Luck, Learn, Live

Words and Photos By: Christine Feleki 

Pallas Snowboards & Phantom Snow Industries Team Rider 
ACMG Guide 

Swivel Rocker - Photo: Christine Feleki


It was an early mid March morning. My two friends and I stretched and untangled ourselves from our sleeping bags. We had left Kamloops BC in the late evening and arrived in the wee hours at the Cayoosh parking area, on the Duffey Lake Road. 

We hadn’t really made much of a plan, or at least all that had been communicated to me was, let's go stay at a cabin for three nights on the Duffey. 

My partners have a shared history in the mountains together. They had ticked off numerous days in the summers climbing, and tackling ice-falls and ski touring throughout the winters. They were long legged, fit and confident. I was already worried about my janky split set-up and how my height is all in my torso. 

One of these friends and I had just completed our Operations Level 1 avalanche course through the Canadian Avalanche Association. The prerequisites for this course require you to have an AST 1 certification or equivalent, and experience in multiple burial companion rescue, which you are tested on day one of the course. 

The CAA OPPS 1 course is the first in a series of professional-level training courses for those seeking employment with avalanche risk management operations within Canada. To me the major take away from the CAA OPPS 1 course is that it teaches you how to be a proficient observer and data collector, and then communicate your findings to others in a consistent way. 

My friend and I were now considered certified snow nerds. Speaking to my experience at this time, certification meant I held the badge but had little under the belt. I had spent time out touring with others, following behind as decisions were made, often not fast enough to be there when they were. I tried to absorb as much as I could through osmosis and proximity. I didn’t believe I knew enough to contribute; and many of the core skills I had now just learned were new concepts to me.  

Cayoosh Summit viewed from the west - Photo: Christine Feleki
Cayoosh summit viewed from the west

When you complete this certification you are warned that statistically people who have just taken an avalanche course are more likely to get into trouble. With the new perceived knowledge, you need to strive to slowly gain experience instead of over confidently stepping out. Fostering a process that relies on information gathering and rules based decision making to keep you on track is encouraged, while you continue to gain experience. 

I’m sure I glanced at the weather, and took a quick look at the avalanche bulletin, but honestly I should have done more. I allowed my unquantified feelings of being the least experienced in the group, keep me from contributing, or expressing my concerns and instead just went with the flow despite my misgivings. 

What resulted was the closest-call-I-have-had-in-the-mountains-with-an-avalanche-the-size-of-which-I-hope-to-never-be-near-again. This was my wake up call. If I wanted to play in these environments, I couldn’t just tag-a-long. 

So where did we go wrong? 

For starters we had no pre-plan, which means we were not aware of what had been happening in the area in regard to weather and snowpack; and we were making our plan up on the fly, with little map or GPS consultation. 

This resulted in sometimes comical, inefficient travel, as we searched for the best routes by trial and error. Fighting up steep treed terrain when there was easier travel 100 m left, or going up the wrong ridge on a summit attempt. 

Our lack of preparation left us exposed to worse dangers, however. Despite making observations throughout our days we lacked the historical knowledge to realize there was a lurking Persistent Weak Layer (PWL), which was particularly devious where it sat over a crust. 

Wind slab triggered while skiing from the summit of Cayoosh - Photo: Christine Feleki
Wind slab triggered while skiing from the summit of Cayoosh

The day of our near-miss was fantastic. We crossed a glacier, summited a peak, had a killer run down a north facing 500 m couloir and the snow was all time. We also kicked off a size one windslab, and observed several natural size 1 to 1.5 avalanches that had run in the storm overnight. 

By this point I was pretty tired and ready to call it a day. I was also feeling uneasy given the amount of natural activity we had seen, and not too keen on the SW slope that was proposed. But I bit my tongue. My friends were eager for one more run. 

When I think of this day I am often surprised that we saw nobody else. It was mid week, but we were in a popular touring area and there was at least 30 cm of new snow from the past few days. 

Most of the day had been overcast, however as we toured up for another run, the clouds were clearing. I was lagging behind, but remember voicing that I was not comfortable going for the bigger lines. I wanted to stay in the smaller terrain and out of the gullies. 

We agreed and continued with the sun on our backs and on the slope. 

When we reached our highpoint the boys wanted me to go first. Feeling nervous I asked them to keep space and started down feeling certain we were going to trigger something. I brushed it off as just a feeling. 

As the terrain steepened my body was on high alert and I stopped about 10 m back from a rollover. When my friend pulled up behind me we heard a whumph and watched as the slope in front of us released. It was moving slowly and went surprisingly wide and deep.  

