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Avalanche: Memorials

Observer Name
Biggie Mistakes
Observation Date
Friday, March 24, 2023
Avalanche Date
Friday, March 24, 2023
Salt Lake » Mt Olympus » Memorials
Location Name or Route
TL;DR - My friend and I survived 2 fairly large natural avalanches in Memorial 5 on Olympus on 3/24/23.
I feel incredibly lucky and grateful for the fact that we came home alive.
I also feel deeply remorseful for having been responsible for guiding us both into an unsafe situation. I feel like I knew better than to go there and I did not follow my own best practices or the advice of our avalanche center forecasters for staying safe in the backcountry.
The UAC was spot on with their daily avalanche report as usual. I did look at the report, but I didn’t really look at it. I glanced at it, without giving it the respect it deserves, and then I went ahead to the area I had planned anyway with the story that I would check the conditions when we got closer and bail if I saw red flags. I did end up seeing multiple red flags. I did not end up bailing.
I deeply regret that I treated my own life and the life of my friend with such little reverence and respect. I allowed myself to take high risk with our lives for the reward of an epic ski line. In hindsight I can see how reckless my decisions were. To step into high risk to save someone’s life is potentially acceptable to me. To take high risk with people’s lives for the stoke of a ski line, that’s not acceptable at all to me. And yet I did that, rather than respecting and paying close attention to the warnings and advice of the UAC team, as well as to the warning signs and red flags from the earth I encountered along the way.
Thankfully we’re both still here to learn what we can from the mistakes made.
Here are the details of the accident and below that I will share some more of my thoughts and feelings about the experience:
Our objective was the Memorial 5 couloir. We were the first into the entire area getting to the couloir entrance at about 8 AM. I did notice a reactive top layer of snow on the east facing slope of the side entrance to Memorial 5. I decided to continue into the couloir before deciding whether to continue up or not. There was a lot of stoke discussion from both of us about the depth and softness of the snow and we were really looking forward to riding the untracked line.
We went in and thought everything felt and looked stable at the lower section. So we decided to continue up and transitioned to Verts. Didn’t give heed to the fact that it had started to dump snow at a very fast rate on top of all the very recent snow.
As we transitioned in the middle of the couloir our packs were quickly getting covered and there was snow streaming off the slanted cliffs on the side of the couloir onto the slope.
All of that should have been a huge red flag, especially on top of the specific report for the day. The UAC report specifically said to be on the alert to changing conditions (I had skimmed the report and didn’t even remember reading that until after). We were very much in a storm cycle still with volatile changing conditions and yet I was not on high alert and I kept leading us forward. I knew there was likely a couple feet of fresh snow above at the higher elevations even though there was only about a foot of fresh at our lower elevation around 7400’. My thoughts were focused on how fun that would be with not even remotely close to enough respect for how deadly that could be.
As we went up the slope we had ascended 2-300 vertical feet when I saw some of the snow falling from the cliffs start a sluff above and to my right. It grew rapidly as it came toward us.
I called to my friend to move left.
I looked up and saw another sluff start above that one. Then just behind that, a huge snow cloud appeared barreling down onto those two sluffs and within one or two seconds a wall of snow slammed into us hard, tumbling us both instantly down the slope at a very high speed.
My mouth was forced tightly full of snow instantly and my life and family and the potentially deadly consequence of this situation all flooded through my mind.
I was tumbling down the canyon fast.
As my life and closest relationships flashed through my mind I remember thinking that this could easily be the way I go very soon. And that I desperately did not want that to happen. And then I had a pretty distinct feeling that today was not the day I would die.
And I started swimming hard and attempting to get my head up.
Very soon the snow began to slow and I swam and thrashed upward as much as possible, struggling to breathe, unable to inhale much if anything, since my mouth was packed hard full of snow.
As I came to a stop my right arm was in the air and I was able to clear my face and airway. Everything else was buried and I was on my side with my head downhill.
I didn’t notice any pain in my body anywhere. But I couldn’t breathe and I franticly tried to pull snow out of my mouth.
Fairly quickly my airway was clear enough and I was able to get small breaths. Then I got a few solid breaths and gathered my thoughts attempting to relax and consider what to do. My instant next thought was deep concern for my friend and how to get unstuck as fast as possible so I could help him.
I used my right hand to free my buried left. Then I tried to wiggle my body free but I was pinned down by my backpack which had my snowboard attached.
I was able to unhook both straps on my backpack fairly quickly and start wiggling my way out.
As I was doing that, I heard my friend yell my name. I called back, so grateful to hear his voice. I lifted my head and saw him 20 feet below me.
He told me he had called once earlier but I didn’t hear or respond the first time.
He had also been buried very similar to me, with just his face and his right arm free and his head facing down hill.
Once I was out I was able to quickly get my backpack and board free and then I turned to go down toward him to help him the rest of the way out.
