How a little solar gain on Mt. Baker, Wash. led to big consequences

Spring skiing was in full swing on Mt. Baker, Wash. by early last April when photographer Grant Gunderson and his ski partner for the day, Kirsten Rowley, hit a skintrack for Baker’s Shuksan Arm. The duo had spent the previous day at the resort exploring sidecountry zones that had proved to be stable, so they went into the backcountry feeling confident about the snow stability. What they didn’t anticipate was a nearly imperceptible temperature change due to a break in the clouds that occurred while Rowley was making her way to the top of Hollywood Spine, a line they had spotted on their morning tour to the Arm. Because of this shift, Rowley triggered a 300-foot-wide avalanche, and the pair took home a lesson in communication and the speed at which things can change.

Kirsten Rowley triggers a 300-foot-wide avalanche on Mt. Baker, Wash.’s Hollywood Spine. [Photo] Grant Gunderson

Kirsten Rowley: It seemed like everything was pretty stable. We were looking around, and people were riding lines outside the resort and the neighboring lines to Hollywood Spine. We had a good feeling that it was going to be the day to ride that line—we thought it was going to be solid. Grant asked me if I felt comfortable with that terrain, and I said that I definitively was. We talked about the line, different ways to ride it, what-if scenarios, escape routes, and we double-checked all of our gear.

Grant Gunderson: I think that the biggest trap we fell into on that particular day is putting too much stock in the general avalanche trends around Mt. Baker. If there is high avalanche danger after a storm for a day, it usually settles out pretty quickly, and the next day it’s fairly stable. And when we were skiing the day before, we hadn’t really seen any avalanche activity that would have led us to believe that activity on the second day would be a concern. Everything was telling us that it was good to go.

KR: I started hiking up, and Grant was going to stay close at a lookout for the line from the side. During my hike up, the sun broke through the clouds, exposing the line to solar gain. It was about 15 or 20 minutes from the time I left Grant’s lookout position to the time I dropped in.

KR: I checked my gear at the top, thought through our previous briefing, radio checked Grant and then pushed off. Four turns down I saw a fracture line. I was too far down the slope to stop and watch it go, so I switched into the mindset of staying as high up on the spine as possible and staying as balanced and as straight as possible to ride it down. It felt like the most realistic and safest thing for me to do at that point, considering where I was in the line. As I came to a stop in the avy debris at the bottom, I heard Grant over the radio telling me to stand up straight and wait for everything to stop moving around me before trying to get out of the slide path. I was buried to just above my knees, so I was able to kick out of the debris and get out of the bottom of the bowl quickly. We were both pretty shaken up, so we called it for the day and went back to the lodge to talk about what happened.

GG: After the slide, Kirsten and I both debriefed about not just what we thought we had done wrong but also what we thought we had done right to try to break down the incident a bit more; I try to do this even on the days where everything goes perfectly. A lot of times so many days are perfect, and you don’t realize how close you were to things going poorly. 

KR: The sun’s effect on the snow caught us off guard. We were exited that the line looked to be in such good condition that day, and we didn’t fully realize how much the sun was affecting the snow during the time it took me to hike to the top. A lot of things can happen between the time you and your partner chat about a line and when you actually drop in. Consistently reviewing conditions and factors at morning coffee, the parking lot, [while] hiking up and before dropping in is safe practice. More briefings take a small amount of time and make all decisions stronger and safer.

GG: In a lot of ways, having this avalanche happen reinforced some of the precautions I already take, like having high-quality communication devices with me and everyone else in our group at all times. It also made me realize that I need to take my skins off even if I think I’m going to keep going up after a shot, because if something happens, I don’t want to have to take the extra time to rip them and get into ski mode if I need to begin a search.

KR: Looking back on this incident, what I would do differently is make sure to have a second briefing after hiking away from Grant and before I dropped—not just checking my own gear and checking the radio but also reflecting about changing conditions. This experience makes me want to increase my communication and awareness to a higher standard—more talk, less action. Things can go badly fast, so our best tool of prevention is consistently assessing what we’re doing and what the environment is doing around us. 

Comments

  1. 30′ wide max according to photo. Where did this 300′ number come from? That’s a sizable difference.

  2. Joe meldrum says:

    How could it be determined that this particular slope slide due to the influence of solar gain? Perhaps the sun had nothing to do with the snow stability on this slope. Could you describe how you determined that solar gain was the cause of this avalanche and not jut an error in judgment in believing that the new snow was stable. Could this be an example of finding a cause for a slide that deflects the blame away from bad decision making?

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