- Associated Press - Friday, January 8, 2016

RENO, Nev. (AP) - There are a lot of reasons Jason Layh shouldn’t have been caught in a Sierra Nevada avalanche late last year.

For starters the range is known for it’s heavy, stable snowpack even in big years, let alone during the fourth consecutive year of drought and meager snow.

And Layh is an experienced, knowledgeable skier who understands the danger of avalanche terrain and skis accordingly.

But none of that mattered last December when he and three friends headed to Castle Peak north of Truckee, California to make turns following a few days of fresh snowfall.

“The conditions were great, nice, deep snow, great consistency,” said Layh, 39. “So as far as evidence of avalanches happening at the time there was next to none.”

With fresh snow and a day off work, Layh was looking forward to enjoying everything he loved about backcountry skiing: the demanding exercise, untracked slopes and a desolate mountain experience that doesn’t exist in groomed ski areas served by lifts.

But the rewards of backcountry skiing come with risk, as Layh and his group were about to be reminded.

After a couple runs in a gully protected from wind by trees and terrain, Layh and Brendan Madigan, another experienced Sierra Nevada backcountry skier, decided to work their way out of the gully to check out conditions outside.

It didn’t take long to realize that, even though they had gone just a short distance, snow conditions were dramatically different than the slope they had just skied.

On the exposed side the fresh snow had landed on top of a wind scoured base, which meant the interface between the new and old snow wasn’t as strong as it was in the protected areas.

“We both came to the conclusion it was not the right place to be and we were going to turn around and go back out,” Layh said.

Layh went first toward a second gully he thought could make a good route down. In the middle of the gully, however, was a small rise Layh thought had potential to be an avalanche trigger point.

Layh skied out to test it with a quick stomp.

“There wasn’t a loud snap or a large settling of the snow itself but it definitely separated as soon as I touched that trigger point,” Layh said. “There was enough movement, enough elastic movement it took my skis out from underneath me.”

What happened next shows how even highly skilled and experienced skiers can fall prey to Mother Nature and should serve as a reminder to the less experienced people flocking into the backcountry to always be on guard in avalanche terrain.

Avalanche fatalities increasing

As more people head into mountainous terrain during winter it increases the number of backcountry travelers who are exposed to dangerous conditions, which can exist even during down years.

Statistics compiled by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center show a steady increase in avalanche fatalities nationally from five in 1950 to 35 in 2014. Although numbers tended to be down in lower snow years, the overall trend is a clear increase.

Among victims, 245 were backcountry touring on skis or snowboards. Another 236 were snowmobile riders. Climbers were the third-most-represented group at 180, followed by side country riding, which is a reference to people who left patrolled ski areas into unmonitored areas, which accounted for 94 fatalities, followed by hiking at 53.

It’s not just beginners who are at risk.

In January Dave Rosenbarger, a part time Tahoe City resident known widely as “American Dave,” was killed in an avalanche on the Italian side of Mt. Blanc. Rosenbarger, an accomplished skier and mountaineer, had recently told Powder magazine his main goal in skiing was, “to never cross another track.”

Also in January two U.S. Ski Team hopefuls, Ronnie Berlack and Bryce Astle, died in an avalanche in the Austrian alps.

Closer to home there have even been avalanche deaths at Lake Tahoe-area resorts. In 2012 veteran ski patroller Bill Foster died in an avalanche at Alpine Meadows ski resort. That same year snowboarder Steven Mark Anderson was found dead under a snow debris field at Donner Ranch ski area, the Sacramento Bee reported.

Part of what makes avalanches so dangerous is they are rare enough that even experienced skiers can have little-to-no firsthand experience with them. But once triggered even a relatively small slide can be fatal.

“They just don’t happen all the time, they happen with specific events,” said Steve Reynaud of Truckee. “But when you do get caught in an avalanche, there are big consequences. Your chances of dying or being severely injured are high.”

In addition to being an experienced skier and operator of Tahoe Mountain School, which teaches backcountry skills, Reynaud has been a certified avalanche instructor since 1999, a ski guide and is an official observer for the Sierra Avalanche Center, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service and a non-profit that raises funds to subsidize operation.

The Sierra Avalanche Center monitors snow and weather conditions in the Sierra Nevada between California Highway 49 at Yuba Pass in the north and California Highway 4 at Ebbets Pass in the south.

Observers like Reynaud ski into the backcountry daily to check snow conditions firsthand. They dig pits into the snowpack to monitor stability between layers and study how snow is settling onto the terrain in an effort to wind loading locations and other risky conditions.

The information is fed to forecasters, such as Brandon Schwartz from the Forest Service, who combine it with weather information to issue forecasts that categorize the risk level.

