AvaLung survival story from the Colorado backcountry
The following excerpt is from the official report by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). The full report may be read here. In reading this accident report understand that judgment and hazard evaluation are the keys to backcountry travel. No manufactured gear—whether a beacon, shovel, probe or AvaLung—should impact risk evaluation or the decision making process.
THE INCIDENT (edited for brevity by the CAIC)
Near Eiseman Hut, Gore Range, Colorado
January 16, 2009
3 caught, fully buried, self rescued
A party of three planed on spending a few nights at the Eiseman Hut, which is part of the 10th Mountain Division Hut system. They hiked to the hut on Thursday, January 15th. On their way into the hut, the group encountered another group returning after three nights at the Eiseman hut. When asked if they had left any untracked snow for the group of three, the group exiting the area said they “only left skin tracks." The group of three arrived at the hut in time to check out the area and take a few runs on west and north facing slopes. They did not dig any snowpits. That night they shared the hut with another group of 6 or 8 people.
Over breakfast on the morning of the 16th, they discussed a plan to ski a face on an unnamed peak (11,754'). The plan was to head up to the top of another unnamed peak to the north of the hut (11,770'). From there they would descend into the valley bottom, head to the west, and ascend the west ridge of the unnamed peak (11,754'). They carried ropes and climbing harnesses so that they could belay each other into the start zone in order to safely dig a snowpit and assess stability. They discussed their plan with the other hut visitors, who said they were not going to that area due to the recent and visible avalanche activity on the slope in question.
The group of three left the hut at 0900 with an established plan in place. At the summit of Peak 11,770', they looked to the ENE at an untracked slope and decided to change their plan. They also noticed two natural slab avalanches on the portion of peak 11,754' that was their main goal for the day. The two natural avalanches appeared to be a few days old. A portion of the face between the two natural avalanches remained intact.
The group established a new plan, to continue up the ridge to the summit of a third unnamed peak at the head of the South Fork of Sandstone Creek drainage (approximately 12,320'). They chose to ride a west facing line near the north end of the broad summit and then continue down the valley and intersect the route from their original plan.
After descending the slope, they regrouped in a safe zone. Boarder-2 remembers looking at his watch—the time was 12:10. While preparing for their next climb, the group changed their plan a second time. Instead of heading further down valley to ascend the main ridge, they decided to climb a slight subridge that runs up the center of the face. There are trees growing along this subridge, and the group hoped the trees would provide some margin of safety.
They began to climb up the treed subridge and quickly realized that the slope angle went from about 20 degrees near the base to over 40 degrees near the top. There is an abrupt transition near the bottom of the slope where the slope angle changes. They discussed the steepness of the upper part of the slope and if they should dig a snowpit to assess the snow stability. They decided to continue without additional snowpack observations. Boarder-3 took one step forward and heard a large WHUMPF. Then the slope started to move. All three were climbing with the mouthpieces of their AvaLungs in their mouths and bit down on them as all three quickly started to move downhill. They all came to rest fairly quickly, only being caught in the debris flow for about 20 vertical feet. All three were completely buried.
Skier-1 was pushed into the trees and was buried head up, facing uphill into the trees. His hands and feet were in front of his body, with poles and skis still attached. His face was about a foot under the surface. He bit down on the mouthpiece and relied on the AvaLung for just a minute or two, until he could clear the snow away from his face. He was able to move a little and talk to Boarder-2 as they were only about 5 feet apart. Because he was facing uphill, he had trouble moving the snow and was unable to dig himself out. "While I was buried I remember thinking to myself that if I was facing downhill I would be able to dig a lot easier." He was buried for 1 hour and 20 minutes and recovered by Boarder-2. He lost his sunglasses in the avalanche.
Boarder-2 ran downhill and for the most part, avoided the trees. He too was buried in a sitting position, facing downhill. His head was 2 to 3 feet deep. He could not really move his right arm because the ski pole was still attached. His left pole strap had slid up to his elbow and was able to dig, initially with that hand. Although he was buried for about 1 hour, he only used his AvaLung for "about 5 breaths" because he was able to move enough snow that he could see light. He eventually completely dug himself out, and went on to recover Skier-1 and Boarder-3. He claimed that he would have been able to get out sooner if he would have been able to release his feet from his board (split at this time) with the home made quick release system that is installed on his other snowboard. He had no injuries and lost no equipment.
Once out of the hole, Boarder-2 quickly pulled out his shovel and dug out Skier-1's head and chest and then turned his attention to Boarder-3. He found Boarder-3 by talking to him through the snow and quickly realized that he needed help digging him out. Boarder-2 yelled to Boarder-3 through the snow saying that he needed to finish digging out Skier-1. Boarder-2 returned to Skier-1 and finished digging him out of the snow. Boarder-2 and Skier-1 then dug Boarder-3 out of the debris.
Boarder-3 was pushed down into the trees like Skier-1. He was buried sideways, facing downhill, on the uphill side of a tree. He was buried 6 to 7 feet deep. He bit down on his AvaLung so hard that he left permanent marks in the mouthpiece. He used the AvaLung for approximately 15 minutes. He used one hand to cover his face and the other to increase the size of his air pocket. He said "the AvaLung is one of the reasons why I am alive today." He also said that if it were not for Boarder-2, "I'd be dead." From shuffling around an air hole appeared and he could see light. He could not really move because his ski pole straps were still attached, but was able to move one hand some because the pole broke just below the handle. His worst injury was from being hit in the head by a shovel. "Thank god it was a soft slab." He was buried approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes (the length of Boarder-3's burial was determined with the aid of digital photo timestamps). He broke one ski pole.
The time was 1430 and they dug out Skier 1's skis and Boarder 2's splitboard. They took some photos, and descended down into the valley floor out from under the avalanche path. They ate, drank, added layers and then headed back to the hut. They arrived back at the hut just before 1700. They discussed the accident with the other hut party and went to bed. They decided to hike out the next morning instead of staying one more night.
They did not need to use their probe poles or beacons for the rescue. Each member of the party was recovered through voice communication.