Fairy Meadows: Close Call in the Houdini Needles

Morning light on the way to the Houdini Needles area.
Click all photos for larger images.

dustin-lemke-tops-out-on-the-rampAfter our first night at the hut, which was filled with great food and fun, we awoke to clear skied and bright sunshine. We were psyched to have a day with good visibility near the beginning of our stay at Fairy Meadows. That way we could see what the place had to offer and get a feel for the routes and ski tours. The plan today was to head up towards an area called the Houdini Needles, which holds a number of fun couloirs, faces and ramps. It’s kind of mini-golf terrain, but it still has the ability to add some spice to your day….which it did for us on this day.

Meg and Colin nearing the top of the Houdini Needles zone.

the-crew-heading-up-houdini-needlesThe Fairy Meadows Hut sits on top of a ridge, far below the ridges and peaks to the south, so it really feels good when you finally climb up out of the shady darkness and pop into the sunshine. I had a lot of pent up energy stored up from the long car ride north and once we veered off the skin track from the afternoon before, I moved in front and didn’t look back until we were at the top of a ramp that lead to a small col. The snowpack was feeling pretty good, but there were definitely some hollow spots where the snow cover was thin and I tried to block them out of my mind when the track moved over some larger cliffs.

Looking towards Sentinel and the Adamant group.

looking-towards-gothic-glacierWhen we got to the col, we switched to booting and made our way up a ridgeline to the summit. Our group totaled about 9 on this day and I was determined to have first tracks in the first line we had decided to ski (which is half the reason I wanted break trail on the way up), an S-shaped couloir on the lookers right side of the Needles zone. After shooting some pics, we all transitioned to downhill mode and moved into position for the descent.

Reed drops into the couloir.

reed-finlay-skis-a-line-in-the-houdini-needlesI dropped in first and into a high entrance to the skier’s right of the couloir. I made a ski-cut and few turns before getting into position in a safe zone to watch Reed open up the main entrance. Since a few of the others in our group had also decided to ski the same line, I wanted to keep things moving and I continued downward, passing Reed who was tucked in below a outcropping and around a corner to the skier’s left. Commenting that I wanted to get the hell out of here before the others continued downward, I told Reed I would meet him down on the flats. This is when things got interesting.

Seconds before the shit hits the fan.

I was now in the heart of the couloir, which funneled down to a section that was a bit steeper and I continued linking turns. I could hear Reed talking to some of the others making their way into the couloir as well. But then his voice got louder, and I could tell he was reed-on-the-bed-surface-in-the-houdini-needlesyelling towards me now…saying “move…move…move.” Still skiing, I glanced upward over my right shoulder and saw a mass of snow tumbling and charging quickly down the slope…directly at me. Instinct took over at this point and luckily I was making a right turn at the time, which allowed me to navigate quickly to an island of safely below some rocks. I pressed my body as close to the rocks as I could as I could see the avalanche grow and still hear voices from above.

Soon it all ended and all I could hear was my heart thumping, before breathing deeply and relaying that I was okay to the group above. Turns out one of the other skiers had triggered a 10-12” slab that cracked the width of the couloir and about 80-100′ long. The slab fractured above him and pulled him downward about 40-50 feet. Lucky for him, he stayed upright and was able to dig his edges into the bed surface as the slab broke apart, and move out of the moving body of snow. Two close calls for the price of one…what a deal!!!

Heading for round two on the Houdini Needles.

Eventually we all made it safely into the flats, recounted the events, split up into smaller groups and soon began moving back up the skin track on the ramp. I had enough of the tight terrain for the day and I wanted to let the Justices run, so I chose to ski the ramp while the rest of my party hit another couloir to the skier’s right of the one that just ripped. Slow learners I guess. The powder was holding up well in the sunshine and it was relieving to charge down the slope, unhindered by the walls of a couloir and non-stop all the way flats. I had some personal time as I waited for the others to meet back up, thinking deeply about how much I was going to be willing to push things on this trip. My decision was…not very much.

