United States avalanche danger descriptors
Information courtesy of Northwest Weather and Avalanche Centers Web site, http://www.nwac.noaa.gov.
LOW DANGER LEVEL
Avalanche probability and avalanche trigger - Natural avalanches very unlikely. Human-triggered avalanches unlikely.
Degree and distribution of avalanche danger - Generally stable snow. Isolated areas of instability.
Recommended action in back country - Travel is generally safe. Normal caution advised.
MODERATE DANGER LEVEL
Avalanche probability and avalanche trigger - Natural avalanches unlikely. Human-triggered avalanches possible.
Degree and distribution of avalanche danger - Unstable slabs possible on steep terrain.
Recommended action in back country - Use caution in steeper terrain on certain aspects.
CONSIDERABLE DANGER LEVEL
Avalanche probability and avalanche trigger - Natural avalanches possible. Human-triggered avalanches probable.
Degree and distribution of avalanche danger - Unstable slabs probable on steep terrain.
Recommended action in back country - Be increasingly cautious in steeper terrain.
HIGH DANGER LEVEL
Avalanche probability and avalanche trigger - Natural and human-triggered avalanches likely.
Degree and distribution of avalanche danger - Unstable slabs likely on a variety of aspects and slope angles.
Recommended action in back country - Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended. Safest travel on windward ridges or lower angle slopes without steeper terrain above.
EXTREME DANGER LEVEL
Avalanche probability and avalanche trigger - Widespread natural or human-triggered avalanches certain.
Degree and distribution of avalanche danger - Extremely unstable slabs certain on most aspects and slope angles. Large destructive avalanches possible.
Recommended action in back country - Travel in avalanche terrain should be avoided and travel confined to low-angle terrain well away of avalanche path run-outs.
Adam Roy wasn't just lucky, he was prepared, when he was swept 2,000 feet down a mountain and buried briefly by an avalanche Thursday afternoon near Eaglecrest Ski Area.
Roy, 23, of Grand Junction, Colo., had just completed a 10-day guide training course that included avalanche preparedness.
When he traversed Pittman's Ridge to the top of Hogsback Ridge at Eaglecrest shortly after noon Thursday, he was wearing a locator beacon. And Stephan Drake, 24, of Aspen, was acting as his spotter, to make sure Roy descended safely.
While skiing down the mountain Roy suddenly found himself buried in snow, with one hand free. He had just cleared snow from his face when Drake, who had skied down the steep ravine first, spotted his glove and helped him dig out.
The avalanche, reported at 1:15 p.m., was estimated at half a mile wide, sweeping down to Cropley Lake in three fingers. Witnesses assumed one skier was lost.
"Some of the slide made it over the flat spot and carried Adam down 1,500 feet vertical. We couldn't see him because of the cloud (of powder loosed by the slide), so we assumed he was under it," said witness Bruce Griggs as he was de-briefed by Alaska State Trooper Arlen Skafflestad about 4 p.m.
Sitting afterward at Eaglecrest with his right leg raised and wrapped, his goggles still on his forehead, Roy was calm about his adventure. It was the second finger of snow that grabbed him, he said.
"I was almost getting back on my feet (after the first finger) and thought I could step out of it. I was near the surface the whole time," Roy said.
Then the main bulk of the slide, traveling 100 mph, hit him like a great white shark and pulled him under.
Gary Stambaugh of Juneau came into Eaglecrest's first aid room to offer Roy his congratulations. Stambaugh was buried in an avalanche at the same spot above Cropley Lake in 1987.
"I wasn't buried as far as you were," Stambaugh told Roy. "I was able to rock my head out and managed to get myself out."
Stambaugh was skiing by himself at the time.
"What's good is that he just got out of avalanche training," Stambaugh said. "They were really smart that they had the spotter."
"Tons of people" were on the slopes Thursday, and "tracks all over" gave no warning of danger, Griggs said. "That's why we pushed the panic button. We had an hour of thinking Adam was buried."
During this period of uncertainty, troopers checked license plates in Eaglecrest's parking lot, and used public service messages on radio to solicit reports of missing persons.
"We saw (Roy) start down Hogsback, and when we got back to the lodge we heard there was an avalanche," Cindy Sundberg said.
Her husband, Randy, an Eaglecrest ski instructor, immediately headed back up and became one of 10 people probing avalanche debris with wands.
"They were working their way up (about 3:30), and a helicopter dropped off four or five more people," she said.
Roy was fortunate, said Mike Patterson, a ski patrol candidate at Eaglecrest who treated Roy's injuries, which included a bruised shin.
"He was completely buried so he was very lucky," Patterson said.
Alaska State Trooper Sgt. Will Ellis said the challenge was corralling everyone and comparing notes.
"There's really no accountability in a ski area for people to check in and out. Some people hitchhike or catch the bus. But all the pieces fell together, and by 6:30 p.m. we were able to rule out there was anybody missing," Ellis said.
No one could have predicted the slide, said Bill Glude of the Southeast Alaska Avalanche Center.
"We were out there doing field studies just before the avalanche," Glude said today. "All our tests were indicating a stable snowpack, good strength. But obviously there are some weak layers. That's the kind of thing that would catch an experienced skier."
Glude intended to go to the scene of the avalanche today to try to analyze its causes.
Ann Chandonnet can be reached at email@example.com.