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By Carol Ann Swanton in 1996
On the 10th of February, 1996 I was participating in the field portion of the National Avalanche School's program at Galena Summit, just north of Sun Valley, Idaho. We were a group of 8 back country skiers led by Doug Abromeit, Ketchum's National Forest Service avalanche forecaster. It was a phenomenally gorgeous, cloudless sunny day (by Northwest standards!) following the week of bone chilling cold temperatures and then a few days of precipitation.
Avalanche hazard was rated pretty high. We set out from about the 8900 foot level just south of Galena Summit on Titus Ridge, where the Forest Service maintains a weather station. The mission was to enhance our avalanche analysis skills - we dug snow pits, did shovel shear tests, performed Rutschblock tests and just plain looked at and felt the snow to determine the snowpack layers.
That day and the prior, Friday, we found a pretty recurrent weak layer at about 15 inches. We stopped at a couple of places to do some ski cutting and slope testing on belay, choosing what appeared to be benign slopes - relatively short and terminating in a cluster of trees. One of these spots was at about 9700' just above Titus Lake on a slope with a north east aspect at around 2PM.
I had watched most of the other members of the group demonstrate and practice the technique and had belayed someone else down a slope. Now it was my turn. We had just watched Jan Thompson, our very own Cascade Nordic, go down the same slope and report that all was well. I put on the climbing harness, adjusted the figure 8 knot and started down the slope. To my right was a small cross loaded gully and about 20' down the about 30 degree slope, it became convex and sloped off more steeply. I reached that point uneventfully and glanced back up at the other members of the group to announce I would take another step down and then be on my way up. It was getting a bit boring!
Most of the group had dispersed to another location to practice burying 'dead men' for use as belay anchors, so I saw maybe 3 or 4 folks above me. I stepped down with my left leg and immediately sunk down another 6’ or so while hearing at the same time an ominous ‘Woomph’. I looked up the hill to my belayer, who had assumed a very compact and efficient position. He was surrounded by the rest of the group who, apparently, had felt the ground drop even at their somewhat farther distance.
All were clinging to trees and had eyes like saucers staring down toward me. I watched a fracture begin a few feet below and to the right of me on the little gully. I watched as the fracture propagated across to my left, up the hill at an angle and across the top of the bowl next to me for about 500'. The whole hill let loose as a brittle slab with about a 5' crown face cascaded down the slope leaving a huge deposition sitting in front of the lake, which, according to my topo map, was at about 8900'. My comments on the matter at the time are all pretty much unprintable.
We spent a sobering rest of the afternoon analyzing the bed surface and crown face. Our avalanche had slid on a deep layer of depth hoar put down during the cold dry period immediately before Christmas. This was a layer I seem to recall seeing in our pit as being very small. Doug has promised to send each member of the group his snow pit analysis from this avalanche. We also watched some skiers in the distance huddle together at the top of the same ridge until they finally sent out one skier to the slope on which they had been skiing to perform some snowpack tests.
We elected to return to our automobiles along the same ridge we had come in on. I think I probably got a vivid first hand lesson on the effects of stored elastic energy in a snowpack and the group dynamics of route selection.
On a sadder note, there was another avalanche that same day on Paradise Peak in the Smoky Mountains, several miles south west of Galena Summit where a guide for Sun Valley Heli-Ski and member of the Sun Valley Ski patrol, James Ray Otteson, died. This, despite the fact that he was recovered within 15 minutes under about 4' of snow, thanks to his rescue beacon. He was at about 9200' on a west facing slope.
Many of us at Hyak think of avalanches as something that could probably never happen to us. Statistically, Washington is second in terms of avalanche fatalities, behind Colorado. With our increasing back country responsibilities, avalanche training is something our patrol needs to give some serious thought to.
