Sublimation: A Journey to the Black Divide with Glen Plake

Plakehawk

Prologue

It has been 3 seasons of drought for the Sierra. This makes a skier harken back to wetter and better times. Exactly 3 years ago, Easter week 2011, Glen Plake and I went on a multiday ski tour together and had a grand old time skiing some of the wildest and under-explored terrain in the High Sierra in a 5 day point-to-point tour. This was one of the biggest snow years on record and we had epic snow conditions. For over 2 years, Parts 1 and 2 of the 3 part series have lived on the SMG you tube channel. This winter our friends over at Community Skis in Mammoth Lakes hosted an avalanche awareness event where I was given the opportunity to premiere the 3rd and final part of the series, along with a presentation in dedication to the memory of Kip Garre and Alison Kreutzen. Kip and I had spoken about possibly skiing together that spring but that plan never materialized. One day after Glen and I ended our tour, Kip and Alison were killed in an avalanche on Split Mountain, just 6 miles away from where we finished our tour 24 hours earlier.

In honor of the 3rd anniversary of these events, I will attempt to re-create this multimedia presentation for the electronic page. This was a 45-minute live presentation, so give it some time. I hope you may enjoy and take something from it to inspire you on your next mountain adventure. ~ Howie

 

Sublimation

 

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Without sublimation we would have no powder snow. Without powder we would have no skiing. Without skiing would there be any  joy at all?

It is ironic that this process, so essential to the life of a ski mountaineer is also the greatest danger one can face on skis, and has been the cause of demise for so many backcountry brothers and sisters.

 

 

Untitled5I definitely knew Glen Plake. His movies and his persona came on the scene when I was forming my personal skiing identity. He was a legend at the time and remains to this day. I first met him without actually realizing it. I went on a solo mission to ski on a spring day in the Palisades  (up the South Fork Big Pine Creek to Glacier Notch, down the N Couloir of Mt. Sill to the Palisade Glacier, up and down the U-notch couloir on North Palisade and down the North Fork Big Pine Creek). This photo was taken after I descended the Gayley Gulley and met two ski mountaineers going up to make camp near the glacier. Nice guys. Glen was one of them, but his hair was tucked under a hat and I had no clue it was him. My obliviousness is memorialized by this photo of my tracks, instead of them.

The next winter, I finally had a chance to meet Glen at an outdoor trade show. He told me he met me in the Palisades and we had a good laugh about it. It was nice to meet him more officially, and we made a plan to go on a trip to ski together in the spring. He handed me his business card, and we had a good laugh about that too:

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I knew immediately that we were destined to ski tour together at some point.

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This could be considered a natural expression of an impulse…

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… modified to socially acceptable:

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Funny, I found this picture after we met in a Skiing magazine from 1987 (I think) that still sat on a shelf in my old room in my parents home.

And this is what I looked like when I was reading magazines about Glen.

And this is what I looked like when I was reading magazines about Glen. 

Social Acceptance is an important concept for backcountry recreationists. It was identified as one of the common heuristic traps in avalanche accidents in a now classic study presented in 2003 by Ian McCammon at an International Snow Science Workshop. Heuristic traps are the shortcuts we use to navigate the complexities of life and decision making. These serve us well in many cases but also can “trap” us into making mistakes with big consequences. McCammon’s definition:

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Admittedly, I had to reflect on my own decision-making biases when it came to skiing with an icon like Plake. It was because of my susceptibility to this heuristic trap that I anchored my process into a decision-making framework that I was very familiar with in order to make more objective decisions on our trip together.

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The AIARE Decision Making Framework is a conceptual model based on one I first drew on a napkin at an avalanche course instructors meeting in Everett, Washington in 2003 and presented at the ISSW in 2004. It has since become the foundation for the vast majority of avalanche education being done in the US.

 

Enter Kip Garre and Alison Kreutzen.

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I knew Kip as he was a ski guide I had the pleasure of teaching on an AMGA ski mountaineering guides course in Valdez, AK in 2005. Kip was an experienced and competent Alaskan heliski guide at the time and he took the course to continue to develop his professional skills. Such an enjoyable guy and inspirational skier. In the years after his course, he became a well-known and respected American ski mountaineer and guide. We had been in contact in the winter about doing some skiing in the Sierra in the spring after his heliski season in AK. I had heard of his girlfriend Alison, but never met her. Many of my Tahoe friends knew her. She seemed very gregarious and I know many people loved her immensely. She was apparently a very accomplished and proficient ski mountaineer in her own right. McCammon identified in his study that the Acceptance heuristic was especially prevalent in groups of mixed gender, perhaps due to associated social and/or hormonal factors. I have wondered if this trap played some role in their fateful decisions on Split Mountain in April of 2011.

The AIARE Decision Making Framework indicates the importance of planning and preparation as being critical to decision making. The first video in the Black Divide with Glen Plake series chronicles some of the preparations that went into the trip that Glen and I executed in April 2011. It was meant as an instructional piece and represents one of my first attempts at video editing. Not super proud of it as art, but hopefully you enjoy it and find it useful. It should at least help set the stage for the rest of the story:

 

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Meet Split Mountain, one of the most worthy ski objectives in the High Sierra. A 14,000 foot peak with multiple, perfect ski features that average close to 2000 vertical feet and 40-45 degrees in steepness. Take a tour here:

Our Journey to the Black Divide was in the zone just West and north of Split Mountain, near the Middle Fork of the Kings River.

