by Jeff Turner
January 27th is just like any other day for many. For me, it marks the anniversary of the day that my life was spared, and I survived a complete avalanche burial.
I recently attended the funeral of my friend’s teenage son, who’s life ended suddenly when he triggered an avalanche while snowmobiling in the Wasatch mountains. As I waited for the service to begin, I looked around the chapel and overflow and was overwhelmed by the number of people who were there to celebrate the short life of this young man and to mourn his death. I sat and pondered the number of lives that would be impacted by this tragic event and how it could have been prevented.
I then felt compelled with the need to share my story, not to bring attention to myself, but with the sincere hope that my experience can be used as an example to help educate others who recreate in the backcountry in the winter, so that they can avoid the pain and sorrow that I was witnessing on that funeral day.
As the wise quote states, “Learn from example, don’t be the example”.
January 27, 2016
Winter had gotten off to a slow start and the Northern UT snowpack was well below average. The areas where we typically ride; Franklin Basin, Providence Canyon and Monte Cristo, were all in need of more snow. I read on a FB thread that some backcountry riders found decent snow above Timber Lakes near Heber City, so my brother and I made a plan to visit this area and explore a bit.
We unloaded the sleds at the trail-head near the Heber Valley Camp and followed that trail up the canyon, working our way South, towards Roundy Basin. We found some slopes to climb and play on which had been ridden pretty heavily and tracked out, but a recent storm had covered the tracks with about 6” of snow, so it was just OK riding. We made our way up to the ridge where we discovered that the recent winds had scrubbed it mostly clean and deposited a fair amount of snow on the Southeast side of the ridge. Note this detail for later.
We dropped off the ridge and played in the basin for a while, then decided to head towards Currant Creek Peak to explore the area more. We found an opening in the trees that looked promising and so we picked lines down the slope until the terrain opened to a clearing that seemed like a great spot to break for lunch.
After lunch, we dropped into a basin which had a grove of trees in the bottom, surrounded by moderate slopes of untracked snow. We turned off the machines to chat a bit and eyed a slope that I wanted to make a run at climbing. This slope faced Southeast and had some scattered vegetation and evidence of wind drifting. There was some exposed rock about 1/3 of the way up the slope and I told my brother that I was going to “test” the slope by just looping around that rock on a first pass.
I fired up my sled and proceeded up the slope and didn’t even make it to the rock before hitting soft snow and the track started to trench in. I slid off the side on my machine and grabbed the rear bumper to hop the track to one side, planning to throttle out sideways and abort the climb.
As I tugged on the bumper, the snow under me started to move downhill and as I lost my footing and fell into the snow, I pushed the sled away from me. The last thing that I recall seeing was the snowflap on the rear of the sled, before everything went dark. A roar filled my ears and I was overcome by an immense pressure that enveloped my entire body. I could feel the sensation of movement and tried to kick and pull myself free but was unable to move my limbs. The mass of snow that was carrying me away was moving like a liquid, but in solid form.
As sudden as it had started the movement stopped, the roar was gone, replaced by the sound of my adrenaline-fueled panic breathing. My heart and mind raced as I exerted all my physical strength in the attempt to break free of this icy tomb. It was useless, I was trapped with no way to free myself.
My thoughts turned to my wife and children, how they would react when they heard the news of my death, what their future would be like without me, what challenges would they face, their sorrow…….I then thought of my father and grandparents who had passed on, how soon before I would see their faces again? I wasn’t ready, NOT YET!
I fought to clear my mind and focus on the present. My brother had watched me ride up the slope and would now be searching for me. If I was going to survive, I needed to buy some time,and knowing that my oxygen supply was limited to what was in the snow around me, I became keenly focused on slowing my breathing. The pressure of the snow restricted me from taking a full breath and I had no idea how deep I was buried or which direction I was facing or if I was injured or how long I had been under.
I performed a quick health assessment. I felt no pain, only the overwhelming pressure of the snowpack. I tried to move my legs and found that I could only move my toes inside my boots. The movement of my head was restricted to the slight rotation of my neck inside for my helmet. The wave of panic started again as I couldn’t move my arms or hands……..wait, I felt movement with the fingertips of my right hand!!
