Found this during my ritualistic coffee drink/interwebs perusal/wake up call. I’m a big fan of these first hand accounts as I think there’s a lot to be learned from them, especially around the topic of decision making and human factors. Making an appropriate terrain decision based upon your field observations is obviously the most important thing in the backcountry. In a year like this one, where areas that typically have a maritime snowpack areas started off with something more akin to continental snowpack you need to really be on top of your game. The ‘wait two days, call the avy hotline and dig a quick pit’ routine that seems so typical in these parts no longer applies as there is some serious sketchiness buried deep just waiting to pounce. I think Gabe Taylor’s blog post below is great as he hits on many important red flags that they ignored on their way to trying to get the shot in the can such as sketchy ground/snowpack interface, faceted layer 2m deep with observed avy activity one day prior, the fact that they are using humans as (potential) triggers, stressing the snowpack as if they were charges thrown by the man in red. He also included a picture of the scene that will make your starfish pucker. Thankfully no one was injured.
Everyday when I leave the house to go film the lady says, “be careful”. I always return with an “Of course”, but being a professional snowboarder requires one to have an extremely accurate balance between being careful and getting the shot. I mean really, what’s careful about spinning off a 60 ft. cliff with rocks all over the landing? Nothing, but with experience we can negotiate things and usually make a good call as to whether or not something is doable.
Last week our crew made a bad decision, one that could have caused serious problems had things gone a touch differently. We built a jump in the Sierra backcountry, one that had been built numerous times and one that has been hit a bunch this year. When sessioning a jump significant pressure is put on that landing and it is more or less like a bomb being dropped on the slope. If the slope doesn’t slide after a few storm cycles and constant “bombing” then it usually means things are on the safer side. After digging a pit above the landing we were about to hit a layer of faceted snow was found about two feet down. This was consistent with a new layer failure that was witnessed the day before. Although the ground/snow interface was fairly rotted out, it did not appear to be a definitive slide layer.
When snowboarding in the backcountry you have to evaluate things similarily to taking in a new lover. Most importantly, what does the past look like? Well, on Nov. 1st a few inches of wet snow fell, absorbed some rain and then froze beneath another foot of snow on Nov. 9th. This formed a layer of ice very near the bottom of the snow pack and in a number of areas created an ice lense on rocks. Jump ahead to late February where the snow depth is 7-15 ft. and you have a significant load on a very sketchy layer down low. Basically that chick you’re grinding on the dance floor is carrying AIDS, Herpes and Gonorrhea, and you’re 5 beers deep looking for some fun.
It’s easy to say “I’ll be careful” when you’re sitting at home far away from the action. But when you’re in the heat of the moment it can be hard to make the right decision. When the sun is out, the cameras are ready and the snow is good it’s hard to say no. We all have backed down from a situation but it’s one of the hardest decisions in snowboarding. You can study snow science all you want, but the hardest part is the decision making when the pressure is on. Just like the battles of conscience when the hour is late at the bar, the conscience is in a state of battle in the backcountry.
We started our session around midday and things got heated with Clint Alan stomping a cab 7 first try. Peter and myself followed with limited success and the order wound back to Clint. Clint got stuck on a cab 9 and landed 90 degrees short. After getting up and out of the way Peter hit the jump again, sketched on the landing and the whole thing went. I was up top and side slipped the in run behind Peter. I could here everyone yelling and I was thinking Peter must have done something sick. As I stood on the takeoff Peter sped into my view followed by an enormous pile of snow that started 30 ft. below me. Luckily Peter was unharmed and was unaware that the entire slope was chasing him down the mountain. After everyone checked in on the radios I assessed the crown of the avalanche and measured it with my probe poll. The avalanche measured 7-9 feet deep and 300 ft. wide. The slide could have taken out a 767 jumbo jet so it goes without saying that it was a potentially fatal slide.
The learning curve on something like this is not slow, BAM! Wise up! In hindsight we obviously could have made better decisions but what if we are in a similar situation tomorrow? Will we make the right choice? I hope so and it’s something that will be with us forever. Think about it next time you’re out there.