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Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Colorado 13er questions, conditions, and other info should be posted here. Also includes topics related to 13ers.com. 13er Trip Reports
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Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby Alby426 » Sun Dec 16, 2012 5:27 pm

We went up to Saint Mary's glacier for some training and attempt James peak. It soon became appearent that we wouldn't make the summit so, we dacided to do a bit of self arrest training and glacier training.
The glacier is exposed now and it's a great time to train crampon work: there is a lot of ice up there.
After a while, we descended down to almost the lake level and found a slope to train on self arrest. Conditions were almost white outand, difficult to asses our exact location in regards to the mountain. Well, we were surrounded by bushes and rocks but the slope looks OK for our intended pourpose. After several practice runs, we regrouped up on by the bush above where our backpacks were and, while we were getting the rope out to practice glacier travel, we all (4 of us) experienced a very strong force that at first felt like a huge wind gust.
Well, it wes an avalanche!
We found out later, once we could see better, that we were below a chute and, a cornice, way above, probably came down.
In an instant, all our backpacks were burried, we had snow up to our knees, and, one of our member, more xposed, was transported about 30 feet down the slope. Well, we quickly recuped all of our gear, after assesing no injuries and, headed out of there.
Thelesson: we had not assesed our situation correctly.

A big reminder to everyone, conditions are favorable to avalanche and, even if you think that you are safe, you are not.
Be safe.
Last edited by Alby426 on Sun Dec 16, 2012 7:20 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby geojed » Sun Dec 16, 2012 6:25 pm

Wow! :shock: Glad everyone is okay.
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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby ballackout » Sun Dec 16, 2012 10:25 pm

you should consider reporting this to CAIC.

https://avalanche.state.co.us/obs/obs_submit.php?obsfm=field

Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby mtnfiend » Mon Dec 17, 2012 9:35 am

You should definitely report it to the CAIC. I'm sure they (and other backcountry users in CO for that matter) would appreciate the info.

Alby426 wrote:The lesson: we had not assessed our situation correctly.


So the correct assessment would have included paying closer attention to the terrain above you?

Glad everyone was ok.
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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby RocksAreNeat » Mon Dec 17, 2012 11:04 am

The biggest mistake we made was judging overall conditions based on the terrain we could see, and what was immediately around us. Our ice axes were hitting dirt, plants and rocks were still visible through the snow, and as far up as we could see conditions were the same. We failed to recognize how much snow was being blown up the gully by strong winds, and that a cornice or wind loaded slab may exist higher up. Visibility was very poor, maybe a few hundred feet during occasional lulls in the wind and typical 50-100' visibility looking up the slope. We should have recognized how much snow is moved/deposited by strong wind and identified the gully as a hazard. Lesson learned, and thankful it was a minor slide.

Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby Nelson » Mon Dec 17, 2012 5:24 pm

Thanks for sharing. I hope we can all learn from your experience.

Glad you all are safe.

Nelson

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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby Doug Shaw » Mon Dec 17, 2012 5:54 pm

Al,

I would like to ask a pretty direct question, and I hope you won't take offense. I am posting it publicly not to call you out, but as a potential learning tool for those who may read this thread.

Have you considered complacency as a partial explanation for this incident as well?

I don't know the dynamics of the group you were with, but St. Mary's Glacier is a pretty forgiving area. I have been struggling to understand how you yourself have on two occasions fairly recently avoided disaster there only by a twist of fate (the other occurrence that I know of being your self-arrest demonstration that went awry). Two times in just three years' time is a hard record to defend, and I doubt you're spending so much time at St Mary's Glacier that these are just statistical certainties.

These sorts of things can happen, that's true - it's part of the game - and I try not to attribute too much weight to "only two" incidents, but with this frequency in relatively friendly, familiar areas I would suggest that it wouldn't hurt to ask if there is something else going on other than dumb luck. I've only had a couple comparable situations in 12 years in CO (though I do admit that I have a generally overdeveloped - but not perfect - sense of self-preservation).

Your profile says you have been climbing since you were a teen; if you were having near-misses with this level of frequency everywhere you climbed I suspect you would have been dead by now.

In your profile you say "I use past experience to help me on my next adventure". One thing to beware is reviewing individual accidents in a contextual vacuum and looking for some unique "cause" to an accident - if you are looking for it, you will find it, whether it is accurate or not. But be careful to not blame the situation or even to identify something that you "did wrong" and in the process fail to recognize a deeper issue that is itself leading to other mistakes.

Cheers, and I hope to not read about any more accidents at St Mary's Glacier for a while... from anybody!

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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby crossfitter » Mon Dec 17, 2012 5:59 pm

Doug, the self-arrest demonstration where Al went head-over-heels (assuming we are talking about the same one) was intentional. I was there for it and he deliberately put his feet down to demonstrate the danger of not keeping your feet up.

Doug Shaw wrote:Al,

I would like to ask a pretty direct question, and I hope you won't take offense. I am posting it publicly not to call you out, but as a potential learning tool for those who may read this thread.

