Angel Slides and a season ending injury

I started writing this post on March 9th, the day after my accident. Most people who know me know that I prefer to debrief and learn from mistakes soon after an incident before details can be forgotten or recalled inaccurately. For a couple reasons after only a few paragraphs I stopped writing until today, three weeks later.

The first reason, I think, was because I was actually injured. While being partially buried in an avalanche last April was a bit of a shake up the lack of injury made it easier for me to talk about it soon after it happened. This accident required a trip to the University of Vermont’s Medical Center’s Emergency Department. It’s been almost three weeks since the accident and I’ve recovered enough to go on short walks with the kids and dog. I can sleep on the injured side again. Riding a bike, skiing, or climbing are likely activities that are still a few weeks off.

The second reason I think I’ve delayed sharing this accident is from watching the severity of COVID-19 ramp up significantly in the weeks following my accident. My injury and situation pales in comparison to the stress many families are experiencing due to the current pandemic. While this injury ended my winter guiding season it is clear the season was unfortunately going to end pre-maturely as we try to flatten the curve. Despite these two reasons today I decided to sit down and finish this account and share it for whatever benefit can be found.

Events leading up

On March 5th I drove over to the Adirondacks to teach an AIARE avalanche course for the iconic Mountaineer in Keene, Valley NY as part of their annual Backcountry Ski Festival. It was an amazing event to be a part of and I can not say enough about all of the staff of The Mountaineer who made me feel right at home in their neck of the woods. I was co-instructing with Casey Henley, a fantastic outdoor educator and mountain guide. We had an amazing group of 10 positive and engaged students. The weather was beautiful every day and while the snowpack was on the thin side we were really making the most of our time together.

On the last day of the course, March 8th, the class planned a ski tour of Angel Slides off of Wright Peak.  We toured as two separate groups of 6. The first 2.5 miles are very gentle rolling terrain, then about a half mile up a drainage and a couple pitches of denser trees before reaching the base of the 1,500 foot slide path.

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After reaching the dam and getting our first look at the objective, Angel slides
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A student makes progress up the skin track before our high point
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From our highpoint right before our descent- Theodolite App

We ascended the left hand slide to about 3,600 feet and after making some snowpack observations enjoyed some of first steeper turns of the course. Skier’s far right held some still cold powder and I was feeling pretty good as I reached the bottom.

The next leg was some pretty tight tree skiing just under 20 degrees (steep for tight tree skiing given the snow conditions). We took it very slow and methodically made our way back down into the drainage. It was work and I could see some fatigue settling in with a few students in each group. We still had a 2.5 mile rolling hiking trail to take us back to the trailhead.

Opinions were split on what the best way to cover that distance would be. Two in my group with local knowledge opted to re-skin for the exit. The rest of my group decided to ski it. CalTopo says the 2.2 miles from the Dam only loses 300 feet. My decision to ski it was influenced by how sticky my nylon climbing skins were getting in the quickly softening snow. Timing wise it seemed it was 6-in-one and a half-dozen in the other. With each small downhill the skiers would pull away from our two skinners, and with each herring bone or side-step up over the next small incline the skinners would quickly catch us.

backcountry skiing avalanche courses Adirondacks
A screen shot from my Avenza/CalTopo GPS track of our tour… .2 miles from the trailhead (blue dot)

Less than a quarter mile from the road our exit and tour was just about complete. A short little descent brought me to the bottom of the last significant pitch of the day. I was at the front of my group, and had just caught up to our other team and was making small talk with them after moving just slightly to the left side of the trail.

The accident

It was about 3:45pm. I was stopped on the left side of the trail a few feet from the bottom of the slope. I was facing to the left, skis parallel on the slope, just below a water-bar log feature that was partially buried into the trail. I didn’t hear or see my student coming. He was moving fast as he went over the back of my skis and caught my boot as he flew past. My legs were taken out from under me and I came down on my left side with some force landing on the protruding waterbed. The pain in my left chest and abdomen was instant and blinding. I rolled to my knees and took a breath. I knew I was hurt. I reached under my shirt and palpated my left ribs. My senses were returning. Someone had a hand on my shoulder and was asking if I was OK. It was one of my students, Veronica, an emergency room physician from PA.

I didn’t think anything was broken but I had a pretty significant about of abdominal pain. I decided to try to stand and was able to. Someone was carrying my skis to me from 15 feet downslope… I didn’t realize until later that the force of the hit took me out of both my skis while I basically just fell in place where I was stopped. The student had tried to avoid me and was uninjured from his crash. So close to the parking lot. I decided to walk out. I tried not to groan to much.

Back at the parking lot I was determined to finish the course properly and then figure out what steps to take regarding my injury. I instructed students to rally on the Visitor Center porch and start their debriefs. I went into the bathroom so I could look in the mirror. I lifted up my shirt and was surprised to not see any bruising yet. There was a noticeable “indent” for lack of a better term, about the size of a small apple, just under my lowest left rib. My abdomen was not asymmetrical. I could see some swelling on the outside.

I rejoined the class and we began our course close. I started to rush the process a little as standing and talking was quite uncomfortable. I asked Casey to run most the course close. He used the “one rose and one thorn” tactic to have each student reflect on the effect of the course. I love that style of debrief, but I was thinking I needed to speed this along, as it was now just past 5pm and my original plan was to make the 5 hour drive back to North Conway.

We finished the course close and I asked Veronica if she could step inside and do another assessment of my injury so I could make a decision. She was willing and as I lay on the visitor center couch performed a quick abdominal exam. Again, ribs and chest felt fully intact. Severe pain and tenderness in my ULQ and LLQ, areas that harbor my spleen, stomach, and a kidney. No left arm or left shoulder pain (good news for my spleen). There’s not much that can be diagnosed with soft tissue/organ injuries without an ultra-sound, something Veronica had been considering adding to her adventure kit for sometime (and she has subsequently added as she is pursing expeditionary medicine).

I discussed my plan to try to drive home and seek medical attention locally. I did not want to get stuck in Lake Placid if my injury would require overnight hospitalization or surgery. In hindsight I was being very stubborn and short-sighted, but whatever, I decided I would drive home and monitor my heart-rate and try to be hyper-aware of any change in mental status. If I felt the slightest bit dizzy or nauseous I would pull over, put my hazard lights on, and call 911. That was my plan. I called my wife and told her what happened and that I was going to drive home. I would call her every 30 minutes as long as I had service.

It took almost an hour on the road for my heart-rate to fall under 100. It dropped down to 80 and I hoped it would stay there as Veronica had said if it stayed above 100 after an hour I was likely dealing with some internal bleeding or organ damage. I left the radio off and just focused on the drive and what my body was feeling. While waiting for the Plattsburg Ferry I slowly walked into the empty waiting shack and changed out of my ski clothes. I couldn’t reach down to take my ski socks off. As they directed our cars onto the ferry I was selected for a random trunk search. Changing clothes and two trips to my trunk while moving slowly, I was must have raised some suspicion.

