Detailed Accident Report

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Date: 2000-02-26
Submitted By: Matt Brennan
Place: Round Valley, near Bear Valley
State: CA
Country: USA
Summary: A couple of close calls

On the weekend of Feb. 26-27, nine of us were out for a backcountry tour.

We parked at the Lake Alpine snow park, which is at the winter-time end of

Highway 4 and just east of the town of Bear Valley, CA. Unfortunately, a

strong storm visited on Saturday night, leaving us with high avalanche

hazards which turned into an avalanche emergency with one skier partially

buried and the other completely buried. Forturnately, both were quickly

resuced with only minor aches and bruises. Below are the details of our

experience and our reflections on our performance.

On Saturday morning four experienced backcountry folk took a group of six

first-timers into the backcountry. It had snowed throughout the week, but

the previous day was fairly clear and it looked like the snow has

consolidated. We headed for Round Valley, chosen as a scenic trip with a

variety of terrain and the possibility for a quick exit on Sunday. The

forecast called for a foot of snow overnight with snow throughout Sunday.

The trip into Round Valley was a bit long--there was still some breaking

trail required--but uneventful. After lunch on the top of Poison Ridge, we

dug an avalanche pit and saw great consolidation down at least six feet.

We skiied down Poison Ridge, set up camp in Round Valley, and returned for

some quality turns in the slightly heavy powder.

It dumped all night. One of us woke everyone up in the middle of the night

after discovering that his tent had been completely covered in snow and

no longer had any ventilation. A couple of the tents took serious damage

(an expedition-strength tent even bowed under the load). By morning, we

estimated that three feet had fallen, and it was still coming down. By

the storm's end on Sunday night, the local ski area reported 42" fell.

We opted to pass on a hot breakfast and just leave as quickly as

possible. With the heavy snowfall, we were aware of significant avalanche

danger and looked for a route that would minimize our exposure. While

highway 207 was close by, our collective memories told us that the drop to

the road was rather steep and likely to be quite dangerous both for

avalanches and novice skiers. We also felt that the jeep trail in Poison

Canyon would have similar issues. This left us with our original exit

plan, doing the ridge route down to the snopark--a route which we believed

had only one major open slope, the final drop from the ridge to the

snopark. At this point, we ran a lecture on avalanche safety aimed at the

first-timers in the group, describing what to do in an avalanche and how

to move in avalanche territory. Unfortunately, five of the first-timers

did not have beacons.

Breaking trail was extremely difficult. Gaining the ridge near Poison

probably took two hours, with the leader often sinking into the heavy

snow up to his thighs. Surprisingly, the ridge wasn't much better, despite

the strong winds blowing snow into our faces.

We gained the ridge between Poison and the Sno Park uneventfully.

Progress was extremely slow and the group was very cold--for the most

part, two experienced folks were breaking trail, one who was very familiar

with the area and the other a very experienced backcountry-ite, and these

trailbreakers stayed warm, but the remainder of the group had to plod

along at a snail's pace, generating little heat. Another pair of

experienced folk were taking sweep. Once on the ridge, we came to the

first high point and the spot that seemed riskiest: the left side of the

ridge is covered with large cornices, the right side passes below a set of

rocks on a steep slope. I led the way to the right, but after becoming

uncomfortable ducked down into the trees. The group lost perhaps 100-200

feet of elevation, but avoided a suspect slope. We made up the elevation

soon afterward, but both trailbreakers were tiring noticeably. Visibility

was poor, it was already 2pm, and there was some discussion about altering

the route. A consultation with the topo indicated that the least-steep

route was to continue on the ridge, passing the last high point (marked

8190 on the topp) and then descending to the Sno Park.

As the leaders approached the high point at 8190, one trailbreaker had

dropped back in the group, and the other lead "graciously" let one of the

novices break trail. Elevation point 8190 presented us again with a

choice: go over the knob, go aroung the knob, or dip into the trees and

climb back up. In our estimation, the knob was steep and open on the

ascent and, by memory, steep and open on the descent as well, with many

convexities to boot. The trees below looked difficult to negotiate for the

inexperienced; climbing out of the trees to regain the ridge also

presented a problem, since there was likely to be a five foot cornice

above the trees that made the last step out quite dangerous (this was the

case climbing out of Round Valley). The route around the knob went across

a little bench between the cornice above and the steep trees below. This

was the typical patrol route, and I opted to take this route.

Halfway across the bench, the inexperienced trail-breaker, stopped above a

tree and asked the more experienced skier behind him where to go to

continue. He pointed to a break in the trees and began to move to the tree

to tell the lead skier in person. As both skiers began to move, a slab

released from about ten feet above.

The second trailbreaker saw the release and yelled "SLIDE!" as it knocked

him over and downhill. He slid a couple of feet but kept his head above

the debris, stopping next to the tree. I was buried up to his torso and

had a single hand free. He began to yell "HELP" as loudly but couldn't

hear the other trailbreaker yelling at all.

The three other experienced folk arrived on the scene and heard from the

partially buried skier that the other trailbreaker hadn't been heard from.

and that he was on the other side of the tree.