Have you considered complacency as a partial explanation for this incident as well?

I don't know the dynamics of the group you were with, but St. Mary's Glacier is a pretty forgiving area. I have been struggling to understand how you yourself have on two occasions fairly recently avoided disaster there only by a twist of fate (the other occurrence that I know of being your self-arrest demonstration that went awry). Two times in just three years' time is a hard record to defend, and I doubt you're spending so much time at St Mary's Glacier that these are just statistical certainties.

These sorts of things can happen, that's true - it's part of the game - and I try not to attribute too much weight to "only two" incidents, but with this frequency in relatively friendly, familiar areas I would suggest that it wouldn't hurt to ask if there is something else going on other than dumb luck. I've only had a couple comparable situations in 12 years in CO (though I do admit that I have a generally overdeveloped - but not perfect - sense of self-preservation).

Your profile says you have been climbing since you were a teen; if you were having near-misses with this level of frequency everywhere you climbed I suspect you would have been dead by now.

In your profile you say "I use past experience to help me on my next adventure". One thing to beware is reviewing individual accidents in a contextual vacuum and looking for some unique "cause" to an accident - if you are looking for it, you will find it, whether it is accurate or not. But be careful to not blame the situation or even to identify something that you "did wrong" and in the process fail to recognize a deeper issue that is itself leading to other mistakes.

Cheers, and I hope to not read about any more accidents at St Mary's Glacier for a while... from anybody!
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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby DaveSwink » Mon Dec 17, 2012 6:25 pm

crossfitter wrote:Doug, the self-arrest demonstration where Al went head-over-heels (assuming we are talking about the same one) was intentional. I was there for it and he deliberately put his feet down to demonstrate the danger of not keeping your feet up.


Holy cow! I missed the self arrest thread somehow. That video is amazing. Backflipping down a slope with an ice axe in your hand? Why would anyone do that on purpose? I would not want to see the equivalent demonstration of how not to belay. :shock:

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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby Doug Shaw » Mon Dec 17, 2012 6:29 pm

crossfitter wrote:Doug, the self-arrest demonstration where Al went head-over-heels (assuming we are talking about the same one) was intentional. I was there for it and he deliberately put his feet down to demonstrate the danger of not keeping your feet up.


Oh, I know it was started intentionally. But he definitely wasn't "in control" going down the slope ("Holy cow", comments about his privates taking a bit of a hit), which means that the tumbling itself wasn't just a demonstration, it was real. I think he was extremely fortunate that all he did was nail himself in a sensitive area ... with the axe flailing around he's lucky he didn't injure himself for real in that tumble. And that was sort of my point - despite being an intentional act, he put himself at significant risk doing that. What judgements or assessments led him to think that was a good idea, or otherwise wasn't a big deal or risk to do it?

(With deference to his method of instructing, I've never felt it necessary to demonstrate the risk of that potential scenario... I think people's imaginations are capable of imaging it sufficiently strongly based on a verbal description. :mrgreen: )

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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby jdorje » Mon Dec 17, 2012 6:46 pm

Doug Shaw wrote:With deference to his method of instructing, I've never felt it necessary to demonstrate the risk of that potential scenario... I think people's imaginations are capable of imaging it sufficiently strongly based on a verbal description.


While it's not necessary to demonstrate in person, a video of it is a great tool. He may have been lucky to avoid injury on that, but there's a much greater chance that watching that video would prevent at least one other person from injuring themselves.

As for the rest - complacency is the single greatest threat when on familiar terrain, whether it was a factor in this close call or not. Heuristic traps and all that.

Last edited by jdorje on Mon Dec 17, 2012 6:55 pm, edited 3 times in total.
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Re: Avalanche at St. Mary's glacier

Postby Alby426 » Mon Dec 17, 2012 6:49 pm

Doug, I am mot at all offended, I believe inpassing on my experiences for the benefit of others. Crossfitter, probably answered one part of the question and, as far as complecency, I don't believe it was the case. Rocksareneat, that was there with me, described our approach to the terrain. What I didn't tell in my story, is that I had made an assesment of the snowpack on the slope before we started andd, it was this: I dug out snow to the ground below and, found the 10 inches or so of snow to be stable. There were no appearent layers or granulous snow. All the snow was packed and not prone to sliding.
After the slide, we looked carefully at the slope above us and, notoced that it hadn't moved. We concluded that it must have been a cornice as, it was the most probable cause. It was inpossible, at anytime to see the top of the slope, even from higher up on the glacier as visubility was very low.
As far as determining how we could have aboid it, I am still mulling that over. Obviously, not going would have been an answer but, I am not one to avoid just because there is a remote chance that...
My knowledge of the area should have been one solution but, ad I said, we made wrong assessments: snow condition, snow anchors, area for training, weather conditions, etc. Trust me, we didn't get there and wrecklessly went for it.
Mountaineering is dangerous, just remember that. If I never went up there, then I shouldn't worry about it.
Guys be safe and enjoy our beautiful mountains.

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