Peak(s):  Mt. Elbert  -  14,433 feet
Date Posted:  05/19/2016
Modified:  05/20/2016
Date Climbed:   05/14/2016
Author:  MonGoose
Additional Members:   ulvetano
 Don't Let It Bring You Down   


Mount Elbert - East Ridge and Box Creek Couloir


Mountain: Mount Elbert
Route: East Ridge from South Elbert TH
RT Elevation: 4,150'
RT Distance: 8.5 Miles
Travel time: 6 hours 38 minutes

The South Elbert trailhead was lifeless when I pulled into the parking lot at 3:40 am. The temperature on the display of my Jeep Grand Cherokee read 28F degrees - a good sign to start the day. Around 4:10, a few other vehicles came rolling in, including Chuck (Ulvetano) my partner for the day. We got ready in the darkness, did a quick beacon check and started our journey at 4:30am hiking in ski boots with skis on our packs. We were soon joined by Rob (XTerraRob) on foot as we represented the first wave of Spring Gathering members leaving the South Elbert Trailhead. Bryan (BKS) and his partner Dan were shortly behind us.


The first hour went pretty quickly as we stomped through the woods with skis on our backs. Near treeline a low cloud cover appeared, filling in the Arkansas Valley as the early light of the dawn crept over the horizon.
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Around 11,200', there was enough snow coverage to put on the skis and skins.
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(Photo by Rob)




Skinning up the East Ridge, the sunrise was spectacular with the low lying clouds hanging over the Arkansas Valley.
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Chuck and Rob admire the sunrise.




The golden light of the early morning illuminated Mount Elbert in all of her glory. No one stood between us and the mountain.
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Looking back at the low-lying clouds as Rob continues up the ridge.
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Chuck and Levi enjoying the morning.
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Taken from Bill's route description.

Around 12,500', I took a good look at the Box Creek couloirs.
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The first thing I noticed was the strong wind loaded snow (blue circles) on the far side of the bowl. Next I noticed the avy debris from the two chutes closest to that side (red circle). A great looking set of tracks lay down the center (yellow rectangle). I mentally drew out my line (green dots) where I would take the lowest angle route through the couloirs. I wanted to be sure to approach it from the near side, paying special attention not to undercut the wind-loaded slopes in the blue. The CalTopo angle of this slope would be between 35 and 40 degrees. I felt comfortable with the angle which was comparable to the lines I've skied most of the spring at A-Basin's East Wall.
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Another photo from Bill's route description.

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The Summit


We pushed on, making great time to reach the summit. It was 8:40am and I had skinned the 4,150' in only 4 hours and 10 min - I was pleased. Chuck and Levi had arrived ~10 minutes before me and had dug a wind break into the summit. It was very cold and windy on top. As Chuck and I put on all of our layers, Levi lay shivering between the two of us trying to to stay warm. The ascent up the East Ridge and morning sunrise had been incredible. For the moment, we were the highest people and canine in the state as we snacked on our lunches. Around 9:00am we started packing up, removing our skins and preparing for the descent. A few other skiers not associated with the gathering reached the summit and snapped a couple of photos for us.
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Enjoying my 99th CO 14er summit and what I hoped would be my 6th 14er ski descent.
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At 9:15am, we skied off the summit and headed for the Box Creek couloirs.
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(Photo by Chuck)



The Descent and Point Release Avalanche


Skiing off of Elbert's summit the snow was still firm. The game plan was pretty simple, we would ski our way over to the top of the Box Creek couloir making observations along the way. At the top of the couloirs, we would choose between continuing or bailing by heading back to the East Ridge. Skiing from the summit to the decision point, the snow maintained a steady firmness. We hoped the East facing chutes and 1,000' lower elevation would be a little softer.
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The Avalanche


When we arrived at the top of the Box Creek couloirs we made our final assessment. The snow was solid under our feet and very nice. I decided to go first, following the low angle line I planned from the ridge while Chuck would wait up top until I finished the line. He would be able to see me part of the way down and then I would drop out of sight before re-establishing visual contact near the bottom of the valley. He had selected a steeper line just south of mine which he would ski once I safely reached the bottom of the valley.

