Today I was back on Dolomite Shoulder with Caroline Gleich and Rob Lea in near prefect weather. We remote triggered a size 1.5 soft slab avalanche on the east aspect slope that is found a little north of the lower alpine bowl which people do yoyo laps in. This post is long but has some good lessons in it we think.
We skinned up the now very hard and broken up track to the alpine and onward to the flats just before the final knob. I haven’t been bothering with the last highpoint knob yet this season due to coverage and it still looks like it will be a while before I do. After skiing the top half along the ridge we decided to ski one of the steeper east aspect lines. I knocked off the soft small cornice which broke in two different parts, skied away from the roll and into the concave draw. The feature looked more loaded and unsupported than it did from ridge top and I made turns between the low point of the draw and the thinner highpoint to the skier’s left as I was a little concerned with the unsupported nature of the large whaleback feature below the roll. After skiing I got on a small highpoint below the run and setup to grab some pictures. Rob dropped into the line but then stopped near the top on a rocky outcrop a little skier’s left of my line. At first I wasn’t sure what was happening but after a few shouts back and forth I understood that he was setting up to film, (I had actually thought about doing the same before dropping in). Caroline dropped in next and was a little skier’s right of my tracks, closer to the roll above the unsupported whaleback feature and remote triggered a size 1.5 soft slab out of the lower unsupported package of snow. I yelled “avalanche” and she stopped on the rocky outcrop below Rob. From their positions they could not see what had happened due to the terrain shape. After the avalanche they both worked the middle section of the slope slowly along the skier’s left flank until getting a few turns on the lower fan. After a little chat about the chain of events we headed down and out along the skin track and back to the road.
We made some mistakes today and luckily it turned out ok in the end.
Before I dropped in we agreed to ski the slope one at a time but that changed once a really nice picture opportunity came up. This is a mistake a lot of people probably make and it’s one I make more often these days as my photography interest grows. As I said above, I actually thought about stopping in the very place Rob did to get pictures and I personally think it was a good location to stop based on the shape of the terrain. Luckily his position was not threatened by the package of snow that released.
The next mistake was that we couldn’t see the true shape of the slope from our location and I couldn’t communicate the added risk I saw my finishing position. From the side it looked like a fairly planner rib feature, from above you noticed the roll but not the unsupported nature of it. Earlier this month my party had remote triggered the slope where the rocky outcrop was, so I had a good idea the depth as far as hitting rocks and loading was concerned but not in regards to overall shape/support. I could barely communicate with Rob as to why he had stopped at the top of the run, never mind trying to explain very specific terrain features.
Another mistake was the casual nature of our day. The danger rating is Low, Low, Low – the weather was amazing and we had planned to do a chill lap up and down the ridge. We mentioned the danger rating and how people were remote triggering pockets but never really related to the line we decided to ski. I had looked at this feature on Thursday as well and felt like it still looked good as an option. We didn’t really talk too much about it other than basics and when I cracked the small cornice off to enter the slope and noticed the interface I treated it as common place (although it broke up in chunks it is a cornice after all, plus it was super soft I thought to myself but didn’t relay that to my partners). It was only when I made a split second decision not to go near the roll and seeing it from under it did I realize there could be a risk. And even then, for some reason, I just figured my partners would ski the same line as me, which doesn’t make any sense as people often don’t purposely ski directly on top of other’s tracks when there is a whole face of untouched snow.
We could have easily fixed most of these problems with better communication, in this specific case having radios would have had the biggest impact as I could have explained my specific concerns about the slope and if they didn’t like what they were hearing we could have bailed and regrouped further down the ridge. At the very least I would have told them to ski the line directly on my tracks looking to exit skier’s left if remote triggering from below/side.
And remember Low Low Low does NOT mean Go Go Go – low risk does not mean no risk.
The below was written by Caroline about the event. It’s great to understand that we all see things go down differently and different perspectives add depth to learning from these types of situations.
December 1, 2018
Today, I unintentionally remotely triggered an avalanche while skiing today in the Dolomite area near Lake Louise. My fiancé, Rob Lea, and I have been up here in the Banff backcountry skiing in the area for the last three days with a few different locals who have a lot of recent ski days. We checked the weather and avalanche forecast, and it was low at all aspects and elevations. Over the past few days, we did not observed any other avalanches, collapsing, whoomping, cracking or other signs of instability. Today, with the good visibility, we decided to ski some steeper, more committing terrain. It was clearly avalanche terrain, and Marcus told us it had slid earlier this year. Marcus skied it first, and made beautiful powder turns through the bowl without any signs of instability. Before he dropped in, Rob and I side stepped up to a higher viewpoint so we could have eyes on him the entire time. Because it was so clear, I asked Rob if he would take a picture on-slope from the middle of the bowl from a safe rock spine feature. I felt good about his positioning in an island of safety near the top of the slope, without much, if any, hangfire above. I dropped in and made a few slow turns on the side of a wind loaded whale feature, aware that I could trigger a small pocket. All of a sudden, I heard Marcus yell from below, “avalanche.” I pulled over onto the rock spine in the middle of the bowl below where Rob was standing to observe what was happening. Approximately 10-15m below me, a D1 soft slab broke 20-50 cm deep, 20m wide and ran 60m into the bowl below. It stepped down into two layers. Because there was still a wind-loaded slope above it, I didn’t venture in to examine the crown. I thought about climbing back up out of the bowl, but after further evaluation, decided to carefully proceed down through the rocky spine in the middle of the bowl, utilizing this as an island of safety. Rob was able to safely descend via the same route.
The moral of the story is something I’ve read in avalanche bulletins before – that low danger does not mean there is no danger. Always consider the consequences of a slide. Think about an escape plan. It reinforced to be aware of how the camera, sunshine and fresh powder change risk assessment. I’ve had many friends die while being filmed, and I’m aware of the phenomenon of Kodak courage. Even knowing that, the beautiful views, sunshine and good snow made me want to get the shot and potentially put myself and my fiancé at risk. The expert halo may have factored in to our decision-making as well. Because we were skiing with Marcus who is an author of a guidebook for the area, we may have stepped out into steeper terrain than if we were alone. Marcus’s familiarity with the terrain and snowpack gave us more confidence. Today reinforced to pay attention to the subtleties of terrain and move from island of safety to island of safety. And, with early season conditions, even a small slide could have disastrous consequences. While the slide we triggered may not have fully buried us, getting drug through the rocks could be as bad or worse than a burial.