While crossing Lake Champlain as the sun set I felt the slightest bit better. The pain wasn’t as bad now that I wasn’t driving. I tried to breath calmly. We reached Vermont and the pain came back quickly with a bit more intensity. I had been on the road for almost two hours. I called a family friend back home, a doctor at my local hospital, for her opinion.

She didn’t like my symptoms. The fact that small bumps in the road caused noticeable increases in the pain, the location of the injury, the possibility of how bad it could be… I had planned to make it to my local hospital in North Conway so I would be closer to my family should I need to be admitted, but in talking with her it was pretty clear they would probably just put me in an ambulance and transport me to Portland, Maine Medical… adding another hour to seeing definitive care.

I was about to pass Burlington. I made a decision, put my signal on, and exited the highway with my Waze app guiding me to the Emergency Department of Vermont’s Medical Center. Ten minutes later I called my wife back and told her I was walking into the ER to get checked out.

After getting through initial COVID-19 screening the woman at the counter asked what I was here for. I said something like “Suffered some physical trauma to my lower left abdomen and now experiencing acute pain, some slight deformity, swelling, and well… I’m in a lot of pain.” The other woman asked how it happened. “Skiing injury” was my short reply.

“Ok, you’re all checked in, go have a seat and we will call you when its your time.”

I didn’t get three steps away from the counter before my name was called and I sat down with the triage nurse. He took my vitals. I looked at the heart-rate monitor… pulse 92, blood pressure 163/125. That’s not good I thought. They prepped a bay for me and I started to get hooked up. They took blood samples to run a full set of labs and I was asked to provide a urine sample. That would be tough as I was feeling very dehydrated since I finished my water at about 3pm when we started our descent and it was now 7pm and I was told I couldn’t drink anything, even water, just yet. I managed a urine sample, and there was no blood, so hopefully kidney is good.

In less than an hour the ER physician came in to give a full exam. An ultrasound was ordered. I waited. The bay next to me was taken up by an elderly man who had shortness of breath, felt weak all day, and had a mild fever and stuffed up nose. It dawned on me coming to the hospital next to an international airport was putting me at risk to the Coronavirus, but things weren’t quite as bad as they are today so I didn’t worry too much.

The physician could not find any blood in my stomach or other obvious bleeds in my organs from the ultrasound. He felt a CAT scan was appropriate. I cringed at how the increasing financial cost this accident was going to effect my family but I was done trying to just hope for the best and a CAT scan would be pretty definitive. The technician who wheeled me down the hall for the scan inquired about my injury and when I told her it was while teaching an avalanche course she confided she had just bought her first avalanche beacon. I encouraged her to follow that wise purchase up with a formal avalanche course soon.

After the cat scan the waiting began. Still not allowed to drink anything. The nurse let me know the doctor was going to get to me soon but they were dealing with a serious trauma  that just came in and it might be a little while. I waited. Around 11:15pm the doctor came in with the preliminary results. No internal bleeding or ruptured organs. Diagnosis… internal abdominal contusions. Basically bad bruising on the inside of my abdominal cavity. My ribs had done there job absorbing the impact and protecting my organs. Still hurt like hell. I could be given morphine for the pain but that meant I would have to be admitted overnight. I declined and asked to be discharged… and for a glass of water.

Driving home was now out of the question as I was three hours from home along mostly dark less travelled roads and had been up since 6am and was feeling the fatigue from a full ski tour, dehydration, and injury. I checked into a local hotel in Williston, VT, just east of Burlington, and spent most the night trying to find a position I could fall asleep in, something that would become a nightly ritual for the next couple weeks. In the morning I had a small breakfast in the hotel lobby while the morning news confirmed that Williston, VT schools were closed following a faculty member with COVID-19 symptoms. I got on the road and headed for home.

Reflection… what happened?

On the drive home I had plenty of time to rethink the whole day and what led up to the accident. I told my students during our debrief that my “thorn” was that I pride myself in careful risk management and rarely will cop to “bad luck” being the culprit when an accident occurs. Even the word “accident” bothers me. I got hurt. That means I made a mistake. What was that mistake and how could I have avoided it?

I called the student who had crashed into me on my drive home for a few reasons. First of all I wanted to see how he was doing. He had expressed concern and regret over losing control and taking me out. I tried to, probably unsuccessfully, alleviate some of that guilt. I was in charge of managing the risk during our tour and it was on me for stopping in a spot that still had some risk from skiers behind me.

After my conversation with him and a few weeks of contemplation here’s my list of contributing factors;

Fatigue: He admitted he was quite tired at the end of the tour having negotiated terrain that was at his upper level. He mentioned he was frustrated with the rolling terrain exit and felt he wasn’t letting himself pick up enough speed to surmount the inevitable next uphill section which would result in tiring side-stepping to get back to a slide-able grade. He went into this last descent picturing a big uphill on the other side and thus came into view of me and some of the other students on the narrow trail with way too much speed.

Inexperience: This was basically his 2nd time back-country skiing. He had taken a one day mountaineering skills course and a one day back-country skiing skills course where he had skied in Huntington Ravine (likely lower Fan and out the Sherburne Ski Trail). His resort skiing resume was long but tree skiing was a first for him, and he knew that taxed his energy.

Back-to-the-Barn Syndrome: We were so close to the trailhead after a fairly long tour. I was really happy with how the three day course had gone and was excited to get on the road and get back home. We had covered so much more serious terrain and we were in the final stretch. This may have caused me to relax my normal “what could go wrong here?” type attitude.

While I’ve rethought this day almost every day since the only thing I feel I could have done differently is just moved a little more off to the side where I stopped. It wasn’t a blind corner or just over a convexity and in debriefing with Casey he didn’t think I could have done much different.

Recovery- Week One

The first week was pretty bad. I don’t like taking pain medication so I probably put myself through some un-necessary discomfort. Dressing was painful. Walking was painful. Driving was manageable but getting in and out of the car was awkward and painful. I let Corey, my boss, know I couldn’t do any outdoor field work in the weekend’s upcoming avalanche course. I was optimistic I could handle teaching the classroom portion. Just 5 days after the accident I welcomed a new group of avalanche students into our classroom space. I split the classroom sessions with my co-instructor Grant like we normally did. I was feeling ok despite the increased physical activity.

Around 2pm I went home while Grant took the class into the field for some physical rescue practice. No sooner did I walk in the door did I get hit by some uncontrollable muscle cramps in my abdomen. It was as bad, and even somehow worse, then how it felt the day after the accident. I was brought to the floor while the spasms made me wonder if I had somehow ruptured something. I called my wife at work and put her on speaker while I tried to get my body under control. Deep breathes. I made it to the freezer and got the large gel ice pack and wrapped it around my left side. The spasms slowed. My heart rate came back to normal. I was ok, but I wasn’t ready to go back to work yet, even in a diminished capacity.

