I know that our party, the party involved in the December 29th incident on Echo Peak, made numerous mistakes. I chose to make the helmet cam video available to Sierra Avalanche Center so that others could learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. As the leader of the party, I take full credit for all of the mistakes and want to document what I've learned from them.
The first mistake was taking an inexperienced, ill-equipped group into the backcountry. Every member of the party should have been carrying a beacon, probe, and shovel. Additionally every member of the party should have been trained in avalanche safety. We only had two complete kits among our party of five, carried by the female skier in the video and by me, the skier who was caught in the slide. The other three members of the party were complete novices in the backcountry, able to ski black diamonds at a resort, but with no experience out of bounds. As the party leader, I should never have taken the group up Echo Peak, but I let the party's excitement about the day sway my decision. I made a bad decision.
The second mistake I made was allowing the excitement in the group to override sound decision making. Two of the inexperienced members of the party had never summited Echo. Safety and snow pack conditions dictated turning the group around at tree line and descending the ridge crest. However, I let emotion make the decision and allowed the party to continue above tree line to the summit. This decision required descending the slope directly above the ridge terminus. A slope that I knew was prone to sliding under the right circumstances, and having kept abreast of conditions, I knew conditions were conducive to an an avalanche. Again, I made a bad decision.
We skied one at a time from the crest to a safe zone in the trees at the start of the ridge proper, but I made my third mistake by choosing to ski a line slightly skier's left of the safest line to the meeting point in the trees. The female skier in the group asked that I not ski that line, but I let my emotions once again get the better of me. The several turns in untracked snow on a 45 degree slope were just too tempting. My intentions were to ski to skier's left of the large rocks where the slide released from, then veer hard to skier's right and meet the party on the ridge. I knew that the slope was convex. I knew that there was a rock band below my intended route. My thoughts were, "I've skied this line before. It's only a few turns." I made a very bad decision. Fortunately I have been able to kick myself repeatedly for it.
Once the slope let go, I was helpless. Everything I'd ever heard, read, or talked about went through my mind. Stay on top. Get your feet downhill. Backstroke. Remember to create an air pocket when the slide slows. Punch a hand towards the sky. The truth is that I was at the mercy of the snow. I went over the rock step head first on my back. Fortunately, I didn't crater on impact and end up buried by the rest of the snow as it came over the edge. Instead, I was rag dolled out of my crater and ended up somehow close to the surface. I was able to punch one fist upward as the slide slowed, but otherwise was completely unable to move. Everything was black and the urge to panic was overwhelming. After repeatedly telling myself to calm down, I was able to clear an airway with my free hand. Then all I could do was wait. I was very lucky.
Much has been made on various forums about the way that the skier with the helmet cam handled the rescue. He has been flamed for taking his gloves off, for telling the female skier with the beacon to take her time in transitioning the gear to him, for not putting the handle in the shovel, ad infinitum. The truth is, I am proud of the way he, a novice at avalanche rescue, handled the situation. He knew that the female skier was panicking and had to keep her calm. He knew that the whole party shouldn't descend to the burial site. He left two people on the ridge to watch the hangfire. Then he descended to the burial site with a partner, one at a time, in a controlled manner. In debriefing after the incident, we discussed what he could have done differently. It goes without saying that he should have left his gloves on. Other than that, there are two possible scenarios. First scenario:Once the skier in the black jacket had located my glove above the debris, the one unburied probe and beacon should have been left on the ridge. That way a beacon/probe search could have been initiated in the case of a secondary avalanche burying the rescue party. Second scenario: My glove was located above the debris, but what if my hand wasn't in it? Seen from 100 meters away, it was impossible to tell. If the beacon and probe were left on the ridge, that would have led to additional delays in getting the rescue gear to the burial and would have put one more skier in the path of a secondary release. As for the unassembled shovel, I have to take credit for that mistake. I should have made sure that the entire party knew where the rescue gear was located and how to assemble it before ever leaving the trailhead. Finally, my rescuer didn't relinquish shoveling duties to his partner once his hands started to freeze. He could have either taken the time to get gloves on his wet hands, or asked the skier in the black jacket to continue digging while he warmed his hands.
