Over the last 24 hours or so, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the events that took place yesterday. There are a variety of pieces to this puzzle, so in this post I want to simply describe what took place from my perspective. Perhaps soon I’ll talk about the rest of the day’s events, or what it’s like to try to convince hundreds of people that avalanche training and rescue equipment should be a minimum requirement for even just going to the base of Tuckerman on a day like this. For now, here is my story, as honestly as I can remember it.
Over the last several years, I’ve changed one of my beliefs about avalanches. I used to believe that every time a person was involved in an avalanche, a mistake had been made. Nowadays I don’t think this is always the case, but here, I will admit to having made mistakes in this incident. The first one was before I even left the cabin at Hermit Lake.
It was a bluebird day with a mix of avalanche dangers, and I was hustling to get up to the ravine before the crowds showed up. I knew people would be eager to get onto soft snow, and I hadn’t been in the ravine since Tuesday. I felt a little unprepared to answer specific questions about the snowpack, so up to the Bowl we went.
When people are in the potential runout of the snow I want to assess, I will not put them at risk by climbing above them. Unfortunately, people frequently travel up into the runout paths from slopes above them, many under the mistaken assumption that they are not at risk because they aren’t in steep terrain. This makes stability assessments challenging on busy days, but I wanted to get information about the magnitude and severity of the problem so we could provide better firsthand information and hopefully help them make safer decisions.
I was probably hustling more than I needed to be, because I didn’t take the time to pack my gear into an avalanche airbag pack or take my Avalung. I did wear my helmet and I carried my beacon, shovel, and probe. I know that PPE doesn’t make me invincible, but it does increase one’s safety if an avalanche were to happen. Simply put, I should have had one or both of these tools with me for this trip. I have no good excuse for leaving them in the cabin.
I had Dylan, the AMC caretaker, as my partner and lookout. He was positioned with a radio at the floor of the ravine in a location where he could see me, the runout, and the slope above. He was also in position to talk to each group that arrived to ensure they didn’t stray into the potential runout. I had originally intended to ascend the Chute to verify some visual clues I’d picked up on early in the morning. Not wanting to risk an avalanche running in the direction of the people who were already in the floor, I decided to head toward the Sluice and Lip. Along the way I spoke with a couple groups of people and encouraged them to move farther out of the floor, which they did.
Below Lunch Rocks, I found my first indication of poor snow structure. I found soft slab with a layer of unconsolidated snow underneath. Hand shears showed easy planar releases, but before long I was kicking steps into the crust with only about 4” of new snow on top. For a short while, I thought that if the Lip was similar to this bit of stable snow, there would be little to worry about. After 50’ or so of this, the snow turned back to the same poor structure I’d seen farther down. However, at this point it wasn’t very deep (6-8”). I continued on and out under the Lip, where the snow got a little deeper, perhaps to about a foot. I did an uphill kick-turn type of test (done with boots, not skis) and got an easy 10-12’ shooting crack to propagate outward over the crust. This was a strong indicator of instability, and in hindsight this should have been enough for me to turn around. In fact, at this point I called Dylan on the radio to confirm that no one was underneath me or in the runout.
A couple things were going through my mind that led me to continue upward into Chicken Rock Gully. First, the snow was not terribly deep right there. I wanted to get a sense of how deep it might be in the Lip, so I could estimate potential avalanche size and therefore steer the incoming crowds to appropriate locations for hanging around. If it stayed shallower, then entering the floor of the ravine would be less risky. If it got much deeper, then the floor could be a very risky place to spend time. If I were strictly out for my own purposes in similar snow, I think I’d have turned around. I’ve turned around for lesser risks frequently in the past, so why was this different?
Another factor was the deceptive softness of the slab. I was thinking that the soft snow would not likely propagate a crack far above my feet. This was a very incorrect notion. The hardness of the slab is only one factor in determining how far a fracture will propagate. I misread this factor and ignored the others.