Recovery- Week Two

Slowly the daily pain level reduced. I could sleep on my uninjured side. The first week I could only sleep slightly reclined on my back… either side did not work. Not fun for a side sleeper. I could go on short walks now, which was quite timely as schools were closing and social distancing was coming at us quick. I was able to help convert our downstairs into a more suitable learning environment for the distance learning that was about to be how almost every child was going to start attending school. I made a few trips to the stores to stock up on the things everyone has been stocking up on. Every day I didn’t come down with a fever or cough made me more confident my ER visit hadn’t had me contract the Coronavirus.

Recovery- Week Three

This current week is almost pain free. I was able to manage the snowblower to clear the 8 inches of snow we got this past Tuesday. I could not shovel the snow from our front porch though. That motion is 100% off-limits, somewhat ironic as anyone who has watched me teach proper shoveling avalanche rescue knows I would place well if the Olympics had a shoveling sport.

Looking ahead…

I’m anxious to be able to physically do the things that keep me emotionally healthy. Social distancing is a mixed blessing while I’m recovering. I’m hoping there might be a little snow left by the time I feel I could go for a very light easy ski, but the reality is if those few dozen cold powder turns on Angel Slide were my last of the season I’m ok with that. There’s more important things happening right now. It should be clear to anyone who recreates outside now is not the time to take risks. I’ve avoided following up with my PCP following this injury because I don’t want to burden an already stretched thin resource nor do I want to spend more time in a hospital just yet.

It’s hard to stay positive when the evening news paints a darker and darker future but I’m trying to focus on the good things that are coming out of this. Cooking more for the family. Daily family walks with the pup. Attacking house projects I’ve managed to put off for years. We are going to come out the other side of this a stronger family and I hope a stronger society that realizes what’s most important in life.

Finally I want to ask everyone reading this to really look out for each other during the next few months. Be a responsible citizen and respect social distancing, stay at home directives, and most importantly limit and minimize your amount of risk-taking. We all need to enjoy some time in nature but do it in your backyard in a low-risk manner. Even if I was 100% recovered I would limit myself to easy walks and hikes below tree-line and on very low angle slopes. I would not go mountain biking, rock climbing, back-country skiing, or any activity that is more prone to accidents. Our first responders and medical system are begging us to avoid injury right now. Please do your part.

See you in the mountains (hopefully locally and on a mellow walk),

Northeast Alpine Start



Tech Tip- Listen to Avalanche Podcasts

I find it hard to believe the avalanche course season is almost over! I’ve had a great time teaching courses for Northeast Mountaineering with an amazing group of co-instructors and despite a relatively inconsistent Mother Nature field conditions have been quite prime for our course objectives.

One of the seasonal components of the AIARE Framework is “Continue Your Education”. AIARE 1 students often realize quite early in the course that becoming safer back-country travelers is a lifelong process. There is no finish line when it comes to avalanche education. To that end I share with my students one of the ways I’ve continued to learn about a subject I’ve been studying and teaching for over 10 years is by subscribing to multiple podcasts related to avalanche education. Multiple students have asked for a list of what podcasts I listen to which was the motivation of this post. So without further delay here’s my current playlist with a quick recap of what to expect from each. If you like to play in the snow you should give a few of these a listen on the commute into work or your drive up to the mountains!

The Utah Avalanche Center Podcast by Drew Hardesty

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“The podcast that helps keep you on top of the snow instead of buried beneath it.” This one is at the top of my list and if you only pick one podcast to listen to this is the one I’d recommend most. So many great episodes I hesitate to call out just one but I will… The April 5th, 2019 episode “Low Danger” is a must listen.


Right behind my first suggestion is the The Avalanche Hour Podcast by Caleb Merrill.

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“Creating a stronger community through sharing stories, knowledge, and news amongst people who have a curious fascination with avalanches.” What can I say this podcast is fantastic! The range of guests is great and I haven’t found a single interview to not be engaging and enlightening… add it to your library!


Third on the list is Slide: The Avalanche Podcast by Doug Krause.

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Sadly it seems Doug hasn’t been able to keep this project going but the first two seasons are here for us to learn from. Doug focuses mostly on the human element and some of the episodes that have stayed with my had to do with effective communication in the backcountry and how we see ourselves in our stories (impaired objectivity). Definitely worth listening to the 1.5 seasons that are there and hopefully Doug can return to this project soon!

Honorable mention goes to the American Alpine Club’s Sharp End Podcast by Ashley Saupe. While not 100% about avalanches I’ve been a long time reader of the AAC’s Accidents in North American Climbing, a fantastic education resource in its own right and worth the annual cost of membership in my opinion! In each episode Ashley interviews those involved in climbing (and sometimes avalanche) accidents in an effort to learn what we can from these stories.

Well that’s the list. Within these 4 podcasts there are hundreds of hours of quality content that is sure to make you a more informed and safer backcountry traveler. If you found this post helpful please leave a comment below and if I missed one of your favorite podcasts please let me know! It doesn’t have to be avalanche related but outdoor recreation and risk management should be a consideration!

Happy listening and see you in the mountains!

Northeast Alpine Start



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Caught and Partially Buried in Oakes Gulf Avalanche (4/11/19)

Yesterday felt like a perfect storm of conditions that ultimately led to multiple skier triggered avalanches including two from my party and one fatality on Mount Washington. While it might seem odd to write about this experience so soon after it happened, I do so before memory forgets small details in the decision making of the day. It is my intention that sharing our day helps others understand some of the complexity and uncertainty when recreating in avalanche terrain, especially under a “Moderate” Danger Rating.

Let’s start with the avalanche bulletin from the Mount Washington Avalanche Center for the day:

Avalanche Forecast 4/11/19


April 11th, 2019 7:45 AM

Ben Mirkin and I pull into the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead at the same time and find Benny Allen already waiting for us with ski boots on. The sky is “bluebird”, no wind, a couple inches of fresh snow sparkles bright in the morning sun. We greet each other warmly and conduct a departure check. All three of us have been back-country skiing for a combined total of 42 years. All three of us are climbing guides. All three of us our avalanche instructors, two certified level 3’s and one recently certified Pro 1. The thought occurs to me that many accidents happen to those who are experienced and possess a high level of technical proficiency.

The day prior to getting together we had made a complete tour plan with options A and B, with a safer option being Oakes – Main. Proper repair and rescue gear was carried and all carried radios. This was my Caltopo tour plan:

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Green is our proposed up track, though we left from the USFS lot instead, red arrows were some potential options, yellow was a conservative decent choice, orange was our exit. The yellow shading uses digital elevation modeling (DEM) to highlight the aspects, angles, and elevations that the avalanche advisory mentioned human triggered avalanches could be “possible”.

