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Safety Matters part 2 | Learning from our mistakes.
Posted 2017 12 06 by Fred
"At the end of the summer, i found my pole, 300m below the tree which I clung to, the 20th of March 2017.
The day I've been scared to death.
That day was starting in a perfect way. A rest day with my darling, nice weather, good snow, kids at the nursery. It's been a long time since i wanted to ski in the same day the south face of Signal du Petit Mont Cenis and the north face of the Mont Froid. It looked like a good plan, on the paper...
All the factors were looking good: no new snow, no wind, no avalanche (as far as I knew) the last week, clear night and good frozen snow on the top layer, a team that was fit for fight !
But it was without counting on the human factors.
I was so happy to ski with my love and to finally have the opportunity to do this tour, that i didn’t see ANY of the warning signals that are usually making change plans. Me, who has heard about that for 10 years, who has spoken about it to so many people, i didn’t see coming those famous heuristic traps that Ian Mc Cammon has been highlighting a long time ago.
All of them were obviously here until the accident:
Familiarity: it's my childhood playground!
Acceptance: such a good story for my friends and facebook.
Consistancy: finally a rest day, i can ski for myself, we will do the maximum!
Expert halo: “ok, it’s 14pm, but the downhill is a north face, don’t worry!”
Tracks (first ones of course = scarcity) : right now, it’s soft spring snow in the south and the north faces, so good!
Social facilitation: skiing with my love, what a pleasure!
(by the way FACETS is a great way to remember those 6 traps)
When we start the climb to the Signal by its northwest side, the snow was very hard. Valérie who has new skins didn’t need ski-crampons , but for me, with my old-guide-skins, i needed them. Even better that we have just one pair for us two..
We're moving up... but at one point it becomes too steep and i need to walk down on my feet to help Valérie, breaking the crust until my hips in depth hoar. First summit, lunch break and happiness… The snow seems to be perfect!
First little gully to start with, the snow is perfectly melted on the top! Big turns to the bottom. It start to break a bit under my skis
“ what about you darling?
no it’s ok for me!
ah ok, so i have to ski better then!
And we put the skins again to go to the Mont Froid. Not really steep and not much snow on this side.
A bit before the summit, there is a small cloud and some flying friends with their paraglides. It’s 14pm, the 20 of March.
“i never saw that, should be a warm day”
Dropping in the second run! We ski down in the big north bowl, safely, one by one in the steep parts.
“- it’s not as good there, it should be more melted on the west side, let’s traverse there”
Indeed, much better snow here. We ski side by side shouting our joy.
“ it keeps on breaking under my skis... and you?
no for me it’s ok
ok then let’s make a selfie. It’s so good!”
We ski down a bit more but now we can’t see the Chalet des prés, which is usually the landmark to find the road at the entrance of the forest.
We traverse more to the right, cross some grass. I think:
“ already melted here”
In the disatnce we start to see the first pine trees (the "pin cembros", growing close to the treeline). Valerie instinctively switches back to a more cautious attitude and stays in the back. I keep traversing to the right, and I cannot really see what's behind that hump. I ski a bit more and thinks "what the fuck is this big bowl !!" But too late.
I can feel that I'm sliding down, I'm leaning back. It's not that thick and I should get rid of it rather quickly.
But I look to my right and I can see that the whole bowl is releasing, and it's massive ! If I end up in that flow I'm dead.
I'm fighting like crazy, take off one ski (that was locked) by hitting the front binding with the other. I manage but cannot do the second.
Still going down, I lost a pole and one of my hands is free, I try to grab a first tree but miss it.
It hurts my shoulder but I don't let go. I finally stops, about ten meters from the point where my trajecory was going to meet the main flow of the avalanche.
Time stands still as I wonder if Valerie has been taken by the avalanche as well, I take out my beeper, shout her name.
Finally I hear her. She's just above me, the snow has been cracking around her but it did release further below.
I'm angry at myself ! "Bloody treeline, it's been a concern the whole winter and today I ski straight to it without even thinking about it !"
She skis to me, we cry...
"I thought it could never happen to you."
I'm amazed how obvious it was, this buried weak layer...
I skied where the snowpack was the thinest, about 20cm, and triggered a slab that was 200m wide and 80cm at the thickest. It doesn't take long to analyse that, at that very moment when I'm clinging to my tree and I see the avalanche sliding down withoiut me, all became clear, too clear almost.
It took me a few month to go back there looking for this pole, and a few more to share that experience.
When we ski, we need to be able to put aside what we know, and focus instead on what is happeneing, here and now.
Human factors have to be at the center of our decision making.
Now another winter is coming, and I'll ski again, because I like that and it's my life.
Though, something has changed as I know it can happen to me as well, I'm human and I will have to learn how to distrust myself.
This is just my testimony and my analysis, please don't take it as a moral lesson... We all have more or less experience, knowledge, but don't you think that the danger can be inside us, in the way we use them ?
Sincere thanks to
Nature, for having grown this tree on my way
My wife, for still loving me
Fred, Greg, Bjørn, Alain for their support and sincere talks.
The PGHM of Modane, for bringing back my ski on the same day
To the Salomon development team for the auto release pole straps.
And we can't wait for some real safety bindings for touring, that will release when needed.