A Winter Storm

*WHUMPF*

“Did you hear that?”

“I felt it”

“Wait what? I didn’t feel it!”

“What do we do?”

“We don’t go any higher. We turn back.”

“… ok”

Last Winter myself and Spring started getting into backcountry ski touring. Learning to ski follows naturally if you live near mountains and wish to continue to visit them through the Winter. There is of course snowshoeing, but it is laborious. Skiing makes the uphill climbing more energy efficient and the downhill is fast. You can’t beat skiing for the ground that can be covered during the short hours of daylight through the Winter months.

While the mountains in Winter are staggeringly beautiful they are also extremely dangerous. More so than in Summer when the temperatures are more hospitable and the hazards, though still present, are largely visible and known. As Humans we tend to anthropomorphize many things and I feel that when we see something beautiful that makes us feel happiness we imagine that the source of that beauty cares for us, otherwise why would it make us happy? We imbue these places with intent towards us. When the winds howl the mountain doesn’t want us there, but when the sun shines it welcomes us openly. I have felt this in the mountains while watching a sunrise or staring out at a grand panorama. It can be easy to let the joy felt blind us to the objective dangers that are always present.

The complexity of terrain in the Mountains

The mountains do not care if we find happiness or not. The are eternally indifferent. To an outsider who has never explored deep into a remote mountain range this may seem laughably obvious. It is only those that answer the call to venture into these high places that understand the struggle to separate the objective reality with the subjective emotional experience that one undergoes while immersed in these environments. I know I will spend a lifetime trying to understand it and, like all those pulled back to the mountains, will continue to go there to experience it.

When I first started my Winter forays into the Hills it was easy to fool myself into believing that all I needed to get into the mountains was enough mettle to endure the cold and the skill to be able to ski, but I’ve since learned that this is merely the tip of the iceberg of the knowledge and experience that I actually require.

The Winter Storm that titles this post does not refer to the weather but rather the early experiences of most individuals who push into the mountains in Winter without an understanding of the risks they are taking.

These early experiences are known as “The Storm Years”, when an individual, fueled by more enthusiasm than sense, makes mistakes they don’t even know they are making that could ultimately cost them their life.

This problem occurs when a person doesn’t know what they don’t know. A tongue twister but think about it, with knowledge about a subject comes a perspective on the entire scope of that subject. Knowing how much one still has left to learn breeds humility.

We’ve all heard the expression “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. I feel the dangerous tipping point happens when an individual has learned enough to feel confident, but hasn’t learned enough yet to feel humble.

I went through my storm years in my first two Winters in Canada. Growing up in Ireland I knew nothing of Avalanches. I’d seen them in movies but I had no concept of how they actually worked.

During those early trips I traveled on a lot of slopes in bad avalanche conditions and got away with it. On one occasion I was in a white out and could hear avalanches releasing around me. Later, when I reversed my route, I could see that an avalanche had taken out my tracks from earlier in the day. By then I knew enough to stay off slopes of a certain angle but what I didn’t know was that the cloud cover had obscured slopes above me that were loaded with snow ready to release. Had I been on that slope at the wrong time I would have been buried.

Heavy snow making changes to conditions

I had enough sense to understand that the mountains were dangerous and during those trips I felt I was being safe, but I simply did not know what I did not yet know.

Nearing the end of that second Winter myself and Spring decided to take an AST-1 (Level 1 Avalanche Skills Training) course. We took the course initially only to learn how to use the equipment we had bought that we had learned we would need to have with us in Winter: An avalanche probe, shovel and beacon.

Before taking the course we felt we had always been safe, we just wanted the knowledge to know how to use these tools in a freak accident were one of us might be caught in an avalanche.

What the course did though was open our eyes to just how badly we had been reading terrain features. I began to look at mountain terrain in Winter through entirely different eyes, to see the loaded slopes, the convexities, the effects of layers in the snowpack on stability.

I passed my AST-1 course and came away from it, not only with knowledge about reading terrain in Winter, testing for snowpack stability and how to properly use my avalanche tools, but with a humbled understanding about how much more I still had left to learn about safe Winter travel in the mountains.

