As we skinned up, we talked about the likelihood of encountering a wind slab, but I figured that even if we did, it wouldn’t be large enough to get us into trouble. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) had rated the day’s danger as Moderate (Level 2 on a five-point scale), with a plan to drop it to Low the next day. “The lingering Persistent Slab avalanche problem is firmly on its way out,” the forecast read, noting it was still possible to trigger one in “steep, rocky, thin, northerly facing areas.”
We skied our first run at 9:10 A.M., with temps in the teens and a steady wind blowing across the summit ridge at 13,000 feet. I ski cut the top of the chute to check for a wind slab, but found none. We leapfrogged down the rest of the line in dry powder, smiling and hooting for each other. While on our way back up, we noticed two small soft-slab avalanches from earlier in the storm cycle that had run 800 vertical feet in a substantially larger bowl adjacent to where we planned to ski our second lap. Both slides had entrained about ten inches of loose, surface snow, but they hadn’t broken into the deeper layers. This gave us confidence that the snowpack was strong enough to support extra weight, like our own.
We stood on top of the second chute at 11:45 A.M. Though it starts from roughly the same elevation as the first, it’s significantly wider and has a more northerly aspect. A rocky rib separates the chute from the enormous bowl to the left, creating a sense of safety from the chute triggering the bowl. But both features end in the same flat runout, and anyone who has studied or observed persistent-slab avalanches knows they can be triggered from flat terrain far below the fracture points. I had just spent two years reporting on a fatal accident in an advanced safety class involving a persistent slab near Silverton, Colorado. During my interviews, professionals often stressed how unpredictable they are and how they require a large safety buffer. Though rarely seen in late April, a persistent slab killed five men on April 20, 2013, about 20 miles north of Baldy.
Liam dropped in first this time, ski cutting the right edge of the slope to test its stability. I heard a sound like Styrofoam breaking and felt part of the cornice collapse a few feet in front of my ski tips. The wind slab immediately picked up speed, with Liam on it. “Get right! Get right! Get right!” I yelled. He skied at a 45-degree angle toward a safe spot on the shoulder he had identified before he dropped in, high stepping at the last second to get off the moving snow. The slab was about 50 feet wide. On its fringes it was only six inches deep. But in the middle, where it broke from the cornice, it was four to five feet thick. The weight of those sliding chunks triggered a deeper avalanche in the gut of the chute, near a pocket of scree where the snowpack was thinner. That stepdown—the first of three persistent slabs we were about to witness, in a surreal sequence—was roughly three feet deep and 80 feet wide. It ran the length of the chute but remained confined to the gut. When it reached the bottom, the entire left side of the chute liquefied from a four-foot fracture, sending a much larger mass of snow racing to the flats below.
We watched that second wave smash the skin track we’d put in after our first run, detonating over a snowy bench and sending powder high into the air. The weight of the first persistent slab hadn’t been enough to sympathetically trigger the massive bowl to our left—it wasn’t forceful enough to pull the bowl’s legs out from under it. But the weight of the second slide was. A moment after it reached the bottom, the entire bowl ripped 1,000 feet higher, sending an almost inconceivable wall of snow thundering down the mountain. The debris flowed past where the earlier slides had stopped and continued for hundreds of yards into the flats.
Liam and I stood there and gaped. The crowns spanned about half a mile, and we estimated the fracture to be around ten feet deep on either edge of the bowl, leaving bare ground exposed across the basin. I called 911 to report the avalanche and that no one had been caught, then Liam climbed back up to the ridge and we hugged; we both felt we’d been spared. We knew a slide this size was going to attract attention. And as much as we wanted to get the word out—don’t trust the snowpack yet!—due to the public shaming that often happens after avalanches, especially close calls, we decided right then not to use our names in any reports we gave, which precluded my writing about it.
We retreated down the ridge to the mellow frontside and skied back to the truck. “You don’t get another one of these,” I said out loud to myself on the descent, still shaking. “That can never happen again. The alternative has to be enough.”
I called my wife and sensed her fear when I told her what happened. I felt painfully inadequate as a husband, and even more so as a father—feelings that would persist for weeks. Liam and I sat on his deck for the next three hours, debriefing with his wife, a longtime ski patroller. The slide was anomalous. But it didn’t soften the near-miss.
I spent the next two days shoveling out my yard and replaying what happened like 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 safe, but I still questioned my assessment. I was haunted by visions of the Baldy cornice taking me with it, or of Liam getting sucked into the churning debris. The biggest slide I’d seen in that chute before April 26 wasn’t even large enough to reach the bottom. But this sequence—as I typed in a text to a friend, then deleted—had been unsurvivable.