Liam Doran hikes down Bald Mountain's north ridge after escaping the avalanche.
Liam Doran hikes down Bald Mountain's north ridge after escaping the avalanche.
Liam Doran hikes down Bald Mountain's north ridge after escaping the avalanche. (Photo: Devon O’Neil)

I Reported on Avalanches for 15 Years. Then I Triggered a Huge One.

After kicking off an enormous slide on a familiar backcountry run in Colorado, our writer was forced to reconsider his relationship with skiing

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When I saw the numbers on my screen, I winced. The wind had picked up. It was 6 o’clock in the morning on Tuesday, April 26, perhaps the last powder day of the season where I live in Breckenridge, Colorado. I was about to leave my home to meet a friend, professional photographer Liam Doran, for a morning of backcountry skiing on a 13,684-foot peak above town called Bald Mountain. No camera, just fun.

Baldy, as it’s known, is the most popular place to ski low-angle slopes during the winter; you can often find a dozen or more locals sharing the mellow bowl on its northwest flank. But come spring, Baldy’s steeper, leeward backside beckons and the crowds disappear. Both Liam and I had skied its chutes for almost two decades without incident. Every year, we wait until the deeper weak layers that plague Colorado’s snowpack have strengthened, so that we can enjoy the fluff on top without worrying about what lurks below it. But the timing is variable and imprecise. Some years it takes longer for the threat of a persistent-slab avalanche—a large, cohesive mass of snow resting on top of a layer that resists bonding—to go away. This had been one of those years. But, like a landmine, you rarely see signs before it’s too late.

A healthy storm cycle had just delivered 15 inches of fresh snow, spread out over three days. The storm arrived with high winds then turned calm, a rarity in our area. The powder bonded especially well to the base. Lower-elevation slopes had entered a more predictable melt-freeze cycle, and avalanche activity seemed to have ebbed. After waiting all winter to ski steeper backcountry terrain, it felt like the time had come.

“Wanna ski a couple runs on the backside of Baldy tomorrow morning?” I texted Liam.

“Yeah I’m down for that,” he replied. “Time?”

Our wives agreed to get our kids to school, which freed us to meet at the trailhead at 6:45 A.M.—early enough to beat the sun and warming temps.

I wanted the skiing to be as perfect as it had been in the past: fresh powder flying over our heads under a bluebird sky. So when I pulled up data from a nearby weather station at 12,500 feet, I tried to rationalize numbers that I knew deep down contradicted my desire. Average wind speeds had increased overnight to 33 miles per hour with gusts nearing 40—plenty strong enough to drift new snow into a leeward slab.

Doran triggered the initial slide from below the red line, setting off a domino effect. He and the author used topo maps to estimate the avalanche's half-mile width. (Devon O’Neil)

As we skinned up, we talked about the likelihood of encountering a wind slab, but I figured that even if we did, it wouldn’t be large enough to get us into trouble. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC) had rated the day’s danger as Moderate (Level 2 on a five-point scale), with a plan to drop it to Low the next day. “The lingering Persistent Slab avalanche problem is firmly on its way out,” the forecast read, noting it was still possible to trigger one in “steep, rocky, thin, northerly facing areas.”

We skied our first run at 9:10 A.M., with temps in the teens and a steady wind blowing across the summit ridge at 13,000 feet. I ski cut the top of the chute to check for a wind slab, but found none. We leapfrogged down the rest of the line in dry powder, smiling and hooting for each other. While on our way back up, we noticed two small soft-slab avalanches from earlier in the storm cycle that had run 800 vertical feet in a substantially larger bowl adjacent to where we planned to ski our second lap. Both slides had entrained about ten inches of loose, surface snow, but they hadn’t broken into the deeper layers. This gave us confidence that the snowpack was strong enough to support extra weight, like our own.

We stood on top of the second chute at 11:45 A.M. Though it starts from roughly the same elevation as the first, it’s significantly wider and has a more northerly aspect. A rocky rib separates the chute from the enormous bowl to the left, creating a sense of safety from the chute triggering the bowl. But both features end in the same flat runout, and anyone who has studied or observed persistent-slab avalanches knows they can be triggered from flat terrain far below the fracture points. I had just spent two years reporting on a fatal accident in an advanced safety class involving a persistent slab near Silverton, Colorado. During my interviews, professionals often stressed how unpredictable they are and how they require a large safety buffer. Though rarely seen in late April, a persistent slab killed five men on April 20, 2013, about 20 miles north of Baldy.

