The avalanche forecast for Sunday, December 23, called for “moderate” (level 2) danger at all elevations and all aspects in the Sawatch zone, around Leadville, Colorado. Ethan Greene, Director for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) wrote in his forecast that morning, “You can trigger persistent slabs around 3 feet deep, especially on wind-loaded slopes approaching 35 degrees this weekend…Human-triggered avalanches are possible on slopes with old, weak snow near the ground. You are most likely to trigger an avalanche on a slope that faces northwest, north, northeast or east.”
Moderate danger means natural avalanches are unlikely, but human-triggered ones are “possible.” In addition, the designation suggests that large avalanches are possible in “isolated areas,” while small ones are possible in “specific” areas. In layman’s terms, this means if a skier slides over the wrong spot, it’s possible he’ll trigger an avalanche. The avalanche problem, as described by Greene, highlighted “persistent slabs,” or slabs of stronger snow resting on weaker snow, which creates the potential for fracturing within the snowpack…and avalanches. The “persistent” component meant exactly that; the situation would linger for days, if not weeks, presenting a threat for backcountry travelers for the near future.
Sean Voorhies, 28, of Denver, had just completed his AIARE 1 (an introductory, 24-hour course through the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education) two weeks prior. “I did it with CMS,” Voorhies says, referring to the Colorado Mountain School, a guide service based in Boulder and Estes Park. Voorhies is a lifelong skier, riding “off and on” since the age of six. He’s begun honing his backcountry skills lately, so an AIARE 1 seemed like the ticket, as was a last-minute hut trip, booked at the Sangree M. Froelicher hut, north of Leadville.
“I got the last spot at the hut,” he explains. “The rest of the hut was booked by a big, extended family.”
Voorhies skied in alone on Friday, December 21. The CAIC forecast for the day was moderate below treeline, but considerable at and above treeline, northwest around the north to the southeast. The day prior, the 20th, it had been considerable (natural avalanches possible; human-triggered likely) at all elevations and aspects, and the 19th it had been “high” at and above treeline (naturals likely; human-triggered very likely), northwest around to southeast.
Conditions were gradually improving, or becoming more stable, but the threat still remained. On days of high danger, backcountry users are typically spooked into sticking to conservative terrain, or more likely, not skiing at all. Moderate danger, though, is a gray area–things are generally stable, but there remain pockets of tricky, unstable snow. Even career forecasters and professional guides can be caught off guard in conditions like Voorhies found.
The evening Voorhies skied in, he met Tim, a “fairly experienced backcountry skier, more than me,” Voorhies explains. Sunday, 36 hours after they’d skied in, Tim and Voorhies decided to tour together. “We talked about the objective. We wanted to summit Buckeye Peak, to see what was available” to ski, Voorhies recalls.
The pair left the hut at 10:30 a.m., performing a beacon check. They had no means to obtain the CAIC bulletin Saturday or Sunday and they toured north from the Froelicher hut, climbing towards a rounded feature just over 12,000 feet tall. “We’d read the report on Friday, so we were aware of the (avalanche) problems,” Voorhies says. “Winds were about 20 to 45 miles per hour and it was about 20 or 30 degrees.”
The pair quickly gained the saddle connecting the 12K sub-peak and Buckeye. “We took a look at the lines off Buckeye, but it didn’t look worth it, so we cancelled the plan.” They spied a shallow bowl, on the northeast aspect of the 12K feature. “We could see the bowl was super wind-loaded, with super big cornices over it,” remembers Voorhies.
They toured to a point above the bowl. There were several small ridges along the edge of the bowl. “We jumped on the cornice a few times, then Tim ski-cut the slope,” explains Voorhies. Voorhies joined Tim below the cornice. “We discussed our plan. We would ski one at a time,” says Voorhies. “Then we’d regroup below.”
“Tim makes his first turn, a wide cut, 20 to 30 feet below me. As soon as he drops his knee,” remembers Voorhies, he triggered the slope. “When the avalanche fractured, I was standing about five feet away from where it sheared from the cornice and was pretty much looking straight down to the ground/persistent slab about 3.5 to four feet down.”
Tim was riding telemark skis and was skiing without a helmet. Voorhies wore a helmet, but had “alpine touring” bindings, which release in a fall or avalanche, and also had an avalanche airbag–one of the inflatable “balloon packs” that help a person stay atop avalanche debris if caught.
