Sperry: Musings on avalanches, prevention and the unforgiving wild (column)
October 12, 2017
As the years pass by, it seems to be a regular occurrence, the death of fellow mountain lovers to the mountains. Every year the mountains take us to heights of pleasure and depths of despair. We are elevated by their elevations and beauty. We are drawn to their majesty and blissful freedom. We are drawn to them for their savage power so foreign to our banal civilized existences. They are a place where dreams and nightmares exist. We are visitors in the wild. We are out of place in the wild and the wild is unforgiving.
Last Saturday, Oct. 7, two experienced alpinists, Hayden Kennedy of Carbondale and his girlfriend Inge Perkins of Bozeman, Montana, were involved in an avalanche incident, while skinning up Imp Peak in Montana. Inge was buried 3 feet under the snow and couldn't be located by Hayden. She died. Hayden, unable to cope with his anguish over the loss, took his own life.
My thoughts go to their friends and family. They were well-known to many in the alpinist community. I did not know them, but many of my friends did and hearing about them on social media got me thinking hard about this dangerous game that we play. On a couple of levels, what went down in Montana has been on my mind for some time. This hits particularly close to home.
Tuesday, Oct. 11, is the eighth anniversary of my own early season avalanche incident. It happened on Grizzly Peak in the Sawatch Range, just outside of Aspen. It was terrifying to watch my tracks disappear as the slope fractured like a pane of broken glass, triggered by the ski cutting of my partner above. The slide thundered down the couloir its full track; its flank was 4 feet from my ski tips and it ran about 1,800 feet. I'm certain that if I had been captured by its fury I would have died.
I feel very lucky to have picked an appropriate "safe" zone. I can't help but question my entire decision-making process for the day. Our group ascended the line; it could have slid on the ascent. The snowpack looked eerily similar to the snowpack in Montana. But at the time of my incident I wasn't thinking about the avalanche conditions. It was early season; I didn't put any real thought into what the avalanche danger was. Hell it was ski season again, life was starting to get back to good again. I just wanted to ski a sweet couloir on a peak on my hit list. I'm not saying that this was the thinking or motivation of the Montana victims. I'm not judging them or armchair quarterbacking in any way. I'm merely saying that I let my guard down eight years ago and I nearly paid for my mistake with my life.
The other level is darker. For many years now, I seem to have the most experience in the groups I ski with. This isn't always the case but there are many times where I find myself making the decisions for the group, subjecting them to my choices and their consequences. These partners have included people I don't know, my friends, girlfriend, wife, family and children. Thankfully my choices haven't resulted in any burials. I don't know what happened in Montana and I'm not going to speculate.
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I can't help but wonder, for myself, if I made the wrong call and a loved one died; how would I react? The bonds of friendship and love that grow in the backcountry are the strongest bonds outside of fatherhood that I've ever known. The what-ifs are running rampant through my brain. What if it was my best friend, my girlfriend, my wife, my brother or my child that perished? How do you cope with that loss especially if your choice led to their end? I'm not saying this was the case in Montana, I'm merely running through scenarios that put Hayden's actions in line with my own perspective and experience. The choices made in harm's way lead to what?
With snow on the ground we're reminded of the dangers that lurk within the snowpack. The other day we got amazing powder turns from the first big storm of the season. On the way up we dug into the miniscule pack. We got a 1-foot slab to release on isolation; we skied a different aspect, with better stability because of this. The avalanche puzzle has to be part of your mountain experience when there is snow on the ground. Use your avalanche transceiver and carry rescue equipment, i.e. a shovel and probe, when subjecting you and your group to avalanche terrain — slopes exceeding 30 degrees, whether you are on them, near them or under them. Practice rescue plans and skills early and often.
Get avalanche education from certified guides and instructors. Check the forecast. Know before you go. Dig into the snow to understand the snowpack's stability. Dig in many safe, representative locations to overcome the spatial variability issue. Every member of your group has an equal voice. Listen to all members of your group and take the most conservative choice among the group. Show your partner that level of respect. Everyone needs to know and understand the plan. Risks need to be discussed, understood and mitigated.
The mountains' lure is irresistible. We can't help but go to them; they are amazing and generally make our lives better. However, as evidenced by the Montana incident, it doesn't have to go huge to bury or kill you. We need to let their loss be a beacon to the rest of us. May we have a bountiful winter and may we all stay safe in the hills. May you rest in peace Hayden and Inge and may your tragic loss bring the hazards of avalanches to the forefront of people's consciousness when they are visiting the snowy hills.
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