Wednesday, 9 March 2011

An Honest Account of Avalanche Tragedy

At tale of tragedy.  Many of the much talked of "heuristic" or cognitive thinking traps played a part in this tale. As all humans fall into them we can but learn from others.  I have annotated some learning points.  Don't judge this guy as he's honest and we all could find ourselves in this position unless we just become plastic people on groomers.  I personally don't want to become one of these. Davy Gunn

by Dow Williams - Sat March 03, 2011  05:03pm
I normally don't share this kind of personal stuff much...but my wife and I both thought this gentleman did a solid job of expressing with words both his emotions and specifically what went down regarding this particular incident. The gentleman who died was a good friend of ours, Raymond. The gentleman who got dug out with moments to spare is also a friend. Both are in their 60's and have skied more true backcountry glaciated terrain than any of you on summitpost. I have been on many trips with Ray. He and I have been on two close calls together. No doubt, he took some risks, no more than I or many others do throughout a season though. However, one mistake was abundantly clear regarding this incident, and that was skiing too close together. Ignoring the wind slab might be another, without actually testing it or being there, that is left to speculation.

At first, I thought the fact this survivor (who I don't know) wrote and distributed this piece so fast was ill advised. But as my wife read it and we both discussed it. I can see where not only was it therapeutic for him and those of us who knew Ray (or the other individual who perished)...but quite educational. I know my own nature fairly well. Given the choice to read about Ray's demise at a later date, I would likely avoid doing so in the official accident report, just drudging up sad memories. The fact it was addressed within days of his death, I was more likely to read it. For that I am thankful. This is the 7th friend/acquaintance I have lost to backcountry skiing in the Canadian Rockies. A considerably larger number than those friends who have been lost to climbing incidents. I myself, have pretty much quit the sport after a serious close call myself. I get out once in a blue moon. You think you are tough and invincible until you are right on the edge of the precipice, then somehow your perspective changes and you mellow a bit. For the trolls and posers, in terms of discussion, focus on what you can learn from this piece versus trying to be critical of someone you don't even know. Try not to take cheap shots at the two survivors if you can possibly control yourself.

"To all my friends and family…
First of all, I want to apologize for the cryptic way that some of you have been dealt with by me in the last few days. The reason Laura posted what she did on Facebook is that she didn’t want people to be worried about my safety based on reports from the radio. The CBC has been broadcasting regularly about an avalanche near Smithers BC that was not only in the group with which I was skiing, but I was in fact, directly involved in the slide. I appreciate the emails, texts, and calls of question and concern, but I needed to get myself home and put the events to a permanent form before trying to explain the whole thing to everyone individually… partly in the interests of efficiency and not having to repeat the same story 100 times, and partly because in the last 24 hours I started questioning 1 or 2 parts of the events as I recall them. I have since confirmed for myself that my initial thoughts on the event are accurate, but I still feel like I need to write it down in case I start doing the same thing again.

This description will be as complete as I can recall, and will be very graphic and probably disturbing, so if that will trouble you, perhaps you should wait until you’re home in a comfortable environment to read this. I apologize if this is the case, but telling this story in detail is something I need to do for myself… I hope you all understand. If you just don’t want to read this, I totally understand.
So I will preface my account by saying that I am certain I will never be so judgmental of anyone caught in an avalanche ever again. Many of you who have discussed the subject with me have likely heard me say how often when people are caught and killed are often “clearly” in situations where they have violated one or more of the key precautions that can be taken to minimize a groups risk while they are in avalanche terrain. I put clearly in quotes because my opinions are often formed from news reports on the radio, and it is clear from how inaccurate the news reports on this incident have been, that they have no idea what they are talking about most of the time on this subject, and I now question any “facts” I’ve heard from sources like this.

I will leave names out of it for now since the families don’t want this information made public, but our group of 10 skiers split up into 3 groups in the morning with different objectives for the day’s activities, and the group I joined with included 2 very experienced mountaineers with likely 30+ years each of experienceSmithers. Before I make the next statement I would like to make clear that any time a group is involved in a slide, it is the fault of everyone in the group and I am by no means trying to reduce my culpability by the next statement… I’m just trying to get you to understand part of the reason why I think things happened the way they did. To be 100% clear, I fucked up big time. Because I was (one of) the least experienced people, I approached the day as someone who would sit back and learn from those who had done more than I have in my life and take more of an observer role. We did have discussions of what we were doing and what our objectives were on the way up and the group agreed every time. But at the critical moment, we all became complacent. The other major factor involved is that on the hike up the mountain we noticed a lot of complicated terrain with small cliff and bowl features that could be dangerous if we were to get separated, so an openly stated intention to stay very close together on the way down was made to deal with this danger. The problem is that we kept this in mind as our primary concern at the expense of paying attention to whether or not we should even be on the slope we were going down.