At 9:34am, I dropped into the top of the Box Creek couloirs where I made nice turns up top and the snow felt great under my feet. I was careful to stay away from the wind loaded side. My next concern was the rollover which had the steepest angle of the descent. As I went over the rollover, the snow felt firm and I had great control. I made a series of turns up top feeling confident. When I got down into the rocks that separate the individual couloirs, conditions deteriorated quickly and suddenly roller balls and a large pinwheel kicked off from my turn. All of a sudden, I didn't want to be here anymore as the slope felt unstable.

I did a very hard and long cut to my left to see if I could release a slide - nothing went. I was now at the top of my planned chute. I looked down the line and made my first turn to the right into the couloir. I turned back to the left and to my surprise, saw the beginning of a point release wet slide creeping down the mountain from my previous turn. I tried to avoid it but as the teardrop widened, the expanding slide grabbed my left ski and flipped me over - popping off my left ski. As I sat up, I realized what was happening as the wet slide expanded about 10' wide. I started picking up speed sliding down the hill with the loose snow. It all happened so quickly and next thing I knew, I was accelerating towards a big rock about 100' below. "I'm going to die in an avalanche!" I thought to myself. It was time for action. I abandoned the regular ski pole in my left hand and grabbed my whippet with both hands, driving it into the snow as I tried to stop. The whippet slowed my speed a little bit but I was still moving dangerously towards the rock. My mind raced as I thought through every avalanche talk I had ever attended. "Remove skis and poles, swim. Do whatever you can to stay on top - Right!" I reached down and kicked off my right ski which was being pulled by the snow below the surface. As soon as I did, I slowed considerably and then by putting my foot down through the snow and using my whippet, I came to a halt as the remainder of snow funneled around me.

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The red arrows mark the start and my stop in the slide.


I sat there in a precarious position for a moment as the wet slide continued to creep down the couloir without me, wondering what to do next. Glissading certainly wasn't an option. I looked up at the top of the line, worrying that another skier might drop into the couloir above me and trigger another slide. Then I noticed the ski from my right foot sitting on top of the snow 10' above me. I stood up and kicked steps about 8" deep into the snow up to my ski. After recovering the first ski, I started hiking down the edge of the slide. I could see my other ski pole, which I picked up as I walked by. My left ski, the one that ripped off at the start of the slide was nowhere in sight and at this point, I didn't really care about it. I'll come back and get it in July if I have to, just get me out of here. As I walked further down the slide path, I saw my other ski a few inches below the snow. I now had all of my gear. When the angle of the couloir lowered, I felt safe enough to put on both skis and ski out of the slide into the safety of the valley floor. I positioned myself on a small island and looked for Chuck.


The red line at the top of the Box Creek couloir are my turns leading to the trigger. The straight line towards the right was my hard cut attempting to release a slide. The last two turns near the trigger began my descent down the couloir of my selected line. The red dots represent the approximate distance I slid and the green line outlines extent of the entire wet slide.
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I looked up and saw Chuck waiting towards the top of his line. I signaled that I was okay and tried to convey that he needed to abort if possible. Chuck skied down his line cleanly, despite some very loose snow in spots where he had to wrestle with the snow. When he got to the bottom, we took a break and had a good talk about what had happened. The whole experience scared the crap out of me.


My hike and ski down in red with Chuck's line in blue.
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Analysis


Back at the campsite for the Spring Gathering, I had a long talk with many of the other skiers including Otina (Bergsteigen), Natalie (SnowAlien), Jomah (mojah) and later Rob Miller (rmiller).

Here are a few takeaways from those conversations:
- Point Releases are the babies of the avalanche world. They usually don't result in serious injury unless a skier gets pushed over a cliff or thrown into rocks. Of course that didn't make it any less scary.

