The Avalanche Review, VOL. 12, NO. 1, DECEMBER 1993
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA
3 APRIL 1993
This is an account of the April 3rd avalanche that caught and buried Roman Latta in Wolverine Cirque. Roman was buried 6-8 feet deep for a period of 20 to 30 minutes. This is a personal account of what happened and is more emotional than factual. Times and distances seem totally distorted. I am unsure of the exact names and spelling of some of the peaks and people involved.
My wife Chris and I met Roman at the Grizzly Gulch parking lot above Alta around 8:30am. Roman and I had made plans earlier in the week to go ski Mt. Tuscarora, a peak located between Alta and Solitude. When we arrived at the parking lot, we coincidentally met up with Chris Harmston and his friend Tim Gibbs. Chris H. and Tim said they were interested in coming along.
So the five of us started off skinning up Grizzly Gulch at about 8:40am. We reached Twin Lakes pass about 10:00am and stopped to regroup. There was a party of three or four people ahead of us just starting down the northeast side of Twin Lakes pass toward Solitude just as we arrived. The snow was knee deep and they were having trouble skiing it, but there were no signs of sliding or instability.
As we continued up the ridge toward Patsy Marley, I looked across the valley and saw the Alta patrol had opened Greely Bowl and people were skiing Eddies High Nowhere; a shot I felt had a similar exposure and angle to what we were going to ski. My wife called the Avalanche Hot Line twice earlier that morning but got a disconnected signal. I heard the center might be closing down earlier this year, so I thought it had been disconnected for the season. We spread out to make the exposed climb up Patsy Marely and regrouped again once we were all on the summit.
Looking down canyon at Alta, we watched a large slide triggered by the ski patrol's howitzer come down above the Sugarloaf lift. From this and a few other slides we could see around the Mt. Superior area, we knew there was a high slide potential. We talked a little about it, and continued on with a "play it by ear" approach since we were on top of a safe wind packed ridge at the time.
We continued around the upper edge of the cirque on hard wind packed snow until we came to the first major chute. At this point, I pulled out a length of rope and Chris H. belayed me from a small tree as I went up to the edge to see what the chute was like. Earlier in the season, this had been a rounded knoll leading into an open 30degrees-35degrees bowl. Now it was a 20-30' cornice. I tried to break the cornice by jumping on it, and when that didn't do anything, I took a ski off, perforated the lip and then jumped on it some more. Nothing moved. The only way into this one would be a large free fall, so we continued on. The next chute we came to had an easy entrance into it, but it was wider, and more exposed. We decided to continue on and if we didn't find anything better, we'd come back.
Three quarters of the way around the cirque we came to a chute I have been calling The King Chute. Facing almost directly due north it usually has the best skiing. It is about 18' wide at the top, and opens up to about 35' wide at the bottom. Having skied it three times before and looked at it many other times, the entrance was as filled in as I had seen it. The main cornice was about 5' tall and the top section, usually a 50degrees pitch, was now closer to 40-45degrees. Setting up an anchor on two small trees, Chris H. again belayed me as I went to the edge and tried to break the cornice off. The initial ski stomping produced a few powdery blocks that fell into the chute without any result. I then took one ski off, perforated the lip and then jumped on it until a filing cabinet sized block broke off. The piece fell into the chute and broke into smaller blocks which then tumbled down. Deciding the cornice was safe, I rappelled over the 5' cornice into the top of the chute.
Once inside and still roped, I did a few ski cuts back and forth across the top of the chute. The skiers right had 1012" of medium light snow on it, and 15' away (skiers left) was firm, hard neve. I traversed across the entire chute twice, side slipping and trying to get the snow to break free. Nothing happened. Standing on hard snow in the middle of the chute, I felt the slope was safe and called up to my wife, Chris, to rappel down to me.
Chris lowered into the chute and stood beside me. I told her to go ahead and ski the chute while I stayed there watching, and then duck immediately under the rocks on the left at the end of the 300' main chute section. Chris made about 10-15 turns down the chute in boot top deep snow. Roman called down from above and asked if it was clear. He said he was thinking about just jumping into the chute instead of rappelling. The cornice ranged anywhere from 2'-10' and looked doable. I asked him to wait until Chris was clear of the chute, which took a few more turns. When Chris was parallel with the rocks, I called down to make sure that she had packed out an escape route so she could quickly tuck back under the rocks if need be. Once she had, I told Roman that it was clear and to hold on while I got my camera ready.
