Monday, December 19, 2011

Mid-December Update: Alaska

Storm has been the word of the month for better or for worse. But big wind has accompanied the snow setting up for a sensitive snowpack. The snow has been locked into a cycle of self-loathing:
  1. Snow pack gets feelings hurt
  2. Snow pack starts to get over the insult
  3. Snow pack gets feelings hurt again
This pattern has made for a bi-polar snowpack. Unfortunately, the snow has been most sensitive on Saturdays and Sundays. Not good for this ex-Sugarhouser, weekend warrior. So the dilemma has been whether to ski or wait another week.

I have expanded my horizon to other outdoor activities. Such as Avi Education

Level 3 Prep Class at Turnagain Pass

Mens Paired Lift Serviced Ski Ballet with GB6K

And the infrequent nordic ski. On rare occasions, I have been known to succumb to the more popular activities that dominate Alaska this time of year: alcohol, sleep, and the arts. Well, 2 out of 3 ain't bad.

I checked the weekend forecast on Friday and it looked daunting again. It predicted (correctly) that we would have a third consecutive Sunday with 100+mph wind in the mountains. But it looked like there would be a nice weather window at Hatcher on Saturday morning.

There was 8-10" of fresh low density snow a the upper lot. We elected to head up Skyscraper Peak to ski El Dorado Bowl. P9 led the charge and picked a nice route into the lower bowl. A quick test pit revealed 103" base and the new low density snow was quite reactive (CT3).

Looking Back Towards the Chugach from the Talkeetnas

We eventually gained the ridge and topped out on the summit. Winds had picked loading the top of the bowl. Visibility was getting poor.

P9 Sussing an Entrance

The 4 of us skied a nice 900' shot back into the lower bowl under flat light. A squall had kicked up when we started up for run 2. We were nervous about retracing our skinner so we aimed to gain the ridge much lower by traversing a couple 100 feet below our original route.

This seemingly conservative decision was actually our biggest mistake of the day. In hindsight, we had effectively isolated the slope above us. The original skinner ski cut the top and the right hand side of the slope. The second skinner cut the bottom. The low density surface layer that we had previously ID's let loose swiftly and silently. P9 (75' ahead of me) got carried down slope and I put eyes on. Then the slide got me too. I struggled and swam and came to stop and then got hit by a second wave. Both waves were relatively minor (as far as slides go). P9 and I ended up on top of the snow. The loose snow avalanche had carried us about 100'. , Fe2O3 held his ground on the skinner. Our poles were gone and we were ready to get out of there.

There is a lesson to be learned from every incident (SAR, avalanche, drowning, car wreck). Those who dismiss the the participants as idiots will miss the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. Even if the participants were idiots, there is still a takeaway.

So you can shake your head, make the predictable Darwin comment, and shit talk me if you want, but I'd rather you draw from this experience.
  • We correctly ID'd the potential threat (good)
  • Our 2 skin tracks isolated the slope above us (bad)
  • Managing a 10" slough while skiing downhill is one thing: you have momentum that can be used to move to a safe zone, traverse out, or point it.
  • Standing still with a loose heal and skins leaves you powerless to react
We were aware of the terrain and consequences. If there were more snow, a hard slab, more complicated terrain, then our decision making process would have been different. Still, I didn't expect to be caught and was surprised by how helpless I was in uphill mode.

- Idiot

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