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Reflections on an Avalanche

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Photographer Adam Clark looks back on the avalanche in Grizzly Gulch and the mistakes, mindsets and lessons learned from a slide that's shaping up as this year's early season wake-up call.

Amie Engerbretson, at the moment the avalanche released. Photo: Adam Clark

Last week, in a widely reported avalanche in Little Cottonwood Canyon, skier Amie Engerbretson was buried after setting off a slide during a photo shoot in Grizzly Gulch. The avalanche, captured on video and estimated by the Utah Avalanche Center to have a crown 150’ wide and 2’ deep, carried Engerbretson 100’ into a terrain trap where it buried her under 1.5’ of snow. Fortunately, she was rescued in minutes and was able to walk away from the slide uninjured. But the detailed recording of the avalanche and the circumstances of the slide—neither of Engerbretson’s partners were carrying avalanche equipment, and the aspect the group chose had “Considerable” avalanche danger—has generated considerable attention as a test case of experienced backcountry skiers making bad decisions in avalanche terrain.   

This conversation is much richer for the first-hand perspectives of the parties involved. Last week, Engerbretson published a first-hand account of being caught in the slide, and over the weekend we sat down with the photographer, Adam Clark—a frequent contributor of images to Black Diamond—to talk about the decision-making that led to the accident, and what he’s learned from this early-season wake-up call.  

Q: What did you take away from the experience?

The Human Factor. That’s numero uno. It was really interesting; the avalanche happened and the next day I was in an avalanche class. I’ve done these Level One classes and worked with all these guides; I have ten years of avalanche classes in one form or another. But I realized that the thing that had gone in one ear and out the other was the Human Factor. I went back and I looked through my notes and they’re always about the pit, and the data: ‘What’s the danger? Will the slope slide?’ What was missing was my relationship with that information. And that’s that Human Factor. There are so many ways to let that get in the way of your decision-making.

Q: So take us back to the day of the avalanche. What happened?

That day, I was just going up to shoot at Alta, to ski and shoot. I talked to Amie, we met up—us and another skier—and we spent the morning shooting at Alta. It was great: we were getting some great photos, the snow was all-time and it was beautiful—sunny and no wind. It was just the perfect, magical day. And that magic was definitely part of what happened later. We were on a real high. 

By 1:30 we’d skied and shot all the stuff that I’d saw around Alta, so I suggested we go to Grizzly Gulch, because it’s right there—next to Alta, a short hike from the parking lot. So we stopped by the car, and Amie and the other skier got their backcountry backpacks. But because I hadn’t thought I was going to go into the backcountry that day, I didn’t have any gear in the vehicle or with me. 

All the same, we went over to Grizzly Gulch. You basically traverse to it. We hiked up to the top of the line, which is a spot that gets shot all the time. It gets skied all the time, it’s used as a landing for a jump; there’s usually one or two jumps there that stick around all winter. Right where we’d traversed in, some people had dropped in, and I saw some tracks that had gone down it into Grizzly Gulch. Later, looking back, I saw all those tracks turned into smaller little avalanches, which would have been a really important sign. 

We got to the top, and we all talked. We knew that there was instability, but we didn’t really talk about the report, we talked about what gear we had. I mentioned that I did not have a shovel, and I did not have a beacon. It was a short talk, and looking back, we should have talked more about it.

Q: So you didn’t talk about the report, you talked about what you had for gear?

Yeah. I don’t even know if we really decided if skiing the line was a good decision or a bad decision. We just expressed what gear we had. While we were walking up, we talked about the avalanche activity, but while these points were brought up, no real decision was made around them. 

It’s great to say what’s on your mind, and put it out there in the group, but a decision has to be made. It felt like we were making a decision, but we weren’t. We were just talking about it. I never said, “I think it’s safe.” I never said, “I think it’s dangerous.” None of us made a yes or no decision; it ended up being a yes by default. Bringing up your concern is really important, but making a decision based on that concern has to happen. And we didn’t really make a decision.

Q: So what happened next?

I went down and looked and felt the snow. Luckily nothing slid because they wouldn’t have seen me if something had slid, because I was over the roll, and behind trees. But it’s not as steep there, and it doesn’t have that convex shape to it, so it’s not as avalanche-prone. I called the other skier on her phone, and we talked about where the shot was. 

We were going for a really classic Alta powder turn. The whole ridge I’ve shot a lot, but especially that one spot. I’ve never avoided it. I don’t know why; I look at the avalanche report and it says the convex part of that slope is 41°. And even though it’s only 41° for ten feet, it’s still 41°. It has all of the aspects of a perfect place for an avalanche to start, just in miniature. 