So we got to the slope in question and one of the older gentlemen skied out on the slope cautiously. He said something I didn’t really hear over the wind and then started to ski down when he fell down and lost a ski. The ski was about 6-8 feet above him and out of his reach, and the woman skied down towards him to retrieve the ski and help him get it back on. I think all of us felt a bit funny about this slope because the other gentleman went to the edge of the slope and tried to do a little cut test with his ski and was only able to get the top couple of inches of snow to move. He then said something along the lines of “this slope is really wind loaded, but it should be OK”. I don’t want to get into debating what factors came into us knowing that information and going on the slope anyway, because I don’t fully understand them myself. At any rate, as soon as he said that and skied of down the slope I got a weird feeling and thought to myself “I don’t like all of us on that slope at one time, I’m going to stay back”. Normally you would expose only 1 person at a time to risk from a slope, and you’d move from safe spot to safe spot, but I didn’t really see any obvious safe spots so didn’t say anything, and as I explained above, we had just decided as a group to stay close together. Like I sayed, I fucked up big time here. I moved down the slope a few feet so I could keep them all in site.

This is where things go sideways. I would estimate the time at about 2pm, but that is just a guess, really. As I come to a gentle spot on the top of the ridge above the small bowl the other 3 skiers were on, I heard an extremely loud bang from behind me… it sounded like someone fired a shot-gun from about 6 feet behind me. At this exact moment all of the snow I’m standing on is moving and cracking around me and I’m falling sideways up the slope. I yelled out something as I fell to the ground. I’m not sure how the rest of this really happened because it only took seconds, but somehow I managed to find the bed surface below the moving snow and dig into that. Partly with my skis, and also likely, partly with a ski pole I was carrying that has a pick that looks like it came off an ice axe (it’s called a “whippet”). I looked up the slope as this was happening to see debris coming down towards me, including at least one very large block, probably about the size of a small car. I ducked my shoulder, and this large block slammed into me and either went over me or bounced around me somehow, and I somehow managed to stay put by some miracle.

As soon as I realized there was no more snow moving towards me from above I stood up and looked down the slope to try to see what has happening with the other 3 skiers. I saw 2 of them for sure but can’t be sure if I saw all 3 or not, they were on top of the debris pile and moving very fast in a narrow stream of debris as it funneled into a steep-walled gully and went around the corner behind a rock, at which point I lost sight of them.

As anyone who has taken an avy course knows, at this point we were one step away from the worst case scenario possible… 1 person on top, 3 caught in a slide as it heads into a terrain trap. The only way it could have been worse was if I was caught too. At this point I was very panicky, and I’m not 100% sure of everything I said as I tried to fiddle with all the buckles on the equipment on me to remove my beacon, but it was all very negative and panicky. I yelled at myself out loud 3 or 4 times to “calm down!” as I got my beacon out and switch to “receive” mode.

Normally you would make zig-zagging search patterns at 20-30m, started from the last seen point. Since I could be 100% certain I had seen all 3 people carried down the slope, I began that grid from the top of the debris. I had to ski on the debris itself with poles in one hand and my beacon in the other, since I recall realizing at the time the entire slope had not slid, and there was still a lot of snow that could come down after me if I stepped on the wrong spot. It’s actually a bit amazing to me that I had the wherewithal to have that thought in that moment. My beacon works in an analog fashion from large distances, and I eventually started to hear a couple of beeps before a distance indication came on indicating it is in digital mode. I was scanning the surface of the debris for any equipment sticking out of the snow as this can save you a lot of time in searching if one part of the person is above the surface of the snow. When I got a signal I stopped and removed my skis and followed the normal search procedure down the debris pile. I was able to pinpoint 1 beacon to with about 0.5m on the beacon, assembled my shovel and probe and got lucky by getting a probe strike on the first placement. I began digging and found the down jacket of the female skier, and tried to figure out which way she was facing so I could dig out her face to allow air in. As I uncovered her gloved hand, it was already purple in colour. I figured out which side was up and began to dig around above her shoulders. Her head was in a very awkward position tucked forward and as I uncovered her nose and mouth she was not breathing, her skin was purple, and there was a lot of blood coming from beneath her toque. I cleared the snow from in front of her nose and mouth, but quickly decided that she was most likely already dead from trauma. I made the decision at that point to abandon her and look for someone else while I still had time. Shortly after this I found her goggles on the surface of the snow and they were completely smashed in and full of blood, further supporting my theory of trauma.

