Granite Mountain - April Avalanche Time

"We ran across a pair of skiers descending in the early morning who warned us off the mountain, saying that with all the solar heating and new snow, avalanches were all but certain in the afternoon. But our group was unanimous about wanting to continue to the summit."
David Shema David Shema
Safety Committee Member
April 15, 2018

Granite Mountain, Snoqualmie Pass - April 21

Leader Incident Report

LEADER

This scramble was planned for Denny Mt, but when we got to the Alpental parking lot we were informed by employees of the ski area that they would be grooming the slopes and doing avalanche control work and that we could not go up Denny. So we headed over to Granite Mountain as our backup plan. I had chosen Denny (and Granite as a backup) because I placed a premium on organizing an early season scramble that would include good places for students and rusty scramblers to practice their self-arrest skills. With all the warm rain we had that week in Seattle, I had not considered that there would be fresh snow on the mountain tops. The weather forecast for Friday was for a warm and sunny day.

NWAC did not publish their avalanche forecast until late Thursday evening. It indicated that the risks were "considerable" above tree line (and "moderate" below). I did not see the forecast until right before going to bed. In retrospect, I should have immediately planned a backup to the backup and headed for either Humpback or Cave Ridge, both of which are safe all-in-the-woods scrambles, but they offer no chance to practice self-arrest skills.

We climbed up Granite, sticking to ridgelines. We discovered that there was about 2 inches of new snow. We saw several day-old avalanches. We ran across a pair of skiers descending in the early morning who warned us off the mountain, saying that with all the solar heating and new snow, avalanches were all but certain in the afternoon. We discussed stopping at the first slope steep enough for self-arrest practice, practicing for an hour, and going home, but the group was unanimous about wanting to continue to the summit, as long as we could stay on ridges.

I noticed on the way up a region, around 4800 feet, where the 2 inches of new snow was poorly adhering to a crust underneath.

We reached the summit and were rewarded with outstanding views. On the way down, we took a zig-zag path: we would glissade for a bit (which tends to take you off the ridge crest), then traverse back to the ridge crest and glissade again.

At about 5,000 ft, I was glissading in front of everyone else. I kicked off a wet slough avalanche that took the top two inches of loose snow. I was able to dig my heals into firm snow and stop. The wet slough avalanche continued another 50 feet to a slight bench. The next student moved 20 feet to my right and proceeded to glissade. The same thing happened. At that point, I gathered us all together to discuss how to proceed. Looking around, I noticed that there was a fresh avalanche in the neighboring bowl that started at about our elevation and went down hundreds of feet.

We immediately formed a single line and traversed to the nearest ridge. Every few feet, our footsteps would kick off a wet snow slough. We must have set off several dozen avalanches. Some of the sloughs grew quite large and descended several hundred feet, gaining speed and flowing into the trees at the bottom of the bowl. It was quite exciting watching all these rivers of moving snow. We kept an eye above us to see if anything was coming down on us, but there was nothing above us to trigger anything. Even descending on the ridge line we kicked off avalanches, but they moved down the fall line and away from the ridge crest.

As things turned out, we were fine. But had we descended a bit farther, had we been a bit farther spread out, it might have been possible that part of the party above could have triggered an avalanche onto part of the party below.

Lessons Learned

The obvious lesson is to stay away from obvious dangerous mountains, like Granite, when the avalanche danger is considerable.

I have gone through the AIARE avalanche training. I lead a lot of winter scrambles. I have a reputation for being very cautious about avalanches. I know the pitfalls of group think and of being lulled by blue sky and everything going well. And yet despite all that, I somehow ended up where I should not have been.

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Patrick Podenski
Patrick Podenski says:
Sun, Apr 15, 2018 4:50 PM

One of the better planning resources for scrambles in avalanche conditions is the Everett winter summits list. According to the list routes on Granite should only be attempted when snow pack danger is Low.

https://www.mountaineers.org/locations-lodges/everett-branch/committees/everett-alpine-scrambling-committee/web-pages/winter-summits-list

The summits list includes a number of summits that are relatively safe in Considerable avalanche conditions.

Marion Bauman
Marion Bauman says:
Mon, Apr 16, 2018 10:24 AM

thanks for the report Dave!

Ananth Maniam
Ananth Maniam says:
Mon, Apr 16, 2018 12:59 PM

I'm sure the Leader did a good job in keeping the group together when the situation rose and made a quick action plan to keep the group safe. Especially considering there were students.

While there are few things we could learn from trip planning, etc. I learnt a lot about group safety when the situation turns bad!

Brian Starlin
Brian Starlin says:
Mon, Apr 16, 2018 1:44 PM

Great reason to be aware of real-time field conditions. I must say that Humpback isn't a zero-avalanche option, but it's probably pretty low risk most of the time. Two of us tried it in February and we turned around at 5,000'. That is where the satellite image shows an open slope running southwest about 200' to a small line of trees and then into a definite avalanche path. On that day, the snow on the ridge at that point was well over waist deep, with a huge cornice to the north and that risky slope to the southwest. It scared the sh** outta me and I wouldn't touch it. We were so close to the top, but no way was I going to get carried down that slope (NWAC risk was considerable above tree line). So one must always evaluate conditions in the field. Nice read!

Melissa Hoberg
Melissa Hoberg says:
Mon, Apr 16, 2018 4:51 PM

As a student currently taking Alpine Scramble, I am appalled reading this post. The leader chose a mountain known for avalanche risk, ignored previous weather, current weather and avalanche forecasts and advice from skiers. He knowingly put his group in danger from the start. It appears that there were multiple opportunities where they should have turned around and multiple signs indicating safety concerns and increased avalanche risk on the way up that were ignored. By going on Mountaineers hikes, it is up to the group and the leader to make responsible decisions - this post did not give me confidence in that.

Peter pales
Peter pales says:
Thu, Apr 19, 2018 7:38 AM

Very informative article. i got another blog which is useful too.

https://harness4.com/best-mountaineering-books