Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Superior Avalanche: Ten Conclusions I Should Always Remember

1. I love the mountains; but the mountains don't love me.  Why is a rock deserving of any love?  How can a white-capped mound of dirt and debris be the sole object of my desire?  The mountains are my sanctuary. But they don't know I'm there.  Nor do they care.

2. The pull of gravity is welcoming when your feet are on the ground; but in free fall, not so much.  As I skied by Jason and into the chute, I heard him warn of the rocks below.  And then I felt a collapse, looked around me, and saw the snow around me begin to liquify.  I checked my speed, or attempted to at least, in an effort to resist getting swept into the funnel.  And then my sluff combined with the soft slab from above hit me.  The impact was unexpected.  How can a wave of snow pack so much energy?  It lifted me off my feet, and then I was airborne.  The immediate acceleration was horrifying--I had no control and all things must come down.  My instinct was to try and gain control and arrest my fall.  The first time I smashed into the broken, pointed, black rocks, I caught a glimpse of them.  My mass and my acceleration smashing into those rocks produced an immense force on my chest.  My hope of gaining control was extinguished, and I was overcome with fear.  And then it was a confusing, discombobulated cycle of churn, fall, impact . . . scream.  I waited for the lights to go out.

3. I am not going to Alaska.  This was odd.  It may have been while I was falling that I actually had this thought.  Certainly, I had this thought while I was on the mountain.  For some time now, I've been planning a trip to Alaska.  Tickets, permits, etc. have all been secured.  I was set to leave in 6 weeks.  I was hoping to ski and do a speed ascent of Denali.  What is most odd is that the feeling I initially had was not one of disappointment, but of relief.

4. Once April comes around, not everything is always a "go."  I consider April a golden month for skiing.  Usually, the snowpack is stable.  The coverage is good.  Travel conditions are fast.  Racing is over.  Given the rough winter we've had in the Wasatch, I looked forward to April.  When it came, and the snowpack began to stabilize, a green light went on in my head.  I had big plans.  On April 12, 2012, it was snowing in the mountains.  Even so, I drove towards the Lone Peak trailhead, intending to work on a project on and around Lone Peak.  But after talking with Jason on the phone, and worried about the bad weather, I flipped my car around and headed up Little Cottonwood.  As we climbed Superior, both of us expressed regrets about not being on Lone.  Jason suggested that we ski out and head to Lone.  Soon were skiing Superior's north face.  There, I triggered and skied out of an avalanche.  As Jason says, we laughed at it.  The avalanche on North Superior didn't stop us from climbing Superior again and skiing the south face.  We had just looked the Dragon in the eyes and felt its fire, and then we kicked him in the crotch and laughed.  Why?  Because it was April.
5. Listen to the mountain, not your ego; ski to ski.  Skiing does not need to be a competition.  Skiing does not need to be about getting that trophy photo.  Skiing does not need to be about being better or going higher or shredding faster than others.  Skiing does not need to be about being the first to ski this or that slope or mountain on this day or in the history of the world.  Skiing does not need to be about impressing sponsors or distinguishing yourself so that you can get sponsors.  Skiing does not need to be about that next blog post.  Is there such a thing as pure skiing?  I should listen to the mountain, not my ego.  I should ski to ski.

6. Wear a helmet (and a breast plate).  In some instances, playing the "what if" game can be productive.  I'll play it here.  What if I had not, as an afterthought, thrown my helmet in my pack?  What if I had not been wearing a helmet as I starfished down Superior's face?  What if I had stuffed my beacon into my pack or pocket and not strapped it securely onto my chest?  What if my bindings had not released?  Answer:  I would be hurt worse.  I would have a hole in my head.  I would have broken ribs and collapsed a lung (there is a hole and cracks in my beacon instead).  I would likely be dead.

