I don’t know much about avalanches, but today’s TwT contributor, Tom H., came very close to learning a bit too much about them. As one of the last (if not the last) guest contributors for February Contributor Month, let’s see if we can dodge a few avalanches with him.
By the way, I took the month of February off to see what a month might bring in terms of my future plans. During this month, more than I expected has come together. You’ll have to wait for the next post, written by ME, to finally learn more about that…
And Nothing Happened
By Tom Hazel.
On Sunday January 30th, 2011, I sat in a conference room at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The avalanche awareness course I was taking was almost over. The last thing we did was watch a short documentary called, “A Dozen More Turns” (Parts 1, 2 and 3), which describes an avalanche that struck five experienced skiers on a hut trip in Montana. The avalanche danger was High, but the skiers stayed in the trees on a low angle slope, hoping to mitigate their risk. As Doug Chabot, says in the film, “they were doing a lot of things right,” but the risk was High, they still went skiing, and someone didn’t come home. In that moment I decided that I wouldn’t go skiing when the avalanche risk was Considerable or High. Easy decision.
Tom H. (red jacket, white goggles) and friends. Photo by John Davies.
Four weeks later I found myself on a similar trip in Eastern Oregon with an eclectic mix of friends hailing from New England, Texas, San Francisco and the Pacific Northwest. We knew going in that the avalanche danger was Considerable-High because of an unstable snow layer about three feet below the surface. Here I was on my first trip after the avalanche awareness course, and already I was being tempted by great snow to break my own safety rules.
Just like the guys in “A Dozen More Turns,” we started out by playing it safe. On day one we decided to stick to some low angle terrain covered in trees. Both the angle and the trees make avalanches less likely.This was my first backcountry trip and I was nervous in the first place. The more experienced members of the group seemed cautious, but not worried. The only experience I had with this area was reading the avalanche forecasts before the trip. These guys knew what they were doing; they wouldn’t be putting themselves at risk, right?
Snow-covered mountain. Oregon. Photo by Tom H.
We picked out the lowest angle route up to the top of the ridge. Low angle was the theme for the day. Most avalanches occur on slopes between 35-45 degrees. Slopes under 30 degrees are considered pretty safe. The downside in our situation was that there was too much snow to ski on slopes much less than 30 degrees. With 20 inches of new snow, a 25 degree slope isn’t really steep enough to ski on; it ends up being more of a hike downhill. Any slope above 30 was potentially unsafe, anything below 30 was almost unskiable. We had a clinometer (a tool for determining slope), and the route up was just about 30 degrees.
On the way up we heard a loud WOOMPF. A “woompf” is a scary thing in the backcountry. Imagine you’re minding your business, hiking up a nice 30 degree slope, when all of a sudden you hear a loud sound from under you. Your skis drop an inch and all the snow on the surrounding trees falls off. We immediately looked for signs of an avalanche.
Tom's friends Sam and John examining layers in a snow pit. Oregon. Photo by Brian R.
In this case, nothing moved. The sound is caused by a layer of snow collapsing somewhere beneath you. A woompf gives a skier two important pieces of information: First, there is indeed a weak snow layer somewhere beneath you; and second, your weight is enough to collapse that layer. Neither of these pieces of information bode well for a safe trip. A bit shaken, we pressed on being sure to stay away from open areas.
Another WOOMPF. Shit. Should we really be up here? I knew that we were on a slope angle that was supposed to be safe, but I sure didn’t feel safe. I tried to keep my heart rate down and not freak out. I was sweating, but not from the hiking. It was that nervous kind of sweat that you get when speaking in public or waking up from a bad dream. We backed down the slope a bit and changed course, hopefully in a safer direction.
Before too long, we made it to the top of the ridge. Our ideal route would have taken us down the steeper northwestern side of the ridge. We dug some snowpits on that side of the ridge to test stability. As it turns out, the northwest side of the ridge was not very stable, so we went back to the lower angle side. We skied each pitch one at a time, in case anything happened. I was pumped to start heading downhill and it was great to make a few turns. The snow was amazing, but the low angle meant slower skiing. Despite my apprehension at every turn, we all ended up at the bottom, safe and sound. We were happy and wanted more. We took a couple more laps along the same route, accompanied by the sound of a a few more WOOMPFS, but nothing else.
I was worried. The “woompfing” really freaked me out. I wasn’t sure if it made sense to ski another day. The group made the choice to ski a bit steeper terrain the next day. Being cautious and remembering the documentary, I decided it wasn’t worth it and stayed back at camp. In the afternoon people started trickling back in. They spoke of an amazing day of skiing. Once again, everyone came back safe. Maybe I was being too cautious.
With a 10 am departure from camp, only the early risers had time to ski on the third day. Four of us woke up early that morning to try to get a last few turns in. We got our gear on and left around 6:30 am. We hiked up a southwestern slope right behind the camp — the steepest we’d skied all trip — but it was nearby and there hadn’t been any problems so far, so we thought there wouldn’t be too much more risk. I heard a couple big “woompfs” and a couple small ones on the way up. The trees were tightly packed, but we were hiking up right next to a more dangerous open area.
Trees are a mixed blessing in avalanche terrain. A group of tightly packed trees can make a slope more stable. The cumulative effect of many trees adds stability to the snowpack. However, trees by themselves can cause problems. Snow tends to be thinner and less cohesive around the base of trees. Especially conifers with their wide bases. When the snowpack is less cohesive, it is easier to break off and cause an avalanche. Areas that are completely devoid of trees make for some of the best skiing, but since there are no anchors to hold the snow in place, they are riskier.
We decided not to hike up to the top because we would’ve passed through an open area. We got ourselves ready to head down through a tight cluster of trees. I was the second to go and followed the first set of tracks pretty closely. There was an easy pitch at first, and I made some nice turns before rounding a corner into another slope. It was much steeper, just the sort of thing we were supposed to avoid. I can remember my brain splitting into two parts: One part of me knew it was some of the best skiing I’d ever experience, the other half was petrified about starting a slide. I made my first few turns and then…
Nothing happened. There was no slide. The snowpack felt solid below my skis. We were all fine.
- Freeland (Tom and my friend) hauling a sled full of gear out from the huts on the last day. Photo by Tom H.
On the five mile hike back to the car I was swimming in thoughts about the experience. Was I a better skier now because I had experienced more difficult conditions? Or had I lost some of my fear and respect for what I was doing? Was I more likely to make bad choices because nothing happened? Did we just get lucky?
I guess there’s no way to know until the next time I head into the backcountry.
Tom Hazel is a software engineer by day who splits his time between Boston and Austin. He spent a year shoring up his skiing chops in Salt Lake City, but has since settled down on the ski hills of New England. Tom shares some Barcelona routes with the Tavel herself, but most of his recent travels have been centered around finding good snow. You can follow him @TheRealTHazel.