“We are trying to understand how groups make decisions together. It’s a big deal out in the backcountry,” said David Reichel, an avalanche instructor at Lake Tahoe Community College, to a group of 15 students. “But we don’t have it figured out.”
This question of how human decisions are made and how they lead to accidents, is at the forefront of avalanche and safety discussions, and this year that question is as relevant as ever. A strong first half of the winter has brought amazing conditions, but several high-profile incidents have also put the community on alert.
The snowpack reached last year’s maximum depth before the calendar turned to 2016, and resorts have opened terrain not skiable in years. At time of press, the Tahoe snowpack was at 126 percent of its median, according to the Natural Resources Conservation Service. And while the drought is far from over, reservoirs are ticking back toward historical levels. On Feb. 1, Lake Shasta reservoir was recorded at 52 percent of its total capacity, 25 percent under the average.
But given a slew of avalanche-related incidents that were concentrated in January, a darker theme has also emerged.
“The fire is burning hotter than it has been in several years and there are simply more people out there these days, with a wider range of skills and experience in all directions,” said Rich Meyer, an avalanche instructor, ski guide, and co-founder of the backcountry advocacy group Tahoe Backcountry Alliance (TBA).
The backcountry demographic has gone from specialized to mainstream, and is increasing every year. The TBA is carrying out a survey on backcountry use with more than 800 respondents so far, and the Sierra Avalanche Center’s (SAC) website has had more than 97,000 users and 453,000 page views since Nov. 1; numbers that represent a 20 percent growth over five years.
Though the higher numbers elicit concern as more people are putting themselves in dangerous areas, they are only one part of the issue. Terrain that used to be for advanced skiers only is now skied regularly.
The popular sidecountry area of Munchkins, accessed from Alpine Meadows, exemplifies this.
“In the late 90s, people would wait at least a few days after new snow to ski that area; now people do it in the middle of a storm,” said Meyer, who has been skiing the local backcountry for 20 years.
A Persistent Problem
The Tahoe snowpack has run the gamut this year since early November when the snow switch turned on. These storms typically dropped between 6 and 10 inches at a time, a relatively low amount compared to the multiple-foot blizzards that are typical of the Sierra. For example, Northstar California Resort reported 20 days with new snowfall in the month of January, but with an average of 5.4 inches per days with snow, according to onthesnow.com.
Generally stable conditions remained through 2015, but that quickly changed in the new year, mainly because of the presence of surface hoar which, “grows during clear, humid, and calm conditions and once buried, it is a particularly thin, fragile, and persistent weak layer in the snowpack,” according to the National Avalanche Center.
Surface hoar forms on the snow surface and can be common in the Sierra, but with normal storm systems it is uncommon for it to be buried by incoming storms.
“Our powerful storms come in off of the Pacific Ocean with high winds, often times rain turning to snow, and warm temps. All of these can destroy the surface hoar before it has the chance to be buried,” said Steve Reynaud, and avalanche forecaster for SAC. This year, however, three distinct layers of surface hoar were buried in the snowpack between Jan. 5 and 13, and caused continued instability.
A Bleak January
Not every avalanche is attributed to these buried surface hoar layers, as they are only one piece of a complex avalanche puzzle, but they contributed to an avalanche-heavy January, with large slides seen inbounds and in the backcountry.
Five avalanche incidents have been reported to SAC — with at least one person caught, buried, and/or injured — through Feb. 8, with additional slides going unreported. SAC highly encourages backcountry users to report slides. “Information sharing can save people’s lives … this info helps us put out the forecast and informs the community,” Reynaud said.
Between Jan. 14 and 15, three separate incidents heightened the focus on avalanche danger and safety: Professional skier JT Holmes was buried at a reported depth of 3 feet before being dug out unharmed; a snowboarder triggered an avalanche just out-of-bounds from Sugar Bowl Resort and was carried over a cliff band; and a skier went missing from Sugar Bowl and never returned. The final incident initiated a search-and-rescue that involved more than 400 people, but after a five-day effort the search was called off by the Placer County Sheriff’s Department.
The situation throughout the West fared even worse. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) reports 18 avalanche fatalities so far in the 2015/16 season, more than half of the 27 average annual avalanche fatalities. Additionally, 10 of those fatalities occurred over a span of nine days between Jan. 16 and Jan. 24. The 13 fatalities in January were the most for that month since 2008, according to the CAIC.
Carson May, the 23-year-old Sugar Bowl ski instructor at Mountain Learning Center who went missing, brought hardship and confusion to the community. Avalanche activity was rife in the backcountry area adjacent to Sugar Bowl where he was reported missing, and heavy snow and inclement weather hampered the search.
“It is really baffling. In our 40 years, there has only been one other incident where we haven’t been able to find the person,” said Chris McConnell, the Tahoe Nordic Search and Rescue president, one of the 10-plus groups involved in the search. “We just weren’t able to find any clues. There were hundreds of people involved in the search, but in the end it wasn’t successful.”
This winter’s snowpack, coupled with these high-profile incidents, reignite the complex discussion of safely recreating in a high-risk environment. While the intricacies of on-snow safety could span several books, there has been a push toward emphasizing how the various human factors affect the decision-making process in the backcountry.
“There are so many decisions based on emotions and previous experience, and not facts and observations. It’s hard to get out of your head and make decisions from a strictly snow safety perspective,” Meyer said. “Avalanche courses have shifted somewhat from the science of snow more toward the decision making aspect.”
A modern problem applicable to all aspects of skiing is the strong drive to capture footage no matter the conditions, fueled largely by affordable POV cameras and social media.
“All too often I see people at the local resorts skiing and riding while holding ‘selfie sticks’ up. It is, in my opinion, similar to texting while driving,” said Tahoe-based photographer Court Leve, who has over ten years experience shooting big mountain skiing in Alaska as the lead photographer for Points North Heli-Adventures. “It’s also very frustrating to see people all over the hill setting up for a shot without any regard for safety … someone stopping on the backside of a blind rollover waiting for their friend to hit a jump. Others have no idea someone is standing there.”
Additionally, the snowboarder that triggered the slide at Sugar Bowl, who is facing prosecution for trespassing, was wearing a GoPro, and is seen wiping his lens clean as one of the first actions taken after the slide stopped.
By following the protocols laid out by decades of avalanche research, experts agree the powder can still be enjoyed safely, and they encourage people to do so.
“I tell people to get out in the backcountry. But maybe take it down a half notch. Have a plan B and don’t be afraid to not always go with plan A,” Meyer said. “Still go, just go with caution and education.”
The search for Carson May is considered an ongoing investigation. Anyone with new information is advised to contact the Placer County Sherriff’s Office at (530) 889-7885.
~ Portions of this story appeared in our Jan. 19 online story.