Posted: Thu Dec 09, 2004 10:20 am Post subject: unLost thread - Quandary Avalanche
It started out innocently enough. Just a quick little jaunt on a nearby mountain to get a few powder turns. Very ordinary for anyone lucky enough to live in the High Country.
That’s one of my favorite backyard runs, with the blue diamond representing my house. I took that picture on November 29th, 2004 - While I was across the road, skinning to the lower northeast face of Quandary Peak.
Something awful happened that day, and I won’t ever look at that mountain the same way again. Someone please kick me, because I screwed up, really bad.
As I do almost every time I ski, I brought my best friend, Winter, along with me for her companionship. She’s a lab mix with a passion for snow unequaled even by mine.
To get our run going, snow was blowing and powder was whisking up my thighs. Euphoria was building when something alarming appeared 50 feet below me. I saw snow curling up in the air and it registered: avalanche..
Without a thought, I stopped turning and tucked to gain speed. I escaped the slide, angled to the side and took a look over my shoulder.
I caught a glimpse of Winter swimming down a river of moving snow. I thought that she was going to make it. When I looked up again, however, the avalanche was slowing, but my little girl was gone.
I stopped instantly.
I remember running back to the slide, even as it was still running toward me. It had pretty much stopped when I was getting near and throwing off my gloves. I began fumbling for my beacon on a post-holing sprint to the area I last saw her.
She wears a transmitter, duct-taped to her harness,
and it became her only hope.
My hands were shaking as I approached the debris, but even so, my thumb depressed the red button long enough to switch my BCA Tracker to search mode. I remember giving out a desperate shriek of “Winter!”
I was about to become frantic beyond logic when my beacon started to slowly beep. A flashing “32” appeared on the display. The lights on it flickered and I became fixated on the arrows.
I was right on top of her in a matter of seconds. After circling her twice, the closest I could get the display to register was “3.1” “3.1” “3.1”.
I threw my pack off, and flung its contents everywhere. I picked my probe out of the strewn mess of gear and assembled it; my hands still shaking. Beep-beep-beep, beep-beep-beep, sounded my dangling beacon. Then there was another sound.
It was the muffled howl of a dying dog, right next to me. A swan song, of a sort.
The probe fell to the snow unused. The handle clicked into my shovel and went to work. More crying. Both me and her.
Sometimes, everything is wrong.
But if you believe in the world, I'm coming. If you believe in the world, be strong.
By some sort of unexplainable occurrence, I dug my way straight down to her head. It could not possibly have been quicker. The blade of my shovel found her nose first and it was pointed straight up. I used my bare hands to uncover her face. Snow was caked into her eyes. I removed it and wept: “Daddy’s here, daddy’s here, daddy’s here!”
It was clearly a miracle when her mouth opened and closed, she spat out some snow, and began gagging and wheezing.
Although only her head was sticking out of a wall of snow now, she was breathing. I continued to dig frantically, and found that her body was twisted awkwardly. I remember worrying that her back might be broken.
When I had her mostly uncovered, though, there was another miracle.
She squirmed the rest of the way out on her own. She jumped up, shook herself off and then started licking away my tears. I’ll stop the world and melt with you.
About 45 minutes after our emotional reunion, a rescue helicopter was circling above us. I gave a thumbs up sign, wrote the letters OK in the snow, and eventually it flew away.
I had a great conversation with Brad Sawtell that night. He’s a prominent figure at CAIC and was the first to say that “Any live recovery is a perfect 10, you did a great job.” Then, he diplomatically educated me on my errors.
My critical mistake was an underestimation of slope angle. Anything above 25 degrees can slide, and I knew that, but I thought the pitch was lower. Kick me, now.
When he told me: “The average pitch up there is 28 degrees”, I wanted to bang my head against the wall. I made several other mistakes, such as having a dog as my only partner in avalanche terrain, but they all stemmed from my thinking that the slope was not steep enough to let loose. Don’t do that.
Yeah, I was carrying the proper gear, (minus inclinometer, which I’m no longer missing) and yeah, I’ve played with it enough where it’s automatic. It needs to be, because believe me, emotions disrupt logic in those situations.