The ramp is on the left, with the second couloir coming off of that.
The couloir with the avy is the one on the right, and if you look close you can see the crown(s).

reed-finlay-climbs-sentinel-peak with sir sanford in backgroundLuckily there is a lot of pretty safe stuff to ski, without too much consequence, around the Fairy Meadows Hut and we decided to wrap up the afternoon with a tour up to Friendship Col and Sentinel Peak. The visibility was much better than the day before and we could now see across the Gothic Glacier to the peaks to the south as we continued skiing vast, open expanses of white towards Sentinel. A ramp turned into a rocky ridge and although there looked to be a spicy line off the summit and onto a steep face, visions of the previous incident forced us to leave our skis behind as we made the scramble to the top.

Heading up Sentinel.

pioneer-peak-adamant-and-austerity-from-sentinelThe views of the main, highly glaciated massif of the Adamant group was amazing and we could see other peaks like Colossal, Enterprise and Sir William off in the distance. Peaks we would hope to summit on later days. The descents and glacial terrain of this area were much more wide open, which is the reason I chose the skis I did for this trip and I was looking forward to letting them run on later in the week.

Through the notch above Gog and Magog.

skiing-down-from-gog-and-magogHeading back to the hut, we proceeded back to Friendship Col and skied through a notch above the Gog and Magog rock formations to a zone we saw some others in our group open up while we were on the ascent. A big, steep snowfield that narrowed before eventually dumping out onto the lower sections of the Shoestring Glacier. It was a sweet run and the snow felt much more stable…at least that’s what I kept telling myself.

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19 Responses to “Fairy Meadows: Close Call in the Houdini Needles”

  1. 1 gringo Mar 10th, 2010 at 6:32 am

    nice job skiing on top of each other in close quarters with known elevated danger!

    no really, like you point out, you were fortunate to be mid turn in your escape direction when you realized what happened. I have gotten burned before when i was just initiating a left when I saw the ripples out in front….and my safety was to the right…that turn and a half took too long and i got swallowed.

    nice pics, looking forward to further reports.

  2. 2 drew Mar 10th, 2010 at 6:47 am

    Not hard to read between the lines that the people you were with were reckless. Hope they did not bum out your trip.

  3. 3 randosteve Mar 10th, 2010 at 7:17 am

    drew…i’m not sure i would call them reckless, but there was definitely a lack of communication between us all as we started to descend. and no…they did not bum out my trip.

    everyone’s comfort level is different…and they vary due to personal experiences. for me, my comfort level with avalanches is low (right now especially), but my comfort level in steep, technical and exposed terrain is high.

  4. 4 randosteve Mar 10th, 2010 at 7:21 am

    gringo…thanks for pointing out the obvious. when it was realized that other skiers were dropping in above us (more than one for that matter), they were asked to hold up. unfortunately it was seconds too late.

    glad you made it out of the situation you talk about unscathed. it’s wild how everyone’s experiences are different and how small details can really effect an outcome.

  5. 5 Big Chris Mar 10th, 2010 at 7:49 am

    Great pics! BEAUTIFUL! Looking forward to more.

  6. 6 Tom Gos Mar 10th, 2010 at 9:55 am

    Steve, being a realtively new BC skier I’m always interested to candidly and respectfully discuss the choices other people have made and the outcomes. I’m interested to hear your thoughts on the size of your group and if that was a factor in having others skiing above you in that terrain. Most of what I read indicates that the safest group size is three to five, and that usually it is best to ski one at a time. Do you think that having 9 in the group lead to the decision on the part of others to begin skiing before you were clear? What are your thoughts on safe group size? Thanks for posting stories that tell of your mistakes as well as your sucesses.

  7. 7 randosteve Mar 10th, 2010 at 10:52 am

    tom…i think group size was directly responsible in what happened. both with pushing down the slope without communicating with the whole party…as well as not discussing the plans prior to descent. it’s hard sometimes o speak up when the party is large and they are your friends…as no one wants to come across as being too bossy.

    for me, three is the magic number. not too many people to track things out or make things crowded, but you still have someone to stay with a injured skier while the other goes for help in the event of an emergency.

