I survived a big Avalanche while snowmobiling—what happened?
Patrick Garbutt | On 21, Mar 2016
A video called “I survived a big Avalanche while snowmbiling thanks to my guardian angels !!!!…” posted on March 17, 2016 by YouTube user Doug Lakeman shows a rider trigger, and survive, a large avalanche while riding in the Gorman Lake snowmobile area near Golden, BC.
The video gives a gut-wrenching, first-person account of a big ride in an avalanche.
As someone who is very familiar with this particular area—having ridden Gorman probably 50 times in the last 11 years—I thought I would give my thoughts on what transpired, based on what I know and what can be deduced from the video itself. For transparency, I’m no avalanche forecaster, but I do hold an Avalanche Operations Level 1 certificate from the Canadian Avalanche Association, and have spend the better part of the last decade chasing powder on a snowmobile in the Columbia and Rocky Mountains of BC.
It’s been a very unfortunate winter season for the snowmobiling community, and I think everyone knows that I am referring to the number of sledder avalanche fatalities—including one death less than a month before this incident, which occurred just a couple of drainages to the northwest (a 30-year old man from Calgary died there on February 20, 2016).
But let’s get something out of the way immediately. I use the term “unfortunate” loosely when talking about the number of deaths this winter—because it implies a strong element of luck, and frankly I don’t really believe that this season’s death toll has much to do with luck. It would be more accurate to say that it’s been a very sad winter season.
Something else that I’d like to make clear right away is that the point of this is not to humble the rider portrayed in the video. I suspect that the avalanche did that for him. Instead, I want to encourage others to think about why this might have happened so that they and their riding friends can avoid putting themselves in a similar, near-deadly situation.
Instead, I want to say “big thanks” to the poster for putting this video up and exposing themselves to the condemnations of the internet critic. It’s not easy to put yourself out there and say, “I made a mistake.” But this is the kind of scary experience that makes a rider more knowledgeable and safe in the future, and the benefit that other riders can gain from watching it might be that they don’t have to go through a similar situation themselves to learn something that can help them make smarter decisions in avalanche terrain.
Here’s the video:
Okay, so here we go. What can we deduce from the video?
Well, anyone who’s ridden Gorman Lake before should recognize that this incident happened just past the end of the groomed trail, even before reaching the lake. The main slope in question is mostly south-facing and rises from 1980m to 2370m at the saddle, a vertical gain of 390m/1280ft (according to Google Earth). That’s a big pull.
What can we say about the avalanche conditions? Well, by the looks of the video, there was a recent fresh snowfall, because the area is mostly untracked. It looks like there is around 15cm at the bottom of the climb, which means likely more up top near the ridgeline.
The rider starts climbing at 0:25 and pins the throttle a couple seconds later. You can tell he is wide-open for the entire climb both by the engine sound and because you can see the tach gauge several times throughout the climb reading 7900 rpm, which is peak output for that particular engine. The avalanche is triggered at 1:25, which means he was climbing for a full minute before triggering the slope. That’s a big slope to be riding the day after a fresh snowfall. You wouldn’t catch me doing that when there is so much untouched terrain to ride that is waaaayy less consequential.
That’s not to say that I’ve never gone up that slope before. I have, I think twice in 11 years riding there. But it certainly wasn’t after a fresh storm. And I stuck to the guts, where there is usually a compacted track. Anyway, we’ve seen that going straight up the first big-ass slope you come across on a powder day isn’t necessarily the best call.
It’s hard to say what time of day the avalanche was triggered, but something else I noticed immediately is the sun on the slope. The weather that day was a mix of sun and clouds. But being south-facing, that slope is subject to more solar radiation than others and that’s something to consider when making terrain choices. Looking back at the forecast, the high for the day was forecast to be 6.6°C at valley bottom. That’s not overly warm up at elevation unless there was a temperature inversion in play. But ambient temperature is only part of the equation, and it doesn’t take a lot of radiation to affect a slope. It’s just one more factor to consider.
When the avalanche is triggered it propagates up towards the rocks above, which is interesting. Is that a result of the rider triggering a propagation from the bottom of a ridgeline wind slab? Or was he close enough to the rocks to trigger a weakness near the rocks themselves? I’m not sure.
For a more accurate take at what’s going on with the snow, we have to look back at the Avalanche Canada bulletin issued for March 13.
What does it tell us? Well, the avalanche danger rating forecasted for Sunday was “Considerable” in the Alpine and at Treeline, both of which probably apply to this situation based on how much elevation was gained in just one minute. That doesn’t tell us much information except that there are dangerous avalanche conditions and that human-triggered avalanches are likely. We need to dig deeper.
So what are the pertinent issues? The first listed problem is Wind Slabs.
Now, don’t just glance over that information. Actually go back and read it. “Aaaahhhh” you say.
The avalanche was triggered on a southeast aspect of the slope near the ridgeline—where wind slabs typically form. From the video, there are no wind slabs visible due to the fresh snow load, but based on the result it is clear that a slab that had formed, possibly on the Thursday… just like the bulletin predicted. The advice was to be cautious when transitioning into wind affected terrain, but I would argue that our rider (at wide-open throttle) was not being very cautious as he approached the ridgeline, where wind affect is known to be a factor.
What else? Let’s have a look at the Avalanche Summary to see what kind of avalanche activity had been going on.
The Avalanche Summary portion tells us that storm slabs had been an issue in the last week on a variety of aspects, and with new snowfall and forecasted winds that it should be expected that more wind slab activity would continue. The weekend was too soon to expect slabs formed during the week to adhere, and there was new wind and snow developing over top. It would be a good time to take it easy in wind-affected terrain. That didn’t happen.
What else can we learn from the bulletin? Well, it talks about Persistent Slabs and Cornices, which fortunately didn’t come into play in this case. A slide this big has the potential to step down to a deeper weakness, which would undoubtedly have produced a more devastating result, but fortunately (I think I can finally use this word here), that does not seem to have occurred.
On the Bright Side
There are a couple of positives we can take from this incident too. For one, it seems like the rider who triggered the slide was the only one on the slope at the time, which is good use of the “One-At-A-Time” rule. Also, from the start of the video it looks like his riding buddies were nearby and watching from a safe distance. Good one.
Although the rider wasn’t wearing an avalanche airbag (according to his comments on YouTube), he was lucky to stay near the surface for most of his ride, and finish up with the top of his helmet and hand exposed (having lost his glove in the avalanche).
His nearby friends were ready to respond and arrived to help within a minute of the slide coming to a complete stop. Kudos.
Looking Back and Moving Forward
They say that hindsight is 20-20, and it’s easy to go back and pick apart decisions made that end up in an avalanche incident. But being out there and making the right decisions isn’t always so easy. There are a million factors to consider, and the mountains don’t part with their secrets easily.
It’s like Ilya Storm mentioned in his Avalanche Canada blog last week. “… [As mountain sledders] we get lousy feedback. That means we never know if our decisions are good or merely lucky. We only know for sure we made a wrong decision when the snow starts sliding under our feet.”
What I think that means is that the most critical insight we can gain from riding in the mountains happens when we actually see or experience what causes an avalanche, and the havoc it can wreak. When we can draw on our own mistakes—and the mistakes of others—then we’re really learning something valuable.
As mountain sledders let’s take from this what we can, get educated on avalanche safety and continue to share and learn from our experiences—for the health and well-being of our community of riders.