My mind raced…..if I can move my fingertips, I might be able to wiggle enough snow away to free my hand, then my forearm, and then gain enough movement to start digging myself free. My will to survive was strong, but I knew that the clock was ticking on my oxygen supply.
I bent my exposed fingers down and began flipping snow away from my hand. I slowly gained movement in my wrist and began to perform a sweeping motion with my hand to clear away more snow. I was surprised at how densely packed the slide was, but then I thought of the snow what would build up in the winter on the tin roof of the barn on our ranch and how it would randomly slide off and pile up on the ground, packed solid as soon as it stopped moving.
I prayed for God to help my brother find me; for me to survive and be reunited with my earthly family, all the while flipping away the snow with my hand.
My mind fought against the reality that at this rate, I would run out of oxygen before I could uncover my head. My thoughts again went to my family and their future without me….but was jolted back to the present as I felt a hand grab my exposed hand! I began to weep with joy, as I was filled with assurance that I was going to survive!
My brother watched the avalanche break, saw me holding onto the rear of the sled, watched the slide roll me and the sled as it churned downhill; then disappear. The slide moved into the basin towards where he was parked, my sled being carried along near the leading edge of the slide.
The slide came to rest, then a 2nd larger avalanche broke free at the ridge and ran into the basin on a more westerly path, away from the 1st slide that I was trapped in.
Several minutes passed by before all the snow stopped moving and my brother began frantically scanning the rubble from his safe vantage point, searching for any signs of my location. The surface of the slide was strewn with blocks of snow that ranged in size from a toaster to a refrigerator.
He noticed movement that appeared like snow settling, but then noticed a dusting of snow being repeatedly flipped from behind a block. Moving through knee-deep snow, he struggled to reach the slide, then scrambled through the debris to where he had last seen movement. He saw the snow flip again and rolling away a block, observed my gloved hand, sweeping snow around on the surface!
He gripped my hand tightly and I pulsed my grip back, as if to somehow indicate that I was OK. He began to frantically dig with his hands to clear the snow away from my arm. With my forearm free, he worked his way down towards my shoulder and I tried as I could to help, by sweeping loose snow away with my forearm and hand. I could hear the snow moving as he would dig and then it would stop, then he would dig some more.
At this point, I became somewhat aware of my orientation in the slide, I was lying on my left side with my head downhill, my left arm pinned across my chest and my right arm had been raised skyward. The pressure on my right shoulder and chest were decreasing a bit as the muffled sound of digging became clearer; the darkness was slowly replaced with an orange glow as daylight reached my fogged goggles. I will never forget how amazing it was to taste fresh air!!
With the face of my helmet clear, but my breathing still shallow and labored, my brother scrambled back to his sled to retrieve his shovel. Upon return, he quickly worked to free my head and chest, then removed my helmet and took a much-needed break.
We both sat there, me in a 4-foot-deep hole with my lower torso still buried in the slide, sucking in the cold mountain air and mentally absorbing the event that had just occurred. I had a raging headache, the byproduct of oxygen deprivation from breathing in expelled carbon dioxide. We estimate my burial time somewhere between 12-15 minutes.
My brother shoveled out the rest of my body and I climbed out to sit on the edge of the hole. I was compelled to say a prayer, giving thanks for this second chance at life that I had been blessed with, for the heroic efforts of my brother and for the angels that I feel had a hand in the outcome of this event.
It took some time to uncover my sled and get it to fire. My mind was beginning to clear and knowing the gravity of what had occurred, I felt the need to take some pictures of the slide and document the event. I had only recently been introduced to the Utah Avalanche Center and thought that having photos might be of value. We snapped a few photos and then slowly worked our way back toward the trailhead.
I’ll leave the details of the rest of the day for another time. Let’s jump to what can be learned from this event.
Surviving this burial fueled my desire to learn as much as I could about the science behind avalanches and how to prevent myself, my family and my friends from ever having to experience what my brother and I did that day on the mountain, or worse.
In the days and weeks that followed, I uploaded my pictures and avalanche report on the Utah Avalanche Center website, I downloaded their app on my phone so that I could get daily alerts on the snow conditions throughout the state and specific details on the areas where I frequently ride. I read everything that I could find about identifying snow conditions, wind patterns, terrain types most prone to avalanche, snow pits, route planning, safe slope crossing, safety equipment, etc.
