Close Call


Wednesday morning, Paul B. and I headed to the Duffy Lake Road for a day of ski tourning. 30 cm of storm snow and an avalanche forcast of High for the alpine made us a bit hesitant about where we wanted to ski. We decided on tree skiing around Chief Pascall but the latest whistler avalanche and weather forcast which downgraded the danger gave us more confidence. While driving, we decided to switch plans and head for the more ambitious Heart Strings run near Joffre Lakes. 


Just out of the tree line, Heart Strings is an open bowl with rock walls above. We followed a skin track that led right up to the base of the run (rather than around from behind it as shown in the guidebook) and began working our way up the (climber’s) right side of the bowl. While we had not seen any signs of instability yet, the wind was significant, it seemed to be scouring snow from the left side of the bowl and depositing it on the right. Realizing the loaded slope we were on, we planned on ascending the right until it became steeper at which point we intended to cross the bowl and climb the non-loaded left side. As we came out of the protection of the trees, Paul took the lead and we started moving one by one. 


He climbed up the right side and just as the angle began to steepen he noticed a large shooting crack. Backing off he started to traverse across the bowl. At that point, no longer below him, I started to follow. After making one switch back turn, I saw he had dissapeared out of view. Looking downslope, I saw debris that I had not seen moments earlier. I looked up again and did not see him. I realized then what had happened and immediately began skiing toward the debris and pulling out my tranciever. Approximately 10 second had elapsed since I had last had Paul in my sight. I head yelling and saw Paul several hundred meters downslope. Skiing down to him he was just standing up. Paul had been partially buried and was able to extricate himself but had lost one ski and one pole. We searched the debris for several minutes but the effort seemed futile and both of us now felt extremely uncomfortable on the slope.The picture below shows almost the entire slide. We were skinning up along the green line. Paul triggered the wind slab at the left end of the green line. The red line shows the 15 meter wide fracture line. Paul came to rest at the bottom left red X.


We skied out to the car (thankfully only 30min away) trading turns using one ski (very very hard). 


Both of us were pretty shaken but felt pretty lucky. A pretty wide range of emotions came up on the ride home and since. I was certainly scared. In the moment that I realized what had happened but could not yet see Paul, I was convinced I was going to be digging him out, hopefully alive. His shout was one of the most relieving things I have ever heard. I also feel extremely guilty and almost embarassed. It could have easily been myself in the lead at that point. The outcome could also have been much worse for either of us. I think I feel that way because I made poor decisions and could have suffered very severe concequences because of them. I have no desire to be hurt or killed in the mountains. I don’t believe in dying doing what you love. I want to keep doing what I love. That being said, I am certainly willing to accept risk. If something happens out of my control then that is the risk. If I make a mistake however, especially in my decision making, that is unacceptable.

We drove back to Squamish with some well earned lessons:

First our mistakes which became painfully obvious in hindsight but still easy to make: 1) We deviated from a good plan. We both knew the conditions and our origional conservative plan to ski the trees was the right one. Our first decision of the day, still in the car was the biggest mistake we made. 2) We assumed the slope was safer than it was because we were following someone’s track. A solo skier was shortly in front of us and skied the slope without incident. This gave us a false sense of security. 3) We recognized the wind loading and the slab cracking. We should have bailed on seeing this but just changed our line. We should have listened to our gut feeling and not gotten caught up by fresh powder and being close to the top. That was our final mistake. We did make one good decision – crossing dangerous areas one by one. We had been skiing together up until that point. Had we continued to do so, we could have been caught together with no one to help.

I was impressed by how silent the avalanche was. I was less than 50 meters away from Paul when it slid but heard nothing. He told me after that he did not fall immediately and was yelling but I couln’t hear anything over the wind. It is important to stay in sight of your partner.

I am still amazed that Paul was completely uninjured. Not a bruise. He described being completely buried and then a perceptible vertical drop and then coming to the surface and stopping. I think he was saved by sliding over the big boulder in the middle right of the picture above. Despite the lucky lack of physical injury, he was most certainly in shock. His clothes were totally stuffed with snow (not to mention his mouth, nose, ears, etc…) so I think taking a moment to put on a dry jacket and gloves as well as eat something and have some warm tea was well worth it. This could have been a much more significant factor had we been further from the car.

These Avalanche Airbags seem to be an incredibly good idea both for trauma experienced during the slide and to stay above the debris. Not unlike a helmet, I wonder if they will become much more common in the future. For this kind of an outing they would be perfect. The weight is not an issue like it might be on a longer traverse but there you might be more conservative about lines skied. While I never intend to be in the vicinity of, let alone involved, in another avalanche, they are pretty cheap insurance and anything that improves my odds in any situation would be worth it.

Both of us are happy to be OK and plan to be a little smarter in the future. In the next few weeks I know I will be significantly more conservative.

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