Safety in Deep Powder at Mammoth Mountain Ski Area

Today I skied Mammoth Mountain Ski Area after they just got 10.5 – 15.5 feet of new snow. I skied today because it is supposed to snow this afternoon and tomorrow. You can read my post on Mammoth Mountain Snow Conditions Dec. 21, 2010 to find out the report on the snow and roads. But I wanted to cover safety in deep snow today.

I skied about 6 runs this morning in mostly knee-deep, kinda heavy snow. And just when I though my balance was perfect, I was 10′ tall and bullet-proof, I did something weird and fell in the bottomless powder in the trees. I got snow in my mouth when I fell, and that always gives me a short-of-breath/claustrophobic feeling.

I fell softly with my skis to my left, and my body fell to the right. Suddenly, I knew it could be a real pain in the you know where to get up and out of this situation. So I took a moment, took a few deep breaths and accessed my situation. I was somewhere in the trees that someone was unlikely to find me.

I needed to self-rescue. I knew from experience that I was in bottomless powder and my poles would be of little help. Some say to make a “t” with your poles and lean on them, but no way would that have worked. The powder was too deep, and deep powder provides unique, potentially life endangering challenges. So we need to be prepared. Larger baskets on your poles are helpful for pushing yourself on powder days, but do not provide enough resistance to aid you in standing up from a fall. Since my body is heavier than by boots and skis, the more I struggle and move, the lower my body will sink making my feet be above my head.

In this case I was able to slowly over a period of about 2 minutes shift my butt to be more over my skis by pulling my body mass over the skis by pulling on my knees. The last part was hard because I had nothing to brace against, but I knew if I could make this one last move to get my butt over the backs of my skis, I could stand up. so I pulled on my knees one more time because I knew that would give me the resistance I needed.

I managed to stand up, now about 5 minutes after I fell. Both my skis were on, and sunk deep in the snow. I slowly pulled the right one up breaking the surface of the snow to get higher footing, then I did the same with the left ski. OK, I was finaly able to glide out back onto the groomed part of the run and complete the self-rescue from bottomless powder.

In another blog post, I have detailed how to find a ski in bottomless powder which can be challenging. Search in the search window of this blog for “Lost ski” or “finding lost ski”, and it should come up. My method has always been able to find the lost ski quickly, so you no longer need to worry about that.

But I still want to cover what happened to me at June Mt. as a kid. It was a week with 8 feet of new snow at June Mt. I skied the face successfully, but fell and made a huge hole in the flat part at the bottom. At first I kinda panicked, and struggled to get to my feet. But the more I struggled, the more I sank down in the powder making the hole deeper. It got to the point where I was 8 feet down in this hole, and still could not get to my feet.

I knew no one was skiing the face that day. If a ski patroller skied by he would not hear my cries or see me unless he saw the track to my hole. I couldn’t count on that!

I was only about 11 years old, and I needed to get resourceful to self-rescue, or I could be there all night and freeze. I decided to take a break. I took out the camera I had in my pocket, and took a photo from the bottom of my 8 foot deep hole. I tried to push my poles to hit something solid, and I sank them all the way to my shoulder. I hit nothing that could support me.

I thought some more and finally I figured that I could take 1 ski off, and use it horizontally to be a form of support. I was able to take 1 ski off and holding the side of the ski and digging it in for grip, pull myself to a standing position this way. Then I pulled my upper body up, and stepped up sideways up the side of the hole. I kept doing this until I got to where I was only knee deep again.

I put the ski back on, and was able to break trail back to the chairlift. Please remember this technique if you get stuck in a hole in deep powder. This same self-rescue strategy could work to extricate your self from a tree well, which can be fatal if you do not know what to do. More information about what to do if you get stuck in a tree well is located at: www.treewelldeepsnowsafety.com There are some really good safety tips at that site that I have not covered here.

I can tell you from experience it is easier to learn these proven self-rescue techniques from some one else than to have to make up a rescue technique when you get stuck. People die from getting stuck in deep powder. I gave you 2 self-rescue techniques here. I also recommend you always carry a whistle when you ski the trees. It might give you the capability to summon help where you can not be seen. I also recommend you carry a fully charged cell phone with Mammoth Mountain’s ski patrol phone number programmed into your phone. This way, when you get injured, you can call for help and tell them where you are. You should program under ICE for In Case of Emergency, your person to be contacted in case of injury or emergency. Emergency personel know to look in your cell phone for this, so you need to program it in there so they can find it if they need to.

Other emergency stuff I carry because I ski the trees are:

1) Small knife – Can cut you down from a tree, or filet a fish or squirrel if you have to.

2) I told you about the whistle – Can help ski patrol hear you when they are making their last sweep of the mountain at closing.

3) Lighter – If you had to spend the night, making a fire could save you from freezing to death.

4) Your cell phone programmed as shown above

5) Cliff Bar – These have a lower freezing point so you won’t have to knaw on a rock-solid snack bar.

6) Fleece balaclava – Can really increase heat retention in winds, and if you get stuck overnight.

7) Ski helmet – Wear a helmet everytime you ski. You  can not predict when a dangerous situation will present itself. 80% of fatal ski injuries could have been prevented with a helmet.

8) I photocopy my drivers license and medical card so if I am knocked unconscious they know who I am from my drivers license. They know who is my medical insurer because it is on the same page as the drivers license. And they know my “ICE” In Case of Emergerncy person to call because it is programmed into my cell phone I have on me all day.

Being prepared and informed can save your life or keep you from being stranded in the woods for hours or overnight. If you just ski the groomed runs, you only need about 1/2 this stuff. But I like to duck into my tree powder stshes so I keep this packed in my ski jacket at all time so I will have it if I ever need it.

Please teach them to your friends and loved ones so they will know what to do in this potentially life-threatening situation. 

Be Safe On the Slopes!

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