Our actual GPS track this day:

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MapBuilder Topo
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Google satellite imagery

We break trail for 26 minutes and reach the junction of the Ammonoosuc Link Trail and continue up to Gem Pool in just under an hour. Benny and Ben transition to crampons and strap skis to their packs while I put on ski crampons and continue up the steeper grades. We reconnect above the steeps as we reach tree line and work our way to the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut in 2 hours 12 minutes from the car. At that point we do a weather observation and find it to be -10 degrees Celsius. It’s about 10:15 and winds on the ridge are a bit higher than expected.

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Ascending Ammonoosuc Ravine minutes from AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut
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Benny conducts a weather observation and consults our tour plan

After a re-fuel break we set a course for Mount Monroe. Winds that were out of the Northwest shift to the North and are steady at 50 mph on the summit of nearby Mount Washington. Wind chills are around -15f. We confer in the lee just below the summit of Monroe. Our first objective was a steep couloir that drops off the ridge near Mount Franklin.

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Skinning up the east side of Mount Monroe on stiff wind board
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Mount Washington’s summit pokes through some forming clouds

While we could not see it from our current perch after consulting the map I felt we could transition and make it over to the top of the gully in less than 15 minutes. We de-skinned then dropped about 100 feet until we were around the shoulder that allowed us to get eyes on our proposed objective. During that short descent we attempted to test the wind slabs with no results. Franklin looked loaded, steep, and fun. We agreed to go check it out and be willing to reverse our route if we didn’t like what we saw.

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Ben prepares to descend from just below the summit of Mount Monroe

Traversing the ridge was windier than expected. We made it to the top of the proposed run and I started to get nervous. It was full of new wind effected snow. It looked steep. Light loading was still occurring. It was cold and uncomfortable and I felt like we might rush our decision. I could see my partners were a bit excited to grab this line. Acceptance was felt. I tried to picture the size of the avalanche we could trigger in this defined avalanche path. A choke mid-path just below a convexity would make this happen fast if we triggered this path. I pictured someone somersaulting through the choke-point. I even had a thought that an injured skier at the bottom of this run would need a helicopter, and that below ridge winds were light enough to get one.

We had a rope with us, and the idea of a belayed slope cut was briefly mentioned. I spoke up and exercised my veto, and it was instantly respected. We transitioned back to skins and made our way back over to Monroe with plans on skiing a more south facing aspect into the same Franklin Brook Drainage.

Winds started to drop as we reached another transition. We dropped the top 300 feet of the proposed run and found very firm conditions. No new snow had stuck to this aspect. The skiing was not good, and I suggested we cut our losses and head back up and over to get into Oakes Gulf, our conservative “Plan C”. I had skied a nice line in Oakes 5 days ago in a total white-out. The snow conditions were nice and I felt that aspect would hold the softest snow we would find on this side of the range. I was right and we dropped relatively low angle terrain from 5050 feet down to 4480 feet finding many decent turns along the way.

As I reached Ben at the bottom of this pitch he relayed he just watched a size-able skier triggered avalanche just northeast of us, basically down the Dry River main drainage. We scanned the area and saw the skier exiting from near the bottom of the path that we estimated ran about 470 feet. I would later confirm from a closer witness this was a solo skier who was able to escape after triggering the slab and that the solo skier then regained the ridge and descended Hillman’s Highway.

Here near the bottom of our run Ben suggested we transition and head back up and over to our exit route, Monroe Brook. I felt there were a few more good turns below us that could be managed. Benny wanted to finish the run. A 500 foot tight shot through a treed area was discussed. Ben gave it two ski cuts at the top and propagated a small slab 10 feet above him, about 15 feet wide and he was able to reach his targeted safer spot while we watched the small slide clear out the snow below. Now that the small slab was flushed out both Ben’s discussed descending the small path, but ultimately decided not to. I wasn’t keen on making steeper turns in the tight feature and voiced I would pop over to skier’s right into some wider and lower angle terrain and assumed we would meet up towards the bottom where the two features almost reconnect.

As I moved over to the right, I scoped the area I had descended 5 days ago. Things looked good, I checked above me. The terrain steepened about 200 feet above me with a thin cliff band stretching about 450 across the slope. The slope I was about to drop onto was under 20 degrees. I decided to enter.

I didn’t hear anything. I didn’t feel a collapse. I did look up and see the entire slope above me was failing. I had a little momentum bringing me more into the path of what was about to hit me and pointed my skis towards a spot just below a decent sized tree 5 feet ahead and hooked my right arm around it. I had about 4 seconds from when I saw the slide to when it hit. In that time I keyed the mic on my radio and said “Avalanche… coming down right on top of me”. I then locked my left arm around the tree and dug in.

The debris hit the tree and me with some force. It felt like a surprise rogue wave while playing in the ocean, or trying to cross fast moving waist deep water. It pushed on me for about 5 seconds. Debris hitting the tree broke up and threw a little snow in the air giving me a moment of thinking I would be buried. The debris around me stopped moving and I watched a lot of snow travel down the path into the woods below. Another debris pile accumulated on the far side on another lower angle bench like the one I was on. I was buried to my waist but hadn’t budged from where I dug in. The debris set up like concrete. Benny and Ben where quickly coming into view having heard my radio call.

“I’m not hurt, but I’m buried to my waist. I’m going to need help getting dug out”.

Ben quickly scanned above me and determined there was little risk of another slide and both of them skied over to me and started digging. It took about 5 minutes to free me as my skis were still on. It took Ben A. saying “remote trigger” for it to really click. My first thought when I saw the slope fail was it was either a natural avalanche, which makes no sense given the conditions and avalanche bulletin for the day, or another skier above had triggered the slope (there was no one else in our immediate area).

I had remotely triggered this avalanche from low angle terrain 200 feet below the crown line… the flanks however were quite long with the looker’s right hand flank extending to a point about 50 feet above me. This was a big slab. Using Caltopo, my GPS tracks, and what we saw after the avalanche I estimate the slide ran about 750 feet while descending about 385. The crown line was estimated to be 460 feet across, and up to a meter deep at it’s thickest, with most of it being between 15 and 30 cm. Slope angle at the crown was estimated to be 38-40 degrees.

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You can see me buried from the waist down just below the tree in the middle of the picture. The debris visible towards the upper left stopped on a lower angle bench like the one I was on, but from me to that pile a lot of snow flowed down the drainage, some of which can be seen moving in the start of the accompanying video
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Our GPS tracks in and out of Oakes Gulf with purple lines representing the two skier triggered slides and the yellow area estimating the size of the avalanche I triggered
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A closer look, you can see where I was partially buried on the edge of the yellow polygon

We transitioned back to skinning and made a plan to exit close to our descent track and well spaced out. We gained the ridge and made our way over to our exit route, Monroe Brook. Once in the upper gully we found a few inches of unconsolidated powder on a firm crust and made some enjoyable but sometimes variable turns down the run short pitching at first then leap-frogging our way down to the exit. Soon after getting back into the trees we heard a helicopter overhead traveling west to east. Given the conditions of the day we suspected this was from an avalanche involvement and hoped for the best. We had a lot of friends all over the mountain today.