"Ready?" Roman called down.
Prefocusing my camera, I called up "Hit it!"
Roman jumped with full gusto, catching about 15' of air and landing on a pillow of soft snow on the sidewall of the chute, about parallel to me and 10' away. It immediately broke loose and began to slide taking Roman with it. I watched in slow motion disbelief as Roman picked up speed and more snow started to build up around him. He seemed to be riding on top of an isolated cushion of snow as he fought and swam his way down the chute.
Looking down I saw my wife Chris standing in the path of the on coming snow and shouted at the same time Chris H. shouted "Get out" from above. The snow was billowing and filling the chute from side to side. Roman was still on top of the pile swimming fiercely. As the slide reached the end of the chute, Roman disappeared into the churning white ball of snow. (At this point, I was more concerned with Roman being injured from his slide than being buried by an avalanche. From the amount of snow in the chute, I expected a small powder avalanche 2-4' deep with Roman somewhere on top.)
I heard Chris scream and thought she had been caught in the slide and was screaming as she was pulled down. I started a high speed side slip down the chute which was by now swept down to a smooth hard surface.
Chris H. called down from the ridge "Should we come down?"
"Both of us?"
I slipped toward the mouth of the chute, panicked by my wife's screams and envisioning her buried. As I reached the end of the rock band, I felt a flood of relief as I saw her standing there.
"Should I come down?" she said.
Suddenly, I had a sickening reality shift as I saw she was standing on top of a horrifying 36" - 48" fracture line. It was sharp, clean and had slid down to a hard billiard table flat surface. It seemed to go on forever in both directions. I looked down into the cirque and got my first glimpse of the magnitude of the slide. It was huge. The smaller slough that Roman had been caught in, carried him deep into the cirque and triggered a far larger slide with him in the epicenter of it.
"No." I said, changing my mind at the new situation and thinking that her movements might set off another slide.
I slid another 100 yards down to the beginning of the debris and tore my pack off. Unzipping my jacket, I pulled out my transceiver and plugged the ear set in. I wished I had done more search practice. I got absolutely nothing on the receiver.
I frantically switched my receiver setting hoping that was the problem. I wanted badly to believe that Roman was near the top of the slide deposit. I looked for any color in the spread out white mass below me. Nothing.
Nothing. Everything was quite. The sun was out. We were alone in the backcountry. It seemed hard to believe that a friend was fighting for his life somewhere below us in the unmoving pile of snow.
I was suddenly aware that Chris H. was beside me. He had his receiver out and was trying to pick up a signal. I had my skis on and was traversing side to side as I worked my way down, not wanting to go too low too fast for fear of having to climb back up and lose time. Chris was on his feet going straight down the center of the pile.
"No." We continued down the pile until we were 3/4 of the way through it. We were nearing the deepest section of the slide.
"I've got a signal!" Chris yelled.
"Over here! It's getting stronger!"
I came over to Chris, still not getting any signal. I suddenly saw a pair of sunglasses. My hopes leapt. We were on a pile of snow the size of a baseball field.
"What have you got?"
Chris and Tim had joined us by now. Chris was searching with her receiver. She was getting strong signals. I grabbed her shovel.
"He's here!" one of them shouted.
I began to dig.
"Turn your volume down! Search close!"
"Here!" We all started digging. After a sprint of shoveling, Chris H. got down in the hole and scanned again.
"Quiet!" Chris said as he moved his beacon.
"He's over here!" he said pointing to the east. We all started shoveling.
"Chris - probe!" Chris turned her pole upside down and shoved it handle first into the snow while we dug.
"I GOT HIM! I GOT HIM!" she cried. We shoveled harder. A helicopter swung overhead from nowhere. I looked up at it and knew they knew what had happened. They flew off. (We later learned that a lift operator at Solitude had seen the whole accident and placed a rescue call.)
We continued to dig. The hole was getting deeper. We were standing on top of each other, hitting others with our shovels. As the hole got deeper, it became harder to get the snow out of it. We were down past our waists. My hands were frozen. I was starting to get tired. Time seemed to crawl. My transceiver swung around my neck, the ear piece wrapping around my hands making it hard to shovel. I ripped it out. My sunglasses whacked me in the face with each shovel load. My hands were freezing but my body was boiling over. I shoveled in a blind panicked frenzy.
