It started out like any good powder day. Fresh snow, good friends, strong legs. While the avalanche bulletin rated the risk as “considerable”, things felt stable and the powder beckoned. There were about 10 or so people in the circle I was skiing with that morning…everyone was talking about heading “out”. Fortunately, my friend Chris and I were on the same page and decided that was too many people, so we headed out on our own.
We dropped into the West Bowl at Mount Cain and proceeded on one of our regular, and somewhat conservative, lines. A traverse straight across from the upper entrance to the Col, and then we dropped in on the “main draw” of the bowl (note – while this is one of the most used lines into the West Bowl, it is not the safest – and even the safest line is still very dangerous). While this line can slide, it is lower angle then most of the surrounding terrain, and doesn’t slide that often…but it does slide and it is dangerous.
I went first, and as agreed stopped to wait for Chris at the first safe spot – under a large rock just to the left of the line. When I got there I saw about 4-5 people directly below me under the next small clump of rocks. I didn’t see any packs on any of them. I waved Chris into the safe spot with me. That’s when we noticed the slide debris. As it happened, this group of two skiers and about five snow boarders and gone over the far right of “Sliders” and triggered a relatively large slide – easily a size 2.
Excuse the resolution, I had to use the”zoom” on my point and shoot. Then I had to add lines to show what I am talking about…The three red lines on the right of the photo are the crown from what I gather was a natural release later in the day Saturday as the temperature spiked. The next single line going left is the crown from the slide the first group with no gear triggered. The smaller line to the far left is the crown that my buddy Pete triggered. Right under the big rock…
On the way to the up track, we saw some blood on the snow. Turns out the guy who triggered the slide went into a tree. While the tree may have beat up his face, it probably saved his life. As it turns out, no one in the group had any gear on.
After that, Chris and I decided we had had enough of the West Bowl as it was getting crowded. We headed back up and went to check out the “Death Chute”. Just above the entrance we took a good look at the snow and decided it was way too slabby. We headed just to the left of the chute down a run known as “The Chimney” (note – this is a dangerous line and can slide catastrophically – however we were the only people there and sometimes other people can be more dangerous than the snow pack). The snow sluffed a lot on us, but held and the run opened up into some nice lines, not to steep and untracked. The snow was a little wind affected, but still fun. We arrived back at the up track, which was quite crowded by this time. As we were getting ready to head up, my friend Lisa came in and told us there had been slide. She also told us that our friend Pete had gone for a ride and lost his skis. YIKES! Fortunately Pete was OK – and Chris had a radio so we called for someone to snow mobile into the bowl to a safe spot he could walk to and pick him up.
That night we discussed what had happened. As both Chris and I had thought, a large group had formed to do a run. There were seven in total including Pete, Lisa, my other friends Jessica and Wanda and three people who were staying with Pete. On their run, Pete dropped in first – on the same line Chris and I had skied about an hour earlier. Pete was also supposed to wait at the big rock, but upon seeing the untracked snow just to the left of the tracks Chris and I had made, headed in. And triggered a slide.
I took this picture Sunday. The “big rock” is on the left of the frame. That’s Pete in the middle and you can follow the crown of the slide he rode in from the rock all the way to the line of trees on the right.
This is the snow column right where the slide triggered. There was about 6 inches of new snow sitting on a crust. That’s where my saw is stuck in. Under that was another 12 inches or so of light, dry snow sitting on an even harder crust. To compound things, the snow on the rocks is completely rotten, and above the second crust is a layer that can only be described as “ball bearings”.
Pete and I check out the crown of the slide he got caught in.
This is the view from under the big rock looking down the slide path. You can see big chunks of slab right in front of us.
This is from across the line looking down the slide path. You can just make out the debris going around the corner at the bottom. It slid all the way to the trees.
This is just about the end of the run out. The debris from both slides co-joined. Pete’s skis are probably under 10 feet of snow.
This is looking up the slide path from the third slide of the day. As far as I could determine, this one went naturally and was the biggest.
What was most amazing is that while Lisa, Pete and I were analyzing the slide, we saw a group of about 7 tele’er’s coming down the right flank of the bowl, skiing two at a time, on a line directly above another party climbing the bowl. It was incredible to witness such dangerously bad practices with so much obvious slide activity everywhere. We also ran into part of the group who triggered the first slide including the gentleman with the beat up face. I won’t repeat their comments, but it was painfully obvious they had no clue how much danger they had been in the day before.
Upon discussing the sequence of events that lead up to Pete getting caught, some other bad practices were revealed. Pete forgot to take his pole straps off, and didn’t have his ava-lung in his mouth. The three un-named members of their over-large ski party were talking quite loudly after Pete dropped in, so Lisa and Wanda couldn’t hear if Pete was yelling for them to come down. It turns out he was yelling “avalanche”. After Lisa went down, one of the three unnamed members of the group, who we will refer to as “A.H.” stated “Oh, we don’t need to ski one at a time, we can just go”. W.T.F. After the slide, the three un-named members first abandoned Jessica at the top as she was going last – with no communications as to what the plan was. Saw Pete at the bottom and took off – allegedly to be out of harms way. All in all a bad group dynamic.
For me, the spooky thing is that Chris and I had skied the same line. We just stayed a little further to the right and got lucky.
I almost lost a good friend this weekend. I’m really glad Pete is OK, and I hope he finds his skis.
For any of you who want to venture out into the back country in search of powder, for fuck’s sake be careful. Have a plan, ski with people you trust, always take your gear and always take precautions. Don’t ever forget that even if you do everything right, you can still get caught in an avalanche.
Finally, if you are thinking of going to Mt. Cain and you see people heading “out”, don’t assume anything. Its never safe. Ever.