Heather Ridge Skiing

(or how we lost somebody)

Sunday, Dec 14, 2003

Four friends and I went back-country skiing on the north side of Heather Ridge, across the street from the Steven's Pass ski area. The trip turned into an adventure, so I'm splitting this into a trip description and an analysis.

Trip Report:

Since Matt was in town, we had to go back-country skiing. If you know Matt, this is obvious. Lots of snow has been coming down and the snowpack was unstable (click here for weather and avalanche forecasts), so we decided to ski on terrain that was not avalanche prone.

The five of us (Matt, Russ, Bruce, Mark, and I) started skinning up from the highway around 8:30 in the morning. We broke trail to the top of the ridge and a little down the back side. Breaking trail was hard work, with the leader continually sinking to his knees, but hey, the three guys needed a workout. ;) I was feeling lazy and avoided the front of the line. Mark had had surgery about 6 weeks ago and although cleared by his doctor to go skiing, was still recovering and getting back into shape after a break from exercising. We descended a little ways down the back side and stopped. We talked about how digging nine snow pits in the same hillside you'll get nine different results, then dug a pit. The top 8 inches would slide easily but the snow was fairly consolidated beneath that. We took off our skins and did a first run, gingerly, one at a time, through the trees, keeping each other in sight as well as possible. As the day went on and the snow conditions remained consistent with our pit observations, we skiied more bravely. We got in about 6 fabulous runs (all starting at the same point) in knee-deep powder. We were the only people on that hillside and all the snow was fresh.

After the last run, we regrouped at the top of the run, then headed back up to the crest of the ridge following our morning tracks. Since we had been the only people to ski there since the last copious snowfall, the two-foot deep path was clear. When we stopped to regroup again some 3/4 of the way up, Mark was not with us. Matt skiied back down to the top of our ski run (where we had last seen Mark), but Mark was not there. Matt skiied back up and the four of us had a brief conference. Matt and Russ would go look for Mark; Bruce and I would ski down to warn ski patrol that a rescue might be in order if Matt and Russ weren't successful in their search. Bruce and I handed over all our food, water, and spare clothes (which wasn't much). I also gave Matt my shovel.

Bruce and Ania's story: The ski down was more fantastic powder. We got down quickly and uneventfully, dropped our gear at the car, and went to talk to ski patrol. We told them we had a missing person but that it made sense to give Russ and Matt 1-2 hours to search for Mark before sending in anyone else. The area we had been skiing was out of the area of responsibility for the ski area's ski patrol, plus they had a couple other people missing in their backcountry. They said King County Search and Rescue would be the ones to call, and since it could take them hours to arrive, they should be notified right away. Then Bruce and I sat around for three hours twiddling our thumbs. We got some food and I was about to take a nap, knowing that SAR might ask us to go back out with them to point out where we had last seen Mark (one of the ski patrollers also pointed this out as a possibility).

Matt and Russ's story: Matt and Russ skiied down to the top of our run. No Mark. They skiied the run. No Mark. They skiied back to the top of the run. Russ said "hey, there was something strange over there" and headed to where he had seen but overlooked a trail going off. Since we had been the only group on this hillside, it had to be Mark's trail. So Matt and Russ followed the tracks north (directly away from our return path) until they found Mark. At this point rather than retracing their steps, it was shorter to continue down the valley and north, and then east along the Pacific Crest Trail to the road. They eventually came out and asked a local homeowner to use their phone. Mark had downhill skiis with inserts that clipped into the bindings to free the heel for skinning uphill. It is much slower to switch between uphill and downhill with this setup, so the hilly nature of their route out combined with his equipment added some 45 minutes.

Mark's story: Mark had not skiied the last run with us. When we regrouped at the end, by the time he had put together his skis for uphill skiing, the four of us were out of sight. He wasn't familiar with the area and didn't have a map. His impression had been that we had come from a different direction and thus headed off the wrong way.

Some three hours passed between the initial conference when Matt&Russ split off from Ania&Bruce, until Russ's phone call that they were back out.


What the group did

The fundamental error here was that we left Mark behind. It's always best to stay together.

This group has hiked together before and has a history of everyone hiking at their own pace, then regrouping at the summit or trailhead or every half hour or so. On obvious trails that any individual among us would be comfortable hiking alone, this works well. In this situation, the group should have noted that the lack of a clear trail, Mark recovering from surgery, unfamiliarity with the terrain (true for all but Russ), and the backcountry nature of the trip made splitting up like this unwise.

Once we realized Mark was lost, however, I believe we did the right things. Russ is familiar with the area, and also had a map and compass. Matt is experienced in the mountains and possibly the strongest member of our party. Both were warm, hydrated, thinking clearly, and capable of returning to the road themselves and possibly spending the night out with Mark if necessary. They were a good pair to send looking for Mark. In case they failed to find Mark, a search and rescue would be necessary so we needed someone to go back. Sending two people back (me and Bruce) was safer than a single individual.

Lastly, each member should have had a map and compass, the knowledge to use them, and the knowledge where we were going.

What the lost person did

Given our tradition of hiking and regrouping, Mark should have made more clear to us that on this trip the default would not be sufficiently accommodating for him. Communication was lacking.

Once lost, Mark should have stayed put. Had he waited at the top of our run, Matt would have found him on his first ski down and the entire adventure would have been shortened by 3 hours.

Paying attention is also critical. Since we had been the only party on that hillside, following our own trail out was the most rational way to get back. Breaking trail (as Mark did) was not the right choice. I personally believe even novice hikers should do their best to keep a mental picture of the terrain and route, rather than fully relying on more experienced partners. What if the experienced person gets injured? It's good practice anyway, if they'd one day like to think of themselves as experienced.

Avalanche Danger

All five of us were aware of the considerable avalanche danger on Sunday and assumed the risk of going out there. We took the reasonable precaution of skiing the safest terrain we could. Matt, Russ, and Bruce all participated in digging a snow pit; I came down a few minutes later and did my own analysis. We skiied carefully at first to get a better sense of how the snow was actually behaving. We skiied among trees and never on open slopes the entire day. There was a risk; we assessed it as best we could; we chose the safest way of skiing that we could that day. Not all of us had avalanche beacons, shovels, and probes, however.

© Anna Mitros
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