Durango, Colorado Non-Profit addresses the Human Factor & Avalanche Awareness

By Joy Martin

In the mountains of Southwest Montana during the first week of October, over a foot of heavy flakes settled onto a layer of cruddy old September snow. On Saturday, October 7, a crisp wind howled, and the sun broke across a blue sky. Two best friends marched toward Imp Peak deep in the Madison Range in search of some early-season skiing. 

 Inge Perkins crossing South Mineral Creek near Silverton, Colorado in 2007.  Photo by  Stephen Eginoire

Inge Perkins crossing South Mineral Creek near Silverton, Colorado in 2007.  Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Rather than the usual suiting up in the parking lot, the lovers tramped their ski gear in six miles on a dirt trail. They probably hiked in t-shirts, chatting about her plans to teach math someday and his idea to open a bakery. He was rehabbing his arm after a shoulder injury, so their winter adventures were looking modest. 

When they finally reached snow, they switched to skis and skins. It's all speculation at this point about why the girl, 23-year-old Inge Perkins, didn't take her beacon out of her pack. And we'll never know if the guy, 27-year-old Hayden Kennedy, wore his but failed to turn it on. 

We can only guess they felt safe enough to cross the wind-loaded, north-northeast flanks of the couloir together. With fall still in the air and the mountains not yet flaunting full-on winter conditions, their guard was down. It was October 7, for crying out loud, but before day's end, October 7 would end up yielding the season's earliest avalanche fatality since 1972, according to Dale Atkins, former president of the American Avalanche Association. 

The avalanche that caught Perkins and Kennedy was relatively small, as highlighted by the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center report: "...1-2' deep at the crown, approximately 150' wide, and 300' long. The slope where the avalanche released was 38-45° steep..." The combo of the new snow and heavy winds produced a hard wind slab that released on the softer, weaker layer underneath, says the report. 

After the avalanche ran its course, Kennedy found himself buried up to his mid-chest and the back of his neck, according to the report. He probably looked around for any sign of his partner, calling her name, scanning the scene for clues. After digging himself out, he turned his beacon to search mode. No signal. Her beacon was off. He spent the next three hours blindly probing the debris field. Nothing. Defeated, he stuck the probe in one last spot to mark for search and rescue and hiked back to the trailhead, alone. 

"Hayden survived the avalanche but not the unbearable loss of his partner in life," wrote Michael Kennedy, Hayden's father, in a public statement. "He chose to end his life. Myself and his mother Julie sorrowfully respect his decision." 

Before taking his own life, Hayden Kennedy scribbled a detailed note for rescuers about what had happened, the gear they both had on them, his futile search and where to look for Perkins’ body. On Monday morning, October 9, nine search and rescue team members, including two dog handlers and two dogs, arrived to the shadowed bowl of Imp Peak. 

Doug Chabot, director of the Gallatin National Forest Avalanche Center, did a beacon search first, "just to confirm," he says. Nothing. Next he checked to see if Perkins had a RECCO chip, even though he'd been told she probably didn't. Nothing. And then he started spot probing. An hour later, Chabot found Perkins. The team confirmed she had a shovel, probe and beacon - in her pack, turned off, as Kennedy had mentioned in his note.

 Debris from soft slab avalanches in terrain above Silverton, Colorado. Photo by  Stephen Eginoire

Debris from soft slab avalanches in terrain above Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

As world-renowned alpinists, climbers and skiers, Kennedy and Perkins weren't newbies to backcountry travel. They were celebrated and respected in the mountain industry - Perkins, a Scarpa-sponsored athlete, and Kennedy, the son of former editor-in-chief for Climbing Magazine and bearer of numerous awe-inspiring feats and first ascents. Both had Level 2 avalanche training. 

"People forget," says Chabot. "It doesn't matter whether we're in the early season, late season or the middle of winter. We make mistakes. Even as pros, when we make mistakes, it's the simple mistakes that we blow it on. 

"This is especially true when the slopes are small," Chabot adds. "We picture them as if we were going somewhere bigger. We don't always appreciate how small slopes can be deadly." 

Both Kennedy and Perkins had strong Colorado connections. He was born and raised in Carbondale, and she attended Fort Lewis College in Durango, spending a couple of winters skiing in the San Juan Mountains: home of a community that knows its fair share of avalanche-related tragedies. 

In early 2013, for instance, two locals, 23-year-old Peter Carver and 27-year-old Joe Philpott, lost their lives to avalanches in two separate events only a few months apart. Both had avalanche training and were experienced backcountry skiers. In the wake of community-wide grief, the Carver and Philpott families, a group of avalanche pros, and local gear shop, Pine Needle Mountaineering, decided more avalanche education for winter backcountry users in the San Juan Mountains was needed. 

Together, they founded the Joe Philpott and Peter Carver Avalanche Scholarship. One of the biggest deterrents for pursuing avalanche education is the price tag, especially for young skiers, who are heading to the side- and backcountry more than ever, according to Snowsports Industries America. Avalanche level one classes cost between $300 and $400, while level two courses can be double that. 

In 2014, the Scholarship helped 10 recipients attend formal level one avalanche training courses. The founding group of the Scholarship schemed how to take their plot one step further, so they decided to offer free avalanche training to the public. Peter Carver's father, Bill, wrote the first check to get the nonprofit organization, Friends of the San Juans (FOSJ), off the ground. 

