There have already been two avalanche fatalities in the United States this season. That number could have been higher if not for the amazing luck of two skiers in Lake Tahoe who were caught in a major slide in the Mt. Rose wilderness on November 16th. A massive bowl came crashing down on them, but thankfully they were not fully buried.
Jones Ambassador Jim Zellers was touring with the two skiers who were caught in the slide and potentially saved their lives by alerting them to the oncoming avalanche. We are honored to kick off the 8th Annual Jones Avalanche Awareness Month with a detailed report from Jim about the incident. December is the perfect time to refresh or build up your avalanche knowledge before the season gets in full swing. This accident involved a deep layer instability, which is rare for Tahoe, and a unique group scenario so there is a lot to be learned from Jim’s report below.
View of the slide path from the bottom, taken several days after the incident. Avalanche was 300 feet wide, 600 feet long with 3 foot crown. Failed on a faceted layer near the ground within the old snow. Up to 3’+ of new snow was deposited in this area the day before on top of a shallow 6-12’’ deep snowpack.
Our party of four skinned to the top of Hourglass near Mt. Tamarack in storm conditions to ski and snowboard for the morning. We had all checked weather and avalanche conditions and discussed the fluctuations of temperatures and winds overnight which painted a clear picture of high avalanche conditions and a wet morning in the storm. There were 3-4 vehicles in the pullout when we arrived. We followed an existing track to the summit. The skin up was a normal storm approach with plenty of wind, and a few layers obvious with our pole plants. We did one traverse and switchback at the top of the bowl to the south with a similar aspect, gradient and elevation to the hourglass and had no results and noted no settling, whumphing or shooting cracks.
On top of the peak we met another party that had already completed at least one run in the bowl to the right Hourglass with similar aspect and elevation as the left hourglass. They made no comments regarding stability. We discussed our lines and while one of us had skied the left bowl of Hourglass the previous day, the rest had not. The one who skied the previous day decided to drop in that same line followed by one other. Myself and the fourth person in our party decided on the low angle rib between the bowls. The two on the left bowl skied one at a time, the first did a ski cut below the cornice line with no apparent results then dropped in. When the second person cleared the choke at the bottom I dropped into the rib and stopped at the prominent rock dividing the chokes of each bowl. The fourth then snowboarded down to me. After stopping he flipped his board around and the snow around us settled and a few cracks emerged. Being on the flat part of the ridge, nothing moved. I looked down to see the first person in our party stopped at the bottom of the run, at the toe of the apron, switching back to skin mode. The second person was about 100 feet above him still skiing down in the low angle run out. I looked back up to the top of the bowl about 800 ft above us and saw it release. I whistled twice and not seeing a response, I yelled “avalanche” twice where upon the one switching over began to run to the side and the other still skiing, began to ski off to the side. Before they could get to the side of the slide path the wind blast hit them. We spotted the location of each of them, watched the snow cloud settle and realized both were not visible.
With the cracks around us and the possibility of a slide as we dropped below the rock, we kept our beacons on transmit and spotted each other as we leap frogged down to the lower angle terrain below the rock. We took note of no hang fire looming above the slide path where our friends were buried. As we approached the bottom of the slide path where the two were last seen, the person skiing had dug herself out and the person switching over had his head and one arm out. My partner checked in with her and determining she was OK we quickly made our way down to the one buried and dug him out.
The person who was still skiing when the avalanche hit her was blown out of her skis and they were buried. She may have hit a tree and her back began seizing up. The person buried had both skis, but lost a pole and one skin and had a torn ligament in his ankle. This situation became our larger dilemma as we had two low notches to climb out in deep snow with one injured ankle and seizing back, only one pair of skis which had only one skin (the other skis had a different interface to the skins), and all of us were wet from the storm and digging. As we probed for gear the two caught in the slide had the shock wear off and the cold seeped in and they could no longer generate enough body heat. They put on all the extra clothes we had and we began the long slog out sharing skis, splitboards, and packing out the easiest skin track we could.
Aerial shot of the slide path taken several days after the slide. The skier who was transitioning to skins was standing at the spot marked with the red ’X’ when the slide hit him.
1. We do not know exactly what triggered the release. The bowl might have released naturally, the two who had skied it could have triggered a delayed release, my partner and I could have triggered it remotely, or another party above could have triggered it. If it was a remote trigger, it’s a great lesson on how far a trigger can travel. In this case the remote trigger would have been from several hundred feet.
2. Gearing up in a safe zone would have been helpful, which in this case was about 15 to the skier’s right. That 15 feet would have saved the person at the bottom switching over from getting hit by the slide. The switch over spot is also where anyone following steers towards as the finish to their run, so that might have helped save the second person.
3. Safe zones are key. Knowing what a safe zone looks like and riding/skiing from one to the other helped us here.
4. Spotting each other was critical in this scenario. Had we witnessed the slide from the top, there was no way our voices could have alerted them. The voice alert may have played a major role in increasing their chances of survival.
5. In our group we feel comfortable not always following each other and there’s never pressure to do so. This allowed us to not all be in the slide path at the same time.
6. We succumbed to some common heuristic traps - familiarity with the terrain, no noted instabilities, previous skiers on slope - and we did not give adequate weight to the possibility of near ground faceting, lack of early season skier compaction and not having allowed the significant amount of new snow time to settle adequately.
7. Luck is a rare resource and we all feel we used a few gallons of it this day.