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Feb. 27, 2000 - Round Valley, California

Matt sent this report to us to use for educational purposes. The report describes not only what happened but some of the things the group feels they have learned from experience. We appreciate the groups willingness to share their lessons with the rest of us so that we can also learn from them.

On the weekend of Feb. 26-27, nine of us were out for a backcountry tour. We parked at the Lake Alpine snow park, which is at the wintertime end of Highway 4 and just east of the town of Bear Valley, CA. Unfortunately, a strong storm visited on Saturday night, leaving us with high avalanche hazards which turned into an avalanche emergency with one skier partially buried and the other completely buried. Fortunately, both were quickly rescued with only minor aches and bruises. Below are the details of our experience and our reflections on our performance.

On Saturday morning four experienced backcountry folk took a group of six first-timers into the backcountry. It had snowed throughout the week, but the previous day was fairly clear and it looked like the snow has consolidated. We headed for Round Valley, chosen as a scenic trip with a variety of terrain and the possibility for a quick exit on Sunday. The forecast called for a foot of snow overnight with snow throughout Sunday.

The trip into Round Valley was a bit long--there was still some breaking trail required--but uneventful. After lunch on the top of Poison Ridge, we dug an avalanche pit and saw great consolidation down at least six feet. We skied down Poison Ridge, set up camp in Round Valley, and returned for some quality turns in the slightly heavy powder.

It dumped all night. One of us woke everyone up in the middle of the night after discovering that his tent had been completely covered in snow and no longer had any ventilation. A couple of the tents took serious damage (an expedition-strength tent even bowed under the load). By morning, we estimated that three feet had fallen, and it was still coming down. By the storm's end on Sunday night, the local ski area reported 42" fell.

We opted to pass on a hot breakfast and just leave as quickly as possible. With the heavy snowfall, we were aware of significant avalanche danger and looked for a route that would minimize our exposure. While highway 207 was close by, our collective memories told us that the drop to the road was rather steep and likely to be quite dangerous both for avalanches and novice skiers. We also felt that the jeep trail in Poison Canyon would have similar issues. This left us with our original exit plan, doing the ridge route down to the snopark--a route which we believed had only one major open slope, the final drop from the ridge to the snopark. At this point, we ran a lecture on avalanche safety aimed at the first-timers in the group, describing what to do in an avalanche and how to move in avalanche territory. Unfortunately, five of the first-timers did not have beacons.

Breaking trail was extremely difficult. Gaining the ridge near Poison probably took two hours, with the leader often sinking into the heavy snow up to his thighs. Surprisingly, the ridge wasn't much better, despite the strong winds blowing snow into our faces.

We gained the ridge between Poison and the Sno Park uneventfully. Progress was extremely slow and the group was very cold--for the most part, two experienced folks were breaking trail, one who was very familiar with the area and the other a very experienced backcountry-ite, and these trailbreakers stayed warm, but the remainder of the group had to plod along at a snail's pace, generating little heat. Another pair of experienced folk were taking sweep. Once on the ridge, we came to the first high point and the spot that seemed riskiest: the left side of the ridge is covered with large cornices, the right side passes below a set of rocks on a steep slope. I led the way to the right, but after becoming uncomfortable ducked down into the trees. The group lost perhaps 100-200 feet of elevation, but avoided a suspect slope. We made up the elevation soon afterward, but both trailbreakers were tiring noticeably. Visibility was poor, it was already 2 pm, and there was some discussion about altering the route. A consultation with the topo indicated that the least-steep route was to continue on the ridge, passing the last high point (marked 8190 on the topo) and then descending to the Sno Park.

As the leaders approached the high point at 8190, one trailbreaker had dropped back in the group, and the other lead "graciously" let one of the novices break trail. Elevation point 8190 presented us again with a choice: go over the knob, go around the knob, or dip into the trees and climb back up. In our estimation, the knob was steep and open on the ascent and, by memory, steep and open on the descent as well, with many convexities to boot. The trees below looked difficult to negotiate for the inexperienced; climbing out of the trees to regain the ridge also presented a problem, since there was likely to be a five foot cornice above the trees that made the last step out quite dangerous (this was the case climbing out of Round Valley). The route around the knob went across a little bench between the cornice above and the steep trees below. This was the typical patrol route, and I opted to take this route.

Halfway across the bench, the inexperienced trail-breaker, stopped above a tree and asked the more experienced skier behind him where to go to continue. He pointed to a break in the trees and began to move to the tree to tell the lead skier in person. As both skiers began to move, a slab released from about ten feet above.

The second trailbreaker saw the release and yelled "SLIDE!" as it knocked him over and downhill. He slid a couple of feet but kept his head above the debris, stopping next to the tree. I was buried up to his torso and had a single hand free. He began to yell "HELP" as loudly but couldn't hear the other trailbreaker yelling at all.

The three other experienced folk arrived on the scene and heard from the partially buried skier that the other trailbreaker hadn't been heard from. and that he was on the other side of the tree.