With Carver Brewing, Pine Needle Mountaineering and Osprey as the main sponsors, the FOSJ is also supported by generous donations and a couple of fundraisers throughout the year. It's managed by an all-volunteer executive board and advisory committee. Part of the model encourages Scholarship winners to pay it forward by volunteering their fresh knowledge and skills with the FOSJ after they’ve received level one training. In 2016, 20 Scholarship recipients helped to keep the peer-based educational platform rolling along.   

"Our mission is not to scare people off [the snow]," says Jeremy Dakan, owner of Pine Needle Mountaineering. "It's to keep avalanche education in the forefront during the winter for both rookies and super-savvy experienced skiers alike." 

 Skiing in modest terrain in the La Plata Mountains near Durango, Colorado. Photo by  Stephen Eginoire

Skiing in modest terrain in the La Plata Mountains near Durango, Colorado. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Beginning in November, the FOSJ hosts avalanche awareness classroom presentations, where participants learn the basics. The "meat and potatoes" are then on-snow sessions held at Molas Pass throughout the winter. Led by qualified instructors, these sessions teach attendees how to study the snowpack, use their safety gear, understand terrain and witness a rescue demonstration. 

These courses are structured to "scratch the surface," says Dakan, sharing some avalanche training but ultimately encouraging participants to enroll in level one and two avalanche courses.  

The crux of these FOSJ trainings is to move folks away from just focusing on bar graphs, pie charts and snow science and unpack one of the most significant and overlooked risks of all in winter backcountry travel: the human factor. From falling under the spell of "the expert halo" to perceived safety in familiar terrain to shrugging off beacon checks, we’re all susceptible to lazy decision-making.  

"We're all human," says John Strand, co-founder of the FOSJ. "We're all going to make mistakes. You can make a ton of good decisions; it's that one bad one that can change your life." 

"It's very easy to get caught in someone else's mistake,” says Daisy Matthews, FOSJ board member. “You have to find a way to make yourself educated."

When a group of humans heads into the elements, there’s a thin veil of security that often leads to overconfidence and heightened risk tolerance - especially when powder fever fuels the adventure. Even (if not especially) expert skiers and riders tend to lean on past experiences, something scientists call “Heuristic traps,” those grossly-inaccurate perceptions of hazards that could potentially kill you. 

While 99-percent of the time you’ll win and take home tales of unforgettable conditions, it’s imperative to remember that your life is at stake. Don’t leave your beacon in your pack. Don’t rely on the expert in your group. Don’t fall prey to how good those turns were last time. Don’t be afraid to voice hesitations. Take responsibility for your part in smart decision-making. Do your own research. Get your own level one and two avalanche training.  

In short, Know Before You Go. The Know Before You Go campaign reminds backcountry users that, while the mountains are calling and you must go, you have to go equipped with more than a pair of skis and hefty supply of stoke. 

Since avalanche fatalities were first recorded in 1950, most avalanche fatalities have occurred in Colorado. In light of this, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) works tirelessly to do their part in raising avalanche awareness, receiving funds from the state as well as donations through their nonprofit arm, Friends of the CAIC.   

 The CAIC then provides each avalanche-prone 'zone' around the state with a backcountry avalanche forecaster. Currently, Jeff Davis is the sole CAIC backcountry forecaster for the San Juan Mountains, a region roughly the size of the Swiss Alps. 

While there are plans to hire a second forecaster for the 2018/2019 season, Davis is busy scrambling to gather data from over 12,000-square-miles of rugged terrain - by himself. One way we regular backcountry users can help is by uploading quality observations to the CAIC website.

"The pros are always learning, which means we recreational users should also be learning," says Strand. 

Study observations submitted to the CAIC website by pros, says Strand. Learn the proper terminology and techniques through avalanche training courses. Practice. And while you're honing these skills, the FOSJ asks that you don't hesitate to mention what you're seeing out there. 

"Don't get turned off by the technology and technical jargon," encourages Matthews. "Get the conversation started. Use [the FOSJ] social media." 

"We're helping the community treat avalanche education as a lifelong learning process," says Strand. "We focus on quality education. That's always our goal; not land use or saving the Canadian lynx. The goal isn't to get big; it's to get good." 

Following a banner season last year in the San Juans, backcountry users would be wise to remember that, while the mountains don't change, the snow most definitely will. And though the San Juans can boast some of the most incredible powder in the West, we're also stuck with a notoriously-sketchy snowpack. 

 Tantalizing avalanche terrain on The Battleship, near Silverton, Colorado. Photo by  Stephen Eginoire

Tantalizing avalanche terrain on The Battleship, near Silverton, Colorado. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Don't let your brain get lazy. Don't get caught off guard. Be smart. Be a friend. 

As Hayden Kennedy so eloquently wrote on climber blog, Evening Sends, a couple of weeks before his death: 

"Routes ticked, cruxes overcome, and summits achieved can be super meaningful, but they're also not the most important things in life. The true, lasting meaning...is found in the friendships and partnerships that we build while pursuing our climbing goals. Over the last few years, however, as I've watched too many friends go to the mountains only to never return, I've realized something painful. It's not just the memorable summits and crux moves that are fleeting. Friends and climbing partners are fleeting, too.

"...Maybe the most genuine aspects of any tale are the sputterings and the silences, the acknowledgments of failure, the glimmerings in the dark. And maybe one genuine reason to try to share our stories about days we actually send something, when we are alive and at the height of our powers, is to try to bring back what's past, lost, or gone. Perhaps by doing so, we might find some light illuminating a new way forward."