Liam dropped in first this time, ski cutting the right edge of the slope to test its stability. I heard a sound like Styrofoam breaking and felt part of the cornice collapse a few feet in front of my ski tips. The wind slab immediately picked up speed, with Liam on it. “Get right! Get right! Get right!” I yelled. He skied at a 45-degree angle toward a safe spot on the shoulder he had identified before he dropped in, high stepping at the last second to get off the moving snow. The slab was about 50 feet wide. On its fringes it was only six inches deep. But in the middle, where it broke from the cornice, it was four to five feet thick. The weight of those sliding chunks triggered a deeper avalanche in the gut of the chute, near a pocket of scree where the snowpack was thinner. That stepdown—the first of three persistent slabs we were about to witness, in a surreal sequence—was roughly three feet deep and 80 feet wide. It ran the length of the chute but remained confined to the gut. When it reached the bottom, the entire left side of the chute liquefied from a four-foot fracture, sending a much larger mass of snow racing to the flats below.

We watched that second wave smash the skin track we’d put in after our first run, detonating over a snowy bench and sending powder high into the air. The weight of the first persistent slab hadn’t been enough to sympathetically trigger the massive bowl to our left—it wasn’t forceful enough to pull the bowl’s legs out from under it. But the weight of the second slide was. A moment after it reached the bottom, the entire bowl ripped 1,000 feet higher, sending an almost inconceivable wall of snow thundering down the mountain. The debris flowed past where the earlier slides had stopped and continued for hundreds of yards into the flats.

Liam and I stood there and gaped. The crowns spanned about half a mile, and we estimated the fracture to be around ten feet deep on either edge of the bowl, leaving bare ground exposed across the basin. I called 911 to report the avalanche and that no one had been caught, then Liam climbed back up to the ridge and we hugged; we both felt we’d been spared. We knew a slide this size was going to attract attention. And as much as we wanted to get the word out—don’t trust the snowpack yet!—due to the public shaming that often happens after avalanches, especially close calls, we decided right then not to use our names in any reports we gave, which precluded my writing about it.

We retreated down the ridge to the mellow frontside and skied back to the truck. “You don’t get another one of these,” I said out loud to myself on the descent, still shaking. “That can never happen again. The alternative has to be enough.”

I called my wife and sensed her fear when I told her what happened. I felt painfully inadequate as a husband, and even more so as a father—feelings that would persist for weeks. Liam and I sat on his deck for the next three hours, debriefing with his wife, a longtime ski patroller. The slide was anomalous. But it didn’t soften the near-miss.

I spent the next two days shoveling out my yard and replaying what happened like a GIF. On the third day, I skied up a road and made a few turns in south-facing corn. I knew the snow was safe, but I still questioned my assessment. I was haunted by visions of the Baldy cornice taking me with it, or of Liam getting sucked into the churning debris. The biggest slide I’d seen in that chute before April 26 wasn’t even large enough to reach the bottom. But this sequence—as I typed in a text to a friend, then deleted—had been unsurvivable.

The first wind slab ripped out from the cornice at 13,000 feet, sending thick chunks sliding downhill.
The first wind slab ripped out from the cornice at 13,000 feet, sending thick chunks sliding downhill. (Devon O’Neil)

Later that week, a former avalanche forecaster named Scott Toepfer stopped by my house. Scott spent 25 years working for the CAIC and is my most frequent ski partner. He has often reminded me to look for reasons not to ski something, instead of reasons to ski something—a message that echoed after our experience. He’d also told me in March that he thought this year’s persistent slab might be active until June. As I explained that a small crack in a shallow spot during our first run was the only sign of instability we’d observed, he interjected, “Other than fresh snow and wind.”