7. I should be a better partner.  Sometimes I skimp on the rescue gear I carry.  Often, I carry a small shovel and a carbon probe.  Sometimes I don't carry anything.  I don't carry much in the way of a first aid kit, if anything.  I rarely carry matches or a knife.  On April 12th, I was carrying a plastic rando race shovel. Sorry Jason.  I gave Jason my aluminum rando race shovel because he couldn't find his.  Going forward, I will carry functional rescue gear--a good shovel, a good probe, and a good beacon.  I will carry a first aid kit and I'm going to look into what I would need to carry to build an emergency sled.  What will I do about the extra weight this adds to my system?  Grin and bear it.

On the flipside, I'm grateful for good partners.  Jason got me safely off the mountain, carried my pack, gave me his ski (on a powder day!), took me to the hospital, and then took me home. Andy was there to support as well.  Thanks guys.

8. I may never understand the contradiction of wanting to be safe at home with my family and wanting to be in the mountains.  After I came to a stop, I thought my femur was broken.  I could scarcely weight my leg.  So, while Jason called for help, I laid on my side with my good leg underneath, and began sliding down the mountain.  Initially, the pitch was steep enough that I made decent progress.  As the slope angle decreased, I slid my ski underneath me and used it as a sled.  At one point, Jason hooked his whippet on my boot and dragged me.  I left splotches of blood in the snow.  Eventually, I figured out that I could at least let my bad leg hang, and I skied the apron on my good leg.  As I made my way off the mountain, several thoughts crossed my mind.  I was angry at myself for getting into this situation.  I was grateful that I would see my family again.  I was sickened at the thought that I had nearly lost that chance.  I never wanted to ski again, ever.  I just wanted to be safe at home with my family.

Fast forward 3 days.  My wife was driving our family home from Tooele.  We had gone out there to watch our son's soccer game.  As we drove along I-80, the whole Wasatch range was in view.  It had just been cleansed by a spring storm.  Twin, Olympus, Lone, even the outline of the Pfeif were all visible, rising out of the clouds.  I looked over at my wife and gestured to the mountains, smiling.  She shook her head.

9. There are lots of good people in our community. Within a few minutes of Jason's 911 call, a small army of EMS and Alta patrol people gathered beneath Superior.  As I reached the lower apron, some of them had begun to hike up for my sake.  One of them was a friend, Chris Cawley who had been working at Alta.  Thanks.

10. I need to try harder to not let my loved ones down.  Just because I won the lottery once, does not mean that I'll win again.  Statistically, I think my odds just drastically decreased.  If the price of admission is your life, the game probably is not worth playing.  If that means not playing this game anymore or playing it less or playing a lower stakes game, so be it.  If that means becoming a golfer, then . . . . wait, no, stop!  Turn this thing off!

LOST: La Sportiva Hi5 Ski and Dynafit carbon pole

I thought I'd put this out on the internet in the event someone finds some equipment on Superior.  Thanks.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guest Post: Superior -- Lucky, Learning Lessons the Hard Way by Jason Dorais

Last Thursday, April 12, 2012, I got caught and tumbled by an avalanche while skiing the south face of Mt. Superior.  Jason was there to document and watch, and then assist and rescue.  Below, is  Jason's write-up, which I appreciate.  I'll add my own perspective in a separate post, later.

Last Thursday Jared and I were all geared up and ready for some steeper ski mountaineering but the new snow had us head toward more "conservative" terrain.  We figured we'd ski the N face of Superior and then either hit Monte Cristo or the S Face of Superior and Suicide Chute.  On the way up we noted 2 small, several inch deep, drifts that broke out on wind loaded northernly aspects.  After getting up Superior we ski cut the N side with no results, we figured any of movement we got would be manageable.  

I skied first, pulled into a safe zone and watched Jared ski by in deep new snow until he yelled "Avalanche!" I watched for a second until he skied out of it.  Looking at the crown it was only 3-5 inches deep.  We laughed.  
Jared, N Superior

Just getting his feet and starting to ski out of the slide
After this little run in, we figured N faces weren't the safest option we figured we better take S Superior out and be done for the day.  Everything we had seen move was on the northern aspects, the new snow had bonded fairly well on S faces, and once again, we figured if anything moved it would be manageable. 

