Surprise Slides 

Early season avalanches strike backcountry skiers

On the protective cast covering Don Gisselbeck's left arm, a friend Sharpied the mnemonic device familiar to backcountry skiers: a triangle with the words "snowpack," "weather" and "terrain" along its sides—a reminder of the factors contributing to avalanche danger.

"And I suppose," says the rueful Gisselbeck, "in the middle"—and what he blames for his broken wrist, stitched-up elbow and sore knee—"is the human factor."

On Oct. 24, Gisselbeck, a 54-year-old employee of the Trail Head in Missoula, along with three other skiers seeking early-season turns, got tumbled in an 800-vertical-foot avalanche on a steep northeast-facing slope on Trapper Peak in the Bitterroot Mountains. It was the first of two such incidents in western Montana during the last week of October. Three other skiers were caught in an avalanche in the Tobacco Root Mountains on Oct. 31.

"It's October," Gisselbeck says. "It's not even in the mindset."

But despite the calendar, and despite the forecast that called for only one inch of fresh snow, the conditions on Trapper Peak proved suitable for a slide.

The two separate groups of two skiers from Missoula encountered each other mid-morning as they climbed near Gem Lake, eyeing the couloir that snakes down from the top of one of Trapper's sharp ridges. Toward the top, Gisselbeck stopped to strap up his ski boots for a warm-up lap on the apron to the right of the couloir, where snow had piled knee-deep.

A few minutes later, "I hear a yell, look up, and there are three people sliding and a big wall of snow," Gisselbeck recalls. "Then I get hit by it. I start thinking of self-arresting, but it's ridiculous. I get knocked down and rolled."

According to the incident report posted on missoulaavalanche.org, the avalanche carried the top three skiers 50 or 60 feet, while it sent Gisselbeck downslope about 200 feet into the thick of a talus field. Still, with a tender wrist and bloody elbow, he skied the rest of the way down the mountain.

"It's unusual that we've had this many incidents early in the year, but not all that unusual in terms of the way the snow came in," says Steve Karkanen of West Central Montana Avalanche Center. "Typically the early season snows like that don't bond real well to those old perennial snowfields. It takes a little bit more time for them to bond up, depending on how the snow comes in. And it came in cold this year, which is a little bit unusual. Typically it comes in pretty wet and heavy."

It certainly weighs heavily on the mind of Gisselbeck, who knows a cast is better than a casket.

"If you sat me down with a beer," he says, "and we discussed the situation the week before—the bare facts of four people on a slope with a perennial snowfield and wind-loading—I probably would have gone, 'Oh, what a bunch of idiots.'"

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