But it could’ve easily turned out much worse, and I still feel sick about it. It was all my fault. I’m so sorry, girl.
Winter is pictured below running toward the trailhead afterwards.
Summit County Search And Rescue was activated due to a call from an onlooker from near Highway 9. He saw it unfold, and made an immediate phone call. An entourage was waiting for me at the trailhead.
I think it serves to show how truly on your own you are when you're out there. Even when you can be seen from nearby. If I was less lucky, I could have been buried along with Winter for over 45 minutes – and that was the fastest response possible. I don't mean that as a knock on SAR either - their speed was much appreciated - it just goes to show...
Last edited by mapadu on Fri Dec 10, 2004 3:24 pm; edited 1 time in total
Joined: 07 Dec 2004 Posts: 182 Location: the shallow end of the genetic pool
Posted: Thu Dec 09, 2004 11:47 am Post subject:
Thanks for reposting, I missed this thread the 1st time. All I can say is don't beat yourself up over it...this souns simplistic but this is truly "alls well that ends well". Chalk it up to experience and give Winter lots of puppy treats! Glad you are both OK.
This is a great example of the "familiarity" concept in backcountry dangers. That "backyard slope" can become too tame in our minds after a lot of positive feedback. But the slope doesn't care if you know it lke the back of your hand or not... Nice job withh the transceiver!
Joined: 06 Dec 2004 Posts: 436 Location: Portland, Oregon
Posted: Thu Dec 09, 2004 5:18 pm Post subject:
As others have said, thanks for posting this. It is important that we not only learn from our mistakes, but that others can as well. Glad to hear that it worked out well for both of you, and luckily it was the dog buried and not you. As great of a dog as Winter is, I doubt she would have been able to switch her beacon over to receive and to find you that quickly buried that deep.
Wow, that was a very touching and eye-opening story! It sent chills though my body! Thanks for posting this again, because I heard about it but missed the first post! I'm glad both you and Winter are ok, and it's a great reminder for safe BC travel!
Thanks! _________________ Tele Skiing: It's like a waltz, and the mountain is my partner.
Joined: 06 Dec 2004 Posts: 235 Location: North Vangroovy
Posted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 2:33 am Post subject:
Thanks for re-posting - it was one of the most valuable posts I read. First-hand experience is so good at highlighting how things go wrong (sandbagged by familiarity here I'd guess). I found Jamieson's avalanche accidents in Canada book very valuable for this reason.
Ian McCammon had an interesting presentation of how heuristics in assessing the avy danger can ruin your day at the Calgary/Vancouver Avalanche Workshop a few weeks back. He had an acronym "FACETS" and that first F is for Familiarity. Can't remember all the rest without my notes (E for Expert (as in blindly trusting the percieved expert), T for Tracks (ie yours first), etc).
There was a follow-up post to your original posting from some avy professionals as I recall that had some valuable ideas about dogs and beacons - good if you're skiing alone with your dog, not good if you're skiing with other folks with beacons. Reason being: how would you feel if you found your dog first and your friend second and too late?
Wow! Thanks for sharing and recovering the thread again. Since I first read your story, I've been a little haunted by some memories of my own from Quandary Peak. In fact, those memories from 12 years ago were part of the impetus to do the work I am now doing. I was on the east slopes at about 12,000 ft at the time and ignorant as can be. My life was changed forever too.
Thanks again for sharing. Your words help bring it home and reduce the ignorance many have about avalanches. People will learn from this. Great job using your safety gear! Glad you and the pooch are still with us.
Joined: 06 Dec 2004 Posts: 268 Location: Beautiful British Columbia
Posted: Fri Dec 10, 2004 10:21 am Post subject:
Mapadu: I can't express how much I appreciate that you took the time to post this; not once, but twice.
There is so much learning to be had with your wonderful pictures and the experience.
I would like to add some comments a bit later when I am less busy; but suffice it to say, you have made my day, week; no, season, so far!
Is it possible that you could do a few things: get a clinometer and measure exactly what the starting zone angle was. If possible, also measure the length and finally, measure the alpha angle (angle between the toe of the debris and the crown). _________________ There are no easy solutions, only intelligent choices
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