April 10, 2010

Jerry, Alex and Carrie attempt Granite Mountain



A spur of the moment ski tour.  Weather was supposed to be warm with “filtered sunlight.” There’d been a couple feet of snow at pass level during the last week.  The avalanche center was saying considerable danger over 5,000 ft. on Friday going to moderate by Saturday – with a comment about having seen the layer of new accumulation slide in the ski areas and a warning about that top layer on slopes exposed to the sun.


We talked about avalanche stuff on the way to the Granite Mountain trailhead.  All of us had climbed the peak in the summer, Jerry had led it as a backcountry snowboard trip for the Mountaineers many years ago.  Bergdorfers book got passed around.  The concensus was that if we stuck to the north ridge and kept out of the main bowl we would be safe enough.


At the trailhead we put on our beacons and tested them.  We had trouble getting one of shovels out of its makeshift scabbard but ultimately we each had a beacon and shovel.  Jerry had a snowboard and was wearing snowboard boots.  Alex and Carrie had alpine ski gear (with ski boots in their packs) and were wearing climbing boots.  We left the car at 9:30 and hiked the trail to the Pratt Lake junction before it was consistently snow-covered.  (Although we did see snowshoe tracks in the mud!)  There were no tracks heading up the mountain.  Shortly after the wilderness area boundry we attempted to head uphill but the snow was so unconsolidated that we returned to the trail.  We made that same effort when we came to the first gully but realizing that the summer trail switchbacked up on our side of the gully we continued up the trail.  We tried to take to the trees when we got to the first gully crossing but were immediately postholing to our crotches. We decided to cross the gully and walk the switchbacks on the other side reasoning that when you’ve got a trail you should use it.  When the trail headed for the second gully we could see the bowl through open trees just above us so with great effort we began climbing.  Alex led but soon resorted to an almost crawling motion.  Jerry and Carrie stayed vertical but had a lot of work to pack out steps that wouldn’t blow out.


The idea was to cut back across the first gully just below the bowl and climb up to the ridge sticking just next to the trees. Alex was faster and drifted more southward on the path of least reistance.  We regrouped at a point higher than we wanted to be at and realized that we weren’t going to the summit.  We decided to climb for another hour so that we could at least get some turns for our effort.  Jerry steered the group up toward the crest of a smaller ridge on the south side of the first gully in the belief that there was some protection to being on top of the terrain feature.  The snow was noticeably firmer as we climbed up this ridge and we remarked on having some slab action going on and discussed stresses on snow layers as they bent over that kind of a roll.  The sun was bright and hot at this point. The goal became a cluster of trees below the point where the ridge blended into the bowl.  From that point it appeared that we could ski back to the North ridge with only a short exposed crossing of the bowl/gully.  About halfway to the trees we were overtaken by a hiker with an ice axe but no skis.  He had a british or australian accent and Jerry at least didn’t really understand his comments.  We waited for him to get into the front of the line so that he could kick steps for us.  He obliged for a few feet of vertical and then turned around and glissaded down the way he had come.


As we neared the cluster of trees we turned north a little lower than we should have.  The north-facing slope of the ridge seemed to have a very thin soft layer over something hard.  Jerry retreated and continued on the ridge crest before cutting over to the lowest of the trees, intending to dig a snow-pit before attempting to cross the bowl.  A strong wind developed as we neared the trees and it became very cold and difficult to see because of blowing snow.  There was barely room for two above the tree – Alex put on his skiis while Jerry added a layer of clothing and Carrie waited for them to make space for her.  Alex dropped down below the trees so that Jerry and Carrie could gear up and Jerry got into his snowboard bindings.  When he looked up Jerry saw an avalanche crown that he didn’t remember and cried out “shit – did that just slide?”  Carrie didn’t know but they were relieved to see Alex standing just below the crown.  There had been no accompanying the slide – or at least nothing that could be heard over the wind.  Jerry dropped down below the tree to make room for Carrie and saw Alex ski under the crown heading for the ridge as previously planned.  Jerry called out to him to come back as he was concerned about a slide involving the upper part of the bowl.


We regrouped a few hundred feet below the trees – with no wind – and agreed to ski out the way way we had hiked up. Alex reported that he skiied a little way away from the trees and stopped and then the snow just dropped out from under his feet.  He was at the top of the slide and was able to do a ski pole arrest.  He reported that the crown was less than a foot high where he was.  He said that his phone rang as he was getting up after arresting and from the record of the missed call he could tell that the slide happened at 2:30.


The first few turns were good on windslab but we were soon into soft heavy snow and after skiing perhaps 500 feet of vertical we were back to the trail with skiis on our backs.  We quickly noticed the boot track of the guy who had glissaded down and at a switchback next to the first gully we saw where avalanche debris had covered his track but it clearly continued below.  We crossed the first gully without being able to see the trail on the far side.  We slid down a few feet to pick up the trail at the switchback below and were relieved to see boot tracks heading out.  We scanned the debris as we switchbacked down next to the gully but didn’t see any gear of other indication that anyone else was involved.


When we returned to the trailhead there were several emergency vehicles and a bunch of first responders from the Snoqualmie fire department and Eastside search and rescue.  The firemen indicated that they had received a cellphone call from someone who was lost and who might have been caught in an avalanche.  They asked if we had seen any avalanches and we replied that we had been right next to one.  The firemen suggested that there was more than one avalanche and wanted to know if we had seen “the north one or the south one.” They reported that the guy they were looking for was clothed in a t-shirt and shorts – which didn’t sound like the hiker we had encountered.  As we waited for permission to leave, a steady stream of mountain rescue volunteers arrived and began the process of booting up.


After debriefing and leaving contact information, we left and drove across I-90 to a vantage point where we could see that we had been dead center in the bowl we had intended to avoid.  The slide was visible from the highway and dropped perhaps 1,000 feet.  On the drive home more emergency vehicles were encountered heading up toward the pass and helicopters were visible overhead.


By the next morning the news was reporting  a rescue and on Monday television had the interview.

Here is an excerpt from the snowpack analysis the next day.

Here are some photos (mainly by Alex and Carrie.)