I heard a helicopter. Looking up, I saw it land uphill from us and some people in red suits jump out. We were so deep in the hole that our heads were level with their feet. I was starting to waiver after 10 minutes of frantic shoveling.
"Spell us on shoveling!" I yelled.
"How many victims?" the first one yelled back.
"Are you certain of the location?"
They ran toward us, opening their packs and pulling out transceivers as they came. As they approached us, the helicopter lifted off blasting us with snow. The three red figures came to us through the hurricane. The first one, Duffy, jumped into the pit and started scanning.
|"Quiet!" He scanned the bottom of the pit holding his receiver against the wall.
"Over here" he said pointing to a wall. We all dug in.
"Quiet!" He scanned again.
"He's over here."
We started shoveling.
"I've got a leg!" Someone shouted. For the first time in what seemed like hours there was a color other than white. A dark blue piece of fabric appeared.
"His head's over here!"
We started digging.
"Watch his head! Watch his head!" someone cried referring to our shoveling.
For the first time it occurred to me that we were standing on Roman. The Powderbird Guides (as I was later to learn their identity) were working around his head. I continued to work on his legs.
"WE GOT HIS HEAD!" I looked over and saw a shock of Roman's long hair on the surface of the snow. The guides dropped their shovels and dug with their hands. Roman's head appeared covered with snow.
"We've got a breath!" Roman's eyes opened and rolled back into their sockets.
"Maybe not. It might have been his last."
"NO!" I said, thinking they were giving up on him.
He was still partially buried, lying on his side, chest slightly downhill.
"Let's get him out." We dug around him until his chest was clear. Grabbing ahold of Roman's clothes, we pulled his torso free. Duffy held a pair of glasses up to his mouth. He got a slight fogging. A guide felt for pulse. I heard a helicopter land. Another group of people in red staggered uphill toward us carrying cases.
"What have you got?" The first one called out while still climbing.
"Thready pulse and we thought there was some breathing."
The first man arrives and gets into the pit with us. "Get the backboard." he said, kneeling down to examine Roman, then reaching over and opening his medical case. "Get the oxygen."
More people in red arrived. I stood back and let them in. At some point another group of tourers joined us from the direction of Solitude.
"Let's get him on the backboard."
We dug his legs free and slid the orange backboard under him. His legs fell off and I strapped them on with the Fastex buckles that hung from the sides of the board. Roman's body was limp. Annabelle, another Powderbird guide, handed the doctor a pair of scissors. Starting at his waist and going up, he cut Roman's shirt off exposing his chest.
Pulling objects from the cases, they began to set Roman up for CPR. A flat rubber cup was placed over his mouth and a man breathed into a tube that stuck from it while another pushed on his chest to the count of five.
"You're going to be an IV stand." the doctor said to me, handing me a plastic bag full of clear fluid with a long tube coming from it. He pulled open a paper package, taking a needle from it and sticking it into Roman's arm. He took the tube from me and connected it to the needle, then reached up and turned the flow on. It very slowly started to drip into a vial that led into Roman's arm. "Keep it high."
"One, two, three, four, five. Change-out-on-the-next-one. One, two, three, four and
change." A new person jumped in to take over pushing on his chest.
"Let's get him on oxygen."
An 8" clear plastic tube was slid down Roman's throat and pulled to the side of his mouth. The tape that held it in place wouldn't stick to Roman's wet face and they kept trying to tape it in place as they pounded on his chest so hard I thought his ribs would break. A helicopter had landed. More people were coming towards us. An oxygen cylinder was placed by Roman's head and connected to the tube in his mouth.
"It's not filling the bag."
"Does anyone know anything about this scar on his chest?" "No."
One person held onto a football shaped balloon coming from the oxygen cylinder, squeezing it empty into Roman's lungs on the count of five as the other continued pushing on his chest. A man in a flight helmet appeared. Another come towards us, speaking to the doctor, apparently familiar with each other. Radios crackled. People were digging landing pads and stashing gear. Blood was on the snow. Gear was strewn all around. The other medic set an case down and talked to the first medic, Van.
