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You think you’re slick until you’re not. On April 16, 2020, I unintentionally triggered a small (but terrifying) soft-slab avalanche while skiing ‘Little Chute‘ on Mount Baldy at Alta Ski Area in Utah. This happened in the heart of a pandemic. It was my first real encounter with an avalanche and, needless to say, I learned several valuable lessons that I’ll carry with me in the mountains for the rest of my life.
The objective of this piece of writing is to show just how and where I messed up today — on more occasions than once — so that I, and hopefully you, can learn from it and travel in avalanche terrain more safely. So let’s start right from the very beginning, shall we?
I went to bed the night before this fateful morning late and didn’t sleep well. When I woke up, I was tired and groggy. I didn’t put much cognition into reading the avalanche forecast thoroughly and checking weather conditions for the town of Alta. As a matter of fact, I just glanced at the avy forecast and didn’t check the National Weather Service forecast whatsoever, which I always do before getting on the skin track. I was rushed.
The avalanche danger this day was ranked as ‘moderate‘ and there were moderate, westerly winds.
To make matter worse, when I arrived at the parking lot at Alta and met up with my touring partner for the day, I almost forgot to switch my beacon on when we started the tour. And these two previous points I just mentioned aren’t even the real ‘red flags’ I’m going to discuss, even though they could and should be regarded as such. The obvious red flags I’m going to focus on are below.
1.) I didn’t confront my misgivings about the terrain my touring partner and I had decided to ski this day. When I got to the parking lot, I thought that skiing the Baldy Chutes would be a bad idea because it had just dumped fairly heavily and there was an observed, ice-crust layer situated directly below the new snow. The Baldy Chutes are steep and very avalanche-prone. I should have voiced this concern to my touring partner, but I didn’t.
So when my touring partner suggested that we ski Main Chute, I was hesitant but submissively agreed to ski it without voicing my thoughts/concerns on the decision at all. This was the first major mistake of the day, primarily by me for not saying anything but also by my touring partner for not addressing my obvious uncertainty about our terrain choice. We both should have communicated more.
2.) We broke the cardinal rule of skiing the backcountry with a partner by splitting up from that partner. I am still wondering why we did this. You could probably use terms like “powder fever,” or “expert halo,” since my touring partner had a lot more experience in avalanche terrain than I had, but it also could have just been plain ignorance. Who knows.
When we got to the top of Mount Baldy I went over to look at Little Chute while my partner stayed behind and looked at Main Chute. It should also be noted that during the length of our nearly two-hour tour through Alta up the Mount Baldy shoulder, not much conversation was going back and forth between my partner and I. In fact, we were both pretty spaced out from one another and hardly said anything at all. I thought I heard distant rumblings resembling the sounds of avalanches, but I wasn’t sure and I didn’t say anything. This was another red flag in itself, and I should have brought it up in a conversation with my partner.
My ski partner eventually walked over from Main Chute to where I was positioned above Little Chute and suggested that we could both ski each one of the neighboring chutes if we wanted to, doing so solo. Without putting much thought into it, I said I’d ski Little Chute and he agreed to ski Main. This was the last time I had visual contact with my partner.
3.) In order to get to where I wanted to drop into the couloir, I exposed myself to dangerous, high-consequence terrain. I walked all over a very big cornice that could have easily broken off onto the wind-loaded slope below me given the day’s conditions. Then, to add to my great decision-making track record this day, I skied a section of the “Taint” located directly between the two couloirs in order to get to my drop-in point on Little Chute. This slope was steep enough to slide and had very high-consequence, cliffed terrain below it. This was an overly aggressive move and exposed me to yet another potential slide path.
4.) I chose a poor — very poor — spot to drop into the chute. I was originally thinking about dropping in on the skier’s right side of the chute which was steeper, rockier, and seemingly scarier but also less impacted by the wind. I did not take this that last point into proper consideration when I walked over the cornice to the taint on the skier’s left side of Little Chute, so I’ll repeat it in italics.
I was originally thinking about dropping in on the skier’s right side of the chute which was steeper, rockier, and seemingly scarier but also less impacted by the wind.
As a result, I ended up dropping in on the most wind-loaded part of the line.
The morning’s westerly winds were rapidly loading this slope already, and this portion of the chute I dropped into was by far the most dangerous. I dropped in like I was doing a half-assed ski cut (which, looking back, might have actually saved my ass), and the slope propagated in line with my skis across the length of the chute, about 30 feet. That slab popped out so damn fast it was like it was already traveling at full speed (something like 70 mph!) before I even realized what was happening.
I screamed “AVALANCHE!” at the top of my lungs as I watched the entire chute get stripped down to the ice-crust layer beneath by this high-speed slab. The avalanche left behind a 16-inch-or-so crown. After nearly shitting myself, I hung out on the rocky outcropping adjacent to the chute for a minute and got ahold of my ski partner via cell phone, letting him know what had just went down (quite literally). I recomposed myself and skied the bed surface of the slide down to a safe spot below.
The avalanche ended up traveling almost 1,000 feet all the way to the groomed run below Mount Baldy. When I was at the bottom of Little Chute and out of harm’s way, I re-convened with my partner and talked about what I just experienced. Some skiers traveling on the groomer below saw the slide erupt down the mountain and asked us about it. They were not happy, nor was I.
The skiing-related decisions I made this day were aggressive — too aggressive for a day with as high of avalanche danger as this one. My terrain selection and travel technique were poor. The lack of communication between my partner and I was acute.
Looking back, this avalanche may not have actually been deep enough to bury a person — but that’s not the point. If it were a bigger, hard-slab avalanche that broke above me and carried me through the narrow, rocky chute — with no one watching me go — it could have been worlds worse. I am thankful that it was not worse.
My goal now is to use this experience to learn from it in as many ways as humanly possible, addressing all the red flags present this day and promising to be more consciously aware of them the next time they appear. I’m only 23-years-old and the 2019/20 winter season was my first true season navigating avalanche terrain. And if one thing is for certain, it’s this: If I don’t learn from this day — if I don’t learn from these mistakes — then I will surely not last long doing this inherently dangerous yet rewarding activity that I love. And neither will you.