The three experienced rescuers had dropped their packs at the edge of the avalanche area, conducted a bit of hasty planning and entered the scene with our beacons on. One rescuer attended to the partially buried skier and keep an eye on the scene. Since the buried skier didn't have a beacon, we started a probe search. Fortunately, the slide was largely contained by the trees just below the slide. A first ski pole probe pass at the region by the trees didn't yield any results. One rescuer then followed the avalanche's run out where it had leaked around the trees and run another 40' down slope.

The other rescuer continued probing the area above the trees, especially since the partially buried skier relayed that a last seen point only a few feet in front of him. After about four minutes after starting the search, a rescuer hit a ski pole. Nearby, he hit a ski under about two feet of snow. Followed the ski to the binding, then found a foot, told the others the buried skier was found, determined the direction of his head and started digging towards his head. When his face was uncovered, which had been under about four feet of snow, he was starting to show signs of cyanosis, but he was able to breathe and talk shortly after uncovering his face. The rest of his body felt all right. A rescuer dug out the rest of his body, continually checking in with how he felt. He was cold, scared and his body was a bit achy, but he was talking.

We all returned to a safe point where the avalanched skiers could get additional layers and some food and drink. Two experienced folk backtracked and found a route lower on the slope in the protection of the trees and with a lower slope angle. Fortunately, we were within a mile of the Sno Park, however, with the heavy snow, it took us 2-3 more hours to ski out.

Local guides reported that this storm produced the most avalanches they had seen in the Bear Valley area.

In reading the narrative, I'm sure you found some of the contributing factors to the event. Here's the list that we came up with when reflecting back on the event:

Strategic prevention planning

* Choice of destination.

  1. Given the forecasted storm, we shouldn't have gone to Round Valley since there are no 100% safe ways out of Round Valley. Had we been touring just for the day on Sunday, we would not have considered Round Valley.
  2. The entire group should have been given a larger opportunity for input on destination selection.
  3. We should have been more aware of the storm's impact on difficulty of travel and skiers' comfort during the return trip.

* Beacons.

  1. Given our knowledge of the storm, everyone should have had one.
  2. Make sure new beacon wearers know how to use them.
  3. Be sure that everyone in the group knows everyone else's beacon status (wearing one?, familiarity w/searching, etc.) A beacon test would be a good time to do this.

* Provide easier access to topos for all skiers.

* Be aware of the benefits/disadvantages of your group's size.

* Have a way to carry your shovel when you are not wearing your pack.

Slide area decisions

* Order of travel. A skier with no avalanche training and no beacon shouldn't have been breaking trail in areas where the route is at risk. Instead, we should have given rotated roles for the more experienced skiers between route-finding/trail-breaking and sweep.

* One-at-a-time travel. The second skier caught by the slide moved into the slide zone in order to help with route finding. This was a cascading result of having an inexperienced skier finding trail and a scary reminder of the value of the one-at-a-time rule.

* Route Selection. The best route at the knob was difficult to determine. In general, the safest routes are above the danger or far below it. Climbing up over the ridge wasn't a realistic option. The route we choose after the slide, dropping into the trees, was not obviously the best route. Picking safe lines there was still difficult. If we had continued below where we descended it was quite steep. It took a few tries to regain the ridge - and even that route had small slides into tree wells. Overall, staying on or near the ridge was a good call, because of the open visibility of hazards and because of familiarity with the route. Any day out in the backcountry, even when it's sunny and the avalanche risk is low, is a good time to practice route finding.

* Point of Safety. The area above a set of trees is not a point of safety. It might be safer than the surrounding slopes, since it may mean that no avalanches big enough to remove the trees have happened in the past.

Avalanche rescue

* Entering the Scene. Before entering the scene, we should have spent more time making a clear plan -- how would we determine the scene was safe, who would be an avalanche lookout, who would attend to the partially buried skier, who would search for the buried skier and where. The three of us who entered the scene had our beacons on and an inexperienced beacon-user remained in the safe zone. We probably should have had a more experienced beacon user stay in the safe zone while we first entered. One experienced beacon user did attend to the partially buried skier and keep an eye on scene safety.

* Searching. Our search technique was fairly well executed. We looked for surface signs of the buried skier, then started probing behind trees where he was likely to be stopped. If we had gotten information from the partially buried skier about the buried skier's last seen point more rapidly, we might have been able to speed up the search because One rescuer might not have dropped down to investigate the lower portion of the slide. Don't be too quick to relinquish your elevation in a search since going up requires much more energy.

* Uncovering the skier. While finding the buried skier was a giant relief, we didn't immediately perform a through patient assessment. Fortunately, the buried skier seemed in fair shape with no significant injuries beyond some aches and strains.

* Training. Fortunately, there were three of us who were trained to respond to this scenario and did so satisfactorily. However, as our mistakes show, it pays to make training scenarios as realistic a possible, e.g. practice scene evaluation and communication between rescuers.

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