AVALANCHE, POOR POSITION, WEATHER, INEXPERIENCE
Wyoming, Cody South Fork, Deer Creek
On January 28, we were halfway down a steep 400-foot gully on our way to Deer Creek, where we would then walk downstream to the Ghosts, a couple of WI 3+/4 routes that I had done ten years earlier. The gully is a popular alternative to the steeper, more involved approach that can be made downstream of the routes.
Ten years ago we made the steeper descent to the creek but walked out via the gully. On that day there were a few inches of dry snow on top of loose talus, and what had initially appeared to be the easy way out proved to be an exhausting, two-steps-forward, one-step-back slog to the trail above. My partner forgot his new gloves at the base of the routes and was so beat when we got to the trail that he decided they were not worth retrieving.
Remembering this, I opted for a rappel from a group of six or so medium sized trees. It proved unnecessary, as the snow on the slope was knee-deep and well consolidated. I went first and after getting off rappel stepped to the side to avoid anything that might come rolling my way. There was a large fallen tree a few feet to my left that was held in place on the slope by three live trees that it had rolled up against. I coiled the ropes in a butterfly as my partner pulled them down.
Half of the first rope was on my shoulders when we heard a very loud noise in an otherwise mostly silent space. To me it was like a jet had just dropped down on top of us. My partner says, “Freight train!” It took a moment before we realized what was going on, and then the next thought I had was, “Where is it?” I looked to the top of the gully where blue sky was visible in the gap between the trees that line the sides of the chute. Almost immediately, sky was replaced by a burst of white shining powder snow. It looked as if somebody had set off a charge under the trail above.
I had previously witnessed only small slides, and at a comfortable distance. I knew some things about avalanches: what factors increase the hazard and what to do if you’re caught in one. But I’ve never taken a class and had so little experience with them that my reaction to the slide was more instinctual than educated. A few quick steps to the left and we snugged up against the fallen tree. In the one or two seconds it took for us get into our positions, the slide was already on top of us.
My guess is that the event lasted some 30 – 90 seconds, but there’s no way to know for sure. Crouched in complete darkness, a rumbling above me and feeling the vibration in the ground below, it seemed to take forever. I can remember thinking, “This should be over by now.” But it just kept rumbling on. In the center of the slide’s path there was a deep channel of dark clusters of rock glued together by wet snow. It kept moving for at least a full minute after the rest of the slide had stopped. Before it stopped, the half of the rope that I was coiling – which was not on my shoulders but still on the ground – got caught up in all of this debris and the rope started reeling off my neck. Luckily I had my left hand on a nub of a broken limb on the fallen tree, because eventually the rope snagged on itself and pulled me away from the log until my then outstretched arm kept me from being pulled further down the slope. Suddenly, the snow that had been flying over my back began to accumulate on top of it. It got very heavy very quickly and pressed me down until I got a mouthful of snow. At that moment I had the first conscious thought that I might be buried and die. It hadn’t dawned on me before this that the slide might stop on top of me instead of passing over.
But then, there wasn’t much conscious thought going on for most of the event; it was just pure experience, absent thought or emotion. Very shortly afterward, the slide stopped. There was maybe only a foot or so of snow on my back, and I stood up to find my partner and myself gratefully unharmed. The pile of debris at the bottom of the gully was roughly 20 feet deep and 100 feet across!
We went on to climb the Ghosts, and from the top of the routes we could see the dark, center part of the slide on the slope across the creek. Above the trail that we descended from there were a couple of wet spots on vertical rock with remnants of a frozen flow at their tops. It could be that one or both of these flows collapsed in the warm sun that afternoon, causing the slide. But there was also very much more snow than I had seen before in that drainage or in the South Fork as a whole. And it was a very warm and sunny day - forecast for 40’s and likely closer to 50 degrees when the slide occurred at about two-thirty that afternoon.
Considering both larger than normal overall accumulations of snow and recent large accumulations of snow, as well as the warm temperatures that day, I knew that there might be an elevated risk of avalanches. We maybe had some false comfort in the notion that the South Fork area is generally regarded to have a low risk for these events, and perhaps that’s something that needs to change. One route, Smooth Emerald Milkshake - which is located in the Deer Creek drainage – is the only route that is noted in the guidebook as being particularly avalanche prone, and we weren’t on it. On our way out we saw evidence of three other slides that started above, and then crossed over, the trail. Avalanches do happen in the Cody South Fork.
In retrospect, I am embarrassed to have ignored that the gully we were in was about 45 degrees—prime avalanche territory— and that it was a clear, treeless chute on an otherwise forested slope. In the pictures of our belay at the top of the gully, there are numerous very clear scars on the trees we anchored to that are roughly six or seven feet off the ground. I believe these were caused by passing debris.
Know the conditions that precipitate avalanches and be alert to your surroundings. Look for evidence of prior slides to identify common slide paths. Learn what to do if you are caught in a slide because they move very rapidly and you won’t have time to think about it once you find yourself in harm’s way. And do not let an area’s reputation for low avalanche hazard blind you to the indicators of higher risk that are present. (Source: Jerry Wingenter – 49)