The shot was right above some bigger trees, which weren’t in the shot, but to me it felt like that would be a safe place to make a turn. Both rock-wise, and because it was the smallest part of the slope. The slope where Amie skied, you couldn’t make more than two turns there. There was barely enough space for one big turn. 

Q: So Amie drops in.

Yeah, luckily, it was Amie who dropped in—luckily, because the other skier didn’t have an airbag or her beacon either. So Amie drops in, and as soon as she finishes her turn—you know, you’ve seen the photo—that first part breaks off.

Q: She made a big slash there.

Yeah she made the turn and then kinda turned again, so she lost all of her speed in that turn. And she had just enough speed as she pulled her airbag to traverse through the slide a little bit, and got to some trees, where she hugged a tree. But because of the sympathetic release above her, that second wave washed her off the trees. And then buried her.

I saw her on the trees, and then I couldn’t see her anymore.

I immediately skied over, and saw—there’s no Amie. I knew there were people everywhere, so I just screamed for help, but those two guys had already started coming. And I just started digging with my hands where you’d just guess somebody would—hopefully—be buried. I found a ski pole pretty much immediately. It wasn’t attached to her, so I wasn’t sure if that’s where she’d be or not, but I just started digging that way anyways. The ski pole did lead to her, but as I was digging the first guy probed her. And we started digging.

The first ten seconds felt like an eternity. But I think we were to her head in less than two minutes. It all happened really quickly.

Q: So, thinking about the factors that contributed to your decision-making, it sounds like this was a place you were really familiar with. 

Yeah, that’s the first thing that comes up, when you talk about the Human Factor: familiarity. I was comfortable with it in my mind. I had seen avalanches happen some places around there but not in others. And what I’ve realized is that, for this one spot in particular, it gets skied a lot. There’s always kids building jumps on it, there’s always people skiing it. But this year it hadn’t been skied yet. People had been taking heed of the avalanche warnings on that north-facing aspect, and people had been staying away from it. I was probably one of the first people to get in there for the season. 

Because I was comfortable with it after ten years of shooting in it, I didn’t look at it from a fresh perspective. I looked at it from a ten-year perspective, and I didn’t really think about all the details. I just went there because I thought, “I’ve shot here before, and I’ve shot here before on dangerous days.” That familiarity was part of the way that I tricked myself. 

I tricked myself into thinking that it was OK to do this. And then the other part of that Human Factor is that I wanted it. I wanted it to be good, I wanted it to be fun, I wanted the beauty of the day to keep going, to keep having such a good time with my friends and getting a cool photo. I wanted that to be the scenario. So I was telling myself it was ok.

Q: How did the fact it was mid-afternoon play into it?

If had been the first thing in the morning, I would have known that I was going into the backcountry. And that was one of the things that we talked about in this last avalanche class: the Daily Ritual. That day, I didn’t have the ritual. I usually do; I look at the forecast, and make up my mind before I go into the backcountry. When you’re in your pajamas, thinking about the day, you don’t have the seduction of the beautiful powder. It’s easier to say “no” first thing in the morning. To say, “I am not going to ski above 8,000’ on a north facing slope. That’s closed.” And I hadn’t done that ritual in the morning: I was just doing a resort day. So I think that that morning ritual is super important.

Q: As a photographer who makes his living off selling beautiful photos of the backcountry, how do you think about risk, and the risk your subjects put themselves in for your photos?

It’s a tough question, and one I’ve thought a lot about. There’s two different pieces to it. One of them is the group dynamic: anytime you’re in the backcountry, you need to make a decision as a group. You have to make sure that nobody is left unheard, and that if somebody sees something, they have the opportunity to say what they think is wrong. With avalanches it’s a group decision. It doesn’t matter what position you are in that group, whether you’re directing, or producing, or an athlete, or an assistant. Everyone should be at the same level, able to say what they see and what they’re worried about.

And then there’s the aspect of me making money off somebody putting their life in danger. And that one for me is a lot simpler: I want to work with people whose decision-making I feel confident in. I have to leave decisions up to them; I don’t tell anybody what to do. If somebody wants to jump off a cliff, I’ll document it, but I want to work with people who I feel are making the right decisions for themselves. Does that answer the question?

Q: It does, but to push you a little more on it, in this case you were the photographer and the local, and so it’s easy to imagine any skier wanting to follow you to get the shot.

