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Topic "What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (1 of 8)" started by Parry Loeffler on Jun-08-2009

Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (1 of 8)
Author: Parry Loeffler
Date: Monday, June 08, 2009 07:34 PM

On a recent trip up to the Columbia Icefields, our rope team was caught in the run-out of serac fall. If you know the Athabasca glacier headwall, there is a route up the right side under the seracs of Snow Dome. We opted not to take this route out of concern for serac fall, and instead chose the "safer" traverse through the icefalls.

Just as we were traversing, a garage-sized piece did break off of a serac. It came crashing down onto the route that we wisely avoided, but the run-out billowed over the icefall directly towards us.

There was simply no time to ski out of its path; all we could do was hunker down and watch. We were inside of the cloud of ice crystals for about a minute.

I actually had my camera out just before everything hit the fan, so I continued snapping as many photos as I could in between freak-out sessions. It's pretty interesting because you can see how a beautiful, clear blue day turns to complete white-out and back again within 57 seconds.

Check out photos #8 to #17.



Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (2 of 8)
Author: David Wasserman
Date: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 12:07 AM

Great photos, Parry.

Did you have to shake the crystals off your camera after they settled? Or did they fall off naturally?

Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (3 of 8)
Author: Rachel O.
Date: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 02:43 AM

Very cool to have kept the camera going. Thanks for sharing the highly cool photoset!

Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (4 of 8)
Author: Vern Dewit
Date: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 07:52 AM

Interesting photo series! I'm curious as to
what time of day the serac fall occurred and
how big was the part of the right-hand trail
that it would've hit? What I'm trying to
decide is how big the risk actually is of
having the ice fall on your head as opposed
to just being that much closer to the ice /
snow cloud once it disintegrates?

Not the most entertaining odds to be fooling
around with but both routes seem a bit dicey
for different reasons! :-)

Vern Dewit

Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (5 of 8)
Author: Bill Kerr
Date: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 08:25 AM

Good pictures Parry and congrats on Columbia.
I am sure there was lots of discussion about risks and route selection after watching that come down.

Did you guys discuss soft bridges versus serac fall risk for the route selection on the way down? Skiing down later in day - time in the danger zone, etc. No right or wrong - just good for the rest of us to hear the internal discussion.


Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (6 of 8)
Author: Kerry Vizbar
Date: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 09:08 AM

The time of the serac fall in Parry's photos was around 10 AM...after we got up higher, we could see that most of the climbers right side of the bench was covered in debris, but likely not extending to where we would have skied. Even though we wouldn't have got hit by large chunks of debris, the force of the cloud up there may have been a different story?

On the way back - we discussed going down that way to get through quickly - but one of the main discussions I remember is that we decided against it because the soft snow meant the first person through would be breaking trail, walking, NOT skiing fast! Too much time in the unmanageable danger zone made us go the other way. I'm sure Parry and maybe Ben have other comments on their recollection, too.

Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (7 of 8)
Author: Parry Loeffler
Date: Tuesday, June 09, 2009 09:20 AM

VERN - the time was just after 9:30am. With the right route, it's tough to tell if you'd get hit with chunks or just the spray of exploded crystals. I didn't notice a lot of big chunks on the side of that ramp that was away from under the cliffs, however that doesn't mean they didn't actually HIT that area and explode, leaving no trace there (also note that lower in my message, some people did claim to see chunks across the entire ramp). But there were for certain visible chunks intact closer to the cliff, so who knows. In talking after the fact, we figured that we'd probably - at the minimum - have been blown over and maybe tumbled a bit by the force and hit with a few chunks of some size rather than just crystals. Put it this way, I'd wear a helmet if going through there, I'd stay away from the cliffs - but not too close to the crevasses and edge in case you got blown in that direction. Sooo, I probably just wouldn't do it going up... unless I was there really early... maybe. The one thing is that during the couple of hours we were in that area, that was the only serac fall of major consequence. We just happened to be right in its path at the time. Very dicey.

BILL - Going down, we did discuss using that route for a few minutes while looking down at it. Since in going down you're exposed to the serac fall for much less time, ummm... providing you don't wipe out of course ;-) Some members of our party said they could see chunks spread over the entire width of the ramp, suggesting that skiing though it could be tricky (and slow you down significantly). I couldn't see that personally, but I don't have the sharpest vision... in any case, that's one big reason why we decided against it. However, once at the bottom, looking up, there were tracks with turns indicating that others had done that route... how it actually was is, of course, unknown.

So, the thing is, that Athabasca headwall needs to be taken seriously. It does look pretty benign from the highway, but once in it, it's really "large terrain" as you can see from some of my photos. It's fraught with crevasses and serac fall danger. Treat it with respect, be on your toes.

Topic: What's it like to be caught in serac fall? (8 of 8)
Author: Jp S
Date: Thursday, June 11, 2009 12:33 PM

Great pics. That glacier is a place with serious hazard!

There was a substantial ice tower at the start of the seracs when we were there. It looked pretty unstable. I suspect that is what fell.

I've considered the lower cliff to the right of the serac fall as a safe area to catch a breather before sprinting across the seracs. I wonder if it is? The photos show that there appears to be some seracs above those cliffs.

Even if the debris looked like it was mostly before the skier's track, I am sure that more than a few seriously unfriendly pieces crossed the ski tracks. Both times that I was up there, there was evidence of recent debris crossing the ski tracks from much smaller serac falls.

I think Vern is trying to get at the question of whether seracs are more stable at night or while the day is cool. I haven't found much of anything to say that they are. They certainly can fall anytime day or night.

Common sense seems to be that they might be more likely to fall in hot temperatures (extremely cold temperatures?) and around extreme shifts from hot to cold (or vice versa). If common sense is right (and it might not be) and seracs are safer during stable weather or cool weather, are they 50% safer or only 5% safer? There is absolutely no reliable information on that point.