January 26, 2008
3 Avalanche Fatalaties in San Gabriel Mts.
Three people died yesterday in at least two separate avalanches near Mountain High ski resort, in the San Gabriel Mountains. According to the Los Angeles Times, the incidents occurred in Government and Sawmill Canyons, both of which border Mountain High East. These Canyons, which are out-of-bounds, are treed but relatively open. Both canyons run north-south. At this time, I've seen no reports on which aspects slid, though it would be reasonable to suspect something northeasterly.
The last time I asked, Mountain High did not permit backcountry access from its lifts. However, the bordering canyons are well known for their glades and powder. Site Admin Mitch at Telemark Tips writes, "The dirty little secret among a handful of veteran patrollers and a few of their friends is that we would go in there when we judged it relatively safe. It was just too good. And with a high speed lift at the bottom, it was kind of a personal, untracked powder paradise."
I'll try to get more information about the avalanche specifics. For now, I'll speculate it's possible the slide went off a rain crust—Mountain High's 7000-8000' elevation is in the prime range for rain at the front wave of each storm, and I observed naturally-triggered slabs on icy northeast aspects near Mount Baldy a week ago. It's perhaps more likely this was simply an overload avalanche: heavy snows in a short period of time, combined with wind loading.
On a personal level, I find myself highly discouraged today as I contemplate this news. As SoCal skiers we enjoy perhaps one of the most stable snowpacks on the planet—and yet, I always put a mental asterisk at the end of that quip. The San Gabriels are still mountains. They still get covered in snow. Avalanches are possible. Avalanches happen, even here.
The skiers who were caught in yesterday's slides were backcountry veterans—including trained patrollers. Yet they exposed themselves to the worst possible odds Southern California skiing has to offer: venturing out-of-bounds during an extreme weather event, with nearly four feet of new snow on the ground and more falling by the minute. Despite the conditions, they may well have believed they were safe, and on most days in Southern California, they would have been absolutely right.
And so in my imagination I find myself standing atop Mountain High with these men, talking excitedly about the falling snow. It's been dumping! The past 24 hours have guaranteed we'll all be skiing well into late spring. One storm, and the mountains are transformed as if by magic. We move close to that orange rope, gaze with envy at the deep, untracked snow beyond. It looks stable enough. There's good reason to be cautious, but in-bounds the runs are chopped up crap, a back-grinding mank that challenges our ability to keep calling it fun. The trees are calling. One by one, the others duck the rope. They're experienced. They know what they're doing.
Do I follow them? I really don't know. And that's what's so damned discouraging.