I skied first, cut the slope, was happy with the results and went a few hundred feet pulling off in the left side of the far left chute high on Superior.  It's looked like the snowpack got a little boney towards the end of the chute so as Jared skied by I yelled to be little cautious.  Next thing I know he's going cartwheeling over the exposed rock at the end of the chute.  I quickly turned my beacon on and asked myself if it was safe follow.  It was so off I went.  I remember looking at the crown (don't remember how deep) as I skied by, noting that I was skiing on the bed surface and then coming to the rollover where the snow ran out and I was left staring at exposed rocks.  I remember them being big, sharp and all pointing up.  I looked at my beacon and it wasn't picking anything up, for a second I thought Jared's beacon wasn't working.  That's when I started yelling, luckily I heard a response.  I saw Jared down another 100 feet and a little off to the right.  After side stepping through the steep rocks I stepped onto snow again.  Immediately another slab broke loose.  I yelled franticly for Jared to get out of the way until it was clear the slab got funneled away from him.  Jared told me after the fact that he saw the 2nd slide coming but couldn't  do a thing about it.

Note the crack well above Jared
When I first got to him, I gave him a quick once over.  He could talk, he was breathing although it was a little fast, he had a good pulse.  He told me he thought he broke some ribs and maybe his right femur.  I looked at his leg and saw blood dripping from the seat of his pants.  Having just got done working with the trauma team at the hospital for the past month I couldn't help but think the worst.  After discussing our options for a second Jared thought he'd be able to work his way down since his leg was starting to feel a little better.  With the fear of a femur fracture still in my mid, I offered to rig a splint up.  A shovel handle padded with a coat applied with a skin around the thigh and one below the knee.  He thought it was helping so I watched as he began to slowly move.  We were 2000' above the road and it was going to take a little while to get all the way down. 

Thinking there was still a possibility that Jared's condition would deteriorate, I decided to call Alta Patrol and see if they could send someone to meet us at the bottom.  Only problem was I didn't have their number.  After calling a few friends to ask for the number and getting nothing but voice mails I decided on 911.  They asked if I thought we needed a helicopter.  I said no but help at the bottom would be appreciated. They were kind enough to mobilize an ambulance and talk with ski patrol and let them know what happened. 

As Jared kept working his way down he started telling me he thought his leg was just a muscular injury.  After sliding on his side for a while he decided to stand and give skiing on the good leg a go, he just dragged the bad leg.  This seemed to work well and we were able to keep heading down to the mini crowd of EMS personel that waited.  We thanked them for being ready but declined transport now that Jared had been able tolerate a little weight on his leg. 

After getting to the hospital he was rushed in, stripped naked and found to a have a few lacerations (head, leg, butt) one needing stitches, a muscle that avulsed from his femur, cracked ribs,  and a partially torn hamstring.  Nothing that won't fix itself.  It might take a month or three but he should be good as new in a bit.

Reviewing his gear showed a hole in his helmet and a cracked beacon.  Things could have been worse...

1. We're lucky
2. It's easy to talk yourself (at least me) into thinking that nothing bad will happen.  We've skied all sorts of stuff (maybe we shouldn't have) in moderate danger thinking ski cuts, cornice drops and what not will keep us safe.  Maybe a little more respect is needed.
3. Transporting and injured partner is not easy.  Luckily Jared was able to get himself out almost completely on his own.  It still took a while but if he were unconscious it would have taken forever. 
4.  "Manageable" sluff of slides are manageable in some situations, not all.
5.  No body wants to die skiing, not worth it
6.  Although we were scared to ski for a few days, I can feel myself wanting to get back out and start pushing it again.  It's going to take a little effort to remember the lessons from that day. 7. Wear a helmet!
8.  Be careful!

Also, Jared lost a High 5 with an RT binding and a ski pole.  If these are found I'm sure he'd love to have them back!