Skier triggered avalanche on Echo Peak

Location Name: 
Echo Peak
Echo Summit Area
Date and time of avalanche (best estimate if unknown): 
Sat, 12/29/2012 - 13:10
Location Map: 
United States
38° 51' 22.32" N, 120° 4' 17.148" W

Red Flags: 
Recent loading by new snow, wind, or rain
Obvious avalanche path
Terrain Trap

Observation made by: Public
Avalanche Observations
Avalanche Type: 
Trigger type: 
Crown Height: 
1 ft
Weak Layer: 
Storm Snow
Avalanche Width: 
Above Treeline
8 750ft.
Bed Surface: 
Storm Snow
Avalanche Length: 
Number of people caught: 
Number of partial burials: 
More detailed information about the avalanche: 

This brief summary was written and posted by the forecasters:

A party of 5 skiers was descending Echo Peak one at a time. One skier with terrain familiarity chose to descend a steeper area above a small cliff and abrupt slope angle transition which represented a terrain trap. Upon reaching a convex portion of the slope where slope angle increased to 44 to 47 degrees, the avalanche was initiated. The wind slab failed on a 1.5 inch thick layer of lower density storm snow with a small amount of graupel present within the layer. Slab thickness ranged from around 6 inches near the trigger point to near 18 inches at the skier's right edge of the crown near the ridgeline. The skier was carried over the small cliff and buried in the terrain trap below. The skier was able to put a hand up above the snow surface and then brush snow away from his airway which was under the snow surface. Otherwise, the buried individual was unable to move. The other members of the group organized their rescue, keeping two members in a safe area on the ridge and sending two other members one at a time down to the buried individual. The buried individual was found via the visual clue of a waiving hand just above the snow surface. A transceiver search was not needed.

Video 1: Footage of the skier triggering the avalanche and companion rescue. The exchange of transceiver and backpack shown in the video was due to the presence of two transceivers, two shovels, and two probes carried in total within the group of five. One of those transceivers and one set of rescue gear was with the buried individual. A lack of familiarity with the packed rescue equipment lead to use of the shovel blade without the handle.

Video 2: An overview of the scene taken on 12/30 by the forecasters

Photo: The crown and trigger point viewed from the side Taken on 12/30 by the forecasters.

From the party invovled in this incident:

"I know that our party, the party involved in the December 29th incident on Echo Peak, made numerous mistakes. I chose to make the helmet cam video available to Sierra Avalanche Center so that others could learn from our mistakes and not repeat them. As the leader of the party, I take full credit for all of the mistakes and want to document what I've learned from them. 

The first mistake was taking an inexperienced, ill-equipped group into the backcountry. Every member of the party should have been carrying a beacon, probe, and shovel.  Additionally every member of the party should have been trained in avalanche safety. We only had two complete kits among our party of five, carried by the female skier in the video and by me, the skier who was caught in the slide. The other three members of the party were complete novices in the backcountry, able to ski black diamonds at a resort, but with no experience out of bounds. As the party leader, I should never have taken the group up Echo Peak, but I let the party's excitement about the day sway my decision. I made a bad decision.

The second mistake I made was allowing the excitement in the group to override sound decision making. Two of the inexperienced members of the party had never summited Echo. Safety and snow pack conditions dictated turning the group around at tree line and descending the ridge crest. However, I let emotion make the decision and allowed the party to continue above tree line to the summit. This decision required descending the slope directly above the ridge terminus. A slope that I knew was prone to sliding under the right circumstances, and having kept abreast of conditions, I knew conditions were conducive to an an avalanche. Again, I made a bad decision.

We skied one at a time from the crest to a safe zone in the trees at the start of the ridge proper, but I made my third mistake by choosing to ski a line slightly skier's left of the safest line to the meeting point in the trees. The female skier in the group asked that I not ski that line, but I let my emotions once again get the better of me. The several turns in untracked snow on a 45 degree slope were just too tempting. My intentions were to ski to skier's left of the large rocks where the slide released from, then veer hard to skier's right and meet the party on the ridge. I knew that the slope was convex. I knew that there was a rock band below my intended route. My thoughts were, "I've skied this line before. It's only a few turns." I made a very bad decision. Fortunately I have been able to kick myself repeatedly for it.

Once the slope let go, I was helpless. Everything I'd ever heard, read, or talked about went through my mind. Stay on top. Get your feet downhill. Backstroke. Remember to create an air pocket when the slide slows. Punch a hand towards the sky. The truth is that I was at the mercy of the snow. I went over the rock step head first on my back. Fortunately, I didn't crater on impact and end up buried by the rest of the snow as it came over the edge. Instead, I was rag dolled out of my crater and ended up somehow close to the surface. I was able to punch one fist upward as the slide slowed, but otherwise was completely unable to move. Everything was black and the urge to panic was overwhelming. After repeatedly telling myself to calm down, I was able to clear an airway with my free hand. Then all I could do was wait. I was very lucky.

Much has been made on various forums about the way that the skier with the helmet cam handled the rescue. He has been flamed for taking his gloves off, for telling the female skier with the beacon to take her time in transitioning the gear to him, for not putting the handle in the shovel, ad infinitum. The truth is, I am proud of the way he, a novice at avalanche rescue, handled the situation. He knew that the female skier was panicking and had to keep her calm. He knew that the whole party shouldn't descend to the burial site. He left two people on the ridge to watch the hangfire. Then he descended to the burial site with a partner, one at a time, in a controlled manner. In debriefing after the incident, we discussed what he could have done differently. It goes without saying that he should have left his gloves on. Other than that, there are two possible scenarios. First scenario:Once the skier in the black jacket had located my glove above the debris, the one unburied probe and beacon should have been left on the ridge. That way a beacon/probe search could have been initiated in the case of a secondary avalanche burying the rescue party. Second scenario: My glove was located above the debris, but what if my hand wasn't in it? Seen from 100 meters away, it was impossible to tell. If the beacon and probe were left on the ridge, that would have led to additional delays in getting the rescue gear to the burial and would have put one more skier in the path of a secondary release. As for the unassembled shovel, I have to take credit for that mistake. I should have made sure that the entire party knew where the rescue gear was located and how to assemble it before ever leaving the trailhead. Finally, my rescuer didn't relinquish shoveling duties to his partner once his hands started to freeze. He could have either taken the time to get gloves on his wet hands, or asked the skier in the black jacket to continue digging while he warmed his hands. 

I'm sure that there are many more lessons to learn from this incident. That is the reason that I chose to let Sierra Avalanche Center make the video public. My hope was that I would receive constructive criticism and maybe force other people to review their decisions and the process by which they make those decisions. I knew that we would be flamed for our mistakes, but I'll take the flames if my mistakes will help keep others safe. My hope also is that all of the flaming does not discourage others from making public their mistakes, so that we, the backcountry community, can learn from each other. We all make mistakes, some of us more than others, I am sure, but we all make mistakes. I've watched countless avalanche videos and thought, "What an idiot!" "Why'd the dude do that?" or "That guy is completely clueless." Guess this time I'm the idiot and the clueless one. Hopefully, because I chose to share this video, you won't be the clueless one if or when things go wrong."



Snowpit or crown profile photo or graph: 
Avalanche Photos: 
Avalanche observation video: 


12-30-12 Echo Peak Avalanche Overview

Weather Observations
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