The Most Treacherous Terrain

When a group of snowboarders took to the Cascades backcountry last March, they entered some of the most treacherous terrain in the Pacific Northwest. Not even a seasoned avalanche expert could save them from what happened next.

By David Laskin November 21, 2011 Published in the December 2011 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Mike Kane

NO WAY WERE THEY PASSING UP A SNOWBOARDING TRIP. The next day was the last day of spring break, and Riley McCarthy and Stuart Beckman, University of Washington students and frat brothers at Alpha Sigma Phi, had their plan nailed down by late in the evening, Saturday, March 26, 2011.

Riley, 20, a sophomore who had just decided to major in engineering, and Stuart, who at 22 had two quarters to go on his degree in mathematics, were fit, lanky guys who possessed a special grace when airborne over untouched powder. And late last winter and well into the spring, powder was pretty easy to come by in the Cascades.


Riley McCarthy
Photo: Courtesy Peggy McCarthy

Riley arranged to borrow his mom’s car, pick up Stuart in the morning, and drive up to Stevens Pass ski resort. They’d meet up with three other members of the Husky Snowboard Team in the resort parking lot around 9am and the five of them would ride their hearts out. “Bring backcountry gear,” Stuart told one of the guys on the phone that night. “We might ride that stuff.”

Stuart and Riley knew about backcountry avalanches. They talked about the weather and the physics of snow all the time. But avalanches happened to other people.

MARK MOORE SHOWED UP for work that Sunday morning at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility at Sand Point at his usual time—3am—under a thick, overcast sky that had hung in for weeks and would hang in for weeks to come, right through the start of summer. It was March 27, 2011, the second Sunday of spring. But after much hype in the late autumn and a midwinter lull, La Niña had finally struck with a vengeance.

Especially in the mountains. Damp chill in Seattle meant snow at the higher elevations—a few inches some days, a foot or more on others. Every day since the end of February storms had added to an already overweight snowpack that inevitably released its upper layers in avalanches.

Which was why Moore was awake and sitting alone in front of a glowing computer screen at 3 in the morning. At 63, the director and founder of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center (NWAC) still worked the predawn shift, alternating with two other forecasters who came in daily to figure out how much snow would fall in the next 48 to 72 hours in the Olympics and on both sides of the Cascades from Mount Hood to Mount Baker—and whether any of it was likely to slide. Three people had already perished in avalanches in the Cascades since December. The last one was a highly experienced backcountry skier whose leg had been torn off when an avalanche dragged him through the trees near Mount Cashmere three weeks earlier. Though winter was officially over, the avalanche danger, as Moore knew better than anyone else, was not.

He ran his piercing blue eyes over the forecast his colleague Kenny Kramer had written up the previous day. The gist: more of the same—meaning no letup in the persistent trough that had been spinning storms into the mountains for weeks. Moore took a scan of the raw telemetry data—temperature, wind speed and direction, relative humidity, new rain and snowfall, and accumulated snow depth—streaming in from 44 remote data gathering stations NWAC maintains throughout the Cascades.

An army brat who fell in love with snow while skiing as a kid with his dad, Moore ditched a career in nuclear engineering to join the ski patrol at California’s Mammoth Mountain shortly after college. He landed in Seattle to get a master’s at UW’s atmospheric science department under the tutelage of legendary avalanche researcher Ed LaChapelle. In 1975, Moore and LaChapelle teamed up with Rich Marriott (then a UW atmospheric sciences grad student, now the morning weatherman at KING 5 TV) and National Weather Service forecaster Bud Reanier to start NWAC.

Thirty-six winters later, Moore is still at it, still in the office before sunrise, still immersing himself in maps, charts, and streams of data. Like his coforecasters Kenny Kramer and Garth Ferber, Moore is not only a scientist but a fanatical backcountry skier. When these guys look at the data sets, they don’t just see strings of numbers but coded maps to a beautiful but treacherous landscape they know and love intimately.

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Riley’s World Twenty-year old UW student Riley McCarthy (in red) hit the slopes last winter with his friend Stuart Beckerman (in green).
Photo: Courtesy Peggy McCarthy

Every winter’s snowpack has its own story, explains Moore. Unless you’ve been following that story from the first snowflake through every cycle of storm and thaw, you can’t really do an effective avalanche forecast. The story of the winter of 2011 took a sharp turn for the weird on Martin Luther King Jr. weekend when eight to 10 inches of rain fell in the mountains. That rain formed an impenetrable crust over which weak layers developed, a combination that haunted the snowpack for the rest of the season. When the weather turned cold and wet at the end of February and then just kept getting colder and wetter through March and even into April, new snow continually loaded, buried, and stressed the bond between the MLK weekend crust and the layer just above it. When it was stressed enough, that weak layer failed and heaved off the snow on top of it in a series of avalanches. By late winter, this was recurring with alarming frequency.