I purchased a beacon, probe and a backpack that would also hold a shovel. My brother, who is my frequent riding partner, was outfitted with the same. We also added radios for better communication. I took a course on how to properly use the beacon and practiced bracketing location techniques and probing skills.
Some key points that I learned is that human body is 3 times denser than avalanche debris and will sink quickly. Once the avalanche stops, it settles like concrete.
Avalanches are caused by four factors: a steep slope, snow cover, a weak layer in the snow cover, and a trigger.
The vast majority of avalanches (90%) occur on slopes with angles between 30 and 45 degrees. Steeper slopes tend to continually slough snow, keeping a deep snowpack from building up.
If completely buried in a North American avalanche, a victim has a 79% survival rate if they are found and extricated within 5 minutes, but only a 40% survival rate after 15 minutes. Survival rates quickly drop off to zero if the rescue time stretches to 30 minutes.
Asphyxia accounts for more than 75% of avalanche deaths, caused by inhaled debris blocking the airway; exhaled water vapor that freezes, forming an ice mask around the victim’s face; or oxygen depravation from rebreathing expired air.
I came to the realization that the slope where I had triggered the avalanche was home to a sleeping monster. Faceted snow conditions at the base, top-loaded drift snow from the previous Northern winds and 30-45 degree slope angle. Combined conditions that should have been avoided.
Looking back on some of the terrain that I’d traveled, I was surprised that I hadn’t triggered an avalanche before, because I had unknowingly taken many risks.
I had been operating in the backcountry for 35 years on pure luck and ignorance.
Proper safety gear (beacon, probe, shovel,) and the training on how to use them should be a minimum requirement and riding alone should be avoided.
No amount of safety gear, including airbags, will keep you out of harm’s way like using the UAC Daily Snow Condition Forecast as your guide on the snow conditions and terrain aspects which are safe to ride. UAC produces daily forecasts for the mountains of Logan, Ogden, Salt Lake, Provo, Uintas, Skyline, Moab, Abajos. These reports are available at your fingertips via the UAC app on your smartphone. Their KnowBeforeYouGo program is loaded with information to keep you safe in the backcountry.
I have my own beliefs as to why I survived the burial. We were riding that day without beacons or probes. Why was my right arm stretched skyward, placing my hand at the surface? If 6” lower, I wouldn’t have been unable to move it and my brother would have had no idea where I was buried. That slide could have been my grave.
With proper training, my burial could have been avoided.
I am eternally grateful for my brother’s heroic efforts, for the grace of God and the angels that watch over us.
Respect the mountain, my friends, as it holds no respect for you.
Here is our news feature with Dan Spindle KSL. Thank you for reaching out to us to help spread the word about snowmobile safety.
Thank you to our avalanche safety sponsors Backcountry Access, Inc., Highmark by Snowpulse, & Pieps for providing us with amazing equipment to be able to share the best of the best equipment and education with our club members.
And without the help of our instructors donating their time, we would not be able to make this happen.
Dear Snowmobiling Community,
We have been asked to share with you the accident report from the UAC of the fatal avalanche at Farmington Lake. You can find the full report at http://bit.ly/FarmingtonAvyFB and the video below. Our deepest condolences go to Chase Adam’s family and friends. Any death in our community is a huge loss, so we hope that all snowmobilers will take time to read through this report and learn lessons from this tragic accident.
Some key takeaways for all snowmobilers from this report include:
We aim to learn from accidents like this and in no way intend to point fingers at victims. All of us at the Utah Avalanche Center have had our own close calls and know how easy it is to make mistakes. Our intention is for this report to offer a learning opportunity. For that reason we have the following comments.
(1) This slope ended in a terrain trap that is not obvious like a creek or gully. Because there was such an abrupt transition from a steep slope to a perfectly flat slope (the frozen lake), the debris piled up very deeply.
(2) Deep burials (greater than 6 feet deep) are very difficult to survive. Even shallow burials require exhausting digging to reach a buried person because avalanche debris sets up like concrete. It is very dense and heavy, and it makes the digging very time consuming and grueling work.