I'm sure that there are many more lessons to learn from this incident. That is the reason that I chose to let Sierra Avalanche Center make the video public. My hope was that I would receive constructive criticism and maybe force other people to review their decisions and the process by which they make those decisions. I knew that we would be flamed for our mistakes, but I'll take the flames if my mistakes will help keep others safe. My hope also is that all of the flaming does not discourage others from making public their mistakes, so that we, the backcountry community, can learn from each other. We all make mistakes, some of us more than others, I am sure, but we all make mistakes. I've watched countless avalanche videos and thought, "What an idiot!" "Why'd the dude do that?" or "That guy is completely clueless." Guess this time I'm the idiot and the clueless one. Hopefully, because I chose to share this video, you won't be the clueless one if or when things go wrong.
Annon, thanks for the post and the willingness of your crew to share your video and ordeal. We all can learn from the correct actions and wrong ones. Personally I have been in a similar situations and it is hard to humble yourself so others can learn from your mistakes. But with that said, there are definately positives to take from your vid. Glad to see you all went home safe that day.
Joined: Wed Mar 23, 2005 8:51 am Posts: 515 Location: summit, CO
Anon, thanks for posting. It's very good for people to look back and learn from their mistakes and from the mistakes of others. Anyone sitting at a computer can say what they would do, but without being there, noone knows what they would do. People panic and make bad decisions all the time in emergency situations, just like people get excited at the top of a line and make bad decisions.
Personally, it's painful to hear people critiscising the actions of one person in a rescue for this exact reason. I bet that if you put a GoPro on the best guide in the biz, you'd be able to sit at your computer all day long and MMQB his actions, but without being there in the moment, you will never know what you would do.
Books are one thing, practice is another, and the real thing is a whole different ball game.
Seriously, who here hasn't let their guard down because usually we get away with it and/or we're so stoked to drop in? The rescuer in this incident was obviously novice but how many of our partners aren't despite being expert riders/skiers? How many of us practice searches and recoveries and especially recoveries in disturbed snow? Who's the leader in our party and who's taking charge if the leader goes down like in this incident? So many good questions that I wonder whether we ask ourselves and honestly address.
While snow science is obviously critical, from studying incidents I've found that human factors are often the major points of failure. I've also noticed that there are usually several mistakes made during the course of a tour before shit gets tragic.
Hat's off to Anon for releasing the vid and following up here.
_________________ "For future reference, the time is now."
thats a tough video to watch. it's an even better video for training though. Anon, thanks for reviewing the footage and taking notes. i know i sure did. things i am taking away from the footage are: everybody needs avy gear, leave your gloves on, and stay calm to execute searching/recovery steps in an accurate manner. it has got to be difficult to leave emotion behind when you're in the BC and the lines are right there. they are just so close! one or two quick turns and i'll be outta harms way. thanks for posting and help keeping my though process in-check!
Joined: Fri Feb 18, 2005 8:56 pm Posts: 424 Location: Meyers, CA
Thanks for sharing both the video and the narrative follow up.
This sort of humility is an extremely important component of backcountry skiing culture. I am certain I have gotten away with bad decisions in the bc and I hope I would be as brave as these folks were in posting the vid, knowing that folks would be incredibly critical when viewing it.
In terms of learning from the video and narrative, I would encourage folks to focus less on the rescue on more on the decision making that led to the burial.
Joined: Mon Dec 15, 2008 12:04 am Posts: 153 Location: truckee, ca
Agree with most of the comments. Been following on unofficial too and found the victim's comments helpful. Always good to think... and think about these scenarios. I have my avi 1 and usually tour with knowledgeable partners but I started reading snow sense tonight because I think it's important to keep thinking about these issues.
Joined: Tue Jan 04, 2011 5:53 am Posts: 162 Location: Routt County Co.
Holy smokes! I almost threw up watching that. Good on you Anon for excepting your mistakes and posting it on a public forum in the name of education. I know it's a hard pill to swallow, most of us have chocked down a few before. Glad you and your party are safe.
Personally this video makes me question how some of my partners would react in a rescue situation. Complacency is a common affliction in "FlatBoat".