Fall on Snow

Yesterday the local news had this story about a guy who took an uncontrolled slide down a chute in Maybird Gulch in Little Cottonwood Canyon outside of Salt Lake City. The slide took him over some rocks and he was lucky to survive — the video accompanying the story is terrifying.

Video Courtesy of KSL.com

One has to wonder:

  • If he had made it across the snow safely, would the boy scouts in his group have followed? If several of them had gotten out on the snow and fallen together, there could easily have been multiple deaths.
  • Why did he go out onto the snow almost lying down? This position made sliding a certainty.
  • Why did he go out onto steep snow, with an obviously bad runout, without an axe?

Whenever this kind of thing happens the news likes to warn people to carry an ice axe — but without substantial training and practice this is useless and may actually increase the risk since an axe has lots of sharp parts that you don’t want sticking into your face or gut.

Here’s a quick summary of what he should have done differently:

  1. A quick look at the fall line — the line an object falling from a particular starting point will take — makes it clear that this is a very dangerous place to fall. So it would have been a great idea to simply turn back before stepping onto the snow, particularly for someone leading a youth group.
  2. If he had to cross the snow, he should have stayed on his feet and kicked steps. The snow was soft enough that he could have done this in sneakers, though stiff-soled hiking or mountain boots would have worked better. Just doing this, he would have had a good chance of making it across the snow.
  3. Every time he took a step, his axe should have been planted firmly in the snow. Since the slope doesn’t look extremely steep (40 degrees maybe?), he should have used the “cane position” which is pretty much like it sounds — you hold the head of the axe and use its shaft and spike like a cane, only moving the axe when both feet are solidly planted. In this position a fall can usually be stopped before it turns into a slide.
  4. If he somehow managed to start sliding, he should have performed a self arrest. Although it’s not 100% clear that this would have succeeded in the soft snow, it would at least have slowed him down and ensured that his feet pointed down-slope (as it was, not hitting his head on the rocks was pure luck).

My judgement is that roping up would have been overkill — a competent group could have safely crossed this chute unroped. At most a piece of webbing for a hand line would have sufficed, with a belayer sitting on the rocks. Crampons would only have added to the danger in the soft snow.

I’ve climbed in this area; it’s spectacular but definitely not a good place to fall. (In fact, the fall in the video happened in one of the “nice looking couloirs towards the East end of the headwall” that I mentioned in a trip report on Summitpost five years ago.) Every year Accidents in North American Mountaineering contains a lot of entries under “fall on snow, failure to self-arrest.” Most years I practice self-arrests on a safe slope, and I’ve been lucky enough to never have to do this for real.

Red Baldy Again

With some travel coming up and hot weather rapidly eroding our epic snowpack, I decided to sneak in a quick snow climb on July 1. Since I couldn’t convince anyone else to go along, I made a conservative choice and climbed Red Baldy, whose northwest slopes present one of the easier and safer routes found on a local 11,000′ mountain.

The only problem with Red Baldy is that the approach is on the White Pine trail which — due to being an old mining road — has a lot of switchbacks and is just long. This year it was more of a pain than usual with a ton of trees down due to avalanches, big snowbanks starting quite low, and plenty of standing and running water from the snowmelt.

Though I started walking kind of late (8:15) I brought crampons in case the snow had frozen up harder than I thought it would. This was definitely not the case, though the snow was nicely consolidated and I only punched through onto talus in a few places. It took about 3.5 hours to get to the top, which seemed really slow. I blame this on the obstacles and the fact that I was breaking trail the whole way — lots and lots of steps were kicked.

I was surprised to arrive at the summit at around the same time as two other guys. It is very uncommon to share the top of an 11,000′ mountain around here with anyone. One of them was on skis and didn’t stay long, the other was camped on the highest dry ground in White Pine and had come up the west ridge, from near White Pine Lake.

The most fun part of this hike was a monster (probably 1300 vertical feet) sitting glissade starting a little below the summit. Glissading is an easy way to shred pants and skin — my secret weapon is a pair of armored shorts I bought years ago after losing too much flesh during my (thankfully brief) career as a mountain biker. With the shorts, an axe, and a good runout I felt safe doing this. After the glissade, it was just a long walk out.

A Day in the West Desert

Southern Utah is famous for its canyons and arches. Utah’s West Desert, on the other hand, is not as well-known and is perhaps not as easy to appreciate. It encompasses a large area, containing entire mountain ranges that are virtually unknown (ever heard of the Confusion Range or the Wah Wahs?). It is also very remote: services are hard to come by and in many areas you could go weeks or months without seeing another person.

Yesterday Matthew Flatt and I drove to the House Range with our combined children. The main goal was to look for trilobite fossils: Isaac, my four-year-old, has become obsessed with them. Being completely clueless about fossil hunting we decided to make things easy by visiting U-DigĀ  Fossils, a privately owned quarry where they use machines to remove the overburden and break up the rocks somewhat. This turned out to be a great idea. The fossil-finding process is to select a thick piece of shale and repeatedly split it using a rock hammer. This is not hard since the shale has a distinct bedding plane — the kids could do it too, by selecting smaller rocks that had already weathered a bit. Nineteen times out of 20, the split rock reveals nothing, but every now and then a happy little trilobite is hiding inside — having waited in the dark for half a billion years.

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After a couple hours’ fossil hunting and a picnic lunch, we drove through Marjum Canyon on the original unpaved road connecting Delta Utah with Nevada, superseded by Highway 6 in the 1950s. We hiked a short distance up a side canyon to see the cave where a hermit lived from the 1920s to 40s. It was a lot more comfortable-looking than we’d expected, with a concrete floor, stove, shelves, and two windows.

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After exiting Marjum Canyon we entered Tule Valley, a bleak basin between the House Range and the Confusion Range. The main thing I wanted to do is see Notch Peak’s west face, which at 4450 vertical feet is one of the highest cliffs in North America. I had climbed this mountain (from the other side, obviously) in 2006 but had never seen it from the west. I’m not especially afraid of heights but had found myself totally incapable of looking directly over the edge of these cliffs.

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We got back to Delta around dinner time, had pizza, and got home around dusk. A fun trip.

Polar Bears 2011

My work life, as readers of this blog have probably gathered, seems to mainly involve trying to keep funding agencies happy, teaching concepts like deadlock avoidance to bored undergraduates, exhorting grad students to work harder, going to pointless meetings, and spending any remaining time responding to emails. Of course I have a blog where I can write endlessly about all of this.

My younger brother Eric works for the US Fish and Wildlife Service and spends a good chunk of his working life inside the Arctic Circle studying the planet’s largest land predators, using helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, both on land and on sea ice. Of course he does not have a web site.

Anyway, today Eric sent me some pictures from this year’s field season, which was apparently very successful, operating out of the Red Dog Mine facility. He said it was OK to post them, so some of them are below. Hopefully this serves as a bit of an antidote to the computer systems related minutia that constitutes the bulk of the content here.

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Antelope Island

The boys had no school today, so I took them and a friend to Antelope Island, one of the more accessible islands in the Great Salt Lake. Despite the odd weather (it snowed, got sunny, and snowed again about eleven times during the day) we had a fun trip. I brought my backpacking stove and made us a hot lunch, for some reason this is always a hit with kids. We saw the bison herd, but not close up.

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