Getting some turns in near the treeline

Through the Winter months now, in my web browser, I have a permanently pinned tab open to avalanche.ca checking for forecasts on the probability of avalanches in certain parts of the mountains near me and what problems to be on the look out for.

Last Winter, 2013/14, was our first season skiing for more than 10 days in total and when I feel I actually learned how to ski. We had initially planned to not spend any time learning to ski in resorts and wanted to do all of our learning in the backcountry. Quickly though we dropped that plan. While others might do this, I just couldn’t justify the risk. I knew if somebody I was with got caught in an avalanche and I couldn’t get to them because I didn’t have the ability to ski well enough that I would find that very hard to live with.

This year we’ve throttled back on wishing to push hard into the backcountry and bought ourselves passes at Whistler/Blackcomb for the season. We will be heading into the backcountry but with tempered objectives that match the level of skill we’ll have gained while practicing inbounds at the resort.

The opening quotes to this post are from an actual event we experienced last Winter in the mountains north of Pemberton, BC. A *whumpf* sound is caused when the snowpack settles suddenly underfoot and usually indicates an instability that might cause an avalanche. It is extremely unnerving to feel, like you’ve stepped on a landmine that will go off as soon as you try to move away.

Evaluating our route as the clouds lift

We had a decision to make. The summit we wished to reach was tantalizingly close above us. The slope to it looked to have amazing skiing on it. The desire to press on, to feel invincible, to know “it can never happen to me” was there, but we turned around. We got some awesome turns in on lower slopes in the trees, and left without our summit reached, but safe and well. I’d like to believe I’ll always be that cautious in the future, but I can’t know that.

The mountains are a drug that I take willingly and many people refer to them like an addiction because when you are there you feel alive and when you’re not all you can do is think about them. They fill my heart with joy and my mind with a sense of accomplishment, they make my body strong and allow me to experience ephemeral, eternal moments in solitude or in the company of friends.

Ski Touring north of Pemberton

 

All of these positive experiences can breed overconfidence which can turn to arrogance. I would hope that, if faced with a similar situation like the one I mentioned above, that I would turn around again.

At least one thing will be constant, I will have started my adventure by first checking for avalanche forecasts on: avalanche.ca

What inspired me to write this post was that I was contacted by Pascal, an Avalanche Safety Researcher based out of Vancouver, about a fundraiser that the Canadian Avalanche Association is holding this Friday on the 28th of November, 2014.

I regularly use their forecasts and appreciate the work they are doing to better understand avalanches and to educate recreationalists in how to be safe in the mountains in Winter. They are helping to clear the fog for all the mountain goers out there going through their own storm years.

If you’d like to donate or inquire about the fundraiser you can get additional details from this link:

Avalanche.ca Fundraiser

If you have had your own interesting experiences in the mountains in Winter I’d also love to hear about them. Let me know about them in the comments below.

Author: Leigh McClurg

I grew up in County Dublin, Ireland and moved to British Columbia, Canada with my wife in 2010. I fell in love with being in the Backcountry and Mountains that are all around me here and try to spend all of my free time exploring those wild places. My main goals are to chase happiness, see as much of this planet and its cultures as possible and grow every day through knowledge and experiences.

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8 Comments

  1. Hi Leigh. Nice post as always. I own two of the best avalanche books that i read back to back. Any slope between 35 and 45 degrees could release an avalanche if triggered in the right conditions. Its like playing Russian roulette. You make it through few times until it finally gets you. Its a killer beast waiting to be released by you so then it can swallow you whole. Its like a mouse trap. The mouse sees the food ahead of him but not the trap, so are the people who venture into avalanche prone terrain, the beauty of the powder mesmerizes them like the food mesmerizes the mouse, then it awaits for you to come close enough until it traps you, both the mouse and the avalanche victim in most cases die by suffocation. Pretty shitty way to die indeed. How did you die ? The snow killed me. What? You mean the snow that kids play with and shape into snowman with a funny carrot nose,buttons and all that ? Yea. Noo way, snow didn’t kill you, its your ignorance and stupidity that did. Or another funny one: Japan tsunami survivor gets killed by an avalanche while skiing. Whaat? Guess this time the wave was in form of snow, he didn’t see it coming. Once again, good post and nice pictures to go with. Here is a video you might find interesting:

    Avalanche Accident in Engelberg:

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  2. This is such an excellent post, Leigh. I definitely have those moments where I am so in love and stunned by the beauty of nature, that I have a hard time remembering that nature has absolutely NO feelings toward me—no love, no hate, no mercy. Nature just IS, and it does whatever it wants, however it wants, to whoever it wants (which is really quite amazing, in my opinion).

