Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Human error in avalanche terrain

I have a confession to make: I skied terrain in hazardous avalanche conditions beyond my better judgment. It was easy to do, nothing happened, but afterwards, thinking of what we did gives me pause. Let me set the stage:

The last week or so, the mountains around Anchorage have been getting a substantial amount of precipitation on top of a decent snowpack that had been in the deep freeze for a few weeks. This was a recipe for some serious instability as the new snow settled on a layer of surface hoar that had formed from the cold weather. A history of this recent weather can be found here.

Saturday Anchorage received about 6 inches of new snow and the surrounding passes (Hatcher, Turnagain) even more. Andrea and I decided to head up to Hatcher on Sunday. We brought our AT gear but only intended to go up to Gold Cord which features very low angle slopes with little slide risk. We brought our skating skis as backup just in case the weather was really bad.

Upon arriving, we saw many groups heading up Hatcher Pass proper to Mt. Hatch. We thought, what the heck, if everyone else is doing it, lets just see what it looks like. The weather was clearing, it looked like there was a foot or more of fresh light snow, and at least we could get a good workout on the skin up. Skinning up, there were plenty of signs of prior slides on all aspects (in AK in the winter, apparently the low angle sun makes all aspects pretty much the same in terms of heating/cooling risks). The real shocker was getting to the top of Mt. Hatch and seeing a large slab avalanche that had been intentionally set loose by a skier in April Bowl. Tracks lined both sides of the slide and some 20-30 skiers continued to drop lines through the bowl.

We debated skiing the ridgeline to the top of April Bowl for about five minutes before deciding it was not worth the risk. This was a good choice I think based on the apparent risks but hard because so many people had skied and were continuing to ski great lines down knee deep fluff in the bowl.

Our next choice was maybe not so good. We ended up taking two runs down a tracked section of the Back of Hatch, shorter, lower angle but still well within the "danger zone." Both of us felt more comfortable with this choice and nothing happened but I can't help but think we crossed a line we shouldn't have crossed. On the way back to the car, skiing through some very flat sections, we heard lots of whumping indicating the snowpack was not stable. I guess the point of this is to reflect on the choices we made on Sunday. We didn't go on a clearly dangerous slope even though "everyone else was skiing it" but we still couldn't resist the temptation of some really nice powder turns. Did we dodge a bullet? Who knows, I am proud that we stayed within our comfort level and experience level (is anyone every really "experienced" enough to ski in high slide risk areas? - don't trust them if they claim they are) but still more thinking and experience is needed.

I apologize we have no pictures of this truly epic day, the camera battery froze the first hour and could not be revived.


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