(3) Avalanche airbags are great lifesaving devices that can decrease mortality from 22% to 11%. However, they are not a sure thing. On January 1st in Montana, a snowmobiler was buried 7.5 feet deep with a deployed airbag. Read more about the statistics HERE or the detailed scientific study HERE. In the case of this accident, even though Chase deployed his airbag, he was fully buried because the debris ran into a terrain trap.Of note: Since last winter at this time, there have been 6 avalanche fatalities in Utah in which the victim or someone in their party was missing critical safety gear which includes an avalanche transceiver, probe, shovel, and partner(s) in a safe location ready to respond.
Please “Know Before You Go.” If you have never done any avalanche training, start now by joining your local club and attending a USA Motorized Basics class to learn to use your beacon and introduction. Then get into a companion rescue course or moto 101 class on UAC’s website https://utahavalanchecenter.org/education/uac-kbyg-classes. There is a Moto Backcountry 101 on Feb 6 and 8, Companion Rescue on Feb 15, and Moto Backcountry 101 on Feb 27 and Mar 1.
Then get into a full Avalanche 1 course, the following providers have courses specific to snowmobilers:
AIARE Motorized Providers
Mountain Riding Lab, The
Location: Jackson, WY
Website: www.themountainridinglab.com Classes Offered: Motorized AIARE Level 1, Motorized AIARE Rescue,
Motorized AIARE Level 2
Mountain Skills with Matt Entz
Location: South Fork, CO
Website: https://mountainskillz.com/ Classes Offered: Avalanche Awareness, Motorized AIARE Level 1
NXT LVL Riding Clinics
Location: Alpine, WY
Website: www.nextlevelclinics.com Classes Offered: Avalanche Awareness/Refresher Clinic
Ride Rasmussen Style
Location: West Yellowstone, MT Website: www.riderasmussenstyle.com Classes Offered: Motorized AIARE Level 1, Motorized AIARE Rescue,
Motorized AIARE Level 2
Tyler’s Backcountry Awareness
Location: Fort Collins, CO
Website: backcountryawareness.org Classes Offered: Motorized AIARE Level 1, Motorized AIARE Rescue
Location: Park City, UT
Contact: email@example.com, or call Weston at 716-472-7405
Classes Offered: Motorized AIARE Level 1, Motorized AIARE Rescue,
Motorized AIARE Level 2
AAA Motorized Providers
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Classes Offered: Motorized Backcountry 101, Motorized Avalanche Level 1
Tracked Out Adventures
Location: Saratoga Springs, UT
Classes Offered: Motorized Avalanche Level 1
by Nikki Champion (Forecaster, Utah Avalanche Center)
In mid-September, we got our first dusting of snow in the Central Wasatch. On Sept 20th, we got about 3 inches of snow with .4 inches of water, followed by another 3 inches of snow and .85 inches of water. Following that we didn’t get much until mid-October. Between October 17th and October 21st, we got another 20 inches of snow. Following this initial pulse, a week of clear weather followed where temperature crusts on the northern aspects formed, and most of the snow on sunny aspects melted.
At the end of October, we got one more fall storm, bringing an additional 18 inches. After that, we were high and dry for most of November. The dry spell cleared most of the snow off the southern aspects, but what was sheltered on upper elevation north-facing slopes was a mixture of temperature crusts, buried surface hoar, and weak facets. This left a very weak, faceted snowpack to be the building blocks for the rest of the season.
Then Came the Thanksgiving Storm!
Before Monday, November 25th, November was on track to be the driest on record (since 1945) at the Alta Guard station. November totals at Alta Guard from Mark Saurer at UDOT are 58 inches of snow (4.53 inches SWE/Snow Water Equivalent). Total snowfall for this season at Alta Guard is 88 inches (7.32 inches SWE). 1976 had the driest November of 13.6 of snow.