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    • It all sounds so familiar, Leigh. I remember the first days in the backcountry after I moved here from Toronto. Now, several years later, I sometimes feel as though I’m overly conservative when I see the “good stuff” up above me, it’s a bluebird day, and I feel like really getting after it. But there’s a reason why several of my friends are gone and I’m still here. Well, a few actually. One is luck. As more folks enjoy wild snow, there’s an increased probability that the inevitable slides (human and naturally caused) are going to take people out. Another reason is that I constantly see people out there with shiny new safety gear, a recent course under their belt but not enough time spent really assessing terrain and increasing their odds of being in the right place when things break loose. They spot a tasty line (with a big convexity in the middle) and then wonder why it rips loose underneath them after a big dump. And then there’s the terrain traps that I constantly see people in…avoidable, usually 100% of the time.

      Love your posts and particularly your pics. I have a snowy photo taken from the summit of Matier and it was cool to see one from you in the same spot on a sunny day.

      See you guys out there!
      Brian.

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  3. Here is how avalanche expert Tony Daffern puts it:

    25 degree slope:

    Intermediate downhill terrain. Competent cross country skiers will be able to parallel ski in good conditions.

    30 degrees slope:

    An enjoyable slope for the good skier or border and expert backcountry tourer. Most backcountry tourers will probably be kick turning and traversing. The average talus slope in the mountains is about 30 degrees. If you need to kick turn on your ascent you are on 30 degrees or steeper.

    35 degrees slope:

    A challenging slope for the good skier or boarder and expert telemark skier. Skiers will be using alpine-style backcountry equipment. Slopes below cliffs and above the talus fan in gullies are 35 degrees or steeper.

    40 degrees slope:

    An expert skier or boarder will feel exhilarated on such slope. Anyone less expert will feel decidedly uncomfortable. Few backcountry tourers , even expert telemark skiers , would venture on a slope of such steepness. Dry, loose snow avalanches tend to release on slopes over 40 degrees.

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  4. Sorry Leigh, one last post, is just happens that avalanches and crevasses are one of my winter travel favorite topics so i cant help myself but to share. Just by accident i found a interesting video regarding what you said in your post above:

    “I knew if somebody I was with got caught in an avalanche and I couldn’t get to them because I didn’t have the ability to ski well enough that I would find that very hard to live with”.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lz5sVA6Q3Fo

    Look at 54 seconds into the vid, he stops before that cliff section involving few steep- ish drops. As soon as he sees his friend being caught in a avalanche he doesn’t think much before jumping over to rescue his friend. This is a good example of how skill and experience can make a life saving outcome.

    PS: turn the volume up so you can hear them speak, its kinda low on sound quality.

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    • Thanks for these Victor. Love your comments so never feel like you are replying too much.

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  5. Last winter was also my first winter of touring, and I had a similar WHUMPF experience. Incredibly unnerving, but lucky to have come away unscathed. Winter 2013/2014 was a good one to learn to ski and tour – only being able to ski low angle slopes puts you into somewhat safer conditions off the bat! Good post, I hope many others starting their touring days give it a read.

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  6. Thx Leigh. In that case i will squeeze one more in 🙂

    Vid was uploaded yesterday:

    Most insane ski line EVER:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=aDEaAOcDKnA

    It was filmed in the Tordrillo Mountains in south-central Alaska. Estimated speed travel of skier, around 150 km/h give or take with 0 room for errors.

    Here’s another one, amazing avalanche related stories (wonderful presentation). There are 5 chapters. You can go to next chapter from bottom right of the page. Read when you have time, you will for sure enjoy it, hopefully as much as i did:

    http://www.powder.com/human-factor/index.php?chapter=1

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