Flett glacier avalanche September 18, 2004


Snow-dusted Spray Park.

Sam, Paul, Eric and I head to the Flett Glacier below Observation Rock for some September turns. A bit of a gamble, since the snowline for the past week has hovered just below the top of the glacier - will we get deep snow?

Today is cold though, snowing at the 4900ft trailhead. The top of the Flett below Observation Rock is at 8000ft.

The lower Flett Glacier and headwall, with Rainier smoothered in the clouds. Lookin' pretty f'ing sweet.

We walk through snow-dusted meadows admist sun breaks, reveling in our good fortune at the weather (lucky to have visibility, when it calls for cloudy with showers in the mountains). There seems to be a sun hole over the Flett.

So innocent then...

Once we gain the Flett, at 6800ft, we know we will have good skiing. Talk turns to the Observation Rock headwall. In September, I am glad just to have fresh snow to ski in - I don't need steep stuff. The short face is a Mountaineers basic ice climb in late season - though this year it apparently didn't melt out to blue ice. Most years it is like this. A respectable though short beginner climb, and a fun solo. Covered by soft spring snow, it is easy to see how people ski it too.

Feeling the freshiez stoke.

There is serious stokage in the group about skiing the headwall. I can't imagine late season ice/hard neve, topped with a bit of powder, being all that great. But I am willing to give it a chance. "We should definitely check it out."

I would assume we'd climb around the easy side and drop in from the top, but Sam says "a line up the left side looks good". Having only been on it when it is bare ice, I guess that didn't seem too feasible considering we had no crampons or ice axes.

Once we are up at the base of it though, it looks very feasible.

At the base, we stop under a rock nook for lunch and to bundle up against the cold wind. Looking at the 800ft of fresh snow now below us, Sam suggests maybe we should just lap this lower stuff to satisfy our freshie fever.

However, talk quickly turns to the headwall again. I ask Sam if I can borrow one of his whippets in case we encounter an icy section up higher. We trade poles.

I'm psyched. Even the pile of rocks at the base of the headwall has enough new snow on it to be skiable, joining with the lower glacier to form a continuous 1200ft line.

Gearing up for the headwall.

I am cold, so I start up the headwall ahead of the others. I wear my helmet, just in case something happens. I had brought it for its rain/wet snow-repelling abilities, not for its head-protection abilities, but it seems prudent to wear it now.

I kick steps up towards the rock band in the middle of the face. From the 5 inches or so of new on the lower glacier, the snow quickly deepens on the headwall to a foot. There is a bit of a windcrust on the surface, and the depth is variable. In one spot I veer away from what appears to be hard ice. It turns out just to be very hard summer snow, a little bit edgeable.

Sam and Paul are catching up to me, with Eric a little further behind. The windcrust seems to be getting a little thicker, and breaking off in chunks 1 foot long. By the time the slope steepens to 40 degrees, I am keeping close to the rocks on the left.

Occasionally, on the way up, I send down "cookies" of the crust, as kind of an unconscious effort at letting folks below know what kind of snow I am encountering.

At a little "alcove" on the left, I stop and rest, while Sam catches up and passes me. At this point the slope is 45 degrees, and the snow is now knee deep. In fact, it is genuine wallowing, as I watch Sam swim up above me. We can't believe our good fortune at what we are about to ski!

Sam knee-deep in doo doo.

Slope looks sweet, doesn't it?

As Sam passes, I dig out the snow around me a bit more, and half-hazardly, very unrigourously, check for weak layers. I don't really want to see any though. This is September. I mention to the others: "we're not supposed to be skiing this kind of stuff this time of year!" not refering to any particular danger, but just the novelty of steep powder in September. Visions of face shot fairies dance in my head.

The avy danger keeps crossing my mind, but the soft crust is breaking up in small chunks, not really propagating, and I keep convincing myself "Avalanche in September? That would be crazy! The chances are so slim." Given the same conditions however, in mid-winter, I probably would not be wallowing on a 45 degree face covered in recent snow, with visible snow blowing around the top.

Ok, we continue around the next lobe of rocks. Very close to the top now - maybe 30 more feet. We're almost there. This is cool! I glance out at the slope in profile and dream of the turns. It will be so cool to pull this off! Paul gibbers excitedly, and Sam jokingly tells him to shut up (since he has been gibbering excitedly the whole way up).

Sam is about 10 or 15 feet in front of me and Paul following a short ways behind. Still wallowing. I suggest maybe he should traverse left a little more and go up right next to the rocks - might be easier footing. And in the back of my mind, I think it will be safer for avies (perhaps there are "terrain features" under the snow there, instead of smooth glacier ice). Just one last bit before the top.

