Thursday Mayhem Round-Up

A crevasse fall, multi-victim avalanches, and crazy waterfall one-upsmanship

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Unnamed glacier beneath Snowcap Mountain, Revelation Range, AK. Pic: Howe

Wow! I pull my head up out of the keyboard and it’s Thursday already. Better catch up on recent events. I’ll ignore the continual trickle of lake- and sea-kayaking fatalities for now; hence the themes in this post run the gamut from the perils of guiding, to ski touring safety and the lemming-like nature of modern sponsored adventure. Strap in campers. Here we go:

Outward Bound instructor dies in Argentina crevasse fall

Last Sunday, March 8th, a 72-day Outward Bound course was climbing 11,411-foot Mount Tronador in the southern Andes near Bariloche, Argentina, when a glacial crevasse bridge collapsed, dropping a four-person rope team 60 feet into the hole. Two students were seriously injured, one with head and chest injures. The instructor, Travis Lizotte (25) of Aspen, Colorado, was killed. Apparently, the entire 14-person party was well-prepared and Lizotte was highly qualified in emergency medicine. The exact details of how they were attempting to cross the crevasse are not known, but clearly belay or self-arrest efforts failed.

This is no criticism, just a heads up: High-adventure guiding is, by nature, a dangerous profession. I did it for a while, and very much enjoyed helping people gain the knowledge to pursue their passions. But several close calls precipitated by clients doing unfathomable things led me to the conclusion that it’s considerably more dangerous than soloing, and wasn’t worth the paltry income.

When you’re alone, you can only count on yourself, and that’s risky too. But hopefully you know your own capabilities, are able to concentrate without being distracted by the (perfectly justified) needs and questions of novices, and aren’t lulled into a false sense of confidence in your companion’s abilities to belay or support you. So if you want to be a guide, by all means go for it, but be aware that it’s always sketchy safe-wise, and (nothing personal here) never rely on your clients. My condolences to Lizotte’s friends and family. It sounds like he was an exceptional guy.

Avalanche catches three, kills one, in Oregon’s Eagle Cap Wilderness

On the same day, a nine-person group of backcountry skiers triggered a quarter-mile-wide avalanche in the Aneroid Lake Basin below Pete’s Peak in the Eagle Cap Wilderness of northeastern Oregon. Three of the skiers – Roger Roepke (50), his son Erich Roepke (15) and Don Woodhouse (52) were caught by the slide. Erich Roepke was buried to his waist and quickly dug up. Woodhouse, fully buried, was located after a 30-minute beacon search. Despite low odds for such-long term burials, he survived due to a lucky air pocket in the debris. The elder Roepke was located unconscious after an unstated time period. Ninety minutes of CPR were unable to revive him.

The slide was triggered near the 8,000-foot level as the group was descending from 9,000-foot Pete’s Peak toward the private Aneroid Lake Cabins. The party, comprised of experienced skiers and including former ski patrollers, was approximately a half-mile down the slope when hit. The two slide survivors skied out to trailhead to alert authorities. Avalanche danger was very high at the time of the accident.

As always, this accident was a tragedy, and the elder Roepke in particular was known as a particularly cautious skier. I have no details on pre-accident specifics, but the incident points out several hazard factors that all backcountry skiers, boarders and snowshoers should keep in mind:

[] Most avalanche incidents happen to advanced and expert winter travelers, not unsuspecting novices.

[] Even avalanche professionals can’t make accurate spot-location forecasts as to whether a given backcountry slope will slide or not; They can only survey broad conditions and make general hazard evaluations. Expertise does not let one walk a finer line – for long.

[] Large groups tend to create a sense of safety. This can lead to unnoticed risk taking.

[] Social groups of friends tend to travel closely spaced to facilitate conversation. Not safe in avalanche terrain.

[] The large slide size indicates how severe the avalanche hazard was.

[] Thirty minutes is a slow beacon search. As a former instructor, I often watched expert level students take 30-45 minutes doing the first beacon excercise in a class…on flat ground. It’s all about diligent practice. Chances are a real incident will happen on steep, awkward, timber-strewn, cliff-banded slopes. Avalanche beacon practice should be done on similarly ugly terrain.

[] Emergency satellite beacons are a smart idea, although it may not have made any difference.

[] Most of the value in expertise lies not in being materially prepared, but in being able to recognize risk and studiously avoid it. Gear like shovel and beacons are your last line of defense.

[] Sorry, there’s almost never a good excuse for multiple burials.

Avalanche catches two, kills one in Idaho’s Sawtooths

Two days prior to this, a Ketchum woman died, and a companion was critically injured, in an avalanche incident while skiing the west flank of Gladiator Peak near Galena Pass in the Idaho Sawtooths. Again, this was a well-prepared four-person group of experts. The avalanche broke out 1,000-feet wide, and ran 500 vertical feet. Both victims were pummeled by being strained through aspen groves during the ride. Stella Keane (53) died despite being located and dug up with three minutes. The other skier was hospitalized in critical conditions with a broken leg, internal, and exposure injuries. The Sawtooth Avalanche Center, which also integrates reports from the nearby Galena Lodge XC center, had rated the day’s avalanche hazard as “considerable.” One week prior to this, three Idahoans had been kiiled in an avalanche incident.

Aside from the cautions above, this tragedy should illustrates two points:

[] News reports always say the slide “caught” or “struck” as if it leaped predator-like from a tree. Victims almost always trigger the slide that gets them.

[] Adventurous snow-junkies of all stripes need to remember that even beacons and an army of fast shovelers are no guarantee. You can die from injuries received enroute.

Kayaks are for Woosies

As reported by our erstwhile competitors at Outside Online, on March 4th, Brazilian kayaker Pedro Oliva – part of a 5-person World Record Attempt Expedition of all-star kayakers who were touring South America with a film crew specifically to film uber-macho kayak plunges – set a new world record with a 127-foot dive off Brazil’s Salto Bello (Beautiful Falls) on the Rio Sacre. This broke the pre-existing 2007 record by 19 feet.

For folks wondering how it’s possible to survive such plunges when bridge suicides are often killed on impact, here’s the deal: All the aerated water plunging over the falls piles into the standing pool, turning it into huge jumble of foam that’s far less dense than actual water. Of course, the impact is still huge, and the major danger is that water recirculating strongly under the falls will trap boat and boater in a density conundrum where even an air-filled boat and PFD-wearing kayaker won’t float high enough to allow breathing.

And then, in an unexpected display of just what it takes to stay on the cutting edge, only a week later that record was shattered when an unidentified suicidal man swam over Niagara’s 167-foot Horseshoe Falls (the Canadian side) and survived. He was plucked from a recirculating whirlpool in Niagara Gorge with few injuries, despite the huge boulder pile at the bottom of the drop, and being in near-freezing waters for over 40 minutes. When recovered, he was naked; The force of the falls had stripped him. The man’s boatless plunge bested Oliva’s leap by 40 feet.

With all due respect to Oliva and the kayakers, you gotta love it when freelancers beat organized, sponsored, film-motivated adventure stars. – especially when the current mania for hucking huge cliffs and waterfalls seems to be dragging attention and sponsorship from actual skill-based styles of skiing and paddling. Of course, the Horseshoe Falls dude was attempting to commit suicide, not set a world record, although the difference between that and the current wave of lemming-sport celebs seems hazy at best. And just think of what this Niagara guy could do with a year’s training and some Red Bull money. Unfortunately, since he wasn’t in a kayak, it probably won’t count. And the adventure world won’t notice anyway because “no footage – no happen.” Welcome to adventure in the 21st century dude. –Steve Howe