Back at the parking lot we started debriefing.

So what happened?

As I mentioned at the start of this my radar was up based on our group make-up.

Experienced, Proficient, Fit, Educated

For a three person team I couldn’t ask for better ski partners. I also think three person teams are ideal when going after the type of objectives we had on our agenda this day.

We made some good calls. We agreed that if we had skied the Franklin gully it was “likely” we would have triggered it. There may be slight disagreement on how “escape-able” this path would be if it did go. There was talk of a belayed ski cut being the wrong choice considering we felt it was “likely” to slide and would leave behind a firm no fall type bed surface. The fact I thought about a helicopter being possible at the bottom of the run was clear evidence we needed to scale back, and we did.

From that point on we avoided defined avalanche paths. We kept the angle pretty low. We committed to option B, and recognized the snow was not worth the effort, and switched to option C.

We ruled out Double Barrel as it has a very similar aspect/elevation/angle to the Franklin run that we had already turned our backs on. Our final option was in between the aspect that was a southeast aspect so we were actively avoiding the most likely east aspects. While we witnessed a size-able skier triggered slide on a nearby south aspect I believe we felt this relatively lower angle southeast aspect could be managed.

What would I do differently?

When Ben suggested we transition and head out I could have jumped on board there. I was enticed to get a few more turns in despite my evening commitments keeping me on the tighter timeline. While I didn’t want to ski the tight ski shot on a firm bed surface I could have posted up and let the Benny and Ben get their steeper turns in. I traversed about 100 feet to the right to access open lower angled terrain and dropped just out of sight of my partners before triggering the slope above me.

I don’t think I could have escaped given the terrain even through I was only on the edge of the path that ran. If I had gone past this tree without noticing the slide I would have been carried down the slope a couple hundred feet unless I hit a tree. We did not take the time to descend to the debris but without any doubt it was enough to completely bury someone. The lower angle bench I was on kept things less violent than being in the middle of the path would have been.

“This could have easily happened to any of us” says Ben.

“If you travel enough in avalanche terrain you are going to find avalanches” says Benny.

While I appreciate the affirmations I find it difficult to accept I made this mistake. Yes this could have happened to anyone. Hind-sight is a wonderful thing to hammer on from an armchair. Any time there is an incident, big or small, we need to learn from it. Some of my bullet points of lessons learned:

  • You can remotely trigger a wind slab. I’ve known this is possible, but our avalanche problems and incidents in the east are almost always triggered from on the slab itself.
  • You need to stay in visual contact. We had eyes on each other the entire day and broke that safe travel practice right at the end of our run.
  • Radios are king. While they might have heard me if I yelled “avalanche” being able to convey what was happening clearly and quickly, then check back in after the avalanche and know they got the message was so reassuring.
  • Travel with people you trust and have your back. I couldn’t have asked for two better ski partners to tour with this day!

Bringing this whole experience into a whole other light is learning on the drive home that a solo skier less than two miles away was buried and injured in an avalanche. Reports then came in that stated that the victim died on scene after vigorous CPR attempts were made to revive him (he was estimated to be buried over an hour).

Benny was worried it was a friend of his who hadn’t checked in yet and was suspected of touring in the area of the incident. Then, after 10 PM, I receive a text from Benny. With a heavy heart we learned the victim was indeed his friend. I’ll leave any other details or speculation until after the Mount Washington Avalanche Center releases their press release and accident report.

UPDATE 4/15/19: MWAC has released an official accident report for the fatality: https://mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org/4112019-avalanche-fatality-raymond-cataract/

avalanche fatality mount washington
Our location in relation to the Raymond Cataract fatality

I’m going to finish this long narrative with a personal thank you to everyone who has reached out to me with words of encouragement and support. News travels incredibly fast these days and our back-country ski community is pretty small and close-knit. We are all connected with only a degree or three of separation.

I also share this personal story as timely as possible as we move into a busy couple of weeks on Mount Washington that historically are “stable” by Mount Washington standards. This winter has been extraordinary in snowfall amounts and late season cold temperatures. The general Spring skiing crowd needs to be aware that this is not a typical April on Washington by any means. Heads on a swivel, read the avalanche bulletin, don’t travel solo in high consequence terrain with out a clear understanding of what the outcome may be.

My thoughts and prayers are with the victims family and his friends, especially my close friend, ski partner, and fellow avalanche educator, Benny, who lost a touring partner and friend on a day when despite the instabilities and risk we were all out doing what we loved. RIP Nicholas Benedix.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Winter 2018/19 Season Recap

Even though we are into our fourth week of Spring, Winter is certainly holding on here in Mount Washington Valley where we received 4 inches of snow just yesterday! While I haven’t hung up the skis or ice tools yet (planning an alpine ski tour for this Thursday) I figured I better get my season recap out there because before we know it Spring will actually arrive and I’ve got a busy line-up of early season rock climbing objectives and gear reviews to work on!

This winter started off in epic fashion with over 50 inches of snow recorded on the summit of Mount Washington in October! This set us up for some great early ice season conditions and I kicked my season off on November 15th with the first of the season ascent of Standard Route at Frankenstein Cliffs.

ice climbing new hampshire
November 15th, 2018, first seasonal ascent of Standard Route- photo by Alexandra Roberts

After one more trip up Standard and a bit of a thrutch up an early season Dracula I found myself climbing the Black Dike three times in a month! All three times were memorable with the highlight being the third trip where I beat my own personal time on the route (90 minutes) and had the amazing opportunity of my friend Dave Dillon of Chase The Summit shooting the climb with his drone. I’ll cherish this footage forever Dave! Thank you!

 

November saw over 60 inches of snow on Mount Washington and in-hindsight I found myself wishing we had scheduled some early season avalanche courses, we definitely had the conditions to run a couple!

Avalanche Courses

Know Before You Go at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
Presenting at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

Our first avalanche course started on December 14th and our last one ended on March 31st. All in all Northeast Mountaineering had a record breaking 179 students take an AIARE course with me this winter! Taking my first avalanche course was such a pivotal moment in my life back in 2003 and I am so grateful to have the opportunity to help these participants get on a path of learning how to manage risk in our amazing snowy environments! I’m also grateful to have been able to work alongside Grant Price who was a fantastic co-facilitator and who I learned quite a bit from over the season. To all of my students this past winter, thank you!

There were two stand-out moments for me during the avalanche course season. The first was a complete failure in my own group management strategies that resulted in getting a student into a very uncomfortable and risky situation. I’d been teaching people how to look out for Human Factors and Heuristic Traps for over a decade and found myself anything but immune to their ability to cloud our judgement and steer us to make poor decisions. I shared some of this humbling tale in this post if you are interested in more details.

