Forums Avy Discussion Forum My Stupid Avalanche Story – in slow motion pictures
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  • #579614
    145 Posts

    This is my stupid avalanche story.

    The stupid refers, of course, to me. :nononno:

    I hope you’ll humour me and maybe learn a lesson, like I did. šŸ˜³

    Firstly, this story has a completely happy ending- no-one died and there were no injuries, just a bruised ego and a little bit of soul searching.

    Our day began, as most had done on this trip, by spending around 20 minutes digging the car out. You see, we were in Hokkaido, Japan in the middle of january. šŸ˜›

    We’d driven about 6 hours the day before from the western side of Hokkaido over to the eastern side, where Hokkaido’s highest mountain (well it’s not very high by world standards!), Asahidake (Mt Asahi), is and arrived about 10:30pm. These photos were taken about 8am the next morning.

    I’d spoken to a professional guide friend who’d been at Asahidake a few days previously, he’d reported high winds had stripped parts of the mountain back to ice. Unlike a lot of places in the Northern Hemisphere, hokkaido really doesn’t suffer from many of the avalanche nasties that infect other regions. Deep slab instabilities such as surface and depth hoar really don’t exist here, just a stable and uber-thick (4-5 metre) sticky yet light maritime snowpack. The biggest issue, and it can be a problem, is wind loading.

    So imagine our excitement at the amount of snow that had fallen in around 9 hours. Another powder day! The weather forecast called for snow most of the day, clearing late afternoon.

    Asahidake has one cable car that goes up (jackson hole style tram) once every 20 minutes. The difference is that you’d be unlucky to be in the lift with more than 20 people. There’s 2 groomed cat tracks that are merely used as a flat runout back to the tram. The rest is powder heaven, albeit with a broken fall line.

    The best lines are out to the frothers left and involve a traversing boot pack above the treeline to some nice 35 degree tree runs with a couple of chutes and even cliffs.

    Most of our day was spent in low-ish angle trees (30 degrees), so my brain was not really in “avalanche mode”.





    I’d been eyeing off the steeper lines all day, waiting for the weather to lift a little. It finally did later in the day and whilst we had a little time, I said to the guys in our group that if we were going to knock these lines off, it’d be better to do it earlier rather than later. Not because they’d get tracked out (um, it’s japan not mammoth!), just if something went wrong. The entire trip it’d been pretty cold, usually between -10 and -15C, snowing with wind and most of the group had been a little cold all trip. We’d already had a skier in our group lose a ski late on the day before (we found it 8) ) halfway down Mt Yotei and I wanted time on our side, not darkness and -20C, if something similar happened.

    So off we booted. It was quite an annoying boot pack, initially up, but then flat-ish with a slight downhill at the end. I sent the skiers ahead

    while the 2 snowboarders wallowed in the deep stuff. We had our solid boards and poles, no split boards.

    Stoke was high, but my brain was not engaged in “avalanche mode”. Normally when I’m touring, I can’t *NOT* think about it. I’m probing with my pole, digging, looking, thinking and thinking some more – all those good things you do on the walk up.

    Because we’d been riding mellow, low angle powder in lifted terrain all day, avalanches simply weren’t on my mind.

    We got to the entry point of our chute, which was a blind rollover (i.e. convex), so you couldn’t see the bottom from the top. Small alarm bells should have been ringing here. The terrain was not particularly gnarly, but it definitely needed a plan for the descent and this was where we failed.

    It was one of the first times during the trip that there was any good light and it wasn’t snowing, so we were trying to get some good photos. So given our focus was on photography, it was no surprise our safety management went out the window a little.

    There were 5 people in our group and we had 4 radios, so communication shouldn’t have been an issue.

    We sent one skier down first with a radio and his SLR to capture the other 4 tearing this chute a new one.

    The plan was that we’d wait for him to radio back that he was in position and ready for us to come down. What I’d failed to do is establish a procedure whereby once each rider was clear, the guy on the side could radio back up and let the rest know that the next rider could come down. We just agreed to leave a little space between riders and “go, go, go”.

