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|Blue Lake - That Day the Mountain Fell - Part 1
||20-Aug-2008 At 2:25:26 PM
The two guys headed off and left Owen and I to ourselves. We sat down and ate lunch and surveyed the crags for ice climbing potential while discussing where the best place to climb would be. I looked directly across frozen lake at the main cliff line of the western wall, a distance of around five hundred metres, and noticed that there were big cornices built up along the top of the cliff line in the gullys between the buttresses (sections of rock protruding from the cliff line). A cornice is like a big lip that protrudes out horizontally from the top of a vertical snow bank. The wind blows the snow over the top of the cliff and it gradually accumulates until it looks like a frozen wave caught in the process of breaking. They are well known for being unstable and many a mountaineer has met their end by unknowing walking too close to the top of one and falling through, such as the legendary Hermann Buhl, who fell to his death through a cornice on Chogolisa in the Himalayas in 1957.
There was a vertical gully about sixty metres wide in the centre of the cliffline which at its top had biggest cornice of all. The snow covered cliff dropped about forty metres vertically below it with some protruding boulders, with another forty metres of very steep snow covered ground below that. Climbers know the buttress immediately to the south of this area as Grey Buttress. I remarked to Owen that there was no way we were going anywhere near those cornices and that the safest place to climb would be on the less steep northern side of the cirque. We scanned the safer looking area for rocks with the tell-tale glint of ice that would allow our ice axes and crampons to bite as we climbed.
By this time it was a quarter to one, but we were in no hurry to move, soaking up the sunshine and recuperating from the long haul we had just done with heavy packs. Owen then spotted another back country skier on the top of Grey Buttress, just to the left of the large cornice and drew my attention to him. At the same time, another skier appeared right above the centre of the largest cornice to the north of Grey Buttress. We both sensed the immediate danger that the second guy was in. I callously remarked that this was going to be a good photo opportunity. I seriously thought that he would just fall through the cornice and end up sliding down the slope below it, probably none the worse for wear. We were too far away to yell a warning, and by the time I thought about it, it was too late.
At that exact instance the cornice began to peal off from the left hand side of the cliff line. A big crack appeared in the snow right across the cliff as it broke like a wave. The guy, whom I now know to be Tom Carr-Boyd, was still on top of the cornice as it started to drop and he made an attempt to turn back, too late. We watched him fall for about twenty metres, then lost sight of him as snow was thrown into the air by the massive force. For the time that we could see him, he appeared to have turned back and faced the snow-covered cliff as he fell, and looked as though he was either scrabbling for holds, or was trying to swim his way to the top of the moving snow.
For a second or two we were stunned as we watched the falling cornice trigger secondary avalanches on the steep slope below. I have been asked since whether there was a lot of noise caused by the avalanche, or whether I heard yelling or warnings shouted by the others, but all I can remember is silence. There must have been some sound, but I think I suffered sensory overload watching the drama unfold before us.
I watched the skier who was on top of Grey Buttress immediately launch himself off the cliff, carve a few turns on the near vertical face, then stop on the right hand side of the avalanche debris field. I remember being mightily impressed by his skiing skills.
I swore loudly and yelled at Owen for us to get over there. We donned our skis and I yelled again at Owen to grab our snow shovel. We were about five hundred metres from where the bottom of the avalanche debris field stopped, but the ground was flat as it was the frozen lake surface and we moved very quickly. After a couple of hundred metres Owen yelled that he was going to try and get mobile phone reception and call for help, and threw the snow shovel over to me and turned back to climb Little Twynam, the hill to the north of our position.
I arrived at the bottom of the avalanche debris field, which had pushed out over the flat surface of the frozen lake for at least fifty metres, and was up to two metres thick, and I kept swearing over and over to myself in an attempt to get a grip on the situation. It was surreal, the volume of debris was enormous and couldn't believe that that much snow had dropped off the hill. The avalanche debris field extended for at least another fifty metres up the hill and stopped where the cliff line became more vertical. I climbed as fast as I could up the right hand side of the debris field, scanning it as I went to see if there was any sign of the guy who had just fallen. I tried to move out onto the debris field as broken blocks of snow obscured visibility somewhat, but its loose blocky nature forced me to move off it as I kept sinking up to my thighs, and I continued climbing up the clearer snow slope, scanning as I went. At the time I saw no sign of a person or any equipment in the avalanche debris. I could see the other guy at the top of the debris field, working at a frantic pace, but I did not know whether he had found the other guy or not.
Looking down onto the debris field where it has flowed out onto the lake - my ski is circled to give and indication of scale
I know from the literature and associated statistics that you have to find an avalanche victim as quickly as possible. The survival rate drops rapidly between fifteen and thirty minutes. Some avalanche victims end up close to the surface, and are easy to dig out (or in fact extract themselves). Others are able to form a pocket of air around their heads which enables them to keep breathing until they are found. Others are not so lucky. One of the characteristics of an avalanche is that when it is moving it is quite fluid, and one of the recommended techniques is to discard any equipment (skis, ski poles, etc.) and attempt to swim to the surface of it (literally). Once the avalanche stops it compresses itself and becomes quite compact underneath, much like when you pick up a handful of snow and crush it into a hard snow ball. This can trap the victim so that they cannot move, and may even compact so hard around the torso that it is impossible to breath, even if there is an air pocket.
I made it to the top of the avalanche debris field where the guy was probing like mad with his ski pole. I yelled at him if he knew where the other guy was, and he indicated that he had seen him go down in the area that he was working on. I asked if the person we were searching for had their skis on, and the answer was no. I mentioned that that was probably a better thing as survivability in an avalanche is greater without skis on. I did not ask my fellow rescuers name, I was too aware of the time constraints that were on us and just got to work. The guy who was probing indicated that he had set up snow cairns (blocks on top of each other) to indicate the area he was working on. I ripped the bottom half of my extendable ski pole out of its handle, and started probing with it upside down. I started working further down on an area he had not probed. I then realised that I need to be able to probe deeper, so pushed the basket off the bottom of my ski pole, then inserted it back into the handle so that it was like a spear, giving me about one and a half metres of probe depth. About this time I also realised we should be working in a slightly more co-ordinated fashion, and the two
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