Fairy Meadows Ski Trip
March 13-20, 1999
Trip Safety Summary
Safety is something I gave a great deal of thought to both prior to and since the trip. This was not a trip with a small group of regular partners of known backgrounds and skills. The ACC policies force the person with the reservation into a major commitment. As a result it is often necessary to promote the trip in order to fill the spots reserved.
I emphasized throughout the planning process that I was not guiding, nor was anyone else. I think this was very clear. However, I do think that anyone organizing such a trip needs to give some concern to safety. And having to rescue somebody, or in a worst case bring them out in a bag, isn't much fun whether or not you've done everything you could to see that people were prepared.
For the most part our group was safety conscious enough. Skill levels varied widely but most people did not undertake endeavors for which they were not prepared. It was clear that many felt at least a little bit intimidated by some of the terrain, leading to a certain amount of respect for the possibilities. Two had no backcountry awareness or experience whatsoever and one of them had enough skiing skill and enthusiasm to create a dangerous combination. (A combination which could almost define the typical avalanche victim.) These two should have been on a guided trip and I hope that in the future they, and anyone else reading this who is in a similar situation, will consider hiring an ACMG guide. (It's not cheap, but what's your life worth to you?)
This was the most stable year that local heli-ski operations had seen in a long time. It just kept snowing and snowing all winter and there was never much opportunity for persistent weaknesses such as surface hoar or facets to form. Concerns were generally related to new snow layers, and we did have some activity of the 60 cm new snow layer that fell while our flight in was delayed. This was primarily on slopes which had received sun during the nice weather preceding the snowfall, where a firm crust layer had formed. This was the bed surface for slides involving the new snow.
It was a good thing that there were no deeper persistent weak layers. Had there been such layering the chances of a serious involvement would have been high. One person, while skiing alone, made a set of tracks right between two slides which had just recently occurred naturally. Another showed a thorough lack of appreciation for the importance of route finding. They were probably the weakest in our group and lacked backcountry experience, education, and an appreciation of potential consequences.
Most of our group had little to no experience with a continental or transitional snowpack and probably would have had difficulty assessing a snowpack with layers typical of such a climate. However, most have had enough education to understand explanations and discussions involving such layers. Paul and Tere are from Colorado and presumably have experience with continental conditions.
Within the other group sharing the hut they did have one avalanche involvement. Again it was fortunate that the instability was shallow and the layer still very soft. The woman who was buried was able to get herself out of the debris and a search was not necessary. At least part of that group had taken an avalanche class prior to the trip and in preparation for it. The impression I am left with is that their course was heavy on snowpits, crystals, and layers but weak on terrain assessment, routefinding, and traveling protocols. (A common shortcoming of educational programs.) The slope that slid was the same elevation and aspect as at least two naturals which occurred earlier in the week, and they had at least three people exposed to the potential hazard at once. While their effort to prepare by taking a course was appropriate a course does not make up for experience in the field. It turns out that most people involved in avalanches had some education prior to their incident.
We were prevented by the weather from attempting any of the longer tours which cross the Granite or Gothics glaciers, both of which are heavily crevassed. In retrospect this may have been just as well.
There was confusion and to some extent minor disagreement prior to going into the hut on what constituted sufficient rescue gear. During the planning stages I felt that it would be best to take two 9mm mountaineering ropes for glacier travel so that any group going onto heavily crevassed terrain could carry one or both ropes. Also, if somebody got into trouble unexpectedly the ropes would be on-hand somewhere. A couple people responded that they would carry 50 ft kayak throw bags and felt that was sufficient, and they did not want the group ropes to effect their weight allowance. (Fly-in weight was looking possibly very tight at the time.) After being there I suspect they have changed their mind. My own feeling after being there and after talking to others who know the area (including ACMG guides) is that carrying anything less than a mountaineering rope (of full length) is not only insufficient but dangerous and negligent. Having a couple ropes with us was appropriate. Any future trips to similar terrain will also include full length mountaineering ropes.
In addition to carrying appropriate rescue gear the group must know how to use it and respond to a crevasse fall. Our group varied widely on this. Many knew how to set up a 3-1 system, few if any knew more than this. A few had learned the pulley system in the context of a mountaineering course and presumably knew a few other basics as well (such as how to ascend a rope). A few probably did not know anything at all about glacier travel. I am not very comfortable that a major fall involving any complications (such as wedging or injury) could have been handled by most of the group.
The one day we set out for the Granite Glacier and Unicol I looked at my partners when we stopped and the group decided not continue with the original route. There was one person whose skills I feel pretty good about, but as we were setting out he wanted to review the 3-1 pulley system. This was a bit late to be reviewing it and also a reminder that he probably didn't know too much else in addition to it. There were two people who had originally felt a throw bag was sufficient gear for the terrain (but who may have been able to work with a rope given that it was there). And there was the guy who had the 3-1 system down after learning it Sunday but knew absolutely nothing else about glaciers or about backcountry travel in general. Not a reassuring picture, and I would like to be able to expect more from partners on crevassed terrain.
To some extent we needed to see what the terrain was like and how the trip went. We were fortunate in that the snow stability was good, and the weather eliminated serious glacier travel anyway. Now we've been there and know.
For any future trips the importance of glacier travel skills and avalanche skills should be emphasized even more. I will have certain expectations for anyone I personally travel with in this terrain, and others should have their own expectations as well. Not everyone has the same expectations and I have no problems sharing the hut with people I don't want to travel certain terrain with, as long as they have thought out their expectations and endeavors and just reached a different conclusion than I. Those who have not thought things out or are totally lacking in backcountry skills present a risk to everyone.