remember.
More people die from avalanches than earthquakes
After the Lake Tahoe season recap, we jumped into what’s happening at Montana State University, the leading institution in Snow Science. A shocking fact was brought up that the mortality rate from snow avalanches is higher than people dying in earthquakes. Let that sink in for a moment. Every death is tragic but there has been a positive shift in the statistics. In the last 15 years, the amount of people dying from avalanches has plateaued even with the rise of people heading into the mountains.
Snowpack is a problem, Terrain is a Solution
Just because avalanche deaths aren’t increasing compared with people venturing into the unknown, it doesn’t mean we should stop trying to improve. A MSU Snow Science goal is to try and identify what types of groups make good vs. poor decisions. So, what has their program learned? Using the Ski Tracks GPS phone app along with a survey, they found that the more experienced the backcountry traveler is, it leads to:
- Better Decision Making
- Better Avalanche Education
- Exposing themselves to more severe terrain
A scary fact did come up that was concerning to all. The bigger the group, the steeper the slopes chosen regardless of experience. The next step in their research is to look into understanding the “WHY”. Based on the Norwegian pilot program, they found that risk perception consists of the following:
- Risk Appetite – This is inherited in yourself
- Education/Experience – The more educated you are in the wilderness, the more likely you are to push it
- Gender – Men are 30% more likely to be involved in an accident
What’s next in the project?
For the 2017/18 season, the MSU team will study if this risk perception changes based on region. “Are there ski risk cultures? Similarities/differences based on area?” They want to connect hypothetical to the real-world and see what comes out. If you want to participate in this project, download the Ski Tracks app and visit montana.edu/snowscience/tracks to join the movement. They need our help!
How much snow are we gonna get for the 2017/18 season?
Zach Tolby – NWS Forecaster Reno
The weather outlook segment of the California Avalanche Workshop is always the most fascinating. This year, Zach took a different approach compared to the last few. Instead of stating how much we’re going to get, he focused on how wrong the predictions have been even in the past and why.
Why long-range weather forecasting is difficult for the Sierra Nevadas
The problem for our area more than any other mountain range is that we receive nearly half of our precipitation in the form of an atmospheric river. On average, these events only occur 5-8 x’s/season, meaning in a good winter we get 10 or 12 and in a bad winter 3 to 4. Since atmospheric rivers are typically only 250-375 miles wide, they can easily miss our area.
The one thing for certain is we’ll probably get more than 2014/15 (worst year on record) and most likely less than 2016/17 (wettest on record). But, based on the trending of snowfall since the 2014/15 winter, we should be on track to receive 825.5 inches of snow on Donner Summit for 2017/18… followed by lots of crowd laughter. And if you believe that, just like George C. Parker used to say, “I’ve got a Brooklyn Bridge to sell you.”
The Human Aspect of AIARE
In Richard’s second year as AIARE executive director and his first speech at the California Avalanche Workshop, it was the most emotional one of the day. His primary goal is to save lives. When he put up the slide showing three women, each who lost a son in an avalanche, Richard said, “This is who I work for”… and it choked up the entire audience. It really helped lay the groundwork for the human aspect discussion. It’s up to each of us to make sure that he doesn’t add any more pictures to this slide.
Will your avalanche education make a difference?
The question shouldn’t be, “Do you have a certificate?” Rather, it should ask if we’re making good decisions when we are out there. The goal of the program changes to the AIARE education is to NOT come back next year and talk about more deaths, even with holding level 2 certifications.
Social Media – We are all educators
Richard then took the opportunity to highlight social media as a place to educate and not demonstrate how smart you are. We must be careful on how we answer a question that is raised on social media. For example, would you talk to a second grader about quadratic equations? Of course not. So, be sure to understand who you’re talking to and formulate your message to that person’s understanding.
Season Recap for the Eastern Sierras
Eastern Sierras are home to couloirs & big terrain that rarely see rainfall events. The 2016/17 season was an anomaly filled with early season instability of rain on snow and massive storms. How big? The largest one dumped nearly 104” in late January. Talk about HUGE!
