They’re rare among hikers, but these snow slides are deadly and highly unpredictable.
At 6 a.m. on March 20, 2004, Dave Bennett, Joel Siebersma, and Kyle Fitzpatrick set off to hike 14,336-foot La Plata Peak, the fifth-highest summit in Colorado. Experienced peakbaggers, they’d taken avalanche courses and were equipped with shovels, probes, emergency gear, and a promising avalanche forecast.
After summiting a bit behind schedule, they decided to speed their descent by glissading down. “We found a nice, long patch that would take us all the way to La Plata Creek,” says Siebersma. He waited until Fitzpatrick was about 400 yards below him, then followed. “I’d descended about 10 yards when the snow fractured,” Siebersma recalls. “I tried to self-arrest, but the axe ripped out of my hands.
“Your first 5 or 10 seconds,” he says, “your life flashes before your eyes. Then it’s just this morbid waiting game. You don’t know which time the slide slows will be the last, and whether or not you’ll be buried. When it finally stopped, I was on top.”
Bennett, meanwhile, had seen the slide scour the mountainside from 13,200 feet down to 11,600. When a lone figure emerged, he thought it was Fitzpatrick, because he’d watched Siebersma getting pummeled and assumed he was dead.
The pair searched for Fitzpatrick for 2 hours using avalanche probes. “By then it was getting dark, and I was in bad shape,” says Siebersma. “Dave has a WFR rating, and he thought I had a cracked skull, because I had this huge lump, blood was pouring from it, and I was hallucinating.” A 6-hour struggle to the trailhead ensued.
Fitzpatrick had driven, so they smashed his car window to get to the extra food and clothing. “Just then a sheriff pulled up,” says Siebersma. His girlfriend and Fitzpatrick’s fiancée had called authorities when the trio didn’t make their meeting time. The next day, a rescue dog located Fitzpatrick’s body buried in 3 feet of snow that had frozen so hard it broke searchers’ probes.
Avalanches are a rare threat for three-season peakbaggers (we could only find two fatalities in a decade), but they pose a very serious risk for backcountry skiers and mountaineers. An average of 22 skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers die each year in backcountry avalanches in the United States. More than 90 percent are caught in slides they triggered by crossing an unstable slope. Surprisingly, most victims are skilled outdoors enthusiasts with avalanche training. “We used to think education was the key,” notes forecaster Tom Kimbrough, “but people seem to think that because of their knowledge, they can push closer to the edge.”
- Time your climb Morning is better than afternoon, and cold days are better than warm ones. Also, stay off steep slopes during or soon after windy storms, which create unstable snowpacks.
- Spread out The same practice that holds for lightning applies to unstable hillsides, but in the case of avalanche-prone slopes, it’s wise to increase the distance between individuals from 100 to 200 or more feet.
- Try another day Because many victims die from injuries sustained during the slide, even companions with beacons and rescue skills can’t necessarily help. Best advice? Avoid getting caught altogether. Turn back, and revisit when the slope is safer.