That spring morning, Moore started hitting the phone hard before 5, checking in with avalanche control workers at all the Northwest resorts, DOT staffers, field observers, anyone whose job it was to be up in the mountains and in a position to assess the snowpack before dawn. Moore could also have clicked through the first National Weather Service zone forecast update of the day at 4am, but usually he made it a point of honor not to peek. “We don’t want to be influenced by them,” he says with a touch of pride. “We are as good as anyone in the country on mountain-region forecasts.”

After much hype in the late autumn and a midwinter lull, La Niña had finally kicked in with a vengeance and refused to die.

Unbound by the first commandment of federal agencies—thou shalt be uniform—NWAC staffers are free to be as vivid, fanciful, long-winded, or as dramatic as they want in getting the avalanche word out to their users. Where a typical NWS zone forecast for the Cascades is a drab corporate memo, NWAC issues lilting prose poems about frontal boundaries, volcanic cones interacting with the upper-level flow, and the nuanced shadings of Pacific winter storms. Moore has been known to write in verse—meter, rhyme, the whole shtick—when conditions warrant.The friendly rivalry with the NWS more or less comes with the territory—in this case, adjacent territory since NWAC shares office space with the NWS Forecast Office at Sand Point. But that is pretty much all they share. Unlike the federally funded NWS, NWAC gets its dollars, about $375,000 a year, from a federal, state, and private consortium made up of the Mount Baker–Snoqualmie National Forest, the National Park Service, the Washington State Department of Transportation, the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, local ski areas and ski-area organizations, and a small but fiercely committed organization called Friends of NWAC that puts the squeeze on other donors.

No need for poetry that spring Sunday. At 6:44am he went live with his Mountain Weather Forecast. “Despite the calendar, winter refuses to lose its icy grip on the region,” read Moore’s preamble. The big picture was “light to occasionally moderate [snow] slowly spreading northward” with a weakening front; “slowly increasing ridgetop winds and some limited and brief warming…mainly in the north.” At Stevens, snow level would be about 3,000 feet in the -afternoon, with “light to occasionally moderate rain or snow.”

At 10:06 Moore posted the Detailed Avalanche Forecast for the day. The headline: “Moderate avalanche danger below 7,000 feet slightly increasing later Sunday morning and afternoon.” The only slightly ominous note was sounded in the Snowpack Analysis and Detailed Forecasts that followed: “at lower elevations…up to 12 to 16 inches of soft, wet, near surface snow [are] available for release or entrainment.” As the day went on, “Higher density snow or rain should increase the possibility of human-triggered slides.”

Moore had clocked seven hours creating 18 pages of text and charts in three separate documents that foretold the meteorological and snowpack future for an area larger than Switzerland. It was time for breakfast.

NOTHING ON THE NWAC SITE dissuaded Riley McCarthy or Stuart Beckman from heading up to Stevens Pass that morning. Like a lot of the guys you see ducking under the ropes off advanced, double-diamond slopes or trudging up and away from the snow groomers into the great beyond, Riley and Stuart lived for the ecstasy of launching themselves into the untracked powder of the “side country” (the unpatrolled out-of-bounds terrain accessible from a resort).

Actually, they were a little more intense about it than most guys. Riley, a shade under six feet, cherub faced, blue eyed, always grinning and cracking jokes, came to boarding via the airborne freestyle stunts of BMX biking. The youngest of four children in a deep-rooted Tukwila family, Riley loved music and concerts, infecting people with his contagious laugh, hanging out with his friends, and traveling with his family. But most of all Riley loved doing sports that defied gravity. “Riding to me is just pure sublime elation,” Riley wrote in a school report about BMX. “This elevation of feeling, or should I say absence of feeling, comes when you land that one trick. Time slows to a stop, the blood rushes to your head, and your body goes numb, almost like you are dying and going to heaven. Then you land.” Pretty mystical for a middle schooler.