Absolutely. And here I feel like I had more responsibility than Amie did. Because it was my decision to go there, and I asked her to go there, and I didn’t have my gear. I was the last person I expected to make that kind of bad decision. It’s a decision that put a friend at risk, and myself at risk. Amie’s an amazing person, and doesn’t—as far as I can tell—blame me at all. But still, I feel like it is part of my job as a photographer—but also just as a fellow backcountry skier—to make a conservative decision for my friends. Conservative is the important word there: when you’re making a decision for somebody you have to be more careful than if you’re making a decision for yourself, to err on the side of safety.

Q: So what would you do differently?

I have to go through what I’m calling the Daily Ritual. It doesn’t matter if it’s ten feet past the ropeline or deep into the Alaska wilderness, I still need to go through this backcountry checklist. No matter what. Whether it’s a safe day, a dangerous day, a big backcountry day, a small backcountry day. The thing that got to me was how small this was. But it doesn’t matter, the same checklist has to happen regardless. That’s what I’m going to take home.

Q: So where would you have made a different call?

Hopefully it would have started with the conversation about moving into the backcountry. And then I’m going back to that Daily Ritual, starting with the avalanche report. And at that point, I’d go, “OK, above 8,000’ on north-facing slopes, that’s off limits.” If I’d done that, I would’ve said to Amie that we couldn’t go to Grizzly Gulch, it’s north facing, above 8,000’. Maybe there’s something that’s less steep and east facing. And so I’d find something that’s on the list of what I’d consider skiable for the day. 

Q: And in terms of having the gear?

Yeah, so again, I’d go back to that Daily backcountry Ritual. And hopefully everybody’s Daily Ritual for going into the backcountry includes having all the gear. So if I didn’t have my gear in the truck—which I didn’t—that would be my first decision point. I would say, you know, I can’t go into the backcountry. I don’t have my gear. Let’s just ski around Alta some more. Maybe we get some photos, maybe we just have fun, whatever. 

When you’re consciously thinking through that Daily Ritual, you act differently. You know, last winter I woke up at 4:00 to go backcountry skiing with my friends, and my batteries were dead in my beacon. And I turned around. I was in my backcountry mode: I said, ‘I can’t go. I don’t have a beacon.’

Q: Do you think you fell into the ‘sidecountry’ trap?’

Yeah, absolutely. It was right next to a house. You could throw a snowball at somebody’s house. So again, that familiarity: just because you can see it from the road doesn’t mean it’s safe. 

You know, the women at SAFE-AS (Skiers Advocating and Fostering Education for Avalanche and Snow Safety) are promoting wearing a beacon in-bounds on a storm day, or an avalanche risk day. I think it’s a great idea. Whether it’s in-area or close to the boundary, there’s still a grey area there. And it’s really important to be hyper aware of that. 

Q: I think one of big conversations we’re going to be having is the relative importance of gear and judgment. Because, on the one hand, obviously you should have had your gear with you. But even if you’d had your gear with you, that wouldn’t have changed the decision to ski that slope. 

No, the only thing gear would have helped with is my mental health, my own sense of responsibility. Because those guys only happened to be there. They’re the ones that saved Amie. But, totally, the decision-making is the most important. Potentially, you could never have any gear, and if you always made the right decision you’d never need it. 

Q: Is there anything else you’ve been thinking about in the aftermath of this?

I’ve been thinking to myself, how did I get myself into this position? After all these years, working in the backcountry, this is the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. How did I let myself get there? So, there’s that Daily Ritual that I’ve been talking about, which I think is so important. But I also needed have my winter ritual, that talk with myself, or somebody else, that’s like, “Hey, it’s wintertime. I’m going to go skiing. I’m going to go ski the backcountry, I’m going to ski the sidecountry, I’m going to go ski storm days in the area. What do I need to do to keep myself safe this winter?” And I need to do that every winter, just like I need to do it every day, just like I need to do it every time I decide to go ski in the backcountry. Because I hadn’t given myself my winter refresher yet. 

It’s a real wakeup call. If this helps anybody else, I’m all about it. You know, the next day, I had a friend that was up looking at the avalanche, and just 200’ down the ridge a kid was building a jump, into the next pocket. He was by himself, jumping into the exact same exposure. This is probably a kid who didn’t even know what an avalanche was, who just wanted to build a jump into the powder snow. So yeah, it’s gotten a lot of talk and a lot of exposure and I think that’s a good thing. I want to think I’m the only one that would make that call, but I’m not. There are other people out there that would do the same thing. Because we’re all human. 

Q: What would you want to say to people who are following this, reading the reports, and having the response that this was such an obvious, avoidable mistake?

Never underestimate the human factor. Our brains turn on and off. You have to check yourself. You can check your gear, you can check your beacon, you can check your partner, but you have to remember to check yourself.