The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek: tragedy and human factors captured in NY Times feature on Stevens Pass incident

Posted on December 22nd, 2012 by | 1 Comment

When San-Francisco-based New York Times reporter John Branch came to our booth at the ISSW conference in Anchorage this fall, he said he was working on the “biggest story of the year” for the renowned media giant. It would be about the fatal avalanche at Stevens Pass, Washington and the explosion of backcountry skiing. It came out this week as a multimedia feature. If you’re a backcountry rider, prepare yourself to be completely mesmerized and emotionally drained:

New York Times

This masterpiece of in-depth reporting truly captures the passionate lifestyle of backcountry skiing, the enormous risks involved, and what we believe is the absolute crux of managing safety in avalanche terrain: human factors and group communication. The facts of this incident are well known and well publicized. But what Branch brings to light are the complex group dynamics that took place on that fateful mission into Tunnel Creek (outside the Stevens Pass Resort boundary) on February 19, 2012. The group consisted of a total of 16 skiers and snowboarders, comprised of Stevens locals and an assortment of industry “heavies” from ESPN, Powder, Solomon, Flylow, and Stevens Pass. Four in the group were captured by the avalanche; three were killed. As ski industry members, we’re good friends with many that were involved. In fact, it’s really easy to picture ourselves having been involved in this very incident.
The parties involved in the Tunnel Creek/Stevens Pass Avalanche
All members (except one) had proper safety equipment such as avalanche transceivers, shovels, and probes–including Elyse Saugstad, who had an ABS avalanche airbag that eventually saved her life. While the group was large and unwieldy, they followed basic protocols of skiing in pairs and moving between points of safety. And many had checked the avalanche forecast that morning and determined the route could be skied safety as long as they properly selected their terrain. The problem is that the group dynamics weren’t managed. While some of the more savvy locals stuck to the safer left side of the ridge, two other groups overcame temptation and skied straight into the Tunnel Creek drainage, a well-known terrain trap. The two groups on this side were not communicating in real-time with each other or with the group on the left side. Eventually, when freeskiing industry icon Jim Jack triggered the slide, it took not only himself but three of the four skiers in the group below him.
Branch’s hard-hitting narrative is laced with multimedia illustrations, photos, and POV videos that will wrench the heart of even the crustiest backcountry veteran–particularly the 911 soundtrack of the Sheriff’s department dispatcher revealing the names of the deceased to a ski patrol radio operator who obviously knew each one of them. But there are extremely valuable lessons to be learned: not about avoiding the backcountry and its associated risks, but about the softer side of dealing with avalanche terrain: human factors and communication. Here are a few quotes from the piece that I have particularly taken to heart:

“When it comes to the backcountry, there is usually not safety in large numbers. That is not only because of the physical impact on the snow. It is because of the complicated dynamics that large groups create. Deadly avalanches are usually the product of bad decisions — human nature, not Mother Nature.”

“After a few minutes, the small talk faded. Worries went unexpressed.”

 “All the locals in the group presumed they knew what the others were thinking. They did not.”

“I could see the others when I cut over,” Wangen said. “I thought: Oh yeah, that’s a bad place to be. That’s a bad place to be with that many people. But I didn’t say anything. I didn’t want to be the jerk.”

Have you ever felt yourself thinking this way in group situations? Or not been able to physically communicate with each other because you were separated? These are deep issues that are only now being addressed in modern avalanche courses. Maintaining a healthy, honest dialog within your group is essential, as is maintaining both visual and verbal contact at all times (including the use of two-way radios, not cell phones). In progressive avalanche courses now being taught by AIARE, the Canadian Avalanche Center, and others, this takes a front seat, right up there with routefinding and snow stability assessment.

You’re going to see these subjects coming up more in the educational materials we provide at Backcountry Access–and the products we’ll be introducing in 2013-14.

AIARE Communication Checklist

This Communication Checklist developed by AIARE is included in a smartphone app now being developed by BCA to promote and enhance planning and communication. We consider proactive strategies such as this to be the next frontier in preventing avalanche fatalities.

If this story moves you to look harder into the important issues of human factors and communication, here’s a little more reading on the subject  from Ian McCammon and BCA. Keep them in mind when you’re out riding with your crew over the holidays.

Happy (and safe) holidays from the crew at BCA.


  • Mike Emmet

    A brilliantly put together piece of journalism. Many aspects of this story are all too familiar from my time in the backcountry. Though I have never lost a friend to a slide, I have seen less that optimal group dynamics on more than one occasion, which could just as easily have lead to a similar outcome. Most poignantly, many years ago I watched four friends get partially buried while climbing out of a basin in an area that was well known to all who were there that day. I was second, after my friend who was cutting trail, with three more friends following below us. The fellow leading diverged from the safe route, which I had climbed countless times, right out into a classic terrain trap… I was alarmed, and I knew that it was dangerous, and unnecessary because there was a perfectly safe route just meters to our right, but because he was “more experienced” than I, and because I didn’t want to look like a jerk, I said nothing and followed. A few moments later the slope fractured right under his feet and carried him down, partly burying him and our three other friends, and leaving me in the middle of the slope with a forty-five cm fracture cutting all the way across, and the entire remainder of the slab hanging above me. I traversed across to the safe terrain as quickly and as lightly as I could, and then skied down to help the others extricate themselves. Luckily no one was hurt; the slope was not long, and the slab was very light, cold snow.

    I learned a valuable lesson that day about speaking up when I have safety concerns about route finding, stability or anything else. Group dynamics can be a powerful force, both for good, when communication is optimal, and for bad when it is not.

    Thanks for passing this article on, it was well worth the time to read.