In the world of avalanche terrain, complacency is often synonymous with accidents. It’s a concept that we [should] learn early when starting to venture into the backcountry. When I took my Avy I course a few years ago, the instructor showed us a chart that stuck with me. I promised myself that I would try my best to not follow the predictive pattern that it describes.
Over time we gain knowledge and experience. Taking courses and getting out with knowledgeable partners are a big part of this process. Unfortunately, we don’t always make great decisions, can miss important factors, and often times get away with it out of sheer luck. In the case that nothing does go wrong, we end up taking misinformation and applying it to our growing knowledge base. “Last weekend I skied a NE slope that has a persistent slab buried about 40cm and everything was fine.” Maybe we missed the shooting cracks that were present while skinning, or maybe we just never hit a weak point in the slab, which if we had, may have triggered a release. Or maybe, just maybe, that persistent slab was starting to settle and get safer to ski.
As we learn more and gain experience, our tolerance for risk tends to increase. When you first start skiing in the backcountry, everything is terrifying. Practically any terrain you want to ski is potentially avalanche terrain and we know just enough to be terrified. Through courses and time on the snow we learn how to start to identify safe terrain. That level of risk starts to creep upwards as we start to use our perceived knowledge to venture into bigger, riskier terrain. Every time we go out and test our assumptions and they hold up, we are adding to our perceived knowledge.
Unfortunately, all-too-often, it takes making a bad decision and not getting lucky to force us to step back and challenge our perceived knowledge and level of acceptable risk. Maybe we set off a slide on a slope we thought to be safe, or worse, we (or a friend) gets carried/buried in a slide in supposedly “safe” terrain. Worse still, the consequences of our poor decisions can be dire.
When I first saw a chart like the one above, I promised myself that I would fight the natural susceptibility to tolerate greater risks. I would fight the tendency to allow an increased level of risk by using open communication; over communicating is better than not. I would challenge decisions, even if they seemed trivial, to make sure all of the information was on the table.
Well, it turns out fighting this behavior is a lot easier said than done. Even with an open dialogue, if the entire group has a heightened risk tolerance, complacency ensues.
So why do I bring this all up? Last weekend I believe I hit one of those spikes in the chart. Nobody was hurt and we all managed to walk away having skied a classic line in Rocky Mountain National Park. But we shouldn’t have.
Dragons Tail Couloir descends the southeast face of Flattop Mountain, dropping down the Tyndall glacier gorge, ending at Emerald Lake; providing a prime viewing location for the dozens of tourists out for a pleasant (and quite popular) hike through the park. You can either ascend the couloir directly, or as we opted, by hiking the Flattop Mountain trail and entering the couloir from above.
We knew going into the trip that the snow wasn’t in great shape. May had been a productive month for snow in the front range – several feet up high. The snow was immediately followed by a warm period where not even the highest peaks were seeing freezing temps overnight. The snowpack during the day had the consistency of a giant Slushie. Rotten. We were under the impression that the couple of days preceding our trip had seen freezing temps overnight and we’d planned accordingly, intending to get an early enough start that the upper mountain would still be cold.
On approach, we found promising crusts in the trees, but once we hit treeline and direct morning sun, the snow was terrible. Our quick hiking turned to post-holing and a transition to skins. Not a good sign. We discussed the snow, rationalizing that the couloir was more south facing and it’s steep walls would keep it cooler for a bit longer. We knew we were on a time crunch, but willing to keep going.
We made it up to the top by 10:30. Typically a completely reasonable hour to consider a descent. Still wary of the snow, I descended 20-30 feet to test the snow. It was promising. I wasn’t post-holing through like on the approach. The snow was certainly soft. I was sinking to nearly halfway up my boot. Not great, but we agreed that it was within what we considered a reasonable tolerance.
Having discussed our options, including a safer alternate taking us down a low-angle snowfield on the north side of Flattop, we opted to ski the couloir. I went first, kicking off considerable sluff with each turn. Traversing into the first safe zone, I kicked off a point release wet slab, nearly 3 feet wide, breaking down through the 6-9 inches of wet surface snow. I was out of sight of my partners, but quickly my head started spinning. This was a HUGE red flag. Not even a quarter of the way through the couloir, with the steep narrow choke still below us and I was having doubts. I could yell up, get my partners to hold off, and climb back out. It wasn’t too late, not yet. I opted to wait for them to reach me.
Once they were both down with me, I learned another group had shown up behind us. The rationale of waiting had backfired. Now ascending the couloir was even less likely. Blindly trying to yell up to another group to hold off while we climbed out seemed less safe than continuing down. We reiterated the importance of managing the wet snow and took off one at a time through the crux of the route.
Dragon tail has two possible upper routes: the left (standard) fork we descended, and a right more technical line. They join right where we’d stopped to regroup for a second time. This was where things really went downhill. We heard it coming. A slide roared down the right fork, a band of rocks shielding us from the stream of wet snow. We watched as it ran down the gut of the couloir below us. Was that the other group? Were they trying to ski the right fork? If so, we should wait for them to reach us, rather than risk them sending more snow on top of us.
Just a minute or two later we heard a loud crack and the rumbling of snow coming from the west wall. A large stream of snow comes cascading off the cliffs descending like a waterfall into the couloir maybe 200 feet below us.
It dawned on us that this was all natural activity – the mountains were warming up, shedding rock and snow in the process. We were in the worst place imaginable. The only thing to do was to get out. Riding through our own sluff, dropped in one at a time, skiing the lower half of the couloir in one shot.
Thankfully no more snow came down while we were in the couloir, though as my partners were descending, I watched as another slide ran down Dragons Tail – an adjacent line to the one we were skiing.
Once we were all out, we stopped to reflect on what we’d done. Sure, it was fun and was definitely exciting, but we all agreed that we had made a bad decision. We were lucky that none of the slides had come down on top of us, otherwise it would have been a much different situation.
So, I felt like it was time to take a step back and reflect. We are all arguably safe skiers. We have a good foundation of knowledge in avalanche terrain and were communicating effectively. But it had also been a full year of building risk and trust. We were so confident in our decision making that we were ignoring objective hazards, putting ourselves into an unnecessarily risky situation that could’ve been easily avoided. I am taking things down a step and reminding myself that I don’t know as much as I think I do.
We have to respect the mountains and learn to be humble. After all, that classic line will still be there tomorrow, next week, next season, and for years to come.