“Without the (snowpack) history leading up to the storm … you are not going to have an idea of which slopes are going to have a greater likelihood of instability,” Schwartz said.

The forecasts are meant to be a general assessment of conditions. It’s up to individuals heading into the backcountry to know how to read them and make their own risk assessments based on conditions in places they want to explore.

Learning the basics of avalanche risk assessment can be the difference between having a great day skiing and exploring the mountains or ending up among the avalanche fatality statistics. Signs of risk aren’t always obvious at first glance.

“A lot of times it is not these huge massive avalanches you see in the movies,” Reynaud said. “It is these small events.”

Human factor

While learning how snow, weather and terrain interaction can affect avalanche risk, thinking about human behavior can be equally important when it comes to safety.

In recent years there’s been research into the way people make decisions in avalanche terrain contributes to risk of injury or death.

Research by Ian McCammon, in particular, during the past 15 years has shed new light onto specific human factors or traps that can get backcountry winter tourers in trouble.

McCammon identified and named six traps that can snare different types of skiers. In papers he refers to them as “heuristic” traps because they’re formed by subconscious tricks played by the brain when it comes to decision making.

He identified traps of familiarity, consistency, acceptance, the expert halo, social facilitation and scarcity. And then by researching avalanche incidents he showed those traps lead to decisions that put people in the path of danger.

“If these victims had used the knowledge-based decision strategies that are commonly taught in avalanche courses, we would expect very few accidents under such obvious conditions,” McCammon wrote in a 2004 paper. “Instead, we find that even well-trained victims appeared to ignore easily-recognized sighs of avalanche hazards.”

McCammon’s research has prompted many educators to reconsider how they teach avalanche safety by increasing the emphasis they place on decision-making skills and protocol, as opposed to sticking strictly to snow science.

The American Institute of Avalanche Research and Education has since integrated new knowledge of human factors into a communication checklist for groups that covers steps for everything from planning a trip into the backcountry through discussing potential escape plans should something go wrong.

“Upwards of 90 percent of all avalanche accidents the problem was the human factor,” Reynaud said. “The decision that the group was making was the problem.”

Lessons from survival

Layh’s close encounter with an avalanche shows, however, even people with high degrees of knowledge and experience can find themselves dependent on the whims of Mother Nature for survival.

The slide he triggered in December started slow and seemed small, even though it was enough to knock him off-balance.

“It was like someone pulled the carpet out from underneath my feet,” he said. “I went down on my side and just sat there and very slowly was kind of just moving down the top of this little gully.”

In the moment he said the initial slide wasn’t all that alarming. The slow-moving avalanche carried him down the slope and seemed to be coming to a stop.

What he hadn’t realized, however, was the trigger point was already halfway down the slope. That meant there was a wave of snow still bearing down on him from behind.

“I got hit from everything up above in that drainage,” Layh said. “When that second wave hit me it dramatically increased my speed, I started moving down that hill very, very quickly.”

He could tell the avalanche was carrying him toward a terrain trap in the form of some boulders and drop offs that, if he were forced through them, could cause injury or worse. But he was fortunate in that the slide positioned him facing forward, feet to the front and skis still attached to his boots.

He could feel the weight of the moving snow around his body like wet cement. Suddenly things took a turn for the better.

“There was a point I could see things were going to start setting up and there was another rock,” Layh said. “Right at that time as I popped over it I was able to just stand up and ski off to my right and ski out of it.”

By keeping calm and assessing the situation accurately after the slide started Layh was able to maintain his body position in a way that made escape easier. Even that was dependent on being lucky enough to not get snagged on a tree, rock or other terrain feature and pulled underneath the surface.

In looking back he also says he made avoidable mistakes. Among them, he said, was when the slide started he couldn’t reach his AvaLung, a tube built into a backpack that provides an airway for people to breathe even if they’re buried in snow.

“I couldn’t get the mouthpiece out,” Layh said. “That was a classic mistake. I had (a) piece of lifesaving equipment with me. I didn’t have it deployed.”

Another mistake was that before the slide triggered, he was so focused on the downhill terrain risks that he forgot that by being midway down the slope he was at risk of being caught in snow tumbling from above.

“It was definitely a lapse in concentration that led to that slide,” he said.

The avalanche was also a reminder of some things he did right, such as traveling with a trusted group of skilled partners who were willing and able to help if needed. It was also a reminder that when it comes to avalanche safety, avoidance is best.

“You can have the best air bag, the best transceiver, the best group of people ready to bail you out - it doesn’t matter,” Layh said. “Don’t get buried.”

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, https://www.rgj.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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