When we showed up we talked about the odds of hitting a wind plate but I figured even then it wouldn’t be big enough to cause us any trouble. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) had rated the day’s hazard as moderate (Level 2 on a five-point scale) and planned to lower it to Low the next day. “The ongoing Persistent Slab avalanche problem is firmly on its way out,” the forecast said, noting that it was still possible to trigger one in “steep, rocky, thin, north-facing areas.”
We rode our first run at 9:10 am, with teenage temperatures and a steady wind blowing over the summit ridge at 13,000 feet. I cut off the top of the slide with skis to look for a wind plate but didn’t find any. We skipped down the rest of the line in the dry powder, smiling and hooting at each other. On our way back up we noticed two small slab avalanches from earlier in the storm cycle that had traveled 800m in a much larger bowl next to where we planned to do our second loop. Both slides had carried about ten inches of loose surface snow, but they hadn’t penetrated the deeper layers. This gave us confidence that the snow pack was strong enough to support additional weight like our own.
We were at the top of the second slide at 11:45am. Although it starts at about the same elevation as the first, it is significantly wider and has a more northerly orientation. A rocky ridge separates the slide from the giant bowl on the left, creating a sense of security when the slide releases the bowl. But both features end in the same shallow run-out, and anyone who has studied or observed slab avalanches knows that they can be triggered from flat terrain well below the breaking points. I had just spent two years reporting on a fatal accident involving a stubborn rock slab near Silverton, Colorado, in an advanced safety course. In my interviews, professionals have often emphasized how unpredictable they are and that they need a large safety buffer. Although rarely seen in late April, a persistent slab killed five men on April 20, 2013, about 20 miles north of Baldy.
This time Liam got on first and sliced down the right side of the slope with his skis to test their stability. I heard the sound of styrofoam breaking and felt part of the cornice collapse a few yards from my ski tips. The wind plate picked up speed immediately, with Liam on it. “Get it right! Get it right! Get it right!” I shouted. He drove at a 45-degree angle toward a safe spot on the shoulder, which he identified before boarding, and took a high step at the last second to get out of the moving snow. The slab was about 50 feet wide. It was only six inches deep at its edges. But in the middle, where it broke away from the cornice, it was four or five feet thick. The weight of these sliding boulders triggered a deeper avalanche inside the slide, near a pocket of rock where the snowpack was thinner. That descent — the first of three persistent slabs we would see in a surreal sequence — was about a meter deep and 80 feet wide. It ran the length of the chute but remained confined to the intestines. As it hit the bottom, the entire left side of the slide liquefied from a four-foot fracture, sending a much larger mass of snow down to the levels below.
We watched as the second wave shattered the trail of skin we created after our first run, exploded over a snow-covered bank and hurled powder high into the air. The weight of the first stubborn slab hadn’t been enough to sympathetically trigger the massive bowl on our left—it wasn’t powerful enough to pull the bowl’s legs out from underneath. But the weight of the second slide was. A moment after it hit the ground, the entire bowl snapped 1,000 feet higher, sending an almost unimaginable wall of snow thundering down the mountain. The debris flowed past where the previous slides had stopped and continued hundreds of yards into the homes.
Liam and I stood there and marveled. The crowns extended about half a mile, and we estimated that the break on either rim of the bowl was about ten feet deep, exposing bare ground above the basin. I called 911 to report the avalanche and that no one had been caught, then Liam climbed back onto the ridge and we hugged; we both felt spared. We knew a slide this size would draw attention. And as much as we wanted to spread the word – don’t trust the snowpack just yet! – due to the public shaming that often happens after avalanches, especially near-thunderstorms, we immediately decided not to use our names in any report we made, which prevented me from writing about it.
We retreated down the ridge to the gentle front and skied back to the truck. “You won’t get another one like that,” I said aloud to myself as I descended, still shaking. “This must never happen again. The alternative Has to be enough.”
I called my wife and felt her fear as I told her what had happened. I felt sorely inadequate as a husband and even more so as a father – feelings that lingered for weeks. Liam and I sat on his deck for the next three hours conferring with his wife, a longtime ski patrol. The slide was abnormal. But it didn’t mitigate the near miss.
I spent the next two days digging up my garden and playing what happened as a GIF. On the third day, I skied up a road and made a few turns in south-facing corn. I knew the snow was sure, but I still questioned my judgment. I was haunted by visions of the Baldy ledge taking me or Liam being sucked into the churning rubble. The biggest slide I had seen in this slide before April 26th wasn’t even big enough to reach the bottom. But that sequence—of typing and deleting a text for a friend—had been insurmountable.