    The irony of this whole situation is that we’d got barely 1 or 2 shots of any riding the whole trip and the avalanche was caught on camera, frame by frame!

    Here’s what happened when the 2nd rider descended:

    So far so good…

    Fast forward 3 frames… DEEEEEEP!!!!!


    Fast forward another 4 frames and you can see in the top right of the photo the snow starting to fracture around the weaker points in the snowpack where the snow is thinner (relatively speaking of course!) and where the small bushes break the tension.

    Now the avalanche starts to overtake him

    So, at this point we had one rider safely positioned out of harms way on the side of the chute, one guy being eaten by some of japans lightest fluffiest powder rapidly turning into concrete and 3 riders at the top totally unaware. The avalanche was around size 1, canadian scale, loose dry snow and certainly didn’t go to ground or anywhere near it. I mean you’d probably call it a really large sluff in Alaska.


    Meanwhile, at the top, I was agitating for the next guy to go (I was going after him) as I thought we’d left enough time between riders. He descended and didn’t even realise that the 2nd rider had been buried. About this time, we heard some radio transmissions from the guy on the side of the chute which we didn’t understand, it turned out he’d said, rather timidly, “guys, I think Paul’s been caught in an avalanche” instead of screaming, “AVALANCHE, AVALANCHE, AVALANCHE”.

    Meanwhile down below…

    Luckily, the top layer had kind of sluffed off, leaving Pauls head exposed.

    I came down next, still not knowing what had happened. My sole focus was on getting airborne in front of the camera, for a gnarly shot. As I was coming down I heard shouting, “STOP, STOP, STOP”, as I stopped I saw Paul buried in the snow, unable to move.

    The last rider came down…

    … and I had to yell to him to stop too.

    The smile on Paul’s face was obviously huge, as he realised that he hadn’t been completely buried.

    Had he been completely buried, there would have been 3 guys on scene within 30 seconds, searching, probing and digging – we would have got him out.

    Paul told me as soon as he felt the avalanche hit, he tried to get his hands over his mouth and create an air pocket for when things stopped.

    Where we totally fell down, was that we didn’t make a solid plan to have one guy go at a time and then radio up when he was clear. We did the right thing in going one at a time, we should have made that extra effort and communicated (given we had 4 radios between 5 guys) what was going on at all stages, given that from the top you couldn’t see down. Instead, we had one guy buried, another basically run straight over the top of him and another 2 guys up top not knowing what was going on.

    The convex rollover was another little terrain feature that should’ve triggered something in my mind. It was a fairly small chute and had a fairly mellow runout luckily.

    It wasn’t so much that the slope avalanched, it was more how we managed, or rather, failed to manage the situation in the event that something like an avalanche happened.

    I learned a valuable lesson in managing risk and now think a lot more about how to manage a descent (or skin up) and how to manage communication, so everyone is in the loop in case things go pear-shaped.

    This was a cheap lesson for me.

    It just goes to prove that the most important tool you have at your disposal in avalanche terrain is not a beacon or an airbag – it’s your BRAIN… šŸ˜•

    8 Posts

    Wow, crazy pics. Glad everyone was ok.
    Looks like that sluff set up up pretty hard, was he able to move or pull himself out at all? I think I’d be swimming too hard/flailing around wildly to think about making an air pocket

    145 Posts

    @scott_m wrote:

    was he able to move or pull himself out at all? I think I’d be swimming too hard/flailing around wildly to think about making an air pocket

    He said it all happened so quickly and he had almost no control of his arms (dropped poles immediately) to even try and swim, so he thought the only thing he could do was try and stop his airway from getting blocked and make a bit of an air pocket as it all came to a stop.

    Yeah, he was able to dig himself out. I stopped just above him and to the side (so I didn’t sluff him out even more šŸ™ ) and after the initial few seconds processing what had happened, then smiling, I was about to get my shovel out, but Paul is a pretty strong guy and, probably courtesy of the adrenaline rush, was able to extricate himself. :mrgreen:

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