Tubes were tangled around everything. I listened to what the doctors were saying, not understanding any of it, but not hearing anything that sounded bad. They asked each other questions and answered in numbers.
"Let's shock him (sic)" one said. The second medic opened the black case which had two handles with curly cords coming from them.
"What do you want to start him at?"
"How about 200?"
"200? I usually go all the way up to 360. But what ever you think"
"Let's start him low and go up" the second medic said breaking open a packet of jellylike square pads and handing them to another person who put them on his Roman's chest.
"All clear? Get your leg away from him. I don't want you to get it." The medic pushed the buttons and Roman's arm jumped.
"What have you got?"
"Let's do another."
"OK. Clear." Roman's arm jumped again.
"I can't read the display." The sun was directly overhead.
"Let's get a tape running on this" They turned on the paper tape recorder which spit out a length of paper about the size of a bank deposit slip with two squiggles on it. They repeated the shock treatment. Earlier, the first doctor had disconnected the tube that I was supporting and injected a syringe into the needle that came from Roman's arm. He did it again now.
"Let's do another" They shocked him again.
"We've got something! He's up to 179 (sic)."
"He's going up."
"Let's get him out of here. There's nothing more we can do here."
"Where do you want to take him? LDS?"
I was given a bag that fit over the plastic sack I was supporting and told to pump it up until a green cylinder popped out. Others were fastening the rest of the Fastex buckles around Roman and fitting pads around his head. A group of people spread out around the backboard. Someone took the bag I was holding and placed it on Roman's chest. I grabbed a hold of the board.
"On the count of three... One, two, three." We lifted Roman into the air and carried him out of the pit. Oxygen was still being squeezed into his mouth. We staggered toward the waiting helicopter and slid the backboard into a slot that looked like it would barely fit a body. People secured the backboard as I ducked low and crab walked back to the pit, stooping to avoid the blades which weren't spinning yet.
We regrouped in the pit, shielding ourselves as the helicopter took off. Silence. Breathing. Looking around at other people. Some I knew, some I didn't. Skis, gloves, poles, packs scattered in piles everywhere. I looked up into the cirque where the slide had started and realized that we were still in a high avalanche danger position. The cirque loomed above us, a loaded gun with ten times the power of the avalanche it had just let loose. The sun was warming up the slopes. We were at ground zero. I looked up at the fracture line and swore I would never backcountry ski again. I hated skiing.
One of the original Powderbird Guides was making helicopter arrangements on the radio and organizing the stunned group. He said a helicopter would pick us up and take us to the top of Patsy Marely where we could retrieve our gear (a rope, two runners and a carabiner) then ski down. The thought of skiing was horrifying and we asked him to just take us to the Snowbird base and forget about the gear.
The helicopter landed and the original four of us crawled into it with our packs and buckled the seat belts. As the helicopter lifted off, I broke into tears and hugged Chris. I didn't look up, but could feel that we were all holding onto each other and sobbing uncontrollably.
Roman survived in intensive care for two days, at first making progress, but then dying two days later of a severe brain hemorrhage caused by suffocation. It was a sobering experience for all of us involved in the accident, as well as the many people who knew and loved Roman in the Salt Lake area. Nine months later, I am still thinking about it on a daily, and often hourly basis. In talking to others about it, I have come up with a few of my own lessons and conclusions about back-country skiing and avalanches.
1) Although it is usually thought of as a benign, fun activity, back-country skiing can be more dangerous than rock climbing, parachuting, bungee jumping or any "thrill sport". With thrill sports, you are always hyper aware of the danger and on the look out for it.
2) A non functioning beacon is as much of a liability to you as it is to others you are skiing with. If you can't receive a signal, you can't locate the victim.
3) Make sure and get a good signal before you start digging. Digging takes energy and can waste valuable time if you're off by even a few inches.
4) Don't underestimate or rationalize other avalanche activity.
5) The danger starts when you get out of the car. Do your best to be as informed as possible, and don't assume someone else knows any more than you do. Don't hesitate to talk about what you think regarding the snow conditions. Most of all, don't be afraid to turn back.
The Avalanche Review, VOL. 12, NO. 1, DECEMBER 1993
Copyright © All Rights Reserved; AAA