Then I hear the horrible sound of a snow slope fracturing. Whoa! That can't be!

The snow around me disintegrates an instant later, and my first thought is: "this won't be bad, I'll just move left and stop on the rocks"

The folly of that thought is quickly revealed. My feet may have held for a brief moment, but I didn't have a chance, and within a second I was tumbling over the 45 degree rocky terrain immediately below me.

My next thought was: "oh my god, this is actually happening. I'm in a fucking avalanche." I remembered all the rocks below me and thought: "Oh fuck, I am going to get really messed up!" (Interestingly enough, if I was not wearing a helmet, I think I would have been thinking: I am going to die).

REGAIN CONTROL! That's all I can think about - I must regain control. My first instinct is to get myself in a good position, with a view downhill so I can try to avoid any obstacles coming my way.

What a total joke - there is no control. I feel myself fly through the air and hit the slope again and again, in a bouncing tumble, just like a rag doll. This is what it is like to be carried down a 45 degree slope. It is spinning chaos, I can't breathe, I can't make sense of any of the snow and rocks whipping by at high speed, I can't tell which direction is up or down. I have no control over anything at all. Over and over I feel and hear my skis (still strapped to my pack) banging against me and the slope.

I keep waiting for the final blow - but as soon as it had started, it stops, and I am sitting at the bottom of the slope on top of the snow. Two other figures are sitting up in front of me, about 30 feet further downslope.

Seeing that they are alive, and moving, and that there is one person missing, I yell: "we gotta find Sam!" One of the figures announces "I'm here"... I am confused for a second, thinking that it must be Paul and Eric below me. But it is Paul and Sam. Someone points uphill and I turn around and see Eric halfway up the slope, apparently ok.

Wow, we're all alive! That's awesome!

The avalanche happened at 12:30pm.

We sit around in the debris, kind of dazed. Paul says "Wow, my ankle hurts." Sam says "I think I'm gonna puke."

Then I remember to check myself out... my ass hurts, my hand hurts, but all appears normal otherwise. My poles are gone. One of them has been strapped to my wrist - that's the hand that feels tweaked. I never ski with the straps on, but I often use them going uphill, generally when not in avy terrain, for extra pushing power.

We spend the next half hour just kind of hanging out in the debris, collecting our thoughts, swearing, etc... Eric finds one of my poles. Sam and I walk around and look for the other (Sam's Whippet), but assume its burried under the debris. I take a walk over to the base of the right side of the face to look for a picket that an ice-climbing party lost 2 days before. No sign of it.

It becomes clear that Paul's ankle is pretty bad. Sam is a little beaten up, and his left leg is strangely numb, but he seems to be able to walk around on it. My hand is too painful to grip anything more than a pole, but that won't affect me getting out (although it'll turn out to be the most long-term injury of the group).

Gathering ourselves together after the slide.

Fracture line.

Where we were when it triggered and where we ended up (approximately).

The yellow line is our up-track. The black arrows point to what appears to be Sam, me and Paul's body marks. White is Eric's down track.

As we get ready to go down, Dave and two of his friends arrive ready to ski. They look around at the debris and we tell them what happened.

Paul's ankle is too painful for skiing, so he has to walk down the snowfield - no September powder for him.

After removing my skis from my pack, I see the tail of one ski is smashed/split open for a few inches, probably when it hit a rock. It will work well enough for getting down.

We begin the descent, and while really good for September, it is a little bit of a disappointment. The light is flat, the snow seems dense and stickier than it did on the way up. The avalanche has sucked some of our "Freshie joy" away.

Sam finally gets to enjoy the freshiez, albeit with a numb leg.

Eric liked it.

Occasionally we glance back up at Dave's party yo-yoing the bottom of the face, the slid snow. We are a little pissed off that they are up there enjoying themselves after we got chewed up and spit out.

Paul tries to keep a smile on his face as he stumbles down the scree and rocky meadow back to the trail. Once he switches from ski boots to trail shoes, he is able to walk faster. Dave's party catches up and they take the remaining gear that is on Paul's back. It still takes us until 7pm to reach the trailhead. 6 hours down over 4.5 miles, compared to 3 hours up.

Paul offers his opinion of Observation Rock.

Guy with a sprained ankle stumbling around in a snow squall in a rocky meadow 4 miles from the road.

Thassa big ole' ankle!

Thassa busted up ski!

YUck! Thassa gross leg! Sam's gonna have to take a sabbatical from the porno industry!

Nearly 5 months later, my hand is better, but still not back to normal: my middle knuckle was painful for 3 months, probably broken. The tendon in my middle finger is still not entirely healed, and I still have some pain and soreness in my wrist and palm (although I now no longer need to turn the ignition in my truck with my left hand!).