Mission Ridge

WA Cascades East Slopes Central
Posted by mikerolfs on 1/10/21 10:00pm

I found, triggered, and was carried by an easter-egg avalanche that is hard to find, but nasty when you do. This was not discussed in the avalanche bulletin and can't be hinted at in pit tests. My avalanche was on 1-1/2" wind deposited snow over yesterday's surface hoar crystals. Here is the current surface condition which has been disturbed by wind in some spots, and covered by wind deposited snow it some spots. A tricky trap!

It was shallow, small, isolated, and could have killed me. Or killed my partner. Dumb luck saved us both. Here is how the slope looked when she skied it:

This spot is locally know as the fifth thumb above Lake Clara. The rock feature just in front of Ali's tips was critical in preventing greater consequence for me. Once triggered, the avalanche wanted to funnel me through the rocks fall-line below Ali in the photo. I was able to maneuver skier's left such that I hit the rock and was not carried downhill through the cliffs and trees below. PHEW! Ali turned left below the terrain turn, had she turned right my slough would have hit and carried her through the trees.

The crown was about 1.5"

But it stepped down into recent storm layers about 6" total thickness and I THINK it also may have collapsed one of the buried crust sandwiches at the horizontal line seen shooting left off the intersection of my ski tip and the avalanche sidewall in the photo above.

Every time I get to see an avalanche I end up regretting not spending more time investigating. This time was no different. After extricating myself from an armpit deep burial I booted up to look at that crack and really wanted to dig a profile across it, but I was too shaken and so I didn't. I think a lower layer collapsed but didn't propagate. It looked to me like that crack was about an inch across and an inch vertical displacement.Here is a photo of the crack. Wish I'd looked directly down it!

I came back the next day to dig. I side-slip rapelled to the location and dug a significant pit to the ground (1.5m) but wind deposited snow had obscured the crack and I dug in the wrong spot (off by 2 feet by photo review later!)

There was a similar avalanche 100m south under the same rock feature that I suspect was triggered by what I suspect was a the deep collapse of my avalanche. There was next to no snow movement in the Clara basin over the last two weeks. The avalanche I described above, the one I think went sympathetically (photo below) and one we call "old faithfull" under Bomber cliffs that ran on both 12/31 and 1/10 (photo below below)

Old faithful 1/10/2021

Old Faithful 12/31/2020

Here is the rock that saved my life:

You might notice in the right top of the photo that there are a small group of people on the bench below. I think these were an avalanche class. What amazing luck for them. There is no activity in the Clara Basin at all for the entire season, and then a level II class comes up and witnesses the first and only skier triggered avalanche of the year! You are welcome, Nick Pope :)

It was fucking scary and I am embarrassed and shook. The last time I was involved in an avalanche accident was in 1997, roughly 1650 ski days ago. 1 in 1650 sounds pretty good, but I would sure rather it was 1 in "a number larger than the total ski days you've skied".

Here is where I found my pole, and where I may have been swept had I not hit that rock finger:

the next day, I dug across what I thought was the step down interface. At the ground I found wet soil and 3/4" crystals. WTF? Here is the ground interface:



Wow - I'm glad you're OK, Mike. Thanks for the thorough write-up so we can all learn - takes some guts to write these encounters, too.

Thanks for sharing and glad you're okay. Just goes to show that even a relatively small slide can be trouble in smaller yet consequential terrain. Maybe a familiarity trap for you in this spot?

Thanks Pavel, it feels to me like a duty to community to share this. Took awhile to settle enough to write it, but I didn't have any issue doing so. Although my pride is completely shattered. Until Saturday, in my mind you are safer if you ski with me, but it turns out I can get you killed. Man that is a hard reality.


Thanks Kam, Yeah, totally. If this was the first time I'd skied this spot, maybe I would have thought through the problem better, but I've been here many times and didn't give it a thought. I've been staying off of big slopes, but not these interesting shorter pitches. Now I'm so goosed I need a rope to ski the bed surface here.

Mike, people are safer when they ski with you, or other extremely experienced outdoor risk managers. But a guy can still get hit by one rock at the base of a mile wide mountain. Shit happens, and when you get out as much as you do, it gives the odds a chance to catch up.

Thanks for the write up. Sobering - but we all know it can happen. People like you can mitigate the risk, but not erase it. I’ll ski with you any chance I get...

Appreciate you, Mike. And don’t get it twisted, people that have the privilege to travel with you in the mountains are both safer and having a better time because of you!!!

Thanks so much for posting this, Mike. I'm sure it is not easy to admit 'in front' of people that you got caught, but your post is very valuable for this community. I would tour with you anytime -- the fact that you posted so candidly about this incident is a testament to your good judgement. I'm glad you came out OK.