Total snow since Monday, November 25th is:
- Central Wasatch Mountains: 50-70″ snow (3.5 – 4.34″ water)
- Park City Ridgeline: 30-40″ snow (2.5 – 3.0″ water)
- Ogden Mountains: 40-50″ snow (4.0 – 4.8″ water)
- Provo Mountains: 24-33″ snow (1.6 – 2.1″ water)
- Uinta Mountains: 25-35″ snow (2.0+” water)
Moving into the coming weeks the snowpack will slowly gain strength, but mid and upper elevation north-facing slopes are still suspect. Avalanche activity in the first week demonstrates that dangerous avalanche conditions still exist on any slope that had snow before the Thanksgiving storm. We now have a 2-3 foot slab of strong snow sitting on top of a foot of weak facets at the ground. These lingering facets can be found above 8000’ on aspects facing NW, N, NE, E. It is a slow healing process, and the snowpack needs time to adjust.
By Bob Stockwell, Salt Lake Valley Snowmobile Club President
Riding in the West provides incredible experiences. The mountains that we like to call our snowmobile homes are epic, rising thousands of feet and capturing snowfalls that, during great years, are measured in double-digit feet totals.
The combination of altitude, slopes, and snow that make the Western part of North American such an incredible place to ride also unite to make it an incredibly dangerous place to ride. And when you add in the capabilities of the modern snowmobile, riders easily put themselves into peril, often without realizing it.
Of course, I’m referring to the nearly omnipresent avalanche danger. In Utah this season, with the early snowfall and the regular storms dropping huge amounts of unstable snow onto our mountains, we have experienced the deadliest avalanche season in years.
With these realities in mind, over a dozen riders from the Salt Lake Valley Snowmobile Club (SLVSC) headed out into the Soapstone area of the Uinta mountains in late February to practice avalanche rescue skills. For this practice, the SLVSC crew was accompanied by three of the Utah Snowmobile Association board members: Cal Taylor, Justin Bagnell, and Matt Lund, each experienced riders with AIARE training, plus Mike Fogg from the Weber County Search and Rescue team.
The must-have gear when riding in the backcountry is pretty necessary: a modern transceiver (beacon), probe, and shovel. And yet, many riders only seem to carry one or two of these critical tools. Probes are usually the tool typically left out of a rider’s kit. The simple reality is that without all of these tools with you and in proper working order, avalanche survivability decreases significantly. The bonus tool is an avalanche airbag, as this is the one item a rider can use during an event to improve their chances of survival.
As we got into the field and our leaders set up the practice scenarios, the lack of gear within our group became quickly apparent. While we did have 100% of our riders wearing operational beacons, we found that about 30% of our crew didn’t have probes, and more than 20% didn’t have shovels. Through conversation, we learned that every rider, who wasn’t carrying their gear, actually owned the tools but didn’t think it was essential to have it all with them that day.
The first 15 minutes of rescue are critical. If you’re able to dig out the face of the victim within that time, over 90% of the time the recovered person survives, but after 15 minutes, the survival rate plummets. The key takeaway here is that there just isn’t much time when a rider is trapped under an avalanche. In our drills, SLVSC members found out how difficult it is to dig out snow approximately 1.5 meters deep on a slope, with the average time to dig down to the target running just over 15 minutes. And this wasn’t avalanche debris, which is much more difficult to move. We need to be better to ensure our friends have the best chance to survive.
We practiced beacon search, probe, and shoveling, before combining the three skills to work through a staged avalanche scenario. As one of our members shared with me at the end of the day, “This was much harder than I ever expected. I’m really glad we did this practice today.”
A common attitude about avalanche by riders is that if they ever trigger a slide, they will just outrun it on their high-powered sled. According to the Utah Avalanche Center, an average-sized dry avalanche travels around 80 mph, and it’s nearly impossible for someone to outrun an avalanche or even have time to get out of the way. Add to that the fact that the avalanche danger we have faced all season throughout the West is that our slides are deep and wide, often triggered remotely breaking hundreds of yards across.
Another topic during our training was “effectively riding alone.” Simply, this means that you’re riding with a person or people that can’t get you out if you get slid. Many factors come into play in this scenario: of course, tools and training are critical, but so is the riding skill of your companions. In December of 2018, right at the beginning of our season this year, a rider died near the Wyoming Range near the Horse Creek Trail and died as a result of effectively riding alone. The rider triggered a small avalanche and was buried in less than 20-inches of snow underneath his snowmobile, an accident that in most cases should have been survivable. But his companion that day did not have the riding skills to get to the buried rider, which likely caused the unfortunate outcome.
