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Avalanche — Alaska, Mount Foraker


Alaska, Mount Foraker

On April 19, 1984, Steve Barker (33), Tom Anninger (41), Dick Lohman (45), Sharon Svenson, and I (34) flew into the base of Mount Foraker. We set up camp and prepared for the load carry, which we would do the next day. The snow conditions at the landing site were excellent.

We left camp around noon, with mostly cloudy, snowy sky, and the temperature around -8° C. It was easy trail breaking to the base of the route, it was good snow— 15 centimeters of fresh snow, on a firm base. Some of the underlying layers of snow were weak (depth hoar), but most of the snow on the approach to the base of the route appeared good. We exchanged skis for crampons and prepared to head up the route.

We climbed up a broad ridge where snow conditions appeared much better than last year’s bottomless T.G. (temperature gradient) snow. This year we climbed on mostly firm snow, with only pockets of deep T.G. snow. Last year, we ran into some very deep T.G. snow, sometimes chest deep (especially near the rocks on the traverse into the gully). We ascended the broad ridge to about half height of the gully, where we traversed over into it. The snow conditions were good. I sank in to just a little over my boots, with only a few sections of deep T.G. snow. I checked out the snow conditions by digging a small pit with my ax. There was a thin wind crust (to seven centimeters thick), on top of 30 centimeters or so of T.G., which was on top of a firm layer. It was easy trail breaking, since the crust was so thin, and my crampons would stick to the firm layer underneath. The slope angle was between 30 and 50 degrees, and the aspect was south.

We continued up the gully without any problem, staying close to the rocks (left side of the gully). I had Dick and Tom on my rope. Everyone was moving well in the stair like trail. Once I arrived on top of the gully, I set up a belay, with my feet and body well implanted in the snow. It was a normal secure snow belay, but I could not see the climbers in the gully. My belay was set up on a wide, flat ridge.

It was snowing and blowing lightly, but the temperature was comfortable for climbing. Everyone was in good spirits. All of a sudden I heard Dick yell out, “Falling,” or something. Then I felt the rope get very, very tight. It started running rapidly through my hands, and around my back (burning my parka). The end of the rope finally came, and I was jerked from my stance as if I was tied to a moving truck!

I attempted to dig my feet and body into the slope and reel in my ax, but nothing seemed to help. There was a brief feeling that we were slowing down, but once we started up again, the speed was very rapid. I had begun to slide feet first, but I hit something a quarter of the way down and ended up going down head first (making for a very fast ride). I never felt engulfed in snow, and I could see most of what was happening, such as the rocks missing my head. I also remembered the dropoff at the bottom of the gully. The airborne flight over the dropoff was exciting. I had long enough air time to remember. Luckily there was soft snow to break our fall. But since there was not too much snow in the avalanche, we were not buried. We had somehow managed to make it down alive, and without too much damage to our bodies. Tom had minor facial cuts, Dick had injured his shoulder (couldn’t lift it completely), and I had a hole in my knee, and some back and chest pain.

The other rope team, John, Sharon and Steve, which was following right behind Tom, did not go for the 250 meter slide. John, who was leading the rope, stepped to the right and out of the flow. Sharon also headed right, but got caught in the flow of the avalanche. She managed to get tangled up in a large rock nob, which probably saved their team from joining us in the slide. Steve, who had been following close behind Sharon, with lots of slack in the rope (the steps were so good, and the snow seemed so good, that no one thought of an avalanche) was pulled off his feet and started downhill. The tangled up rope stopped him. He had tried to self—arrest and ended up breaking some fingers in the process as his hand slid over some rocks. They had seen us all go down the gully and were glad to see us walking around at the bottom. They then descended—very carefully!

The avalanche had begun right at Dick’s hand, less than 15 meters from my belay stance, as he used a foot step as a hand hold. The right hand edge of the avalanche, for most of the gully, was in between the right and left foot steps. The crown face was only 6-8 centimeters thick where it had begun at Dick’s body and was thin all the way down the right side. But the stance wall on the left side of the gully was from 30 to 45 centimeters thick. The gully was from 30 meters wide on top to less than 15 meters at its narrowest section (which was near where Sharon got caught).

DETAILS: Slope/angle configuration: 30-50 degrees. Concave, confined with a convex top. Slab consistency. Depth: 2.5 to 30 centimeters. Bed surface: firm, but able to penetrate the boot easily. Sliding Layer: T.G. Length of slope: 240 meters, with 10 to 15 meter drop off. (Source: Gary Bocarde, Leader, Mountain Trip Guide Service)