Finally, the terrain below that had the stable snow looked a lot like what I was traveling through, so I was wondering if the snow in the Lip might have actually been more stable. Honestly, I think I was wishing for something to be true so hard that I ignored the other important information. With these things in mind and no one below me, I kept moving upward.
As I continued up Chicken Rock Gully, the snow became deeper and the structure remained poor. I reached a point about 10’ below the rock that separates this small gully from the Lip and Sluice. In thigh deep snow, I came to the conclusion that I was in beyond my comfort level with the stability of the snow. It was beyond time to retreat. However, I was only 10’ below a large rock—sometimes this acts as an island of safety for us on our patrol routes. For some reason, I decided to move up to the rock so I could take one last look around, see who was where, and plan a light-footed retreat through exposed terrain. Three more steps forward and the slope made a distinct (un)settling sound.
At this point, I knew I had to do whatever I could to get as much debris down beneath me as possible. I tried doing some butterfly strokes to get above the fracturing slab, which didn’t work very well. I tried self-arresting on the bed surface. My axe grabbed, but it felt like a 600lb gorilla was pulling me downslope. I tossed the axe aside, rolled in to face the slope, and began to fight hard to stay above the snow.
During this time, I was able to see how far the fracture had propagated. It was bigger than I would have expected, so I fought even harder. This was the first avalanche that I’ve ever been caught in, and although I’ve heard it before, it’s hard to believe just how powerless you feel when caught. I’m an athletic guy, 6’2” tall, 190lbs, and in fairly good shape for my age. I was in a position with not much snow directly above me up to the rock, and I felt absolutely helpless even as I was fighting as hard as I could. I could not get on top of the debris.
Being caught in an avalanche is no joke…you are 100% at its mercy, which is why it is so critical that you never get caught in one. Thankfully, this slope was free of terrain traps, rocks, ice chunks, trees, or other things that could have injured me during the slide. As it slowed down, I realized I’d likely be deposited on the surface. I found myself up to my knees, looking upslope. I was one of the lucky ones who don’t get buried or injured.
This is about when I started to get angry. I found myself pissed off at myself for trying to toe the line a little too close. I immediately knew how close this was as a close call. As I walked off the debris, I caught sight of three students from Lyndon State College. One of their professors is a close friend of mine and former caretaker. I asked them if by any chance, they had caught it on camera or video. One said something to the effect of having put his camera away and so he could take his beacon out and go into search mode. All three were already coming down to my aid, with avalanche rescue gear, doing the right thing. Coincidentally, they were also nearby in Right Gully a little later when the skier was caught and carried. These young men left an impression on me. Not only did they seem like good guys, but they were actively trying to make informed decisions about where to go and what to do. They planned ahead. They had some avalanche knowledge. They’d read the advisories, they had rescue gear, and they were making the right moves when they needed to. Ultimately, they came prepared for an adventure, but I suspect they got a lot more from their weekend than they expected, even though they didn’t ski Dodge’s Drop as they’d originally hoped.
If three college students can do this, why can’t everyone else? They must have learned from someone how to appropriately engage with avalanche terrain. With so many people taking avalanche classes and more and more people coming up well-prepared for the terrain and avalanche challenges, there are more than enough people who can help spread the message. Sometimes Tucks can be a virtual circus of stupid behavior, but it doesn’t need to be. Four Snow Rangers, a small volunteer ski patrol, and a couple AMC caretakers are not going to transform Tucks into a place where everyone knows that the expectation is that they come prepared. But I know that as a community of people—skiers, hikers, climbers, and spectators alike—we can make the transformation a reality. I love to envision a day when the oddball is the person who doesn’t have a transceiver, a helmet, an ice axe and crampons, etc. It’s possible, but it will take more than me sharing my story to make this happen. Please help me out. Come up, please, but come prepared. And share with others the expectation that they come prepared, too, especially when there is avalanche hazard. Let’s make it completely unacceptable to enter avalanche terrain without meeting this expectation.