--Carol Ann Swanton 1996
HELI-SKIER DIES IN CAMAS AVALANCHE
By Kristan Kennedy, February 14,1996
A Hailey man was killed in an avalanche Saturday while guiding a helicopter ski tour in the Smoky Mountains. Killed was James Ray Otteson, age 42, a guide for Sun Valley Hell-Ski and long-time valley resident. He was leading a party of tour backcountry skiers across Paradise Peak when he was caught in an avalanche that slid about 1,800 vertical feet, according to Kim Jacobs of Sun Valley Hell-Ski. Otteson was an experienced guide for Sun Valley Hell-Ski and a member of the Sun Valley Ski patrol. The guided tour was skiing in the remote Paradise Peak area, near the South Fork of Emma Creek in the Smoky Mountains.
The accident occurred in Camas County, about four miles west of the Blame County line. The snow slide broke loose at about 3 PM on a west facing slope at an elevation of about 9,200 feet. A search was initiated immediately by two fellow guides and 10 skiers. “They did everything perfect,” said Jacobs regarding the rescue attempt. He was located 48 inches below the surface by the transmission from his avalanche beacon. According to Jacob, the crew recovered Otteson in about 15 minutes.
"It's one of those things. nothing could have been done," said Jacobs. "He had his beacon on, we found him fast... The guides that were in charge of the search were really good”.
Jacobs said that Otteson was wearing fat-powder skis, and he was guiding one of four groups. He had four people in his group. He was skiing a run that had been skied all day long by other members of the group. "He was doing just what five other people had just done. He didn’t do anything wrong.”
CPR was administered at once and continued while he was transported by helicopter to Baker Creek, where an ambulance with three emergency medical technicians were waiting. Otteson was then transported to Moritz Hospital in Sun Valley, where he was pronounced dead on arrival.
THEY SKIED 'BY THE BOOK' BUT DEATH STRUCK ANYWAY
By Scott Sunde, January 15, 1999
Jeremy Mcintyre, an experienced outdoorsman from Seattle, was not about to take chances in the Canadian Rockies this week. He and a friend on a backcountry skiing trip carried shovels and emergency transmitters in case of avalanche and avoided areas that seemed too dangerous. But in the end, the precautions didn't matter. Snow cut loose from a mountainside Wednesday as the two men were skiing uphill just above the tree line. Both were buried, and Mcintyre, 26, was killed.
"We did everything right,” Robb Moss, who accompanied Mcintyre, told the Calgary Herald. "It was by the book. The end product wasn't what we hoped for." Moss, 28 of Berkeley, Calif., managed to dig himself out of the avalanche, then find Mcintyre through his emergency locating device. He dug Mcintyre out, but failed to revive him with CPR.
Moss then trudged more than a mile through heavy snow to get help. By the time wardens from Banff National Park arrived, all they could do is recover McIntyre’s body.
"He's a very knowledgeable outdoorsman," Alexandra Wydzga, McIntyre’s girlfriend, said from their Alki home yesterday. "He knew what he was doing." Mcintyre and Moss left Sunday for several days of backcountry skiing at Banff. They made day trips, spending the night at a hostel. The climbed up slopes with special skins on their skis, then traversed down them. They had changed their plans Wednesday, Wydzga said. The area the two had planned to ski had a high avalanche danger. So they chose the Wolverine Valley, which is six miles east of lake Louise. Snow. cut loose from a mountainside as the two men were skiing uphill just above the tree line. "They thought they were skiing in a safe area," Wydzga said.
At the tree line in the valley, avalanche danger was moderate, said Marc Ledwidge, a public safety warden at the park. Higher up, the danger was considerable.
The two skiers were climbing at the 7,500-foot level Wednesday afternoon when the avalanche hit. That is somewhere between the moderate and considerable avalanche zones, Ludwig said.
"That middle area is the most difficult to evaluate avalanche danger," he said.
What likely happened is that a so-called "wind slab" - snow that has accumulated on the leeward side of a ridge - broke loose. It wasn’t much as an avalanche goes. "it wasn't even big enough to cover a car," Wydzga said.
There was enough to take McIntyre's life.
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