Jaymie and I had been there, in those mountains, several times already in the past few weeks. The snow cover on the ground had fluctuated throughout the weeks but Saturday, things appeared to be decent. The scree and small bushes were covered, but only just. It was enough to allow us to skin all the way from the parking lot though, to the place where we decided to camp. We took the high traverse and although the thought of whether or not the snow was stable crossed my mind, I didn’t dwell on it too long. We’d been here. There wasn’t much snow, especially compared to this time last year. It’s “early season”. The skin track was pretty well worn, indicating heavy use recently. By the time we were on the trail it was late afternoon and we’d already seen at least two people set off from the parking lot before us. There were two more behind us, on foot.
Once you get to the relative “top” there is a small hut, but the purpose of the trip was to practice our winter camping. Plus, the furnace in the hut was broken so it’d be cold anyway. It was a good chance to get out our four-season tent and snow-melting stove. Our friend, Matt, was there too, trying out his systems for his upcoming trip to Aconcagua. His partner had bailed earlier that day, but he knew he’d still get a lot out of the trip.
We finish putting camp together about an hour before dark, around 3:30. Matt and Jaymie decided to go for a quick ski tour to check out the skiing conditions on the glacier. I didn’t know exactly what their plans were, just the general direction they were going. I decided to stay at camp and reposition the tent so it wouldn’t sit at so much of an angle. I was cold and I wanted something to do to keep warm. Shoveling and flattening snow was just the ticket.
Matt asked Jaymie if he was going to take his avy gear. No, he hadn’t even brought it with him, it’ll be fine. Neither had I. They took off with skis, poles, headlamps, and my dog. I set to work making a platform for the tent using Matt’s snow shovel. I thought how much better the wet, heavy snow closer to the top packed than the faceted “sugar” snow underneath. I even made a pile of it to help pack in the tent stakes since the stuff underneath didn’t hold them well enough. The warning sign was right there. I’d seen it, observed it, and so had they.
When I was done with the tent, I collected a pile of clean snow and started melting for water. I made myself some tea and a dehydrated meal. It was dark and I was wondering where the boys were, but I know they’re not ones to let darkness change their plans so it was a passing thought. At one point, I thought I heard a yell, but I brushed it off as nothing. My brain was playing tricks on me. I went into my tent to change clothes. It had been about an hour and a half and I heard the boys coming back talking about having lost something. I heard something about skis and a headlamp. I was confused.
“What did you lose?”
“Matt lost his skis, a whippet, and his headlamp. I lost one of my skis and a pole.” I didn’t believe them. I thought they were joking. “Seriously? No way! You guys are silly.” But they were not joking.
They’d been in an avalanche, almost fully buried, and by some cosmic miracle, they’d managed to dig themselves out.
The dog had somehow outrun it. She likes to chase snowballs down the sides of mountains, and that’s probably the only reason she survived. When things started to slide, she started to chase. She outran it, somehow. Jaymie and Matt both had a habit of attaching their skis to their boots with leashes since they didn’t have breaks on their bindings. Fortunately, they’d decided to try each other’s skis out and the leashes weren’t used, so instead of pulling them under, the skis came off like they were supposed to. They were lucky to come out of a very serious situation with only some mild pummeling and equipment loss.
I’ve thought about this situation many times since that night. My plan after changing my clothes was to heat some more water, fill our bottles, and then crawl into my sleeping bag to read for a while. The passage of time without their arrival wouldn’t have worried me, and after hearing what their original plan was, it was a well-founded assumption. Their planned traverse would have taken a few more hours and gotten them back well after dark. Remember, darkness fully sets in around 5pm these days. I’m still getting used to that and tend to get disoriented about what time it is. Eventually I’d probably realize that they maybe should be back by now, and maybe I’d try following their tracks to see if I could figure out where they went. I may have gone far enough to see the avalanche. Or maybe I’d just assume they’d decided to do something crazy and time consuming and I’d go to bed. Maybe I would have fallen asleep reading. Whichever way, had they not been able to dig themselves out, I’d never have gotten to them in time. I’d never be able to find them. The only thing to do would be to ski back down to the car, alone in avy prone conditions, to try and get help.
Ever since I started training in army operations- things like patrols, convoys, and live-fire exercises- I’ve adopted a saying: “Complacency Kills”. Even something like not paying enough attention while strapping containers onto a truck bed can have serious consequences; falling off and breaking a neck, getting your skull smashed by a ratchet strap hook being thrown over the top of the container to the other side. There are a lot of things in the army that are inherently risky. We’re constantly being hounded about safety, because after you’ve done something umpteen times, it’s easy to get too comfortable and overlook the hazards.
That applies to a lot of things in life. A lot of times the consequence isn’t death, but sometimes it is. There were warning signs that we all saw that day, yet didn’t process as such. We were subconsciously confident in the fact that the snow level was low and the season was early. The only reason Matt even had his any gear is because he was carrying all the weight he’d have in Argentina for training. He and I have both taken formal avalanche courses and I’ve tried to teach a lot of what I learned to Jaymie.
We were all there, we all saw the signs, we all failed to process them as such. We all got lucky.
There was over-confidence. There was a level of comfort, brought on by having been in that very area many times before in recent days and weeks. Overlooked was the fact that this area is virtually inaccessible during the winter due to its high avalanche danger. Overlooked was the fact that both men spent the better part of last winter deployed and did not utilize any of their backcountry snow skills during that time. Though it’s been a relatively short time since I’ve had to exercise snow sense, it was long enough for me to stare straight at danger and only see it as poor anchorage for my tent.
So many things.
Outdoor activities are inherently risky. I think for a lot of people, that’s part of the appeal. We do something and we get good at it, or at least better, and decide to see if we can push just a little more. We know that there are dangers- bears on a running trail, flakey rock on a climb, crevasses on a glacier- but since we’ve never come in contact with them in all the time we’ve been using that trail or doing that climb, we play it down in our minds. Sometimes we push it to the back of our mind and don’t really think about it. And then we hear a rustling in the bushes, pull a chunk of rock off, or break through a snow bridge with a foot and we’re drawn back to the reality of things.
All three of us learned a lot that night. There was definitely some fear management happening as we made our way out of the mountains. That’s a story in itself. We got back into town, beers were consumed, thoughts were exchanged, and we were all happy to be safe and alive. Whatever your sport of choice, I hope my story will cause you to take a pause and think things over before you head out on your adventures this weekend. Last year was a great year for skiing in Alaska. This year may not be. Know the conditions, brush up on your safety skills, and have fun!