- These types of situations are all about managing the snow. When things get too loose, it's important to intentionally trigger a slide and then get out of the way. Once the slide runs down, you can ski down the slide path. Once I recognized that the conditions had deteriorated, I did do a hard cut hoping to release something. When that didn't work, I tried to move quickly down the couloir minimizing my time in the danger zone. In hindsight, I didn't realize how slow these point releases are to develop. Had I waited a few seconds after each turn, I might have noticed the beginning of the release and even helped it get started by pushing on it with my ski poles. I also realize that you only get this type of experience in the backcountry and not at the resort.

- The snow I triggered probably blew into the couloir a few days earlier and for whatever reason, had not bonded well with the rest of the snowpack. The observations I made of the snowpack from the summit to the top of the couloir were representative of the general snowpack without this soft globby layer halfway down the couloir.




I've taken the time to detail my thoughts and decisions in this trip report hoping that I will be able to learn more from the comments of others who have been in similar situations. I also hope that sharing this experience might help someone else survive a similar experience. I have completed AIARE Level 1, a Friends of Berthoud Pass On-snow clinic, attended 7 or 8 Friends of Berthoud Pass talks, and read Snow Sense, Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and the Avalanche Book. Unfortunately, the Laws of Physics don't give a damn about how many books you've read.

I'm so thankful to have not gotten hurt in this incident or caused injury to anyone else. I also apologize for not having better photos. During the incident, all of my attention was focused on getting out of there and it wasn't until I felt that I was safe, did start taking photos. I know a few people were hiking up on the ridge and saw some or all of this. If you have any pictures I'd love to see them.

Thanks for taking the time to read and express your comments. In the meantime, I think I'll ski some low angle stuff until my confidence returns.
-Nick

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My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):




Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19


Comments or Questions
jmanner

Yikes!!
05/19/2016 16:03
Glad you are okay there Mongoose.


Zambo

Dang.
05/19/2016 16:22
Glad to see you're ok. That's quite an event. Thanks for the honest and detailed write up.

Curious (not Monday morning QB'ing): how much indication did you guys have of softer snow when you left the summit? 9:15 generally feels pretty reasonable, but I know the Box Couliors get direct sun early. I also know (from being out on the same day) that the sun was out in force that morning and that the overnight temps were not very low. They were basically right at freezing (if not even a few degrees above it) in most of the reports I looked at for that Friday night.

I wonder if something like this transpired:

-Snow got a bad overnight freeze
-The sun hit early and warmed it back up very quickly
-9:15 just wasn't early enough to start the ski
-Slide happens

Does that at all feel accurate to you? Again, I'm definitely not second-guessing anything you guys did. I'm just genuinely trying to understand more since I was out on the very same day and remember some of the details. Trying to take some good lessons for myself if I can.

Glad you guys are ok.


rmiller

Early for a wet slide
05/19/2016 16:40
With a 28 degree start at 10,400', no indication of weakening snow on the way up and a supportive surface entering the couloir, this would be very hard to avoid. It's one of those rare instances that remind us all that you always accept some risk when entering avy terrain. My only suggestion in these types of incidents is to boot up what you are skiing down, but I'm guilty of taking the easy way to the top if it's available. 28 degrees at 10,400' seems like a more than sufficient overnight freeze when your line is above 13,000', but I guess you can't underestimate a steep slope angled toward the east. In this May sun that snow gets cooked pretty fast. I'm glad you made it out alright.


climbnowworklater

Wow!
05/19/2016 17:08
Pretty damn scary Nick. Glad you are ok.


AnnaG22

Holy Shi+
05/19/2016 18:18
Glad you are okay, Nick! And good job on such a thorough report of the incident!


