It happened on Zoa, of all places. It happened there because we’d made the right call earlier in the day, knowing that conditions were considerable and there was more new snow on the ground than the forecast had called for, so we’d backed off on our plans to ski Thar. Instead we opted for the simple terrain on the other side of Falls Lake, the tried and trusted Zoa, a zone where the consequences would be small if something did go wrong. That call was good; not all of our calls this day would be.
We saw a little bit of cracking once we gained the ridge, but nothing that set off significant alarm bells. We dug a pit on the first aspect we planned to ski, and while we found obvious planar shears at the expected depths they didn’t let go easily. We were careful to take our first run on a low angle, shorter slope, but nothing moved and there were no other signs of instability. For our second run, we moved across to the longer slopes on the east side of the peak. Again we went carefully, one at a time, picking a consistent fall line with no obvious weak spots. Again, nothing moved. The snow was light, fast, fun.
Given how solid things seemed, we started our third run on a slightly steeper pitch. That was the first of two obvious mistakes that we made: letting the seeming stability of our first two runs lure us into forgetting that we were still out in considerable conditions. The second mistake was deciding that things seemed stable enough for us to ski the third run together, rather than continuing our one-at-a-time approach.
S went first, his board kicking up a big arc of powder. I followed him down, the turns fast and light and dreamy. I’m pretty sure I was smiling. Just ahead of me, S crested a small convexity that dropped onto the steepest part of the slope. And then he yelled “Avalanche!” and the world broke apart around us.
That moment is still seared into my memory. S disappearing over the convexity, the snowpack fracturing beneath my feet and sweeping him away with it. Somehow my brain processed that the fracture had happened on the convexity and I was at the very top of it; instinctively I cut hard, hard to my left toward a small stand of trees. Blocks of snow slid away below my skis. Then the ground solidified and I was off it, momentarily away from the chaos.
I took a deep breath and looked at my surroundings. My “safe” spot was less than reassuring; cracks were shooting out from beneath my skis, the entire snowpack around me completely unstable. Somewhere below me was S, but the trees were blocking my view and I couldn’t see where. The slide wasn’t big; the crown above me was about 30cm. But I was desperately conscious that if S was in the runout zone and the rest of the slope gave way, it could easily bury him.
I yelled and he called back that he was safe. I tiptoed away from the spot where I’d stopped, back onto the bed surface of the slide. From there I could see S, who’d managed to self-arrest with his board and was about 50m downslope with his airbag deployed. The slide, while relatively small at the crown and not deep, had pulled out the rest of the bowl below us and the surprisingly large debris field had funnelled through the gully at the foot of the bowl.
I sideslipped carefully down to safety, and S worked his way across the slide path to join me. We were both shaken, relieved, and already starting the analysis of how we’d triggered the slide. S began the process of deflating and repacking his airbag; he noted that the deployment might actually have done more harm than good, since the part of the slide he was caught in wasn’t that large and the inflated bag prevented him from being able to see what was happening upslope.
The mistakes were so obvious with hindsight. We let the seeming stability of our first two runs lull us into a false sense of security, and then we stopped taking the precautions that should be essential in considerable conditions – safest line, one at a time. But we also made the right decision very early in the day, when we backed off on Thar in favour of a much safer, less consequential zone.
I’m not at all sorry we made those mistakes. I’ve been skiing in the backcountry for almost five years now; that was my first avalanche involvement. It would be too easy to believe that all of the previous days were the result of good choices, good assessment, knowledge and judgment; but if we’d stuck to lapping our first two lines on Zoa, we could have gone home believing that was the case on this day too. It’s good to be reminded that we’re human, we make mistakes, and that we can never, ever let our guard down. We’ll make better, more careful choices in the future as a result of making the wrong ones today.