January 18th, 2011
Crew: Weston Bierma, Dana Walenta, Jordan Winters, and Graham Predeger
Location: East Vail Chutes
Our first of several low pressure disturbances on the northern track settled into the Vail valley leaving the resort with 15 inches of new snow and even more in the East Vail snow anomaly. Over the previous 24 hours we experienced high winds gusting to 80 mph, heavy snow, and our typical complex continental snow pack left us with the avalanche danger on high and flirting with extreme on certain aspects. Despite all the obvious clues and the upgraded avy danger we witnessed what has become all too common, people skiing alone and others dropping right down the gut.
After getting line drop – first shots on Campbell’s, Genghis Khan and a pair on Red Square it was time to skip the one hour lift lines and head for the East Vail Chutes. Lap one was conservative skirting the trees and hitting a cliff zone that we frequently ski when the avy danger is high. Towards the bottom we did witness some areas of instability. The snow pack was becoming reactive as all the new snow began to settle, our conservative decision making was confirmed. At the bus stop we ran into G-Man along with a couple of others who had noted seeing similar areas of instability on steeper aspects. We talked the whole way about the snow pack on our bus ride back into town for our to a second lap.
Lap 2 was very similar to lap in 1 in terms of route selection, trees on lower angle terrain. Just as we rounded the corner to our entry point we witnessed two guys skiing away slowly from a fresh slide in an area called Marvins. We would soon find out that one of the two skiers had triggered a slide about 30 feet below the starting convex roll entrance. The slide then propagated as it went over the first cliff band washing out hundreds of feet below on the flat shelf. The crown varied in depth stepping down to about 2-3 feet deep. The skier was very lucky taking only a short ride and losing one of his skis. I snapped a quick photo as I crossed the fresh debris, perplexed as to why someone would drop the gut on Marvins on a day like this.
Fresh slide on Marvins that gave a skier a ride that luckily only cost him one ski (Photo - Weston Bierma)
We rode the remaining way following our normal safety protocol. As we all met at our final safe zone around 9,750′ we see the two guys who had triggered the slide in Marvins frantically yelling “Avalanche, Avalanche…. There was just an Avalanche and the two people above us are gone!!!”
They yelled up briefing us on what had just happened. Two people dropped in above them (not in there group), triggered a slide, and yelled avalanche down to the two guys below. The guys below peeled off into the trees, when they re-entered the slope the two people who had yelled were gone. This is where we came in. We had every reason to believe that two people were buried in the debris below. All four of us quickly switched our beacons over to search and advised the other three who had just joined us to switch over as well. Four people were left outside of the slide path in an island of safety in case of any hang fire. Dana and I began booting up the debris to cover the upper half while Graham and Jordan went in at the middle and worked down (we started our search from the middle of the debris, not by choice it just happened to be where we were). Within 5 minutes we were 90% certain that no one with a beacon was buried, by 10 minutes we were 99% sure spending an additional 15-20 minutes looking for clues in front of trees and rocks.
Dana and Jordan doing some final checks before heading out (Photo - Weston Bierma)
The slide began below the cliff band and ran down through the aspens and into the foreground of the photo
Side Drama – While we covered the deposition the other two skiers who had initially alerted us had joined the other party of three in the safety area. One of the three guys in the second party on scene could not figure out how to switch over to search. What ensued was an eruption of the other two in his party.
“I thought you knew what you were doing!!”
“I am never skiing with you ever again.”
“I am out of here and you are not coming with”
Plus go ahead an add in some expletives, say every other word or so.
We couldn’t believe it, but I could not imagine being in the other group. Mean while a “Hans Solo” wearing nothing but an Avalung pulled up to the island of safety. He asked what was up, one of the others filled him in. Without hesitation he skied on past, right across the zone we were searching and disappeared into the aspens below, how fitting. As for our search, we were certain that if anyone was in there they did not have a beacon on. We soon found out that the pair that yelled avalanche kept on going down to the bus stop. The bus with them had already left before we got to them but another guy filled us in on the pair.
Weston and "The Sheriff" of East Vail (Photo - Dana Walenta Circa 09')
I am not sure what has been going on lately. Is it the Go Pro cameras, the tall T’s, or the Skittles aka Lollipop Kids that are setting the new standard for backcountry skiing? I have never seen so many people riding so careless. On this particular day we got to witness several “laws” broken that “the Sheriff” at the top of the Poma is there to prevent. Today I witnessed the following…
1. Dropping the gut on Marvin’s on 20″ of new under high avy danger.
2. Ski lost in slide.
3. Someone wearing headphones.
4. Someone who did not know how to switch their beacon over to search.
5. A “Hans Solo”, please note that this name does not imply any relation to how incredibly cool Harrison Ford actually is. (Hans Solo or Bogey are names that we use for solo ski/riders spotted in the backcountry)
6. Groups skiing or riding all at once in avalanche terrain.
7. Hans Solo wearing nothing but a Black Diamond Avalung… now what?
This is just the list from today. I have seen people carrying shovels that are actually for digging a pit to shit in when backpacking… guess what, you are shit out of luck if you need to dig a 5 foot hole through concrete in less time it takes to take a shit. I have pointed people back in the direction of the resort when they ask for directions on how to get down to East Vail. I have waited 30 minutes to drop in so the group that tailed us out the backcountry gate, either went their own way or turned around. I have had someone tell me on the lift that they have a Recco chip in their jacket so they can ride backcountry, I replied “yeah it’s a great popsicle recovery system”. (Recco is a reflective chip put in many high end garments, with the proper equipment and a helicopter it can be easily seen as a reflection from above, don’t hold your breath for the chopper). It’s not that hard to take a 3 day class at Colorado Mountain College, or go to the local gear shop and buy some equipment, at least pick up a book at the local library – it is free after all.
What I also witnessed was an excellent search executed by our group. It made me feel really good about my backcountry partners, thanks guys.
Am I going to continue riding in East Vail? Absolutely it’s my backyard… it just may not be as often. What am I going to do about it? Simple, buy a sled and head for the hills. More to follow.