Mourners at a candlelight vigil in Sparwood, B.C., which lost eight young men to slides.
Seven Canadian snowmobilers are dead and one is missing and
presumed dead after a series of avalanches hit their group in the
backcountry near Fernie, British Columbia, Sunday. Also on Sunday, a snowmobiler died near Hart’s Pass, Washington, and on Monday a 15-year-old Utah boy was killed snowmobiling in the Uinta Range. A Lake Tahoe
skier is dead from a slide at Squaw Valley on Christmas Day. A Wilson,
Wyoming, man perished in a slide in-bounds at Jackson Hole on Saturday.
And Monday morning, with the resort closed for avalanche control work, an
avalanche crashed into Jackson’s mid-mountain Couloir restaurant,
causing severe damage and knocking workers about, including a patroller
who was partially buried. There were no deaths or serious injuries in Monday’s slide, but it was a gnarly punctuation to a hellacious week. The season total for North American avie fatalities stands at 18–and it isn’t even New Year’s.
early season slides are not uncommon, the rash of in-bounds
incidents–a woman was killed in Snowbird, Utah, on December 14–is
rare, and the Canadian accident is the biggest recreational tragedy
since 1991, when nine skiers died in a slide at Canadian Mountain
Holidays helicopter skiing operation. But this has been a year with
unusually high instability in the snowpack: The intermountain west was
hit with snow in early November, followed by a long stretch of cold,
clear weather, which created
unconsolidated, “faceted” snow–sugary
crystals that don’t bond well to others. A cold November rain followed,
which froze into a slick, icy layer, creating a tilted hockey rink on
which subsequent storms have been sliding. The instability has been
widespread, widely documented, and well communicated.
Indeed, Sunday’s advisory from the Canadian Avalanche Centre said, “There have
been extensive reports of both natural and human-triggered
avalanches up to size 3 initiating in the recent storm snow and
stepping down, in many cases pulling things out to ground. Avalanche
professionals are describing the conditions as “spooky”. These are
large, dangerous avalanches that could easily kill a person.” The
hazard was labeled “considerable”.
Canadians either didn’t hear the conditions or ignored them. Part of a
group of 11 from the small mining town of Sparwood, they were riding in
the Flathead Valley backcountry near Harvey Pass when they were beset
by their avalanche nightmare. One of the sledders became mired in deep
snow. Two other riders came to his rescue, but all three were caught
and buried in a slide. Eight more snowmobilers came to the rescue but
all 11 were covered in a second slide. Three were able to dig
themselves out but before they could flee yet another avalanche fell,
burying one of the men. Finally, the three escaped, made the difficult
decision to head for help rather than search further, and looked back
to see a fourth slide fall on the site.
Rescuers weren’t able
reach the buried men until Monday and then were delayed by continuing
hazard. Seven bodies were found during the day, but the search for the
eighth was suspended at 3:30. It’s schedule to resume today. Early
reports said the snowmobilers wore avalanche transceivers, but
authorities later said they were SPOT satellite emergency beacons.
Regardless, the riders were apparently, and sadly, more enthusiastic
Such was not the case with Dave Nodine of
Wilson, Wyoming, who was a veteran backcountry rider. Nodine was
wearing a transceiver on Saturday even though he was skiing in-bounds
at Jackson with no plans of going O.B.–the Tetons had received several
feet of snow over Christmas and conditions were sweet within the ski
area. But despite patrol’s morning avie control, the dumping snow and
winds created newly formed slabs. Indeed, at 1:17, a chute known as
Alta 2 slid and patrol moved to close the Toilet Bowl/Paintbrush/Tower
3 area, which has a similar aspect. They didn’t get there in time: At
1:25, Nodine and a friend were caught by a slide in Toilet Bowl that
broke six to eight feet deep at the crown. The friend wasn’t buried,
but Nodine was swept under eight feet of snow. Thanks to his
transceiver, ski patrol had him out in less than 10 minutes, but they
were unable to save him.
The November rain crust, deep unstable
snow know as depth hoar, lots of heavy new snow on top…just when it
seemed things couldn’t get worse, they did: Another storm rolled
through the west on Sunday, bringing more precip and dramatically
warmer temps, which further destabilized the snow. As the Bridger-Teton
National Forest avie forecast put it, “Dense slabs up to six feet in
depth lie upon persistent weak layers of
faceted snow and slick rain crusts. Strong winds and new snow will
continue to load these unstable slabs. … Large dangerous
avalanches are likely to release naturally and can be triggered by the
weight of a single human.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Only the lowest, easiest Jackson
slopes were open yesterday morning as the patrol ran its control routes on
the upper mountain. They bombed the Headwall area, which rises above
the resort’s new Couloir restaurant and upper gondola station, which
triggered a slide in the lower half of the Headwall. They then placed a
four-pound charge onto a section called White Spider and a second,
larger slide released,
sweeping onto the bench where Couloir sits and
into the restaurant itself. Windows were blown out, chairs sent flying.
No guests were on site because the mountain was closed, but 20-some
workers were there. One patroller was partially buried, five other
suffered scrapes and cuts.
In the aftermath, the ski patrol
spent the afternoon blasting the bejesus out of the slopes, including
lowering a hundred-pound bomb into Tower 3 Chute, and helicopter
bombing runs are scheduled for this morning. The Tetons are seeing an
aerial assault–the highway department closed Teton Pass at 8 a.m.
to conduct heli-based control missions. If not unprecedented, the chopper
work is sure as heck rare. And Jackson’s OB gates, which provide access
to the backcountry, have been closed upon request of the national
forest, from which the ski area leases its land. As if anyone in their
right mind would head out of bounds.
But you never know. I took
a peek at the Teton Pass webcam late Monday afternoon. With nearly
every slope for miles around sitting like a loaded gun, there in the
summit parking lot were three backcountry boarders, either heading out
or coming back.