Split Mountain was once called "South Palisade" and is considered one of the Palisades. The Black Divide was the area Glen and I wanted to explore, located as the next major ridge West of the Palisades just North and West of this mountain.

Split Mountain was once called “South Palisade” and is considered one of the Palisades. The Black Divide was the area Glen and I wanted to explore, located as the next major ridge West of the Palisades just North and West of this mountain.

Here is  a Google Earth image of the specific feature we were hoping to ski, a 5000+ foot line in the heart of the range from Devil’s Crags down to Devil’s Washbowl. We did not know what we would find, and Google Earth images were not nearly as clear as this one back then. We did know that the snowpack was epic and that if there was any chance to ski all the way down the feature, this would be the time.

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Journey to the Black Divide part 2 tells the story of this very enjoyable ski descent.

Another interesting heuristic trap related to the Split Mountain accident is called Social Facilitation.

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On April 7th of that same season preceding the accident, a group of Mammoth and Tahoe area locals, friends of Kip and Alison, reported that they had skied the line on Split Mountain. Another pair hailing from the Wasatch were coincidentally there that day and blogged about their descent. Conditions appeared to be quite good.

Plake and I knew nobody who had done what we were planning to do, recently or otherwise, and I wonder if this may have helped us better plan and observe for the unexpected. As you watch the previously unreleased Part 3, the finale of the series, be sure to “observe” the weather and the conditions as they evolve. Note the odd coincidence that one of the peaks we ski is called Observation Peak and that the other called Mt. Shakspeare (author of tragedy).

 

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Turns out the word sublimation has many definitions and meanings. Was Split Mountain a sort of Magnum Opus for Kip and Alison? Was the tour to the Black Divide with Glen Plake on a record snow year a Magnum Opus for me? What happens to our decision making when we let ourselves build the importance of a day of skiing to such high priority? What happens to our decision making when we invest a lot of energy and commitment into a specific ski objective without many alternative terrain options? Another common heuristic trap is called Consistency:

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Another view up the Northeast Couloir of Split Mountain.

This trap affects our ability to assimilate new information and adjust our course of action. Using a decision making framework and being prepared and willing to adjust the plan at any time can help manage this bias.

On April 25th, Glen and I descended from Scimitar Pass (another foreboding moniker?). We knew we might not like it and if we didn’t, we could reverse and safely go back to Bishop Pass and the vehicle at South Lake. The conditions were favorable and we made the decision to descend Scimitar Pass. It was a struggle to maintain objectivity given how much easier it would be to descend from Scimitar Pass (and how much better the skiing would be). Still, the fact that we had this in our minds and even verbalized it to each other, I think, helped us make better decisions. By the time we descended a thousand feet or so the winds began to increase dramatically. We were grateful for our early start and our fortunate timing, and we descended to Glacier Lodge without incident.

Skiing would result in an ice pellet storm that stung the face and whited out the visibility.

Skiing would result in an ice pellet storm that stung the face and whited out the visibility.

Here is a look at some of the weather actuals from Bishop at that time:

The last ESAC bulletin stated:

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Scimitar Pass is 6 miles as the crow flies from Split Mountain. Split also has a very wide open fetch that would have facilitated the formation of windslab in the upper couloir during that period.

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In the afternoon and evening the winds blew strong and consistently. Plumes of dirt blew off of the ridges of the Tungsten Hills in the Owens Valley near Bishop in early afternoon. We retrieved my truck from South Lake and I remember that the North wind blew the door out of my hand as I opened it with enough force that I was concerned the hinges were bent. Kip and Alison, were probably getting rocked pretty hard as they slept in the back of their truck camper that evening.

This is a photo shot by some mountaineers at the summit of Split Mountain into the top of the couloir. They did not know that the avalanche was triggered earlier that day carrying 2 skiers to their deaths. Kip and Alison probably did not see evidence of recent windslab formation until they were at least half way up the couloir. The couloir is an obvious terrain trap where even a very small avalanche can have catastrophic consequences. According to some who were on the scene of the search and rescue, Kip and Alison apparently died from being swept violently down the couloir, not by quiet burial and asphyxiation in the avalanche debris.

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We will never know all of the reasons why Kip and Alison didn’t make it home from Split Mountain on April 26th, 2011. We  will never know why Glen and I were able to make it home successfully just one day earlier. We can only speculate and look carefully at the processes we used to arrive at our decisions. Hopefully by reflecting, processing, debriefing, discussing we can gain insight that will help us all make better decisions in the mountains, and keep us alive to ski longer.

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4 Responses to Sublimation: A Journey to the Black Divide with Glen Plake

  1. Andy - Reply

    April 20, 2014 at 4:57 pm

    Nice work, Howie! Thanks for this.

  2. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    April 21, 2014 at 7:42 am

    Hi Andy. Thank you! Inspiration taken from your writing on sierradescents.com.

  3. Jeremy - Reply

    May 8, 2014 at 12:34 am

    Great videos and a tremendous trip report. With regards to the unfortunate events on Split it is a reminder to live everyday to the fullest, and to respect the forces that truly dictate. Good work.
    P.S. Ski season is not done.

  4. Howie Schwartz - Reply

    May 9, 2014 at 9:11 am

    Cheers Jeremy. And thanks. Yes, ski season is still on for sure. Just skied cold powder for two days with a guest in the Kindergarten Chute and Wahoo Gullies. Enjoy it out there, and make good decisions!

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