As backcountry riders, and especially as members of local clubs and the USA, we must do all we can to get the knowledge, get the tools, get the training, and practice our skills to give ourselves and members of our riding community the best chance of surviving a worst-case scenario. At the SLVSC club, this practice will become at least an annual event, and I recommend that all riders find time to practice these skills on your own rides. You may give up an hour of your riding day, but that’s more than a fair trade to make sure everyone comes home alive at the end of the day. For information on AIARE motorized courses you can take, please visit https://avtraining.org/aiare-motorized-program/.
By Andy Nassetta and Craig Gordon from the Utah Avalanche Center
The 2018-19 winter is best remembered for the abundance of snow and consistently stormy weather, making headline news throughout the west… and for a good reason. It’s an epic winter in nearly every snowbelt community on the west coast. Unfortunately, avalanche accidents eclipse the good news of deep riding and fist bumps at the trailhead and this seasons avalanche fatalities hit close to home here in Utah. Tragically, five Utah based family’s lives have been changed by avalanche accidents. And sadly, these stories could’ve had a different outcome at the end of the day with a better understanding of the avalanche danger, avoiding the terrain where that danger exists, along with wearing and knowing how to use avalanche rescue gear.
Knowing how we got to this point is critical, and I think we can learn quite a bit from a few key elements. As a matter of fact, four of the avalanche accidents in Utah all had common themes.
Regions that experienced avalanche accidents this winter usually have inherently shallow snowpack structure with weak, basal layers (faceted, sugary snow) forming near the ground. The weak layers often take long periods of time to heal, sometimes all winter.
And while these zones see their fair share of avalanches each winter, because of their geographic location, don’t often see big storms producing dense, heavy, wind-driven snow like we saw this winter. We all know this has been an unusual winter. And in the avalanche business… unusual weather produces unusual avalanches.
This winters snowpack structure was tricky (strong snow overlaying weak snow), and deep, dangerous avalanches could be triggered from a distance or even low on the slope in the flats. With this setup we don’t even need to be on steep terrain in order to trigger a dangerous slide, we just need to be connected to it. Triggering avalanches low on the slope is especially dangerous for sledders, because once we kick the legs out from the snowpack, we’re right in the crosshairs of a deep, dangerous slide.
In each of the avalanche accidents (three snowmobilers, one skier), the groups lacked a full complement of avalanche rescue gear. Remember- it’s critical to carry all the gear because the beacon leads to the probe, which leads to the shovel, which leads to my partner. If I’m missing one piece of gear, I’m missing a critical component to help rescue my buried partner.
You can clearly see, each piece of equipment is reliant on one another to perform a successful rescue. Even more important than having the gear is knowing how to use it.
Modern technology makes rescue equipment more user-friendly each season and the list of excuses to not carry the equipment and get the training to use it is dwindling. Not only do we carry the rescue equipment to stack the odds of survival if we become buried, but we also have a responsibility to our riding partners to offer the confidence in our ability to carry out an avalanche rescue. One of the best feelings as a backcountry rider is being solid in your ability, as well as your partners’ abilities to perform a rescue. Get the gear, get the training and ride with partners who chose to do the same.
Relying on an outside rescue. In everyday life, if we have an emergency, a fire for instance, we pick up the phone and have the fire department responding in no more than five minutes. Unfortunately, an emergency in the mountains cannot always be addressed in the same manner. Response times are much longer for a search and rescue party to reach the scene of an incident than it does the fire department to get to the burning house. In an avalanche event where someone is buried and only has fifteen minutes to be dug out, we are our partners best chance of survival.
When buried in an avalanche event, if not part of the 25% of victims that die from trauma taking the ride, and dug out by our partners within the first fifteen minutes we have a 90% chance of survival. After fifteen minutes has passed our odds of survival are greatly reduced to about 30%.
What are the takeaways from these statistics? That we need to be prepared for our own rescue and are responsible for our own safety and well-being when traveling in avalanche terrain and the backcountry. In typical avalanche incident where a person is caught, even if lucky enough to get them out in 15 minutes, it is very likely that they sustained trauma throughout the ride.