The three experienced rescuers had dropped their packs at the edge of the

avalanche area, conducted a bit of hasty planning and entered the scene

with our beacons on. One rescuer attended to the partially buried skier

and keep an eye on the scene. Since the buried skier didn't have a

beacon, we started a probe search. Fortunately, the slide was largly

contained by the trees just below the slide. A first ski pole probe pass

at the region by the trees didn't yeild any results. One rescuer then

followed the avalanche's run out where it had leaked around the trees and

run another 40' down slope.

The other rescuer continued probing the area above the trees, especially

since the partially buried skier relayed that a last seen point only a few

feet in front of him. After about four minutes after starting the search,

a rescuer hit a ski pole. Nearby, he hit a ski under about two feet of

snow. Followed the ski to the binding, then found a foot, told the others

the buried skier was found, determined the direction of his head and

started digging towards his head. When his face was uncovered, which had

been under about four feet of snow, he was starting to show signs of

cyanosis, but he was able to breathe and talk shortly after uncovering his

face. The rest of his body felt alright. A rescuer dug out the rest of

his body, continually checking in with how he felt. He was cold, scared

and his body was a bit achy, but he was talking.

We all returned to a safe point where the avalanched skiers could get

additional layers and some food and drink. Two experienced folk

backtracked and found a route lower on the slope in the protection of the

trees and with a lower slope angle. Fortunately, we were within a mile of

the Sno Park, however, with the heavy snow, it took us 2-3 more hours to

ski out.

Local guides reported that this storm produced the most avalanches they

had seen in the Bear Valley area.

In reading the narrative, I'm sure you found some of the contributing

factors to the event. Here's the list that we came up with when

reflecting back on the event:

Strategic prevention planning

* Choice of destination.

1) Given the forecasted storm, we shouldn't have gone to Round Valley

since there are no 100% safe ways out of Round Valley. Had we been touring

just for the day on Sunday, we would not have considered Round Valley.

2) The entire group should have been given a larger opportunity for input

on destination selection.

3) We should have been more aware of the storm's impact on difficulty of

travel and skiers' comfort during the return trip.

* Beacons.

1) Given our knowledge of the storm, everyone should have had one.

2) Make sure new beacon wearers know how to use them.

3) Be sure that everyone in the group knows everyone else's beacon status

(wearing one?, familiarity w/searching, etc.) A beacon test would be a

good time to do this.

* Provide easier access to topos for all skiers.

* Be aware of the benefits/disadvantages of your group's size.

* Have a way to carry your shovel when you are not wearing your pack.

Slide area decisions

* Order of travel. A skier with no avanlanche training and no beacon

shouldn't have been breaking trail in areas where the route is at risk.

Instead, we should have given rotated tasks with experienced skiers taking

turns between route-finder/trail-breaker and sweep.

* One-at-a-time travel. The second skier caught by the slide moved into

the slide zone in order to help with route finding. This was a cascading

result of having an inexperienced skier finding trail and a scary

reminder of the value of the one-at-a-time rule.

* Route Selection. The best route at the knob was difficult to

determine. In general, the safest routes are above the danger or far below

it. Climbing up over the ridge but it wasn't an realistic option. The

route we choose after the slide, dropping into the trees, was not

obviously the best route. Picking safe lines there was still

difficult. If we had continued below where we descended it was quite steep.

It took a few tries to regain the ridge - and even that route had small

slides into tree wells. Overall, staying on or near the ridge was a good

call, because of the open visibility of hazards and because of familiarity

with the route. Any day out in the backcountry, even when it's sunny and

the avalanche risk is low, is a good time to practice route finding.

* Point of Safety. The area above a set of trees is not a point of

safety. It might be safer than the surrounding slopes, since it may mean

that no avalanches big enough to remove the trees have happened in the

past.

Avalanche rescue

* Entering the Scene. Before entering the scene, we should have spent more

time making a clear plan -- how would we determine the scene was safe, who

would be an avalanche lookout, who would attend to the partially buried

skier, who would search for the buried skier and where. The three of us

who entered the scene had our beacons on and an inexperienced beacon-user

remained in the safe zone. We probably should have had a more experienced

beacon user stay in the safe zone while we first entered. One experienced

rescuer stayed with the partailly buried skier and keep an eye on the

scene safety.

* Searching. Our search technique was fairly well executed. We looked

surface signs of the buried skier, then started probing behind trees where

he was likely to be stopped. If we had gotten information from the

partially buried skier about the buried skier's last seen point more

rapidly, we might have been able to speed up the search because we might

might have had a rescuer drop down to investigate the lower portion of the

slide. Don't be too quick to relinquish your elevation in a search since

going up requires much more energy.

* Uncovering the skier. While initially wanting to relax in the relief of

finding the buried skier, we needed reminding of the need to do a more

thourough patient assessment. Fortunately, the buried skier seemed in

fair shape with no significant injuries beyond some aches and strains.

* Training. Fortunately, there were three of us who were trained to

respond to this scenario and did so satisfactorily. However, as our

mistakes show, it pays to make training scenarios as realistic as

possible, e.g. practice scene evaluation and communication between

rescuers.