Never 100% Safe—Two Stories from the Sonora Avalanche

No matter how knowledgable and skilled, there is always a danger in the backcountry. Posting this video to Instagram a few weeks back, we were lucky enough to have two incredible people that have dedicated their lives to snowboarding shed some light on the story behind the avalanche that happened back in 2011. Filmed by our own Greg Weaver, with Gabe Taylor in front of the camera, listen and watch the footage above and read both of their accounts below.

It was late March and we were heading out to one of our favorite Eastern Sierra backcountry spots, Sonora Pass. Todd Hazeltine and Torey Piro first filmed the features accessed from this zone back in the mid 90’s. Standard Films, Kingpin, MackDawg, People and about every other film crew in the business spent the better part of 10 years shredding the piss out of every transition imaginable out there. Having spent close to 50 days snowmobiling, snowboarding and shoveling out in the Sonora backcountry I felt extremely comfortable out there. Safety tip #1:Familiarity can breed complacency when it comes to backcountry snowboarding.

We hit “The Plank” first thing that morning and were hyper-aware of how the new snow was bonding to the old layers. Matt Hammer and Mitch Nelson first hit “The Plank” while filming for Standard Films’ White Balance. Matt pretty much shut the thing down that year landing a fs 7 and Cab 9. We still hit the feature a bunch because it was so damn fun but it’s a hard feature to get an NBD on. On this day in 2011, Hammer was with us and did a switch method that could’ve been one of the sickest things ever had he ridden out.

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“The Plank” is part of a long ridge that contains a half dozen famous snowboard features on it. Looking right to left you have The Plank, The Waterfall (Terje drops), Jussi and DCP kickers, Andreas line and the cliff we were looking to hit next. I’m not sure if the feature ever had a “name” but Darrel Mathes did a sick FS 3 on it in one of his video parts, so maybe it should be named after him. We chose to session it as historically it’s about as safe of a feature as you can find. Safety tip #2:When features that are “almost 100% safe” do slide, they can be extremely dangerous.

The area above the takeoff to this feature is on a slope of about 20° and the landing is probably about 35°. We went back to measure the crown of the avalanche, slope and try and figure out what went wrong a week after the incident and were blown away by the results. When Matt landed (which was the 9th hit!) it sent a tremor through the snowpack and triggered a slab release in a concave bowl about ¼ of a mile away. The slide started on an old rain layer that was 11 feet under the surface of the snowpack. This slide propagated into the area we were in and ended up being a ½-mile wide.

What could we have done? Well, digging a pit 12 feet deep wouldn’t have shown us a thing. Snowmobilers had high-marked the shit out of the bowl we were hiking up. There were no signs of avalanche activity. Other than a rain layer from late October, 4 months before the incident, there was no reason why we should’ve expected to witness what we did.

Obviously, we were being dangerous. There is an inherent risk to this passion we are so addicted to, but when I asked our local avalanche forecaster, what we could’ve done differently that season, she responded with: “Yeah, stay home. Nobody knew that layer had survived the winter snowfall and by March there was no way to test a slope for that kind of massive slide.” What a wake-up call it was for us. Hopefully everyone can learn from our mistake. – Gabe Taylor

This incident occurred about 10 years ago. Like we had been doing most of the season we had gone out to Sonora pass that day.  We got out early and went to our main objective which was an easy build of a pat down.  We had a session that for an hour or so until it was done.  It was still early in the day, so we took a quick break to talk about we would do for the rest of the day.  As a group we decided to check out a zone just about a half mile to the south.  We got over there and assessed that we could build a jump but we needed to be on a mellow slope, the slope where the jump landing was 26 degrees.  Once we had the jump ready the riders started hitting it. There were 5 riders, they all hit the jump once, and then on first hit of the second round the avalanche cracked.  Everyone panicked. Luckily everyone was okay and no was hurt and all that happened was we lost a snowmobile helmet and a snowboard.  It is never 100% safe out there and we saw that first hand.  Be safe out there.   – Greg Weaver

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