SnowAlien

Wet slides
05/19/2016 18:48
is a dirty little secret of spring skiing. When I was a noob back in 2012 (and was skiing with noobs) I did a ski cut on a South facing line at noon (feel free to laugh, we had an 8 am start and were slow), and our whole 600 ft run went. Our group of 5 skied the bed. Chalk it up to the learning experience!
Elbert is an interesting case, because, as you experienced, the summit and upper mountain was still firm, while Box creek chutes were baking in the sun. Ascending the line might be better to get a sense of conditions and freeze, but not always feasible.
We also skied a pretty steep line on Saturday and we were a bit worried about marginal freeze, but our line was exactly between 14k and 13k and had a slight NE component, so likely it was able to stay cooler a bit longer.


ulvetano

Was a beautiful day out
05/20/2016 13:56
Nick - great write up and some great (view) memories of the cloud covered valley! The big variable to me was the super windy and cold temps on the summit vs. the dramatic heater that was the Chutes. I've never experienced such an immediate change in snow conditions and then have practically unskiable conditions -- I could barely make any turns due to not being able to hold an edge. It was just 4" of mashed potatoes on top of a slick-zero-traction bed layer. If I had a do-over, I would have 1.) left the summit earlier and tested conditions more (however, the change was so immediate and mid-couloir that it prob wouldn't have helped us much THIS time) and 2.) I would ski the same chute as you. My impression was that we'd be right next to each other, but it turned out that I was too far away to lend an immediate hand. Next time I'll be right behind you!


ameristrat

Wow
05/20/2016 10:29
Glad to hear you're safe Nick!


vsigler

Good information
05/20/2016 21:54
Thanks for that report. I'm very glad that you are OK. A couple of general questions:
First, on the south side of Mt. Hood a few years ago, recent slide activity resulted in an exposed bed up the last 1000+ feet or so. Logic dictated that since the slide had already occurred (theoretically releasing at least some of the potential energy stored in the snow), we should climb directly up the bed, as it would be the safest path up. Is that how most people view this situation? It makes sense to me, but I would like to hear what others think. If that logic is correct, then a person climbing the chutes after your avalanche occurred would be best served climbing right up the middle of the release, right? I ask because I am hoping to get onto the chutes in about two weeks, conditions willing, but climbing up, not skiing down. I intend to descend the ridge and back to a campsite in the flat at around 12,700 feet. Of course I will be on the steepest slopes only if the temps and snow conditions are appropriate, and plan on being off of them very early. I am anticipating a few beds in those slopes, and guessing that sticking in those paths might be the safest way up. Any comments are welcome. Thanks.


jasayrevt

Good Trip Report
05/22/2016 15:11
Thanks for putting this together with the quality photos Nick. That is an incredible view with above-the-clouds vantage point. Glad that you're okay. Great to see you out on the slopes and reaching the mountain tops. Very nice ski of the peak as well. Keep setting the big goals, and letting the summits / outdoor recreation drive the PF to new heights


MonGoose

Thank You
05/23/2016 10:33
Thank you everyone for the well-wishes.

Zambo, I think the snow had a good freeze overnight and it was solid as we skinned to the top. What Chuck (ulvetano) described as "4" of mashed potatoes on top of a slick-zero-traction bed layer" is what slid on my line. We only encountered this unconsolidated "slop" in the couloir and not anywhere else on the mountain. As Rob (rmiller) commented, if we had climbed the couloir, we would have been more aware and I would have chosen to ski down the ridge instead. The big lesson for me in this story is 1) conditions vary greatly on a mountain, so be prepared for anything and 2) spring avalanches are very different from mid-winter slab avalanches, so having a game plan of how to navigate sloppy snow is important.

vsigler, I can't directly answer your question because I don't feel I have enough couloir climbing experience.
-Nick


Scotzman

Dang
05/23/2016 11:58
Glad you are safe and thanks for the report!


tasha978

Crazy!
05/23/2016 14:51
Mother nature can be wicked! Thanks for report and also sharing your experience and lessons learned!


HarknessHooligans

What!
05/24/2016 09:32
Im so glad you are ok Nick! That is a very scary experience. I appreciate you sharing it along with your thoughts.



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