Obviously I was shaken by this as well—though considerably less so, as I was tucked into a safe location during the whole thing and quick communication within our team allowed me to know you were upright and uninjured right away. But I also learned more this weekend than I have in my last two or three years of ski touring combined. I treasure the opportunity to ski with people who are thorough and thoughtful in their ski choices, with the skills to address and then learn from most situations. Mike, I will ski with you again in a heartbeat.

We spent a lot of time discussing takeaways from the weekend but I'll bring up one thing I feel passionate about: If this situation had gone bad and you were swept down that short rocky chute and into the trees, it could've caused head injury. I would implore skiers who would never consider going into the backcountry without avalanche safety gear to think about adding a helmet. Obviously there are lots of ways a body can be harmed and a helmet only addresses a small subset of them, but I believe it's worth considering.

I appreciate the reflection Mike and aliwill. Makes me consider wearing a helmet for 100%. Glad you both and those hot pink skis made it out unscathed. 

Boy oh boy that's a bunch of kind words and I thank you all. I went back (again) today and did locate that crack. It turns out I was right that it indicated where the avalanche had triggered a lower layer that didn't run. I was wrong about the depth though. The crack only extended to the first crust (1/4?). I followed it back to a location where the avalanche had stepped down to that layer and had run. The thickness of the soft slab above the crust is 6". This is pretty consistent throughout the basin (at least where I've dug recently). So in summary, this avalanche started with about 1.5" of soft snow (not wind slab) gently deposited by wind over the surface hoar. Then it stepped down to the first reactive layer which I think is the 1/4 crust. Once it ran over the cliff band, it appears to have simply slid over the surface facets until it stopped on a flat area.

Glad you are ok Mike!!

 "The last time I was involved in an avalanche accident was in 1997, roughly 1650 ski days ago."


To me, this says a lot. I've had close calls with avalanches over the years. While I'm not proud of that by any means it's the product of a life spent in the mountains. It's the exposure factor. Stay vigilant and keep doing your thing. You are as safe and solid as they come Mike. Thank you for the report!

Thanks mike for the very thoughtful and informative write up.


Kam, I think you make a good point, I was totally shaken by Mikes ride. We went back today to have another look,I guess what I would say as an after action review, is make sure you fully understand the terrain you are about to descend into. We had skied that line a few days before. We gave it a cursory look, and had a great run, no problems. We definitely failed to carefully evaluate the hazards, there are many! We stole the apple that day, two days later Mike narrowly escaped a very dangerous ride.

I always feel safer skiing with Mike, it’s a stark reminder about what we do for fun! It’s no place to let your guard down.

Mike, was this the slope we skied during our course a couple of years back? It certainly looks familiar.

I think the biggest indicator of a safety record is whether the frequency of close calls (or hits) are increasing or decreasing.  We can never eliminate risk, but with proper training and application, stack the deck either for or against us. To me, just the fact that one person was caught in a low-likelihood, small slide is pretty telling about your commitment to safety. By the way, these low-likelihood/ high consequence slides strike me as the most dangerous due to their spatial variability and difficulty to detect. 

Lastly, the instability you found needed a perfect combination of low-density snow that could be blown by the wind without affecting the surface hoar. I doubt this is likely combination for most of the state.

Probably 20 years ago I started wearing a helmet after buying helmets for the kids. For me it was so comfortable and warm that I never gave it a second thought. I just kept doing it when I started going into the backcountry more. With the often poor conditions, and the frequent tree skiing, it seems to me to be maybe even more appropriate than in the resort....but I can’t judge, for years I never wore one rock climbing...Just saying...

Sean, you reminded me of a short period in 2016 when we saw similar avalanche action. The concern was windslab, so we sought out areas not affected by wind, and what we found was the same situation where surface hoar was covered by gently deposited snow that fell in sheltered areas and was super touchy! I wrote a TR about similar almost exactly 5 years ago: https://turns-all-year.com/trip-reports/january-17-2016-avalanches-near-mission-ridge and the next TR I wrote showed a big crown in a composite photos of the very area that this current incident happened: https://turns-all-year.com/trip-reports/more-avalanches-in-clara-lakes-area-1-31-2016

Your comment: "Lastly, the instability you found needed a perfect combination of low-density snow that could be blown by the wind without affecting the surface hoar. I doubt this is likely combination for most of the state."  is a good example of why this is so easy to miss. It happens, but not that often. And it usually isn't the problem that we are looking to avoid that day. I want to start noticing on days with widespread surface hoar, those locations where you can't see any surface hoar. Those are the places to avoid.

And yes, this is pretty close to spots we skied with Harlan, but not quite exactly the same spot. Come visit and I'll show you!



Glad you lived Mike.  This world needs you!  Thanks for the detailed writeup.

Reply to this TR

2021-01-11 06:00:37