Crown-line and upper path of the avalanche we triggered - Photo: Christine FelekiCrown-line and upper path of the avalanche we triggered

Feeling like we were still in a position where we could safely continue on, we carefully slipped our way down following the avalanche to the valley floor. 

At this point we were not so worried about the slope we were on, but were increasingly aware of the heat on the slopes above our exit. Realization was setting in. We had put ourselves in a terrible place. We sat at the head of a valley lined with overhead hazard and large west facing avalanche paths. 

The only saving grace was we knew it was a downhill slide out to safety, albeit, several kilometres long; but we were able to keep gliding as we made our escape.

Back at the cabin we counted ourselves lucky but didn’t quite grasp our mistakes. One friend decided he was going to make a quick trip back to the car to grab a few more beers, as it is not very far from the cabin. When he returned he told us of his strange encounter with two guys in the parking lot. The only other people any of us had seen in two days. He said they looked pretty spooked but didn’t want to talk about it. 

The next morning we headed up for our last tour. As we climbed we looked across the valley to where we had set off our avalanche. From our position it was bigger than we had initially thought, a healthy size 2.5. As we scanned the ridge down the valley we quickly realized that another larger path had avalanched. Shocked, we could see there were two ski tracks that had dropped from the summit. 

Slowly we connected the dots. It must have been those other people from the parking lot. They must have also trigged the slope, but this was far larger than what we had initiated. It had propagated across the entire slope and ran full path, forcing up the other side of the valley. And holy shit! It must have happened within an hour of us crossing under those slopes as we escaped the valley. There would have been no chance for survival. 

Anger flashed through me, how could we have been so stupid. 

I am not sure in the end what my friends took away from that day, but there were so many take-aways. The biggest for me was it highlighted how my lack of preparation left me totally unprepared in the field. The size of this avalanche was not on my radar, and my lack of experience needed some guidelines to help navigate the conditions as well as the human factors at play. 

These days pre-trip planning is an essential part of my backcountry kit. It not only helps me understand the terrain, snow and weather conditions I am headed into. It also gives me time to pre-plan some of the difficult decisions I might need to make in the field, such as which slopes to avoid, or when to rope up on the glacier. I can assess where the holes in my knowledge lie, and then gather more information to make better decisions while on the move. 

For a breakdown of what goes into a pre-trip plan see below. Then check out Phantom team rider, Joey Vosburgh’s guide to Making and Interpreting Snowpack Observations once you are in the field.  

Avalanche crown lines outlined - Photo: Christine Feleki

The crown-lines are outlined from our near-miss. Lookers left is the avalanche we set off, lookers right is what came down shortly after we had crossed under its path. 

Pre-trip Basics

Gather relevant past information : 

Take time to understand what has happened in the area you are headed. Try to answer the following questions. 
  • Has there been recent avalanche activity in the area, and if so what are you dealing with? Slab avalanches, surface snow instabilities, deep persistent layers, cornice failure? 
  • Has there been significant weather events such as snowfall amounts to 30cm or more, major wind, significant warming, or long cold periods with no new snow? 
  • Are there any concerning persistent layers in the snowpack? 
  • Are there certain avalanche paths that frequently run in the area?

Look At The Forecast : 

This is where you want to know what is predicted to happen and if possible try to determine confidence in those forecasts. 
  • Avalanche Forecast - does the forecaster note their confidence in the bulletin? 
  • What is the trend, is hazard decreasing, increasing or expected to stay the same? 
  • What avalanche problems are predicted, and where might you find them? 
  • Weather Forecast - check multiple forecasts for the area and neighbouring areas. 
  • Do the forecasts align, or is there variability? 

Come Up With A Plan : 

Now that you understand the avalanche problem it is time to create a plan that will use the terrain to keep you safe. 
  • Choose your terrain - use maps, satellite imagery, guide books, trip reports, and local knowledge to come up with a route plan. 
  • Make a Plan B in case the conditions are not what you expected, or something changes.
  • Consider who is travelling with you and is the plan within everyone's abilities
  • What will you do if you need to call for outside help?
  • Recognize where your cruxes will be and if you need to gather additional information in the field to manage them.
  • What is the nature of the terrain?
  • What are the slope characteristics?
  • What aspect and elevation are you dealing with
  • Pre-trip is the time to come up with terrain you will not travel in given the conditions
  • Consider the human factors that could come into play within you group and how to manage them. 

Gather the gear : 

Is this a standard touring day? 
  • Do you need specific gear for glacier travel, ski mountaineering or overnight or multi-day trips? 
  • Within the group do you have everything you need in case a binding breaks, an accident happens or you have to spend an unplanned night out? 
Lastly, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Learn from the mistakes of others, you can’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” 

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