I picked up my beacon to begin another search and noticed that it was not in receiving mode. The model of beacon I have has an “auto revert to send” feature that switches back in to transmit mode after 8 minutes so that if a rescuer was caught in a second slide, their beacon would eventually begin transmitting again so that another rescuer could find them (which would be impossible if the beacon stayed in receive mode). I assumed this had happened and tried to put the beacon back into search mode but nothing happened. I thought that maybe I was being panicky in how I was pushing the button, so I switched the beacon off and back on again, and it would not turn back on. At the time I thought that maybe I had damaged the beacon while digging up the first victim and had broken it, but back in the hut that night it turned back on. It is my theory at this time that the battery died in the cold air. I have previously done a test on another trip where my beacon showed over 70% battery when I left during the day, and at the end of that day showed 30-40% power remaining, only to show 70% again the next day. Also, receive mode uses up battery much faster than transmit mode. I also did a test at home today by turning the beacon on and setting to search mode and waiting to see how it changed to send mode. There was probably 15 or more seconds of very loud warning tones indicating that the beacon is about to switch back, and I’m confident I would have heard that at the time. I believe the battery died before this even happen (i.e. in less than 8 minutes).

So now I have 1 person uncovered and dead, and two people still buried and no functioning avalanche beacon. I decided to just walk down the debris pile looking for something sticking out of the snow to indicate a burial and quickly found a pair of boots just barely sticking out of the surface. I began digging but this person was buried at about a 30-40 degree angle, head down, feet up. His head was probably about 1m down and with only 1 person to dig I was not able to use the proper technique. If you don’t know what I’m talking about here, I can explain it to you in person. Suffice it to say that some of what I was shoveling was just falling back into the pit as I worked… not very efficient. I uncovered this person’s face. I’m not sure how long all of this took, but statistics show that if you have someone dug out in under 20 minutes, they’re chance of survival is pretty good. When I uncovered his face he was pale blue, but we has breathing very shallow breaths (maybe 1 every 2-3 seconds) and was unconscious… so this was likely less than 20 minutes after the slide took place. I stuck a finger in his mouth and nose to dig out any snow that might be in his airway. After making sure no snow was going to fall back over his mouth and nose, I left him as he was and went to look further down the debris pile for evidence of the 3rd skier. I walked all the way to the end of the debris (maybe another 50+ meters down the slope), and while I found both poles on the surface, they were probably 60+ meters apart and there was no part of the victim attached to them. I could find no other evidence of where to dig and probing the entire debris pile is a complete waste of time. So I gave up on the last person and went back to finish digging out the breathing victim.

He eventually regained consciousness but was very confused and groggy. I could not free his legs or one of his arms because he was strapped into his poles and skis (with ski leashes). Eventually I uncovered enough of his arm to cut his pole strap and backpack strap and get him out of the hole. He could barely stand up and was groggy and hypothermic. Again, I don’t know how long this all took, but at this point I’m guessing around 40 minutes. It then occurred to me that I could try to use his beacon to find the 3rd person. I took his beacon off him and started to search, but his beacon was an analog beacon that I am not very familiar with, and I was getting 2 beeps that I had to try to distinguish, one of which was the deceased victim who’s beacon I was not able to reach to turn off (and didn’t see the point at the time since my beacon wasn’t functioning anyway). I could not separate the two signals. I tried running back up the first victim to turn off her beacon, but it would have taken too long to dig her out enough to do this, and it had already been long enough that I was quite confident that the third victim would no longer be alive. At this time I double-check that my initial assessment of her (the first victim) was correct. I tried to dig any snow out of her mouth and nose but was unable to even get her mouth open has she was situated, and I felt what seemed to me to be a lot of broken teeth. She was still not breathing and felt confident in my decision. I decided that the un-buried and hypothermic victim was by no means out of the woods and that I should concentrate on keeping him alive. I have since been informed that the third victim was actually only about 4m from the deceased victim*. While it’s a bit tough for me to hear that because I was so close, burials that close would be extremely difficult for even and experienced user of an analog beacon to sort out. There was really nothing I could do.