The second stand-out was triggering and getting carried in D2 size slab avalanche while guiding a back-country ski trip into Tuckerman Ravine. Despite fearing a bit of Monday morning quarterbacking I shared that experience in this post.


Reviews and Giveaways

Petzl Nomic 2019 Review
Alexandra Roberts takes the new Nomics for an alpine spin up Pinnacle Gully- photo by Brent Doscher

Through-out the winter I got to review some really awesome gear including the new Petzl Nomics, the Arc’teryx FL-365 harness, and the BightGear Caldera Parka. I have a few more reviews almost finished that will post soon. The review section of the blog has definitely grown over the last two years! I’ve got quite a few giveaways planned for this summer and every footwear review will have a chance to wind some of that amazing Friendly Foot! Let me know in the comments if there is something you would like me to review and I’ll try to get my hands on it!


Granite Backcountry Alliance

backcountry skiing granite backcountry alliance
Nice turns on Baldface Knob before dropping into the Granite Backcountry Alliance’s glade project- photo by Grant Price

My only regret is I didn’t get to explore more of the Granite Backcountry Alliances glade projects! I got two runs in at the locals favorite Maple Villa Glade and one super fun trip off the Baldface Knob… the stuff GBA is doing is nothing short of incredible for the New England BC ski community… if you haven’t checked them out and considered contributing or volunteering please do so!


Course Suggestions for Spring

Even though mid-April is approaching I still have an ice climbing course booked for this upcoming weekend, and a back-country ski course on April 16th. Based on the current Higher Summits Forecast and the amount of snow we have on the ground it’s shaping up to be an EPIC alpine ski season (knock on wood). It will likely be pretty late when the Mount Washington Auto Road is able to open but as soon as it does I will be getting my annual season pass again… if we are lucky we will have a couple weeks of being able to access alpine skiing via the road through May!

All that said here’s a couple courses I teach you might consider to add some skills to your kit before the summer rock climbing season goes full swing!

Backcountry Skiing or Ski Mountaineering: Whether objective based (Gulf of Slides, Great Gulf, Monroe Brook) or skills based (crampon & axe use, route planning, protecting/rappeling with a rope) or a mix of both there is still a lot of snow up there and it is great to get on it while we can still ski all the way back to the car! Reach out to me if you’d like to plan something!

ski mountaineering backcountry skiing

Wilderness Navigation This 8 hour course covers a lot more than just map & compass skills. I start with Improvised “Survival” Navigation, then work up to advanced compass & map skills, and introduce modern web-based tools, and still leave time for a 3-4 hour field session! Check with me on availability before booking at the above link!

Wilderness Navigation
My favorite compass, the Sunnto MC-2

Self-Rescue for Recreational Rock Climbers– Can you escape a belay? Ascend a loaded rope to aid an injured lead climber? Create a counter-balance rappel and bring that injured lead climber back to the ground? That’s what we will learn in a one-day self-rescue course. We can run this course rain or shine, and if you want to follow more than single pitch routes you should acquire these skills! Contact me first to check on my availability then we can get you booked through Northeast Mountaineering at this link.

rock climbing self rescue
Chris learns about the initial awkwardness of rope ascension having already “Escape the Belay”

Tech Tips

 

Other plans include growing my Tech Tips page… what do you want to see? Leave a comment below and if it’s a skill I can demonstrate I will! I’m also working on a webinar to share CalTopo/Avenza (smartphone trip-planning and navigational tools). I will likely offer this as a 2-3 hour course a couple nights in May/June. If that’s something you’d be into make sure you are subscribed!

Thanks!

Special shout out to Northeast Mountaineering for juggling all the crazy logistics of running a small but super busy guide service and avalanche course provider. Considering the amount of business that came through that little ole’ Bunkhouse in Jackson, NH things went incredibly smooth with only the most minor of hiccups along the way. Huge thanks as well to Ortovox for having me on their athlete team for another year, I am so honored to represent a small part of this amazing company! And stoked for another year with DPS Skis! I put so many miles on my DPS Tour 1 Wailer 99’s, and this was my first season with the Phantom Glide treatment… I will write a full post about that experience and have some video to share as well! Stay tuned for that. Finally thank you to Revo for supporting me with the best sunglasses and snow goggles I have ever worn. I didn’t know how quality lenses performed until I partnered with this company and I’m stoked to represent them all over the mountain!

AIARE Avalanche Course
@Ortovox, @DPSskis, @Revo

Well I guess that’s pretty much it. It ain’t over yet but man it has been an AMAZING winter! Go enjoy a little bit more of winter… bug season will be here soon enough!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Caught and Carried… a reminder small slab avalanches can have consequences

I have triggered a lot of small avalanches over the 10 years I’ve been an avalanche educator. They have all been intentional, small, and inconsequential. Yesterday morning I triggered one that bordered on the line of consequential as it carried me about 20 feet down slope towards some uninviting looking trees. It was a fairly small avalanche with a crown that was estimated to be about 25 meters across the slope and 30 centimeters deep at its apex. I was high on the slab when it failed and able to self arrest with my ski poles in the bed surface quite quickly. While there were no injuries there is certainly something to learn from the experience so I’ll present the following account with that desire in mind.

Earlier this season a new client hired me for a Backcountry Ski Skills Course. After getting a resume of ski descents and experience from him we conducted a skills course into the bottom of Hillman’s Highway and had a very successful day. A few weeks later he was back to take a 3-Day AIARE Avalanche Course and toured with me in the Gulf of Slides. Having vetted his ski ability and fitness we made a plan to ski from the summit of Mount Washington.

Mother Nature however decided our plan to travel above tree-line on our day together would be unrealistic.

avalanche mount washington
Higher Summits Forecast for 2/19/19

After conveying that the summit was out for our day together he let me know he was still stoked to see how far we could go so we made a plan to head into Tuckerman Ravine and see if we could ski some of one of the renowned gullies located within.

The Mount Washington Avalanche Center forecasted “Moderate” avalanche danger with the following “Bottom Line”:

Low density snow yesterday has been affected by NW wind overnight which has produced relatively small new slabs that are possible to human trigger.

I had experienced this low density snow the day before during a tour in the Gulf of Slides on the last day of teaching an AIARE 1 Avalanche Course with Northeast Mountaineering. Some footage from that tour…

 

The next day we made excellent time up the Tuckerman Ravine trail reaching Hermit Lake in one hour and 15 minutes. Fausto is a fitness coach so it was easy for us to both stay warm in with the current conditions:

avalanche mount washington

After a quick re-fuel stop we made out way up the Little Headwall and observed some signs of instability on the slopes just above.

avalanche mount washington
Shooting cracks observed in thin fresh wind slab just above the Little Headwall

Here the winds were full value and we tucked our heads down and pushed on to Connection Cache. We moved off the trail to the right to find a brief reprieve from the wind and don face masks and goggles before deciding to push a little further into the ravine. The winds were a little less brutal as we set a skin track up to the right of the Lobster Claw run out. We had observed enough active wind loading to rule out entering any of the major avalanche paths and a few hundred feet up the far right side of the ravine we decided it was time to transition and head back down.

