Friday, October 21, 2011

Who’s The Boss – An Australian Spring Avalanche Mea Culpa

Many people who know me think I am a little bit reckless in my recreational pursuits. Although I do take risks, I believe I am quite cautious. I rarely do anything beyond my ability and always take the time to plan out my escapades. Despite this, I must admit to a certain adventurous streak. I do like to check out the rarely trodden and have a natural inquisitiveness for what lies beyond.

Last week I went for a ski out on the Main Range. Walking down to the Snowy River I was transfixed by a steep and nasty looking face on the eastern side of Mt Clarke.

I had planned to ski Carruthers Peak, a larger more open area a short distance to the north. As I made my way to my intended destination, I couldn’t get the image of the steep chute on the right of the face out of my head.

A niggling thought appeared in my head, maybe the line was skiable? The voice in my head gradually became louder until finally I veered from Carruthers and committed to the line off Clarke. I admired a nice campsite and then crossed Club Lake Creek.

Climbing up Mt Clark the view over to the lines off Carruthers was spectacular. I started to question that voice in my head. There were some nice turns to be had at my original destination.

This year I undertook the Avalanche Skills Training course Level 1. Although still a novice, the information I had absorbed was screaming at me. Pulling out my Avaluator card things did not look good. Recent loading? Check. Critical warming? Check. Slope beyond 35deg? Double check. Terrain traps? Check. Convexity? Check. The line was definitely in the “Extra Caution” or potentially the “Not Recommended” zone.

All indications pointed to the potential for a slide of the top layer of wet snow. Wet slides move quite slow and can usually be avoided. However, the line had some nasty terrain traps to the side and at the bottom.

Years earlier, on my first ever day Alpine Touring my ski buddy Marco and I had triggered a wet slide in the Banff National park. We had skinned out to Quartz Ridge from Sunshine Village very late in the season. As we topped out it was clear that the increasing temps had caused instabilities in the snow pack. We cautiously dropped in. After two turns I could hear a rumbling behind me. We skied off to the side of the run and watched the wet lumps slide down. Although I felt in control, it was still a pretty scary incident. I skied over to a shaded aspect and had a nice run to the meadows below.

Planting a seed my first day touring

The wet slide we triggered

And just because my old Canada photos don’t get out much, here is the view from the top of Quartz Ridge.

Looking back towards Sunshine Village

The Simpson River to the South West

Anyway, back to the tale at hand. I climbed up the final pitch of the zone and transitioned. I was still feeling a bit uneasy so I climbed down to the crux to check out. The line itself looked great, consistent steep pitch with some interesting features but the snow was warming up fast. I noted an escape route to skiers left at the top of the chute.

I clicked in and cautiously began to ski down.

After three or four turns it was evident that the snow was not great. Wet sluff was falling all around me so I skied off to my exit point. I watched as a big lump of wet goo slowly took off down the line I had wanted to ski.

I watched as it slid down to the flats below.

I backed away from the chute.

This line was a mistake. I definitely should have made the call to back out earlier (or not even have bothered), all the signs were right in front of me. I took my ‘plan b’ line and had some nice turns to the flats below.

Hiking out of the area, the fallout of my mistake was evident. The wet slide I triggered had continued down the entire length of the chute to the rocks below.

The turns I did take.

I walked back to the Snowy River in deep thought. Just like the hike in, I was transfixed by the face. This time instead of thinking how amazing the chute looked, all I could think about was how reckless I had been.

I eventually reached the river which had completely covered the stepping stones. I stripped down to bare feet and quickly made the dash through the icey cold water.

The cold water washed away some of my anxiety.

I wish I could think of some profound quote regarding this experience but I am blank. I have always tried to manage any hazard that I have exposed myself too. I guess there comes a time where no mitigation measure will suffice and the hazard must be let lie.

I really hope this post comes across with the humility I intended. I’m in no way trying to trivialise or glorify chasing difficult and dangerous lines. A week later and I still feel a little uneasy about the whole ordeal. Maybe I could have safely skied the line but I will never know. This incident may seem quite minor when compared to conditions people elsewhere deal with, however, the mountains gave me a reminder of who’s boss, a timely lesson I will willingly take on board for future adventures. I had also wasted a whole day chasing a marginal line when there was heaps of good snow to be had!

Here is a dodgy clip of the day, the gopro is really overexposed in the spring midday sun!


  1. Nice post Pini. Had a very similar experience in LBC years first thoughts were Damn!.....I need to learn how to ride faster.

  2. haha thanks Dibble, maybe bombing it would have been safer!

  3. Nice vid and story, Pini. Good on your for taking a closer look at that steep line to learn more about it and to compare reality with your slope assessment. Great experience notched up there. It's good when things add up as expected. And well played for having a Plan B, and deciding to go for it.

  4. Thanks Damian, your course definitely switched on my "awareness" button!