We put every piece of clothing on the living victim we could find and gave him hot tea but he would not stop shivering and barely had control over his legs. The still-buried victim was a 30-year friend of his and he clearly wanted to find his friend. So I suggested that if he could find the location, I could dig him up. In his physical and mental state, and with the proximity of the two signals, he was unable to pinpoint a location either. I convinced him that too much time had passed and we needed to concentrate on him now. That was an extremely difficult decision for both of us to make, but I estimate that about 50+ minutes has passed by then.

I still felt like the gully was unsafe so I found a safe way for us to get out of the gully and hunker down to warm him up. Each group was carrying radios, and by pure luck it was in my pack. We were scheduled to have radio contacts at regular intervals, 11am, 1pm, 3pm, etc. Once the second victim was found alive and no sign could be found of the third victim I had tried to make a radio call out of the scheduled time (at about 2:30 +/-) and got no reply. At 3pm I was able to get a reply and informed one of the other groups of what had happened. It is very good that this happened because if I had been unable to reach them I was going to have to leave the hypothermic victim there by himself while I got to the hut as fast as possible. I dug a small pit to get out of the wind, wrapped him in a space blanket and we huddled together to try to warm him up, all the while maintaining regular radio contact with the other 2 groups. Everyone on the other end of the rescue was very calm and helpful at every stage in this process, and I am very thankful for this.

Those groups hurried back to the hut to call in Search And Rescue as fast as they could, but they were an hour away from the hut. While one person coordinated from the hut, 2 others headed out our way to help with the rescue. The weather was very bad and we thought it very unlikely that a helicopter could get into us that night, and there was nowhere for them to land near us anyway. After about an hour and a half of huddling together he was still hypothermic and suggested we try to get down ourselves in the hopes that he would heat up. So we put skis on and the victim made a heroic display of skiing as he negotiated steep tight trees in shitty snow while avoiding dangerous gullies on both sides of us. We skied all the way down to the valley bottom and met up with the 2 coming to help us. From there it was a fairly simple ski back to the hut. As it turns out, SAR was able to get a helicopter in to the hut just as dusk was setting in and they took out the surviving victim and one other to get checked out in hospital. I stayed in the hut and got drunk. The 3 SAR members that the helicopter left behind were great to have there… they were good support and distraction.

As you might imagine, I’m having a really hard time with this. On the one hand I am haunted by images that are burned in to my brain like the sound of the crack, the snow breaking around me, the debris coming at me and hitting me, and the deceased victim’s face and all the blood. On the other hand, I have no survivor’s guilt (so far) and never been so happy to be alive in my entire life… I am extremely proud of how I handled the rescue, and 1 person is alive who would not be if I hadn’t made all of the decisions the way I did. This is a very gratifying feeling. It is often difficult for 2 people to locate and dig up 1 victim together, but being able to locate and dig up 2 people by myself in less than 20 minutes and with failing equipment is pretty amazing and I feel extremely pleased with what I was able to do in the heat of the moment.

I would like to encourage you not to hesitate to ask any question you want to of me… no holds barred. Talking about it makes me feel good. I only wanted to get this all out as a starting point first. Also, I might be missing some people from my email list, and you can send this to anyone you want to. In the short term, I will not be doing any backcountry skiing for the rest of this year. We’ll see what next year brings, but I feel it’s pretty likely that I will not do it ever again. There’s still resort skiing and that is still fun as hell.

In the even shorter term, I have things I’m still responsible to take care of in this matter so I might not be available all the time, but if anyone wants to come by and say “hi”, or go for a walk, or go to the gym or something like that, send me a text. Also, please be a bit patient with me because sometimes it’s easy to keep my shit together and sometimes I just can’t, and I suspect it will be like that for a while. I love each and every one of you, and I can’t wait to see all of your beautiful faces very soon."
* I have found this on 3 occasions of multiple burials, so if SAR resources are available get them to probe expanding circles from the first victim like the DAV 3 circle method

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