Saturday, March 29, 2014

Cheating Death: An Avy Report from Coalpit

It was a fantastic day, until we almost died

It might sound cliche or overdramatic, but I really feel like I could have died today. Considering the circumstances, I think my odds of survival were low. Like really low.

Jake and I headed out from white pine at 7:30 sans everyone else due to tardiness(steve,nick) and sleep deprivation(court) and I think we just forgot to invite Pete. Regardless, we skied up to the summit of the Obelisk where we found gale force winds and hard snow. Luckily the turns got way better down in Hogum 200 and we skied to the base of the Hypodermic Needle apron.

We both felt a little lazy but we both wanted to ski Coalpit Headwall pretty bad. We thought it should be pretty good from the previous storm and not sun affected. We skinned up the apron and hit the ridge around 11:30. We booted up to our entry point which was just below the summit on the east part of the headwall.
Really windy on the coalpit headwall ridge

Cool cornice

I dropped in first and did 2 fat ski cuts across the face, jumping pretty hard on the slope to test it out. We had skied the Hogum 200 just an hour earlier and it had looked quite similar to this line in nature, wind blown snow. Feeling OK about it, I skied down the line a few more turns and tried to get out of the way so Jake could come down.

Coalpit Headwall via the interweb. our line was far left

Jake ski cut the exact same line as me, and WHUMP! the whole thing slid. I yelled AVY! and pointed my skis downhill(why I'm not sure) and was immediately caught in the slide. I proceeded to get carried all the way down the headwall onto the apron below, getting tumbled around but mostly staying "afloat". There was one really scary part(the whole thing was scary) where I got turned upside down and couldn't breath for what felt like 10 minutes(likely 3 seconds) but then I reemerged on top as I violently tried to swim.

The avy came to a halt and I found myself on top unscathed, minus lacking my skis and poles. I immediately yelled up to Jake(way up there) that I was OK. He saw me and proceeded to ski down. He had gotten caught as well, but luckily had been able to self arrest on whippets and not get carried too far. We both were extremely happy at first to be alive, then as reality set in that we weren't dead I think we both became very angry. Angry at ourselves, the mountains, the snow, the whole situation.

After the fact. I slid from way up there at the top till where I am taking this photo

So scary

I found one pole, but my skis were gone. Jake skied down next to me as I booted my way down Coalpit. We navigated the small downclimb and made it back to the car happy to be alive. Jake said the F word quite  a bit. I'm not a fan of swearing, but I too used some language I'm not proud of. This ends my skiing season, one because I almost died, and two my skis are buried who knows where.

The next question is, "do you give it up?" Does a near death experience like this make you quit?

Backcountry skiing has become a ridiculously fun activity for me this year. I had dabbled in it before, but this year has by far been my biggest ski year yet. With two base jumping deaths in the last week, I had already been reflecting on the risks of the sports we pursue. I felt quite sad and angry at Sean Leary for doing such a stupid sport like Base Jumping and leaving behind a wife and unborn child. Now it seems like I am the stupid one, participating in a sport where the objective hazards can be high and I have a wife and unborn child.

 I refuse to be the guy who leaves behind his family because he insists on skiing.

I refuse to die young.

I refuse to make the news as another avalanche death and give the non-skiers another reason to criticize us "adrenaline junkies".

I think the mantra, "he died doing what he loved" is garbage. If we think life isn't worth living without backcountry skiing, base jumping, paragliding, etc. then I think our priorities are mixed up. It is imperative that if we decide to participate in these dangerous sports, that we don't give ourselves 1:100 odds of dying. Those aren't good odds for people who ski 100 days a year/two years/three years. I need 1:1,000,000 odds.

 I don't want to give up skiing. But I certainly had a wakeup call today.

My life would still be fantastic without skiing should I give it up. I have running, climbing, biking, and of course family. Maybe I'll consign myself to skiing Beartrap Fork trees forever, but somehow I don't think that's gonna happen. I certainly won't ski the resorts, that's for sure. Some might say I am overreacting, that avalanches happen all the time, but until you have felt that petrified feeling of being trapped under cement hard snow and you feel like you are going to die, don't talk to me about overreacting.

If you head up Coalpit before me in the summer and find my Dynafit Manaslu skis, I'd love to have them returned. Maybe I'll use them again. 


  1. Wow, Spencer! This is something else! I'm glad you guys are okay, I think it is amazing that you ended up on top of the snow. I appreciate your discussion of whether the activity is worth the risk or not. The photos are intense to take in!
    BTW, I did get invited actually, and I really wanted to come but due to a series of unusual commitments I opted out. But I seriously considered trying to get out of my commitments so I could go skiing... now I'm glad I didn't do that.

    I call "finders keepers" on the skis :)

  2. Risk vs. Benefits.....yup. We only get one life that we know of and we all want it to be awesome and long. Not just long and not just awesome. Glad you two are ok and that the community only got an eye opener today instead of a loss.

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  4. "A man's errors are his portals of discovery"

    Most people who ski a lot have an accident at some point. When you have an accident, it's really important to identify what went wrong. It is a really productive exercise, as a skier and as a human being in general, to look at what happened, determine what you could have done differently and what some warning signs could have been, and challenge yourself to integrate the lessons learned into your routine. I don't mean to be harsh; I have had close calls, and although its really humbling and scary, you will be a much wiser recreationist if you learn from experience and get back in the saddle.

  5. Nice write up on your ride Spencer, I have 3 little ones, tourer since the 80s. Remember the guy who got completely buried next to a tree in the middle of Bear Trap trees? Maybe 2010? Live long amigo!

  6. Dang. Resorts aren't that bad. At least you don't get caught in avalanches there. But really, I'm glad you're ok.