“The avalanche was 150-feet across and it went across several ridges,” says Voorhies. “It went one-third to one-half of the way across the bowl.” Voorhies yelled “avalanche” when the slope went, then pulled the handle on his pack to deploy the airbag. “I could see Tim, 30 or 40 feet below me. He was getting tossed around in the washing machine. He was doing the one-hand-over-the-mouth and swimming with the other hand. Once the snow accelerated from behind, I lost sight of him. I was getting tossed side-to-side.”
The pair were entrained with the avalanching snow. Voorhies estimates they traveled 50 to 70 feet–not particularly far for an avalanche–coming to a stop two-thirds of the way down the avalanche path. “There was a lot of hangfire,” or snow remaining that could potentially avalanche. “I had so much adrenaline going, I was like ‘Woh, I’m still alive!’ I was buried up to my waist, in the blocky snow not the compacted stuff. It took me about 30 seconds to escape. Neither of my skis had come off. I could see there was a ski pole about 30 or 40 feet in front of me.
“I turned my beacon to search,” Voorhies relates, describing the use of his avalanche beacon, a device that allows a person to search for a buried skier, provided the victim is also equipped with a beacon. “I went to the pole. I heard moaning, like from pain. I worked my way down to where I heard that. The noise went away and I had my beacon out, so it said I was right on top of him. I went around and started digging. After ten strokes with the shovel, I hit his right leg.
“His head was upright, one leg behind him, one leg out horizontally.”
Voorhies reports that Tim’s mouth and nose were packed with ice, even though he’d managed to protect a small airspace in front of his face. He was unconscious.
“I yelled ‘breathe!’ and his eyes popped open,” says Voorhies. “I got to him fairly quickly, in less than five minutes. He was out of it at first. He was wondering (aloud) if he was alive, but he quickly regained his functions.” Tim eventually assisted in digging himself out and the pair quickly recognized they were still in danger and discussed their exit. The cornice still hung on the ridge above and portions of the bowl hadn’t slid in the initial slide.
They elected to traverse to a rocky, vegetated ridge with less snow. As they negotiated the ridge, they could feel their feet sinking into faceted, weak snow at the base of the snowpack. It was a tense few minutes, but they eventually climbed to the ridgeline, and surmounted the cornice. Once on top, they could see the cornice had fractured, though luckily hadn’t released. It was a short, ten-minute ski back to the Froelicher hut.
“I think we underestimated the amount of wind-loading on the line we chose,” says Voorhies. “I think it was a ‘conservatively dangerous’ approach. We chose the safest line of all of them, but…”
Voorhies wore a “Snowpulse” avalanche pack, one that deploys a 150-liter bladder designed to keep a skier atop an avalanche and therefore prevent burial. “I probably would’ve been buried without the balloon pack,” he says. “(The pack) was instrumental in how much time it saved in getting to him.”
The CAIC weather forecast that day called for ten to 20 mph winds out of the west and southwest–directions and speeds that would’ve transported loose, available snow into the northeast-facing feature Tim and Voorhies skied. Voorhies estimates the angle of the slope at its steepest at 33 or 34 degrees, with an average of approximately 32 degrees. As Greene’s forecast warned, “You can trigger persistent slabs around 3 feet deep, especially on wind-loaded slopes approaching 35 degrees…”
Despite choosing a slope slightly gentler than 35 degrees, the wind and weak snowpack surprised the two skiers. Voorhies did an admirable job of effecting a successful self-rescue, saving his partner’s life in the process. Though it’s easy to second-guess decisions after the fact, recall the day’s danger rating: moderate at all elevations and aspects. With Colorado’s shallow snowpack and wind, moderate tends to be about as good a rating as we see during the winter. Plenty of us–me included–have pushed the line on days with more severe danger ratings.
The day after the incident Voorhies reports feeling “like I’d been beaten with a bat.” His Snowpulse airbag uses a unique bladder, in the sense that it deploys from the shoulder straps and upper part of the backpack, effectively surrounding the wearer’s head and neck. “I feel like it helped” protect against trauma, he says.
Voorhies skied out that day, while Tim stayed another night. The two have kept in touch since the incident. Tim was unavailable for comment over the past several days–Voorhies forwarded my information to him, but we have yet to connect.
Thanks to Sean Voorhies for taking the time to explain in great detail his experience and for his willingness to self-critique and share his thoughts.
In our January-February issue Rob talks about how your brain is the best tool you carry into avalanche terrain.