Joined: Wed Oct 06, 2004 10:57 pm Posts: 4984 Location: California
Really sad and really close to home.
I got the news on my phone walking the floor at the show via the UAC facebook post before the name had been released. It just said "24 year old snowboarder". Given the location and tightness of the community I had an uneasy feeling it could be one of our own. A short while later the name was released and the feeling that came over me was overwhelming.
I never got to skin and shred with Alecs but I've really loved his posts here and on facebook. His passion for splitting was so evident and his stoke was contagious. We've communicated over the last couple years and had many mutual friends. Alecs was an aspiring photographer and he recently contacted me a few weeks ago about contributing a picture for our homepage. I gave him the dimensions and was really looking forward to sharing his work with the community. If any of his friends or family are reading this, I'd still love to put one of Alecs' pictures on the homepage. He wanted it and I think it would be a nice tribute to an amazing person.
I propose in our split community that January 28th forever be known as Alecs Barton Day, I know that I'll be making turns for Alecs. We'll never forget you Alx88!
Not been reading much on here at the moment, but learnt of this on Andrew Mclean's blog.
Last Saturday we followed a masterful skin track up the Argenta aprons on Mt. Kessler and caught the trail breakers right on the summit, who turned out to be Alecs Barton and two friends. I’d met Alecs in passing before and we had a lot of common friends and interests, so it was fun catching up with him in such a beautiful spot. Tragically, within a few minutes of our groups parting ways, Alecs’ group triggered a large avalanche in the West Couloir of Kessler and Alecs died of trauma from the 2,500′ slide. Alecs was a prolific Wasatch backcountry snowboarder and his death underscores what a treacherous snowpack we have this year.
I was one of the guys who toured with Alecs on Argenta just two days before his death. I will share parts of my conversation with him and my insight to his fatal decision.
When I met up with Alecs and his friends they had already decided to ski Argenta. He had hit it the previous day and said it felt stable. I didn't like the idea and suggested we do some tree lines elsewhere. But their minds were made up so I said I'd just go to the base of the headwall with them and dig a pit. I really was curious about how the weak layer was adjusting to the big slab. Alecs was very surprised that I was opposed to skiing the headwall. He kept saying that it felt really stable up there and that somehow it was an exception to the generally weak snowpack. I said I didnt care how it felt to him, the bottom line is there is a persistent weak layer in the snowpack. I began to feel a little disturbed by how he seemed to replace his snow science knowledge with his "intuition". He had taken a very in depth, full semester avy course at the U (essentially a level 2) and knew damn well the unpredictable nature of persistent weak layers. As we got higher up he pointed at the west couloir of Argenta and acknowledged that would be too dangerous to ski. We also discussed the west face of Kessler and how a friend was caught in a hard slab there in similar conditions just two years ago (it turned out Alecs got caught very near where this friend was caught. Luckily this friend grabbed a tree in time or he would have likely been carried full track like Alecs). As we approached the headwall I noticed he began to skin right up the middle of one of the slide paths. This wasn't necessary because there were some safer trees to the side. I told him this but he didn't seem to really care. In his mind, the headwall was a green light. As we were digging a pit at the base of the headwall he asked me if I wanted to ski Tanners on Saturday (the day he got caught) I replied "Not a chance in hell!!! I can't believe I'm even here right now!" I then told him about some of the slides that had been happening on southerly terrain due to facets.
We did an ECT and typical for deep slabs there was no significant result. This was just more confirmation for Alecs so he and his 3 friends began skinning the headwall. He asked "You coming Mark?". In that moment some bullshit excuses began running through my mind: "well the slab is pretty stiff and there's a lot of trees here for anchors and the skinner is already in and........" So I gave in and against all my best judgement began following them up the Argenta headwall with deep slab instability. Ridiculous. One of the guys who was new to touring said "well thankfully they already skied this yesterday so that means it's safe right?" I replied "No it doesn't mean anything".
As the group was transitioning on the ridge I skied down a few feet next to a tree and triggered a 20 ft crack. I mentioned this to Alecs but he didn't seem very interested. Then I dug down and found it to be much more hollow than at the base. I also mentioned this to the group but again it didn't generate much interest.
It was great skiing on the headwall but honestly I didn't really enjoy it cause all I could feel was fear and shame for being there. I knew I had failed myself and Alecs for not holding to my best judgement. It didn't matter that we got away with it, we were still wrong. This helped set the stage for Saturday.
While at work on Saturday I got two worried messages from friends asking if I was ok cause there had been a death on Kessler. I remembered from the avy forecast that morning Drew stated it would be the exact type of day that was prime for an accident: a sunny Saturday with plenty of pow and concealed danger to catch somebody. I was then told Alecs wasn't answering his phone and that it was a young snowboarder who was caught and carried into Mineral. I burst into tears. I thought about what could lead Alecs to get caught in an area that just two days prior he acknowledged as being too dangerous. Late last season the snowpack was relatively stable and he was able to ski that line numerous times, right after big storms, without incident. Kessler was his favorite peak and he knew all those lines very well. When he stood on that peak, perhaps all the good memories came back and clouded his judgement. No doubt, he fell into a familiarity trap. I am told by one of the investigators that the group acknowledged the danger that day and decided they would head to safer terrain in Mineral. So in Alecs's mind, if they could just get down the west couloir safely they would be ok. The other guys didn't know what they were getting into because from the top it just looks like a moderate tree run. Perhaps he figured if he did get caught he could possibly grab onto a tree like our friend did there two years ago. Whatever the excuses, the risk seemed acceptable and he set off down the west couloir like he had done so many times before. Where there is great passion there is often great error.
_________________ ''In reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future'' @GavanHennigan
^^^ That's a really scary post. It is so easy to drop your guard or convince yourself that something is safe even when there are plenty of reasons to believe otherwise. I'm sure many of us have had that experience Mark had, where we know we are breaking the rules or at least flirting with disaster. It happened to me once, where my senses were screaming that I shouldn't be on a slope. And indeed it ripped on me.
Please, please pay attention to those signs. If the voice in your head is telling you to back off, or the people in your party are pointing out the signs to you, or the avy report is code red. It is just not worth it to take on the risk. Because you only have one life and it is so so valuable.
It's not that we shouldn't take on risk. We all take risk every time we ride the backcountry. Hell we are taking risk when we ride at the resort or even get in our cars. But when the risk become significant and the risk factors are there to see, you owe it to yourself to back off. Because there will plenty more snowy days and plenty more opportunities to ride.
I think it is normal human nature to talk yourself into taking those outsized risks. I have just seen it happen soo many times, and to experienced, educated people who have the knowledge to recognize those risks. It is normal human nature to talk yourself into it. Which is why you have to recognize that behavior and tear yourself away from it. You owe it to yourself and to the people who love you. It is not ever easy to do, especially when you are with a group, especially when the sun is shining, especially when there is fresh snow, especially when it is your one day off work, especially when you've traveled 300 miles to get to it. But you do owe it to yourself to listen to that voice when it speaks to you and back off.