Thursday, May 2, 2013

Electric Mountain: April 12, 2013

Social media told me that the Headwall would open for the first time of the season. Work just didn't seem that important, so I grabbed a voucher and headed South.  I had planned on heading North and skiing solo, but recent incidents in Alaska and Utah had me on edge. Some steep resort skiing would be perfect.

Eight years working at a ski hill has prepared me for the powder panic.  I know the drill: line up early, size up your competition, go like hell to your chosen line.  It was a cold, brilliant morning.  It takes 2 lift rides to access the Headwall.  On lift ride #2, our quartet of strangers blocked the sun from our eyes, trying to pick our lines.  From Chair 6, there is a long traverse to a steep booter.  The traverse is flat: no gravity assist, no sidestepping - just double pole planting and shuffling.

The Booter
Patrol got a early morning bump to the ridge to stage rescue supplies and set up some shelter, but by the time public arrived there were 5 or so ascending the booter.  At the transition area, a patroller was checking beacons.  I was second and the first wave was moving fast. About 3/4 of the way, the 1st pre-public skier dropped in.  It was going to be sweet.  Stoke was rising.  Most of the Headwall was bombed out with debris crossing the traverse except for one spot that I am sure we were all eyeing.  It was just climbers' left of the booter.  

The 1st paying customer gained the ridge and 30 seconds later a patroller dropped into that powder we all wanted.  It looked awesome!  Snow was hitting him solid in the thigh and was billowing across his chest. Then after a deep turn 30' to my left, the slope shattered about 40' above him.  


It broke about 2' deep and he was caught and accelerating rapidly. He went over a steep roll over and was gone into the powder cloud.

"Avalanche!  Avalanche!"

I ran the last 30 steps to the ridge to get my skis on and start a search.  There was a patroller stationed at the top of booter unaware what was unfolding below him.  After a few tense minutes the radio let us know the victim was on top on no one else was caught in the slide. 

The slide ran the full length of the booter and then some.  Revisiting the photo above, you can clearly see the fracture line and the debris going past the traverse into the booter.  It was amazing no one was caught in the traverse / booter transition area.  For the rest of the day I never saw less than 5 people in this area where a slide ripped through just hours before. 

After about a 45 minute hold on the ridge, we were given the green light.  The death in Utah the day before was fresh in my mind and my confidence in Alyeska was shaken.  I opted to ski a line that was completely bombed out. Still I was nervous and had another hiker get "eyes on" for the descent.

The snow was not that good (maybe an old melt/freeze layer) but the reverse camber skis make quick work and I was quickly down the steep pitch and onto familiar terrain. 

I managed 2 more Headwall laps that day.  It was getting tracked out, so with more data points I elected to ski some of the softer options.  The sun lit up the Headwall in the early afternoon, but the booter stayed in the shade.  It's a great hike with amazing views.  Unfortunately, this area is rarely open: just 1 day this season. 

When it opens again next year, I'll call in sick and make the drive again.  But if I'm in that first wave, this time I'll be with a trusted partner with the necessary rescue gear.

 - U.K.