“We try to get the untouched snow,” says Stuart, taller and bonier than Riley, with a beach bum’s long blond hair and scraggly beard. “The feeling of falling and knowing you will be all right and ride out of it is amazing.”

Of course, the boarders’ dream snow is by definition the snow most likely to slide. Which for Stuart is part of its attraction. “There is no question that danger adds to the rush,” he says with a tug at his beard.

Riley and Stuart rendezvoused as planned with the others—Alex Jansen, Steve Bass, and Aaron Miller—in the Stevens parking lot and headed up on the lift. They had their first adventure of the day before lunch. “We skied the resort for a while and we decided to try Rooster Cone on the backside,” says Stuart. “We were having an amazing time exploring places we had never been before.”

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Snow Watch Mark Moore, director and founder of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, keeps a watchful eye on conditions that lead to deadly slides.

Image: Mike Kane

For lunch they wolfed down sandwiches and power bars and made a plan for the rest of the day. Earlier in the season, Aaron had ridden out via Tunnel Creek—a gnarly bit of side country that drops precipitously from Cowboy Ridge down to a hairpin turn on Route 2, a couple thousand feet below the resort. Steve wasn’t up for it—so he would hang in the lodge and drive down to pick up the other four when he got the call.

Aaron, who faithfully checked the NWAC site whenever he went boarding, pulled the site up on his phone before they set out. Moore had updated the Mountain Weather Forecast at 1:57pm but there were no big changes. “The avalanche danger still looked low to moderate,” Aaron remembers. “We figured we’d hit wet snow at lower elevations—no big deal.” They hopped on the 7th Heaven lift a little after 3pm. Riley and Stuart rode up together talking about what an awesome day it was.

Before committing, they stopped to dig a couple of test pits to check for weak layers in the snowpack—crumbly or crusty stuff beneath the surface that the newer snow on top failed to adhere to. The snowpack looked fine. So Aaron led the way into Tunnel Creek’s upper bowl and then, one after another, they sailed off a 15-foot cliff.

A THOUSAND DIFFERENT triggers can get snow to release from a weak layer and come crashing down in an avalanche. Heavy rain and wind on top of new snow, a layer of hoarfrost—frozen dew—that won’t bond with the new snow on top of it, sun beating down on an exposed snow-laden slope. Sometimes the extra weight of a single skier or boarder is all it takes. You launch off a bump, you’re happily airborne for a couple of seconds, then your board hits the powder and you hear that telltale whompf of snow layers collapsing. The next thing you’re aware of is a giant accelerating frozen wall sucking you under and hurtling you down the mountain.

Mark Moore, back at the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, points out that in the past two decades, U.S. avalanche fatalities have jumped from an average of 11 to 27 per year, mostly due to an explosion of traffic in the side- and backcountry. It’s a tribute to NWAC that here in the Northwest, avalanche fatalities have moved up “only slightly” since the 1990s, with an average of three people dying each year. Like just about everybody who skis the backcountry long enough, Moore has been in an avalanche himself. “You are thrown into an instant state of excitement but not good excitement,” is how he describes the experience. “You breathe quickly. You hope you chose your terrain well and that there are no trees below you. You are totally helpless.”

Marcus Engley, who runs the Turns All Year website popular with backcountry users, survived a serious slab avalanche near Snoqualmie Pass in the spring of 2011. He compares the experience to being dragged under by a massive ocean wave: “Once I got tumbled under and started rolling around in the snow. It was like being in a washing machine packed full of meringue. I tried to swim, tried to make an air pocket—then I hit my head. Snow filled my throat and I went into panic mode. All I was thinking was how pissed my wife would be if I died.”

“I was thrown like a rag doll into a tree,” says Dan Otter, a veteran back-country skier and ski patroller who was in an avalanche near Snoqualmie Pass the winter before last. “The snow was moving past me with incredible violence, each forceful wave crushing me against the tree. My stomach contents were forced out of me, the snow crushing me like a tube of toothpaste. In my mind’s eye, it was my exploded internal organs that were coming up my throat.”

Otter lost consciousness and ceased breathing; he only survived the massive trauma because his companions dug him out in time.

“No slope is good enough to die on,” NWAC’s cofounder Rich Marriott concludes. But that’s not the attitude of a lot of people going out of bounds these days. Moore says there is an “extreme mind set” luring people onto terrain that no one went near 20 or 30 years ago. “There is a new and independent user group that doesn’t want to be told what to do,” says Moore. “And they’re getting younger. The typical avalanche victims are males in their 20s—it used to be mid to late 20s, now it’s shifting to mid to early 20s.”