We dropped on some stiff wind board low angle terrain and I brought us down into the Cutler drainage then out to skier’s right aiming for the high exit that would connect us down to the far side of the Lower Snowfields. Here we traversed across a small steep slope one at a time before getting to the top of the chute that leads down to the flats then connects back out to the Cutler.

The snow was a little punchy here but we could make a few good jump turns down about 50 feet. I posted up under a little tree island and had Fausto stop just above the island. A slightly lower angle open slope to skiers right looked like it would offer a few more turns before heading back into the drainage but it looked size-able enough to warrant caution. I told Fausto to stay put while I traversed over and onto this slope trying to stay high with the intention of ski cutting it and posting up on the far side.

About halfway across the slope I saw it fail around me. There was no noticeable collapse or whumph but the cracks I saw everywhere in sight made it clear what was happening. I yelled “avalanche” as I started moving down hill and noted the crown was only 10 feet above me. I dug my ski poles into the bed surface and the little amount of debris that I was riding on continued downhill… I came to a stop about 20 feet below where I had triggered it. For a few seconds I watched the debris go down slope for about 100 feet through some small trees that I was glad I wasn’t meeting soon.

Looking back uphill I could see Fausto was still in the spot I told him to stay and I instructed him to traverse over to me as there was no significant hang-fire left and I wanted him to join me on the bed surface. I shot some video and measured the slope angle, aspect, elevation, and position with the convenient Theodolite app. We then made our way down to the bottom of the run out for a couple more pics of the slide.

 

avalanche mount washington
Theodolite app

avalanche mount washington

So what happened?

The 13 cm of super low density (3.7%) snow that fell during an almost windless day on February 18th got introduced to severe winds over the evening hours and into the morning. As mentioned in the bulletin today “winds often allows us to  exceed the 1:3-5 ratio of new snow to wind slab”. This new slab felt like it was probably 1-Finger to Pencil on the Hand Hardness Scale. I estimated the crown to be about 30cm deep at its apex. This small test slope is directly lee to the west winds that were howling all night and observed while we were in the area. In the video you can see active loading occurring directly following the avalanche.

While this was my first “unintentional” triggered avalanche I don’t feel that I was completely caught off guard. Signs of instability along with expert opinion in the form of the avalanche bulletin guided our terrain choices and we stayed under 30 degrees and outside of major avalanche paths for good reason. We moved one at a time across suspect slopes and stopped where we could watch each other. I went onto the slope that failed half expecting to perhaps trigger a small slab and assumed I would be able to stay above it. I ended up taking a short some-what controlled ride 20 feet downslope while Fausto watched from a good vantage.

With the benefit of hind-sight a more conservative choice would have been to descend skier’s left of the Little Headwall, basically down our skin track where we had already accessed slope stability. Assessing “top down” terrain is obviously harder to do. In speaking with one of the snow rangers my terrain choice was somewhat validated as a reasonable choice given the conditions. Still, I’ll be thinking about this day for quite awhile. Unintentional but somewhat expected is a strange way to think about triggering an avalanche, but that’s where I’m at right now.

I hope sharing these details and thought processes with the community is beneficial. It doesn’t happen with out acute knowledge that my choices can be judged with different levels of objectivity. As an avalanche educator though I strongly believe we should learn from every single avalanche involvement and being able to share your experience in a clear and transparent fashion can only benefit the greater avalanche community.

 

Snow, Avalanches, Reflection, and More Snow for MLK Weekend!

Well that was an intense four day weekend of snow, snow, and more snow. It all started for me on Friday when I taught an AIARE Avalanche Rescue Course for Northeast Mountaineering. The timing of our first rescue course was somber as an avalanche accident made national news the evening before when two young men would die from being caught in an avalanche and many others injured in Taos Ski Valley, NM.

New Mexico Avalanche
From ABC News: People search for victims after an avalanche buried multiple people near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019. The avalanche rushed down the mountainside of the New Mexico ski resort on Thursday, injuring at least a few people who were pulled from the snow after a roughly 20-minute rescue effort, a resort spokesman said. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)
new mexico avalanche
People search for victims after an avalanche near the highest peak of Taos Ski Valley, one of the biggest resorts in New Mexico, Jan. 17, 2019. (Morgan Timms/Taos News via AP)

My thoughts and prayers go out to the two young men, their families, and friends who have suffered this tragic loss.

Friday’s rescue course brought 10 students from first year back-country travelers to seasoned vets who teach avalanche awareness classes for the Appalachian Mountain Club. We spent a couple hours in the morning going over rescue gear and methodology before moving to a field location for hands on realistic practice. Towards the end of the day I was partially buried a meter down in the snow while my friend and SOLO Instructor Sue addressed patient considerations, treatment, and evacuation. I thank former USFS Snow Ranger Jeff Lane for showing me the effectiveness of having students try to pull an unconscious 180 pound person out of a burial position.

avalanche rescue
Just my airway cleared and one arm free there is a lot of work to do before proper treatment can begin- photo by Ryan Mcquire

We ended the course just as the edges of an incoming Nor’easter brought some snow fall and by Saturday morning it was coming down steady!

Nor'Easter Avalanche Course
My AM check of the radar showed multiple heavy bands of cold fluffy snow was on tap for all day Saturday

Saturday was the start of a three day AIARE Avalanche 1 Course and with my co-instructor Grant Price we had a full course of 12 students, all ski tourers with various levels of experience, but all eager to learn. After a productive morning of classroom and an afternoon of rescue practice I headed north to the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center to present a Know Before You Go presentation. This one-hour program is designed for a broad audience to introduce the 5 steps of avoiding getting caught in an avalanche.

