Eventful day at Alpental today... On our second lap of the day, and first lap out the Nash Gate traverse, our party was caught in a naturally triggered slide while on the BC traverse. This happened right after “Safety Trees” (the first group of trees you get to after Knoll 0, between Knoll 2 and Knoll 3) under a feature called "Cory's Couloir". We had a party of 5, the first 2 in the party were caught, the remaining 3 were still at the trees and were not in the path of the slide. The lead skier heard the avalanche, saw it coming, yelled to let the rest of the party know and got pointed down hill. He got tumbled a few times and came up on his feet with all his gear and was able to ski out of the path of the slide.
The second skier was caught by the main brunt of the slide. He was carried about 100' vert down the hill and fully buried. The 3 of us had eyes on him the entire time, and he was also able to get his hand above the snow when everything settled so we knew exactly where he was. 2 of the unaffected skiers were able to get to the buried party in ~30 seconds after the snow stopped moving, and they started to extract him. The buried skier had been able to remain on top of the snow for most of the ride, and was buried by a second "wave" of snow as he was coming to rest. He was able to keep a clear airway and make some breathing room, then get a hand above the snow. He was oriented with his head facing down the slope, feet up, and his head was under about 12" of snow, his feet were approx 4' deep, and he was largely immobilized and would not have been able to self-extract.
After extracting the buried skier, who was luckily uninjured, we called patrol and let them know about the incident. They were close by (at the gate actually), they closed the Nash Gate and came out and took a report and surveyed the scene. We were able to locate all the equipment for the buried skier, and he was able to ski out on his own. The other skier who was caught but not buried sustained some injuries from avalanche debris, but did not require medical attention.
We had a good debrief session in lot 4 afterwards. From our debrief:
- We didn't err in our terrain choice, it was on the open traverse in the Alpental BC with low/moderate hazard. It was a reasonable decision to be there, based on the information available. The slide was from a wind slab that formed overnight high up in a slot above the traverse called “Cory’s Couloir” that we and patrol think may have been trigged by a small cornice fall (or just naturally failed). It was just the "wrong place at the wrong time" for us.
- Our party was very effective in communicating with each other, taking the correct actions and affecting an efficient and timely rescue. It's good to ski with people who can handle themselves in the mountains if there is a problem, know the right things to do, work well together, and don't panic.
- We were spaced out enough on the traverse that our entire party did not get caught.
- We were keeping an eye on each other, and were also able to quickly recognize what was happening when it occurred.
- We had the right gear and training for the situation.
What could have been better:
- We got really lucky, because the buried skier had forgotten to put on his beacon, and not everyone was even aware of that. We were able to track him visually and he was able to get a hand above the snow so we knew his exact location immediately and didn’t need to search. Lesson here is to always beacon check everyone at the lot or the gate or both.
- The skier who was caught but not buried was wearing an avy airbag, but did not have the handle out. He attempted to deploy it immediately after being caught, but was unable to for that reason. Lesson is: If you are in avalanche terrain and you have an airbag, get the handle out.
- We could have spaced out even further on the traverse, which would have limited the number caught to 1
The mountains can be unpredictable even in a semi-controlled area. Things happen quickly and unexpectedly. Always travel with a partner(s), and have the right training and gear and keep an eye on the folks you are with.