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WE TOOK A BREAK to regroup around 3:45,” Aaron Miller recalls. “Then Stuart took off first down the edge of this road. He got maybe five feet of air, and landed fine. Then Riley went next, hit the drop with Alex right behind him.” From above Aaron watched Riley land off balance. “That’s when the snow started sloughing off. He lands and turns and the slough is building and Riley is sitting on his board and this wet loose snow is pushing him downhill and it keeps building. And suddenly Alex is screaming, ‘Slide!’ And Riley disappears into the trees.”

Aaron and Alex rushed to search for Riley. Stuart, down below, heard the shouts, unstrapped his board, and started climbing back up as fast as he could. “Dig his ass out!” he kept bellowing as he ran.

“We found him within a minute,” says Aaron, “partially buried and wrapped around a tree. We had his face unburied within the first two minutes and he was all blue and not breathing.” “We took off his snowboard,” Stuart recalls, “and I got out my shovel, unburying the rest of him. The whole time I was shouting, ‘You fucking fight, Riley!’ over and over.”

Working together, they unwrapped Riley from the tree and placed him on his back in the snow. While Alex called 911, Aaron and Stuart started CPR. “I will never forget the blue color of his face and hands when we first pulled him out of the tree well,” says Stuart. “I will never forget the taste of his lips and breath as I performed breath after breath. I will never forget wiping his blood off of my lips with some snow, and spitting out blood, saliva after each three breaths.”

Adrienne Schaefer, the first Stevens Pass ski patroller to arrive on the scene together with her partner Dan Veenhuizen, says it took about 40 minutes to pinpoint the accident site and another 45 minutes to reach the guys. “Initially we had to try to figure out where they were via the 911 operator, and that slowed us down,” Schaefer recalls. “My first impression skiing down to them was that the snow started out fun and manageable but then as we descended conditions changed really rapidly. The terrain was funky with small trees and snags—and the snow was really unmanageable. It did not take much to get that snow moving.”

Once they connected with the group, Schaefer and Veenhuizen took over the CPR and Riley’s partners sat back, stunned, drained, but still clinging to hope. Veenhuizen got the District 50 EMS dispatcher on the phone and described the situation. After conferring with the medical control, the EMS dispatcher advised the patrollers to stop CPR.

“I’m sorry but there is a do-not-resuscitate policy in King County,” Schaefer told the guys. “There is nothing we can do for your friend.”

“I remember wondering what the do-not-resuscitate policy meant,” recalls Stuart, “but then I immediately broke down crying. I can’t remember ever crying so hard in my life.”

THE CONDITIONS THAT killed Riley were likely a combination of spring sun and wet snow. “There wasn’t much sun that day,” explains Mark Moore, “but there was enough sun on the slope they were on to enhance the weakness, especially at lower elevations.”

Inevitably, the question arises: Was there anything Moore might have added or punched up in that day’s avalanche forecasts to warn Riley and his friends away from Tunnel Creek? Aaron Miller thinks long and hard about that question before answering. “I spent three days after the accident mostly looking at the telemetry data and the forecasts to find out what we missed. Why did we screw up? Why that slide? Why was the snow so good 100 feet above? I looked and looked but could not find anything. I feel no bitterness toward NWAC. They had not blown the forecast. Everything else that day was great—their forecast was dead on. The guys who work at NWAC are totally dedicated…. Without them we’d be hosed.”

The consensus in the backcountry community is the same. “NWAC is the best tool in the Northwest for hourly telemetry and snow conditions,” says Roger Strong, a renowned backcountry skier and former sponsored athlete who was seriously injured in the same avalanche that caught Marcus Engley last spring. “It gives you the essential information to find the best and most stable snow from Whistler to Mount Bachelor.”

WHEN RIDING THE RESORT, there are chairlifts overhead, people all around, the snow gets tracked out,” Riley’s buddy Stuart says wistfully. “In the backcountry, there is nothing but nature, mountains, trees, and snow. It’s your own world and you escape to it.” Moore and his colleagues at NWAC feel pretty much the same way—only they’re standing on the other side of the crevasse that separates youth and experience. Most of them have been in avalanches and survived. And now they work seven to eight months a year helping others like them survive—others like Riley McCarthy who did everything right that day but still had the misfortune to land his board on the one patch of slush that carried him to his death.

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