  • Get the Gear
  • Get the Training
  • Get the Forecast
  • Get the Picture
  • Get out of Harm’s Way

Know Before You Go at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center
Presenting at AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

In attendance were various guests, visitors, AMC trip leaders, and an AMC avalanche awareness class. After the presentation Q&A took us pretty late into the night.

avalanche education
Some Q&A after the presentation- photo by AMC Parker Peltzer

Driving home around 10 pm I got to see some of the heaviest rates of snowfall before waking early Sunday to get Day 2 of the avalanche course going. We spent a little time inside talking about Human Factors and Heuristic Traps, some of which I had quite recently let get the better of my own decision making, before jumping into some sweet online tools and creating a tour plan for the rest of the day.

avalanche course
“PLAN your trip” is one part of the AIARE Framework that helps us make better decisions in the back country

As soon as we hit the trail we started spotting obvious clues of unstable Storm Slab. Just as we were crossing the first Cutler River bridge we saw this… can you spot the two clues to unstable snow?

avalanche course
From the first bridge over the Cutler River minutes from the Visitor Center

There are two natural “baby” slab avalanches in this picture. One is just left of the rock in the center and harder to see. The one on the right is easy to see. This is evidence of this fluffy “fist” density storm snow has gained cohesion and is sitting on a reactive weak layer… in other words it has formed into a “slab”. We found multiple spots along side the trail where “hand shears” would fail during isolation and informal ski cutting would produce noticeable results, on of the best just off the trail while crossing a small creek and captured by this students video:

 

We continued up to Hermit Lake and took a few minutes to poke in the snow near the Volunteer Ski Patrol Cabin. As we were close to our established turn around time we soon found ourselves enjoying some nice if not a bit bumpy turns down the Sherburne ski trail.

I’d later find out my friend and fellow avalanche educator Ben Allen was out in Bill Hill Glades in Gorham kicking off small slabs there. I could just picture his smile and giggle as he poked around in the snow triggering small inconsequential avalanches. If you didn’t know that is one of the favorite things for an avalanche educator to do! Well, that and shred super stable POW of course…

avalanche course
Skier triggered storm slabs in Gorham, NH- photo by Ben Allen

On Monday, the final day of our avalanche course, our students started trip planning at the NEM Bunkhouse at 8 AM. The Mount Washington Avalanche Center was forecasting HIGH danger for the day. In addition the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast was predicting ambient air temperatures to plummet to the negative teens with wind chills in the -50 to -70 range. A conservative tour was needed, and the group selected a tour up the Cog Railway with a high point of Jacob’s Ladder and  possibly a side trip over to the top of a new slide path.

avalanche course
Using the incredible CalTopo website we created a tour map that highlighted areas that might harbor more risk. Yellow were aspects fully exposed to the hurricane force NW winds coming later that day. Red terrain fit the criteria of areas of HIGH danger, and orange represented some areas of CONSIDERABLE danger.

We hit the trail close to 10 AM with a parking lot temperature of -9 Fahrenheit but surprisingly very low winds. The skin up to Waumbek tank took us just over an hour.

avalanche course
Skiing up the Cog

During a break the group decided they would like to visit the top of the new slide path so we made our way up a few more hundred feet before contouring and bushwhacking over to the slide path.

avalanche course
Top of “Phillipe Path”

Here I could feel the Human Factors tugging hard. The snow looked great. No tracks in it! We hadn’t really seen any signs of unstable snow like we had the day before. No cracking or whumping. It wasn’t as windy as we thought it would be. We had time to ski it. It was cold but climbing back up it would really warm us up.

I thought back to last weeks course when I had let Human Factors have a serious negative effect on my decision making. It was bluebird… no wind… perfect day to gain the ridge and complete a full “tour” on the last day of an avalanche class. The snow down here looked good… it must be good over there? Right? A student was apprehensive of her ability. Basically first time in the back country… My impaired objectivity reared its ugly head. “You can do it” I reassure without any evidence that she could. “We can side slip down until you feel comfortable making turns” I wrongly assumed. “It’s not that steep”… sure, for me, but what about her?

Listen to Every Voice, Respect Every Veto. These are tenants in good back-country partners.

Blue Sky Syndrome, Powder Fever, Over Confidence, and even some Kodak Courage had all crept into my consciousness. I failed to practice what I preach. I was not being objective. We made it down to the trail head just before dark. It took a few days and a formal debrief to really look back on that day for what it was. While I could call it a complete failure I’m looking at it as an ice cold head dunk of a wake-up call. 10 years of teaching these skills and I can still mess up. We all can. It’s how we move forward after making a mistake that counts.

Back to the top of Phillip, we turn our backs on what might be a killer powder run and head back to the Cog. We enjoy great low angle riding in calf deep powder back to the parking lot. We’ve returned way ahead of our turn around time as we listened to each other when we admitted we were pretty cold. No one got frostbite. The ski down had warmed us up enough for a quick round of Compression Tests and an Extended Column Test on a nearby slope.

 

We headed into the warmth of the AMC Thayer Hall for a tour debrief and to close the course. I handed out feedback forms that had been missing since the new curriculum rolled out.

What did you get out of this course?

How could the course be improved?

Where did you feel most at risk or in danger?

How can the instructors improve?

At the end of the day I read through all 12 forms. Small changes can be made based on these suggestions. Small changes lead to better learning environments for students and growth for the instructors.

I’m grateful for every comment and nudge from every student, fellow instructor, or guide I’ve ever gotten. Keep them coming.

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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maplevilla

AIARE 1 Avalanche Course 12/14/18 – 12/16/18

The first avalanche course of the season with Northeast Mountaineering wrapped up yesterday late afternoon after 3 solid days of mixed classroom and field sessions. We have an awesome new classroom venue just minutes from The Bunkhouse and we were stoked to have so much snow on the ground for the first course of our season.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Great new classroom space only minutes from the Bunkhouse

After a morning of classroom on Friday we spent the afternoon outside learning and practicing avalanche rescue skills. On Saturday we spent a little time learning how to PLAN a tour in avalanche terrain before heading up to Hermit Lake on Mount Washington for some practice monitoring conditions along our tour.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Learning about layered snow packs in one of the most beautiful places in the White Mountains

On Sunday we started with a student led trip planning session at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Teamwork makes the dream work!

We then skinned up the Gulf of Slides Ski Trail.

AIARE Avalanche Course
Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Approaching the Lower Snowfields in Gulf of Slides
AIARE Avalanche Course
Working our way up through the Lower Snowfields before traversing back into the Main Gully
AIARE Avalanche Course
Great weather for our full tour day!
AIARE Avalanche Course
Combining modern tech with old school navigation
AIARE Avalanche Course
Found some thin and stubborn pencil hard wind slab on this 37 degree slope at 4,500 feet to lookers left of the Main Gully. You can also see the December 3rd Melt-Freeze crust about 50 cm down here.
AIARE Avalanche Course
Pit location details, courtesy of Theodolite App
AIARE Avalanche Course
Edge-able, ski-able, but we are glad to see more snow in the forecast!

Summary

All in all it was a fantastic start to the avalanche course season with Northeast Mountaineering. The new curriculum rolled out pretty smoothly and I am digging the new “AIARE Framework” that creates a slightly smoother “flow” of decision making then the classic “Decision Making Framework” some of you may be familiar with. The new organization of the Avalanche and Observation Reference Tool is pretty sweet, and I really like the new 2-3 hour pre-course online learning component! If you have been waiting to take an avalanche course I’d say you should wait no longer! Most providers in the area are seeing courses sell out quite regularly! You can see what dates we have left here!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start