BC Zone Observation Report
Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 12:00 AM
Dragontail couloir. RMNP. Southeast facing couloir.
Overcast and snowing at 10,000 feet with strong winds and gusts.
Consolidated and hard underneath storm snow on southeast facing slopes 10,000-11,400 ft.
At around 11am our party of 3 began ascending the dragontail couloir in RMNP under stormy conditions. We were well aware of storm slab potential and saw fresh debris fields below west elk couloir and dragontail itself. Based on reports from previous skiers who had finished skiing dragontail and stated it had already sluffed we ascended the couloir - trying to stay on the climbers left side near the rocks. The sun briefly shone through the clouds a handful of times which didn't seem to change the nature of the snow appreciably but was noticeably warm. During the ascent there were pockets of deep snow but much of the couloir had already run and seemed relatively safe. Things changed quickly once we passed a large rock on climbers left side of the couloir. I was out in front and soon was up to my thighs in deep snow as I was bootpacking. I began to get concerned and noticed that the fresh snow was upside down (heavier on top). I could see a safe zone not far above me where the couloir forms a Y. The distances were hard to appreciate from my vantage point and what seemed close was much further than it looked. I was ahead of my party and trying to quickly get in the safe zone so I could reassess things, hopeful that I could reach the safe zone before they left the protective nature of the large rock on the climbers left. I was probably 20 or 30 feet from the safe zone, at about 1pm, when I felt the snowpack settle and crack in a large slab about 6-8 feet above me. I was standing in thigh deep snow and it seemed like I was standing on the slab because I felt the whole thing moving with me on it - so I would guess the crown was at least 2-3 feet but possibly more. A split second later the snow hit my chest and I was drug underneath. The avalanche slammed into the other two in my party who had just left the safety of the climbers left rock. The avalanche carried us 800-1000 feet down the couloir and the entirety of the time we were under the snow fighting to swim to the surface. When it stopped we were all within 6 feet of one another and only buried up to our waists. It was easy to stand up and we didn't need shovels to extricate ourselves. We lost 2 skis off our backpacks when the straps ripped and I was the only person with two functional skis so I skinned up the debris field conducting a beacon search. The debris field was probably 600-800 feet in length. 3 skiers who were below us skied out after the slide and after we had conducted a thorough beacon search we skied out. Luckily, we were all unscathed from the accident and walked away. Postscript: This accident was completely avoidable and many factors contributed to it. I'm a former professional ski patroller and avid backcountry skier/climber who has been backcountry skiing for 15 years. In this situation my experience did not help me - but rather contributed to bad decision making. With the current stable snowpack I've been skiing in big terrain frequently and feeling very comfortable with the avalanche conditions. I incorrectly thought I could manage the storm snow and I inaccurately estimated the amount of snow that was actually loading. We were spread out as a group due to different fitness levels which limited our communication. Finally, when things changed and the alarm bells started going off in the back of my head I didn't stop and think or turn around - I tried to move quickly to a safer place. Rushing is never a good idea and in my rush I failed to appreciate the magnitude of the terrain between me and the safe spot. Looking at the terrain from below, after the avalanche - I was amazed at how much vertical terrain was between the climbers left rock and the cliffs below the middle of the Y. It looked deceivingly short but was in fact very far. Finally, it's often hard to appreciate how much snow is actually loading during a snowstorm. Especially high above you. Hindsight being 20/20 this all seems pretty predictable and straightforward from an avalanche perspective. This is an easy time of year to forecast avalanches and because of that, the big terrain I'd recently skied, and my years of experience in the backcountry I became overconfident in a dangerous situation. It was an extremely humbling experience for me. It doesn't matter how many times you are cautious and play it safe. All it takes is one day of carelessness and it could be your last. Avalanches are unpredictable and decision making is far from perfect for anyone. Good things to keep in mind every time you go out.