Maybe that trauma was only a sprained ankle, but now you are unable to ride out of the drainage because it is too painful to work the sled. A small injury can quickly turn into an environmental emergency where you find yourself stuck in the woods for the night – things could turn ugly if ill-prepared.
And finally… the most important thing-
We all want to come home safely to our families at the end of the day, and avalanche avoidance is key. Please join me in helping to spread the avalanche gospel. Inform your riding buddies to check their local avalanche forecast. Remember…. the Utah Avalanche Center issues statewide daily avalanche advisories at utahavalanchecenter.org
There are lots of ways to dig snow pits. They don’t have to be hours long endeavors. Instead they can be a quick, 5-10 minute exercises. Consider digging a “quick pit”. The point is not to find all the answers but to improve our decision-making.
Last week I was riding snow bikes on the Manti-Skyline. We climbed up Pleasant Creek where the settled powder was perfect for bikes. Our excitement grew for the great riding ahead. Once on the ridge, we began working south in the warm sunshine that backlit sparkling powder in the air behind our tracks. It was beautiful.
We stopped on a north-facing slope at the head of Potter’s Canyon to dig a quick pit. Overall it wasn’t a bad looking snowpack, but it wasn’t perfect either. Sugary facets at the ground were healing, but cold weather in mid to late December created a thin layer of facets in the middle of the snowpack. That layer was the problem. Five minutes later we were riding again.
We looked at recent avalanches. They were breaking on the layer we identified in our pit. We descended to Miller Flat Reservoir then turned north to go up Staker Canyon and found two slides triggered that day. One was fairly large. Again, the same layer.
We decided to check out Rolfson Canyon. By now, my mind had finally shifted from riding sleds to bikes. I was feathering the clutch, twisting the throttle, tapping the brake, and shifting gears all at the right time without thinking. That’s the point. Whether sledding or biking, we work to build these actions into muscle memory because THERE ISN’T TIME TO THINK.
As we climbed into Rolfson Canyon from the bottom, I was absorbed in powder fever. I was finding my way through the trees. Soon enough we were separated, but I kept going because we were all headed to the same place. As I broke through dense trees, a super steep and wide open gully about 100 feet tall appeared. Perfect for bikes. All I had to do was let the bike slip downhill with gravity then hit the throttle of the KTM 450, and I would have been ripping powder across the steep creek bank – ALONE.
Emotions from looking at layers in the snowpack took over. INSTEAD of seeing a perfect, powder-choked gully, I saw a slope that could avalanche. I was all alone. Without thinking (because there isn’t time), emotions influenced my decision making and I turned the other way to find my partners. Digging a quick pit created emotions that saved my life. I was alone, and any avalanche in that creek would have been fatal.
Time is the problem when snowmobiling or biking. We make split second decisions. Thinking and analyzing situations takes time. Emotions come easy. There are lots of them and some can help us make good decisions, IF WE CHANGE OUR PERSPECTIVE.
Things that bring out strong emotions are: riding perfect powder, feeling the horsepower of a modern machine, riding with good friends, seeing weak faceted snow, seeing avalanches, feeling how heavy the snow is when digging, standing with our eyes level with the snow surface, and thinking about people we love.
Digging a quick pit changes our perspective which improves decision-making. Standing in my pit in Potter’s Canyon and others along the way gave me a new set of emotions to balances the ones I felt from great riding. When I reached the decision point at the top of the steep gully, I turned away from it and lived to ride another day.
Quick pits only take 5 minutes but can save your life. This simple action will make you smarter because you’ll learn more about yourself and the snow. If nothing else, they’re great rescue practice. The quick pit is the best, cheapest, and simplest decision-making tool available.
Photo caption: Mark Staples examines the snowpack in a quick snow pit in Potter’s Canyon. His eyes are level with the snow which gives him a new perspective and influences decisions in a positive way. We can still climb steep slopes, but your life is worth taking a few minutes to stand in the snow. Photo by Brett Kobernik
Mark Staples, DirectorForest Service Utah Avalanche Centerwww.utahavalanchecenter.org