  8. 8 Derek Mar 10th, 2010 at 11:01 am

    “LIVE TO SKI”—-another day right)?

    Maybe make some of these and hand them out to your buddies. Jk great post.

  9. 9 Nick Mar 10th, 2010 at 11:58 am

    “thanks guys. if you like what you are reading today…i think you will LOVE tomorrow’s trip report.” – RandoSteve

    You are correct! Good thing you caught that safe zone and seems like you made the right call after to tone down the terrain you were on and split up.

  10. 10 gmon Mar 10th, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    ok, trying to figure this out. you go north to terrain outside of your zone where you are a realtive newcomer to that years snowpack, head up to big country without a guide who is in the know as to conditions in the local area, and start dropping steep couloirs on your first real day? Not criticizing, just asking. When I am new to terrain, particularly in canada on trips such as this, I am generally somewhat nervous as to terrain choices. Perhaps your group did a bunch of snow analysis that lead you to believe that things were bomber [if so that was not mentioned.] Otherwise, we were previously lead to believe that two or three days earlier the conditions were very bad. Something is not quite adding up. In any event, accept my question/thought for what it is worth. Afterall, I think that Steve has become in some respects a steward of the very small world of backcountry skiing through his site, and for some reason, this post struck me as strange. Not to say I did not like the pictures.

  11. 11 randosteve Mar 10th, 2010 at 3:38 pm

    gmon…technically it was our second day, having already made two runs, with one from friendship col, the afternoon before. i was comfortable with the conditions in the couloir…others might not have been. where we were skiing was mini-golf terrain…not “big country” IMHO.

    avalanches happen…and if you play around in the mountains enough, you are bound to have events like this. unless of course you just lolly-gag around on sub 20 degree slopes all the time…but what fun would that be. this was the only avalanche we saw the whole time, so obviously things were stabilizing.

    personally, i thought not needing a guide for fairy meadows was a good thing…and we probably wouldn’t have skied half the stuff we did if we had one.

  12. 12 Derek Mar 10th, 2010 at 7:47 pm

    Steve I am sitting at my house in shorts and a T-shirt. I have my probe shovel and Becon in my pack and it’s on my back. I now going to point out every little thing that could possibly be questionable, wrong, or not mentioned in the post. By doing so I will feel really smart and earn some blog cred for future post. I consider myself a Class 5 Avy certified when doing my snow evaluation from a desktop and class 4 on my smaller screened laptop. Lets start with Breakfast you didn’t mention eating anything so I can only be lead to believe you judgment was impaired do to your lack of nourishment. And on and on and on. (Insert 70% of the post on this site here) Then wrap it all up with a big red bow telling you that the post is great other wise. It get old I don’t know how you do it.

  13. 13 brian Mar 10th, 2010 at 8:15 pm

    That was funny, Derek!

  14. 14 Jon Mar 10th, 2010 at 9:12 pm

    The report all that week was sketchy as hell all around Rogers Pass. Glad you made it out alive with how touchy it was….

  15. 15 Jack Mar 10th, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Nice report, Steve. You lived to ski another day, and shared a story that might help others do the same.

  16. 16 randosteve Mar 11th, 2010 at 6:29 am

    thanks jack! and jon…we experienced some of the touchy condition on rogers before heading in. and yeah…those forecasts were quite scary. but honestly, even though there were some isolated instabilities, it seemed like as the week went on and the higher you went, the more stable things got. lucky for us!

  17. 17 randosteve Mar 11th, 2010 at 8:40 am

    gmon…i deleted your commment. PLEASE, keep it clean.

  18. 18 john walker Mar 11th, 2010 at 4:19 pm

    what pack is that? Great pics and report, props.

  19. 19 randosteve Mar 11th, 2010 at 4:47 pm

    johnny walker…the pack i’m using (not to be confused with reed’s marmot pack) is the Black Diamond Alias AvaLung. i think it is the lightest of the avalung packs (the usable sized ones) and i feel it is a bit more comfortable as well.

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