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Article for the Boeing Alpine Echo - Rob Kunz

I was fortunate to survive an avalanche a couple of weeks ago and thought it might be useful for other climbers to hear what it was like and what lessons I learned from the experience.

It was a typical May weather forecast - showers off and on all weekend, snow level 3,000 feet. We were going to attempt Mt. Baker on May 18th and 19th, 1996. I was not very enthused about climbing the volcano with the poor forecast and after being turned back at Mt. Hood the previous weekend due to weather. But I had made a commitment and did not want to back out because of weather. I remember the avalanche forecast was for moderate to high danger because of high accumulations of snow the previous weeks. I had decided not to speak out against going up to the 6,000 foot base camp, thinking that the terrain was moderate, but was determined to prevent the party from attempting the summit on Sunday. We all felt that a summit was very unlikely but wanted to at least conduct a crevasse rescue practice.

It snowed all day Saturday. We set base camp at the edge of the Easton Glacier in a white out. We decided by 5 PM that even if the weather improved, a summit attempt was out of the question because of about 2 feet of fresh snow. We awoke Sunday morning to find that it had snowed an additional 1 1/2 feet overnight and it was still a white out.

We had to use map and compass to find the Railroad Grade. The snow was very deep and unconsolidated. Getting down to a lower altitude the snow became very wet and heavy. We needed to either descend down off of the railroad grade and cross below the glacier or we had to continue down to the end of the ridge and then cross the river. This would have been out of the way and the bridge was washed out. In retrospect, this would have been a better choice.

The trip leader and myself discussed the danger of the slope releasing. The snow was unconsolidated with little chance of a slab avalanche. There were no terrain traps (trees, cliffs, etc.). The slope was about 35 degrees at the top and had a nice runout about two hundred feet below. I volunteered to go first. I picked a slope without a cornice and one that looked a little gentler than the others. It also looked like it had avalanched in the past. In retrospect, plunge stepping might have put less stress on the snow pack but at the time I thought that glissading would get everyone down quicker.

As I started down the slope, snow quickly started moving ahead of me. I realized I was in trouble when I felt snow pushing me from behind. A second later my whole world turned into an avalanche. I thought about rolling off to the side but it was too wide. My entire being was focused on staying on top of the slide. It felt like riding a wave in the ocean where I was being taken for a ride but could at least swim at the surface. As the slope started to mellow, faster snow from behind pushed me to the front of the slide and I went "over the falls" (surfing lingo). For what seemed like an eternity (it was really a couple of seconds) I was completely buried in the still moving snow. I extended an arm up to the surface so that my team could track my progress and so that I would know which end was up. The slide was slowing and I said a quick prayer and fought my way to the surface as the snow stopped. I ended up on the surface with only my left leg buried in the snow from the knee down. After yelling that I was OK it took a couple of minutes to free my leg from the cement-like snow. I didn't get scared until I saw the look on other people's faces and I thought of what might have happened.

The avalanche run ended up being about 30-40 feet wide at the bottom and was very shallow. The accumulation of snow at the end of the run was several feet deep and could easily have buried me. Luckily, it was a loose snow avalanche and did not thrash my body like a slab avalanche could have.

Some lessons:

  • Do not go on avalanche terrain if there has been a significant amount of snow within the past 24 hours.
  • Do not hesitate to terminate a trip because of avalanche hazards. In my opinion, it was marginally safe to go up to base camp. We did not anticipate the high accumulation overnight. I thought we made a reasonable decision to go to camp given what we wanted to accomplish and the conditions we observed on the mountain.
  • If you are caught in a risky situation because of bad judgment or unanticipated conditions, think about taking a longer route out if it avoids avalanche terrain. It is tough to add an extra mile or two to avoid wind slabs, terrain traps, 30-45 degree slopes - but your life is far more valuable than taking what appears to be the quicker route.
  • After discussions with others, plunge stepping is safer than glissading a suspected slope.
  • I did not have the presence of mind to get rid of my pack - but I felt that it gave my back some protection by holding it straight, cushioned the impact of the snow from behind, and I felt the pack gave me buoyancy and helped me stay on the surface of the snow.

I feel a little foolish for "getting caught" but fortunate to survive the experience. I took an avalanche awareness course a couple of years ago but will take another this coming winter. The remedial training won't hurt and I remember the course was fun. Maybe I'll help organize one for the club next year.

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