January 10, 2008
— Southern California Backcountry Skiing
January 10, 2008
Photographer Todd Weselake was caught in an avalanche on January 7 while snowboarding the north ridge of Mt. Proctor in British Columbia, Canada.
Weselake was carried approximately 300 meters downslope, and buried two meters head-down.
Other members in his party quickly initiated a beacon search, located and dug him out in approximately 10-15 minutes, finding him unconscious. He regained consciousness five minutes after they cleared his airway, and was able to ski out under his own power.
The Weselake avalanche is notable in several respects (for more info and photos, see Todd's report at BigLines). Todd and his friends skied the same aspect the day prior and did not observe signs of instability. On the day of the avalanche, they performed 'quick tests' on the way up again without noticing any warning signs.
That said, there has been much talk about pervasive instability in certain sections of the Northern Rockies this year, which may or may not include the Mt. Proctor region. Others have indicated avy danger was considered high at the time of the incident.
Viewing photos of the slide path, the slope appears moderate in angle (27-35°) and fairly-well treed. There is an obvious slide path down a central gully, but the sides—where Todd was standing—appear forested enough to give a sense of security. It is possible the photo does not accurately convey the particulars of the landscape.
The Class 2 slide broke some 60 meters above Weselake, with an average slab depth of 150 cm on a December ice crust. Todd was wearing a Black Diamond Avalung at the time, but the breathing tube was torn from his mouth, and he was unable to recover it before settling. Todd's snowboard stayed attached. Todd reports that the force of the snow on the snowboard helped to invert him, contributing to the head-down burial.
Survival statistics for a victim in Todd's position and depth are extremely grim. One would ordinarily expect a fatality in these circumstances, even with a speedy search and dig effort. The very fast (10-15) minute time suggests that Todd's group was well practiced in beacon search, probe, and shovel techniques. Even so, Todd likely came within minutes of not surviving.
With regard to the Avalung failure, this exact scenario illustrates the device's principle liability. There is no way ethical way to test Avalungs in real situations, so we can only collect anecdotal evidence as it occurs. This author is aware of one avalanche/burial incident in which a skier (I believe in Europe) was caught and successfully located and maintained the breathing tube in position, which undoubtedly contributed to his subsequent survival. There is simply not enough data to even begin to guess whether this result, or Todd's, will prove the more likely outcome when using an Avalung.
With regard to the Avalung, Todd notes that at his depth, he could not move his lungs, raising serious doubts as to whether breathing would have been possible even if the tube had stayed in place.
On the whole, this is a highly disturbing report. Weselake and his group performed stability tests and did not notice any failures on the deeply-buried ice crust, including skiing similar the day before. At the time of the incident, they triggered at least one slab release, and were regrouping in the trees to plan a safe descent when the main slab went. Regardless of their level of experience, the skiers failed to accurately assess snowpack stability, which should serve as a reminder of the difficulty of identifying weak layers even when profound instability is present. We are all well-advised to pay heed to professional avalanche forecasts.
Canadian Avalanche Center incident report
When there is snow, SierraDescents is Andy Lewicky's California backcountry skiing and mountaineering website. Without snow, sierradescents becomes an ill-tempered hiking and climbing blog.
Pray for snow.