The next morning—the same day the slide made the front page of our local newspaper—I bumped into another friend outside Amazing Grace, a popular breakfast spot. Mike Schilling was an elite backcountry skier for years; he’s one of a handful of people who’s skied the Otter Body route on the Grand Teton. But just before he turned 40, he gave it up. He didn’t like the risk and figured he’d quit before something bad happened. I told Mike I’d been struggling with the what-ifs and wondering if I should quit, too. He understood. He said he cross-country skis a lot now and is just happy to be out there.

Despite being closer to disaster than I was, Liam had an easier time moving on. It’s hard to say why one brain gets stuck on a traumatic event and another doesn’t. I pictured myself trying in vain to excavate Liam, then standing on the snow waiting for a helicopter to arrive, distraught, crying, hating everything I’d ever been. I imagined telling his wife, seeing his two kids, knowing I’d been the one to suggest we ski the backside of Baldy. Then I pictured my two sons crying in their mother’s arms for years on end, because Daddy died skiing powder.

I was haunted by visions of the Baldy cornice taking me with it, or of Liam getting sucked into the churning debris. The biggest slide I’d seen in that chute before April 26 wasn’t even large enough to reach the bottom. But this sequence—as I typed in a text to a friend, then deleted—had been unsurvivable.

I kept coming back to the rationale we use to accept even minimal risk. Weighing the odds that everything will work out against the odds that your life will end is pretty stress-free when the likelihood of the latter happening is, say, 10,000 to 1. But after you see a mountain collapse, you realize maybe the “1” should be viewed differently. It wasn’t our first time making those decisions; both Liam and I backcountry ski around 60 days a year. But experienced skiers are dying in avalanches more often than beginners, and it’s fair to wonder why.

The week after our close call, I flew to the Caribbean, where I grew up, for a funeral. I didn’t think about Baldy for four days. But on my flight home to Colorado, it flooded my brain again. I kept coming back to the last line I’d written about the persistent slab that killed 40-year-old Pete Marshall, a father of two, during the safety class in 2019. A lot of people refused to talk about the accident, but the hutkeeper, Tyler George, believes in transparency when it comes to safety and discussed it at length. Almost to pay homage to his conviction, I concluded the story with: “Every accident is a learning opportunity, even one that starts from your front door.”

Which is why I felt like a hypocrite for only writing a brief, anonymous report on CAIC’s website. Perhaps, if told in full, our incident could make someone take a wind slab more seriously, or give a persistent slab two more weeks to heal. Still, that wasn’t the only reason I decided to write this story.

My personal and professional lives have intersected in strange ways recently. In 2018, after I’d spent a year and a half reporting on a fatal Flight for Life helicopter crash that exposed lackluster safety standards in the industry, our newborn son required Flight for Life transport from the same hospital where the chopper had crashed. In 2021, while writing about a teen suicide pact, a close friend jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge the day my story was due. Now our avalanche mirrored some of the conditions I’d highlighted in my Silverton feature: A wind-loaded persistent slab at 13,000 feet remotely triggered an area we didn’t expect it to. The debris piles overlapped, creating an impossible rescue scenario. The only difference was we were spared. Why us and not them?

Before submitting this story, I sent a draft to Liam. We hadn’t talked in almost a week, and he told me that although he felt OK about the slide initially, something weird had happened a few nights earlier. He’d finally made plans to ski again, after avoiding it for 18 days. He and two friends were heading to Mount Hope, a 13,933-foot peak near Leadville, at 5 A.M. But just before midnight, he woke up soaked in sweat. His heart was racing. His mind started cycling through worst-case scenarios. How much wind blew? Did it really freeze last night? Is this safe? He never got back to sleep and bailed on the trip at 4:50 A.M. “I can only guess it was a panic attack,” he told me. He did go skiing two days later, which helped him feel normal again, he said.

Maybe I’m weak, or overly contemplative when I should just accept my good fortune and move on. “Things happen,” my ski buddy Carl, 63, told me as a means of reassurance. “They really do. We’re lucky. We powder ski. It’s amazing. Life is very delicate, but we’re not going to sit in our houses being afraid.”

I’m right there with him. But what happened simply can’t happen again—period. How much I need to change my approach is the part I’m still wrestling with. The biggest lesson I learned, and maybe the best advice I can impart from that day, is: Watch out for what you want and why you want it.

Lead Photo: Devon O’Neil

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