But he was already out, and just then we heard some noise, looked uphill, and saw another big slide coming toward us fast.
I ran down and off to the side as fast as possible yelling at him to dive behind a cliff outcropping next to where he was standing below me. He was there first and I jumped to his side just as the slide came down burying my left leg and passing by us covering over the first slide.
Had we not extracted ourselves so quickly from the first slide, almost certainly we would have been buried deeply and unable to move after the 2nd slide. I think the time gap between the two slides was 2-3 minutes tops.
We hugged after releasing quite a few sobering expletives and expressing so much gladness that we were both safe at that moment and not apparently injured.
After regrouping and collecting ourselves, we got out his shovel and probe to try to find my equipment that had been buried by the 2nd slide. He went across the slide path to a high safe point to be on the lookout up canyon for more slides, while I probed and dug around to try to find my equipment for a while, without success.
My pack and board likely got pushed farther down canyon and buried deeper by the 2nd slide.
The weather was clearing up and from the higher point he could see that the adjacent Memorial 4 line which joined into our location was likely the source of the 2nd slide that hit us.
Another party showed up at the entrance ridge above us at some point and we told them what happened and that we were OK. They transitioned and bailed the way they came.
I walked out the way we came in, while my friend skied out without poles.
I noticed my right knee start to become sore as I was probing for my pack. And it started to get more painful as we walked out.
I was able to get back to the car hiking in verts snowshoes without too much difficulty, just some pain in my knee, but it wasn’t limiting my motion too much.
The next day as I’m writing this my knee has become very stiff and painful and swollen. I think it likely got bent inward by the force of the snow wall at impact because I was turned to the left and my inner right knee (MCL area) is the pain spot. I plan to get it looked at in case the MCL is torn.
Here are some of my thoughts in the aftermath:
We were incredibly lucky. This continues to be a sobering and traumatic experience for me.
I’m deeply sorry to my wife and family that I took that type of risk with my life. I didn’t intentionally risk my life, but I can clearly see in hindsight that I allowed a familiarity bias and a reckless attitude, to influence my decision making in a very high risk situation. To me the reward of a potentially epic powder line with a high or even medium risk of injury or death is not an acceptable risk to take.
I’m troubled by the fact that I allowed myself to to get in that situation when it was so clearly avoidable. I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time contemplating what I can learn from this as I’m sidelined for a while with this knee injury.
I also feel I owe a deep apology to my friend, and his family, for my poor leadership. I’m sorry for leading him into an unsafe environment that I knew better than to do. Not cool.
And I’m sorry to everyone at UAC. Thank you for what you do. I’m sorry for not truly respecting your service and advice and for putting myself and others in enormous potential danger as a result.
This is an incredibly humbling and emotional wake up call to me. I need to be so much more respectful of nature and mine and other’s lives than I was being.
It was an accident, but I feel I did have all the tools and the responsibility to be able to completely avoid the possibility of that, and that doesn’t sit well with me at all.
The UAC report for the day showed orange, considerable danger, for the type of area I was in. And they wrote this specifically, with lots of bold to really try to help:
"The avalanche danger is CONSIDERABLE on mid and upper elevation slopes where natural new snow slab, wind-drifted avalanches, and loose dry sluffs are possible and human triggered avalanches are likely. Periods of increased snowfall throughout the day have the potential to increase the avalanche hazard to HIGH if forecasted snowfall amounts pan out. Low-elevation slopes have a MODERATE avalanche danger, where there has been less snow and lighter winds.
Assessing changing conditions within the new and wind-drifted snow could mean the difference between a great day in the mountains and a close call. Luckily, lower angle storm skiing will be great all day long!"
Low angle storm skiing was the very obvious move for that day. Definitely not the highly-likely-to-slide steep avalanche terrain. I missed that for some of the reasons I mentioned. Familiarity with the area giving me unfounded confidence was a big one I think. And not giving proper heed and respect to the avalanche center warnings and nature’s warnings are big ones.
As it happened, that day turned out to have probably the heaviest snowfall of any day in this already epic season, 21 inches of new snow fell at Alta between 6am and 5pm, peaking at 5 inches in one hour. Alta and Snowbird both had to close the resorts with interlodge requiring everyone to be packed inside the buildings until later that evening because they couldn’t mitigate the dangers piling up fast enough.
And that huge snow day pushed the cottonwood resorts into all-time record breaking snow fall for any season in recorded history.
I obviously didn’t know it was going to be that intense of a day yet, but I certainly had all the warnings and signs available to not go into the steep terrain on a day like that.
I think there is a lot more for me to learn from this that will come over time.
I feel deeply grateful that we are both still alive and well and actually have the opportunity to learn from this. It could so easily have been a tragic outcome.
It also leaves me pondering a lot on my priorities and how I am living. Being alive tomorrow is never guaranteed for anyone. I hope this experience helps me be more present with the people in my life and more true to my heart.