A tragic event shapes life’s direction
The most heartfelt part of his presentation was the story of how he got into avalanche forecasting – the Blacksmith Creek Avalanche. With only 1” of new snow, Josh & his friends Johanna and CJ decided to head to Mt. Watt. As they were skinning towards their objective, they noticed only one way to get in. They could see the wind rolling over the hillside, meaning the possibility of a wind slab. With a commitment to the final goal and a feeling to make the most of the day due to limited days off, they decided to skin up one at a time.
Unfortunately, they triggered a massive slide taking both Johanna & Josh for a ride. Josh was partially buried and had a major concussion while Johanna was fully buried. After 20 minutes of rescue efforts, they pulled her out & CJ went to get help. Sitting there with Johanna in his arms, she said to Josh, “I’m dying.” Hearing those words uttered by a friend shook me to the bone and hope I never get into that situation. As he finished up the story with a heavy heart, Josh scanned the crowd and articulated the words – “I tell you this story in the hope that it helps someone in the future.”
Motorized Avalanche Education
Compared to human-powered avalanche education, the motorized side has only begun to grow in the last decade. Some of that has to do with how snowmobiling has been primarily a trial by fire activity. The other factor is because technology has only begun to allow people access to steep avalanche terrain with their machines just like skiers and snowboarders. Due to this, snowmobilers are now becoming a higher percentage of deaths in the backcountry. AIARE understands that a snowmobile is VERY different than human powered. From this recognition, they continue to push the development of a specific motorized avalanche curriculum to help save lives in this area as well.
Shasta Season Overview
Mt Shasta’s forecast environment is challenging. Across a 60-square mile area, they must forecast the weather for elevations from 4,000’ to 14,000’, with weather stations that only go up to 7,800’. In the 2016/17 season, three people were caught in an avalanche but survived. The scariest part is that two of them involved didn’t even have rescue gear on. Instead of shaming people like this, we should use it as an educational experience. We all need to take advantage of the times we’re lucky. It’s the perfect opportunity to share & learn so that we don’t do it again while helping others as well. The good news is in the 20 years of avalanche forecasting, they still have not had a death even with how massive the avalanches can be on this looming peak.
The headliner of this year’s event, Andrew McLean is widely considered one of America’s greatest living ski mountaineers. He began the presentation with a bit of humor & introduction of how he got into backcountry skiing. From there, we dove into 16 personal backcountry mishaps, including a few mentioned here:
- Wolverine Cirque – He loved skiing chutes and this particular one is in the Wasatch. He jumped in first and saw no instability. His friend Roman then jumped off a cliff, triggering multiple avalanches. Roman was buried 8 feet deep for 20 minutes and while rescued, sadly died later in the hospital.
- Tibet – A special team was organized with the goal to be the first American to ski an 8000 m mountain. When they got there, the team had multiple different agendas. One group headed to check out certain terrain while the others marched off the opposite direction. While walking around without any avy gear, a natural avalanche triggered on the top. The slide then propagated over multiple cliff bands, creating a class 5 avalanche. The result was disastrous, killing multiple people including Alex Lowe, the owner of Black Diamond.
- Snowbird – Before ski season began, Andrew and a friend competed in a friendly outdoor race. They began running to the top of a certain knife ridgeline, trying to beat their time of an hour while scrambling to the top. His friend lost his footing and fell down a gully. When Andrew reached him, his friend was covered in deep red blood. Eventually rescue lifted to the hospital, Andrew found out that the fall had killed him.
Is life our greatest adventure?
After listening to Andrew speak about all these incidents, it really shook my foundation for heading out into the wilderness. With so many of his friends dying around him with his trials & tribulations of venturing into the wilderness, why do this? Were his accomplishments such as completing first descents on all seven continents worth the effort? Should he be celebrated for pushing the envelope or rather be a stern warning? Are steep powder turns worth the possible death & carnage? Could I survive if I saw my best friend or wife die in my arms based on a mistake? I can’t answer those questions for you, but to me, I will try to always embrace the little things in life. Andrew’s accounts will be a stark reminder that climbing that peak isn’t worth it if we don’t all come home.