December 18, 2015

My White Hat

Dec 18, 2014 | guide stories |

 

Over the years as my snow science skills developed, I learned, and as any avalanche professional will tell you; the more you know about snow the more you realize how little you actually know about snow. With all the science that goes in to making informed educated decisions regarding the snowpack there is still an element of something else. Call it what you like luck, fate, faith, superstition, or karma they all play a role in the mountains. Recognizing that this element was beyond my control, I began looking for ways to overcome it. Consistency and repetition became my tools; if I were successful one day I would repeat everything I did that day the next time I went out. Some people would call it obsessive compulsive but if I put my left boot on first on a day when I felt I was pretty damn lucky to make it home, you can bet your ass I would put my left boot on first every day after that. Requiring this kind of consistency in my daily routine can be quite a challenge as gear wears out. I’m pretty tough on gear so I have accepted there will be new pieces from time to time, (but never more than one new piece of gear per day) and the only piece of gear that had remained a constant in my life was my white hat.

 

In 1999 one of the many pieces of swag I received from K2 Snowboards was a white fleece hat. I wore this hat proudly for many years. I snowboarded many big lines wearing that hat. From Jackson to Alaska to New Zealand to Idaho this hat was with me. It even became an important piece of my wardrobe in the summer months. When guiding whitewater trips a good warm hat is useful while cooking breakfast for the guests at 6:00am. So this hat then traveled with me through the rapids of the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, Idaho’s Middle Fork of the Salmon and West Virginia’s mighty Gauley River. For years this hat was with me through many precarious situation and while I escaped these adventures unscathed, my hat was taking a beating. My 8th grade Home Economics sewing skills prolonged its tour of duty but by the winter of 2007 I was forced to retire my white hat.

 

I easily found another white hat to replace the original but not really trusting this new hat I carried my old white hat in a pocket while riding. The winter of 2007 I was dividing my time between guiding at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and working as lead guide for Togwotee SnowCat Adventures. January 9th, 2007 I worked at JHMR, the next day I had to be up at the Togwotee Lodge at 7:00am to guide a group. Transferring all the necessary gear to guide from one place to another can be challenging and occasionally something gets left behind. I had my new white hat but my old white hat rested comfortably in my jacket pocket back at the ski resort.

 

The snowpack in Togwotee is Continental: thin, cold, and unstable. Over many years I have become familiar with this snowpack and very familiar with the terrain on Angle Mountain. I was thrown a curveball by the wind. Our predominate wind direction is South West but in the days leading up to January 10th we were pounded by North West winds.

 

 

We started off our day on a simple warm up run, and then headed over to a crowd pleaser called Box Lunch. Brendan Cronin and I working together decided he would ski Box Lunch, set up in a safe spot on the ridge and I would drop in on a run called 9755 to get some info on what the wind did over there. I have been able to initiate small avalanches on 9755 many times in the past. There is a big convexity on top of this run that usually fails on a cut from above. With Brendan watching I dropped in, no result on my cut, hard wind slab under my board. I cut across the slope again, nothing. Getting lower into the run and running out of islands of safety I was committed to the run. Then I felt the snow change from rock hard wind slab to super soft rotten snow. I looked to Brendan on the ridge and told him what I felt and was about to stop and get out my shovel to dig a pit, when I saw the entire piece of wind slab break above me. I knew the run well enough to know there was a deep terrain trap below me. While riding the avalanche down I felt like I was swimming through a class five rapid on a river, I was on my back facing downstream and steering with my arms. I knew I didn’t want to be in the bottom of this gulley so I steered towards a tree and hit it squarely with my board right between my feet. The tree stopped me, but the avalanche kept going covering my head, pushing against my back and finally going past me leaving me partially buried with my head, shoulders and arms above the snow but wedged against the tree. I radioed Brendan to let him know I was all right but looking at the way I was wrapped around the tree I told him I thought my leg was broken. While digging myself out from the tree I realized my snowboard was broken in half between the bindings and one of the bindings had ripped off the board. The contortion of my leg while it was buried under the snow would not have been humanly possible if my foot was still attached to the board. The more I dug myself out the better I felt about my situation. I radioed our base station and asked for another board to be delivered to the road. I would sled down on my broken board get to the road grab a new board and meet the cat after they go do one more run. This all went according to plan but when I met our office girl at the road I knew by the look on her face that something else was wrong. In all the excitement and the amount of adrenaline pumping through my veins I didn’t even realize I had a four-inch laceration in my forehead. I guess more than just my board hit that tree. My new hat had absorbed most of the blood and was no longer white. I then realized my day was done. Brendan skied with guests the rest of the day and when they finished I went to the hospital. The eighteen stitches in my forehead overshadowed my bilateral ankle pain. It wasn’t until a few weeks later that I was diagnosed with a fractured talus in my right ankle and it wasn’t until seven years later that I was diagnosed with a fractured calcaneal beak in my left ankle.

 

I made a lot of mistakes on January 10th 2007 and as any one who studies accidents will tell you it is usually a combination of events that lead up to an accident. I fell victim to multiple human factors as identified by the research of Ian McCammon, PhD. My familiarity with terrain was probably my biggest mistake, not recognizing a new variable in this case the North West wind on a slope I had “controlled” many times before. My commitment to this particular run and the scarcity of fresh tracks prompted my desire to get this run open for my clients. Brendan being a less experienced guide allowed me to assume the expert halo and didn’t question my decision to ride this slope. It’s easy to look back at this with a critical eye, hindsight is after all 20/20. The reality is I have made decisions like this many times and got away with it. Avalanche terrain is a wicked learning environment; you do not get immediate feedback when you make bad decisions. You may get away with bad decisions for years and never have an issue. You might make good decisions and still run into big problems in the mountains. I have seen slopes with tracks on them that should have avalanched to the ground, I have seen slopes that you would never expect to avalanche go huge. You could spend your entire life safely traveling through terrain most people would consider dangerous only to be killed walking across the street. There is something else at work here. The fact that I believe there are other factors involved doesn’t mean I don’t use all the available resources to make my decisions. I have field books filled with data and I am always studying our weather and snowpack. On January 10, 2007 I broke some of my personal protocols and payed a heavy price for it. Would I change my decisions that day? I don’t know, but I haven’t been in avalanche terrain without my white hat since that day.

 

 

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Jamie Weeks

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