Earlier this winter, three men went snowboarding in Crystal Mountain’s backcountry. They haven’t been seen since. What happened? And what makes the backcountry so alluring?
Joseph Schaaf was the last person to see Kevin Carter, Devlin Williams, and Phillip Hollins alive.
On Friday, November 30, 2007, Carter, Williams, and Hollins—roommates and coworkers—set out for a weekend of backcountry snowboarding near the Crystal Mountain Ski Area. It was an adventure they'd been planning for months. After an uneventful November, the snow was suddenly falling heavily, and the Cascade Mountains were covered in fresh, untracked powder. During the summer and fall months, the men had built a lean-to shelter near Union Creek, a few miles southeast of the resort, and by all accounts that was their planned destination. But they never made it to the shelter and they never came home.
That Saturday, Schaaf was out ski touring on the slopes above Union Creek with a small group. Tall, lanky, and soft-spoken, Schaaf often acts as an unofficial guide for friends. An avid backcountry skier since he was 14 years old, Schaaf, now 46, lives just north of Crystal Mountain in the microscopic town of Greenwater. He knows the area intimately, having navigated the terrain's ridgelines, creek beds, and bowl-laden basins for decades. While still within striking distance of Crystal Mountain's lifts, Schaaf's group was still in true backcountry: accessible only to those willing to use snowshoes, touring skis, or split snowboards powered by their own legs to get there—no ski patrol, no avalanche control.
Three skiers in Schaaf's group had tired and started heading back to the car, while Schaaf and a friend forged ahead, working on a track they broke in on their touring skis so they could return to the area more easily the following week. It was exhausting work. Avalanches were a concern that day—the mountains had already received a couple feet of snow in a very short amount of time, and it was piling on top of an unusually unstable base. The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center, which releases updated forecasts every morning, set the avalanche danger rating at moderate-to-high on Saturday, December 1, and predicted it would reach a rating of extreme on Sunday with a large storm blowing in.
While Schaaf and his friend were debating pushing forward for an hour or so more to reach nearby Pickhandle Basin, they saw a group of three snowboarders down below them, about to cut across their tracks.
"They all had on backpacks the size of a spare tire on a 4Runner," Schaaf recalls. He remembers thinking, "Where the hell are they going?"
Schaaf yelled and waved his arms, trying to get their attention. He wanted them to avoid the trail he had spent the past few hours creating; three snowboarders heading straight downhill can wipe out a good chunk of the trail. But the wind had picked up and the snowboarders below did not hear him. Two of the three snowboarders took off down the hill, their boards arcing through the deep powder, cutting directly across Schaaf's trail. But the last of the three spotted Schaaf. He briefly looked up the slope at Schaaf and his friend, as if trying to figure out what the men were saying; then, realizing his friends were leaving, the third snowboarder shrugged and turned back around, pushing off on his board and disappearing out of sight.
The three friends were supposed to return home the following day, Sunday, December 2. When they did not show up that evening, the Pierce County Sheriff's office was alerted and kicked off a massive search effort Monday morning. Over 25 search-and-rescue volunteers with avalanche beacon receivers, trained dogs, and two helicopters were summoned to find the missing boarders. Everyone was hopeful they'd made it to their shelter and were huddled down trying to outlast the storms that had dumped over two feet of snow on them in two days. But dangerous avalanche conditions and continued severe weather hampered the search efforts. On Thursday, four days after they'd been reported missing, search-and-rescue teams found the shelter, but the men weren't in it and didn't appear to have been there since the snow started falling. On Saturday, December 8, the search was called off. The consensus was that they had been buried, likely under multiple avalanches.
When I heard the news that some backcountry snowboarders were missing, I looked at the weather and thought, "What the hell were they doing out there?"
That question hovered in my mind, mixed with alternating feelings of dread and hope. Online forums frequented by avid skiers and boarders—especially backcountry enthusiasts—were overflowing with respectful, somber responses; yet they, too, couldn't resist making analysis of the snowpack, the weather conditions, and the avalanche forecasts. I have some backcountry experience, but hardly enough to execute a multiday trip. I mostly stick to the kind of backcountry (often called "slackcountry" by the purists) you can access from a lift that still gets some oversight from the ski patrol, like Alpental's high traverse out to Pineapple Bowl and Crystal Mountain's Southback or Northway terrain. But I was firm in my inexpert opinion: No one should have been out in those conditions.
And then I found out that the snowboarders weren't out there alone, that Schaaf's group was out there too, yet they got home alive.
This has been the deadliest avalanche season in Washington State history since 11 climbers were killed in a single accident on Mt. Rainier in 1981. The 10-year average for avalanche-related deaths in our state is two, a number passed that weekend at the very beginning of the season when Carter, Williams, and Hollins disappeared—and they were only three of five avalanche-related fatalities in Washington State that weekend. Over the next month, another four people died in avalanches, including a 13-year-old girl who was out hiking on a popular trail off Highway 2 with a large group that was caught by an unusual avalanche at a low elevation below a cliff-rimmed area.
Paul Baugher, director of both Crystal Mountain's ski patrol and the Northwest Avalanche Institute, says he hasn't seen conditions this treacherous in our region before.
"Our snowpack this year is not what people are used to. It's been persistently unstable from the beginning." Baugher is the quintessential mountain man: rough-hewn with a square jaw set under a brushy mustache. He's guided and instructed thousands of people through every possible alpine experience. Baugher recalls that the season got off to a slow start, with only a small amount of snow leading into late November. That low snowpack endured numerous rainstorms and shifting temperatures which, according to Baugher, set it up like a big pile of layered potato chips.
Then the heavy snows came on in late November. Baugher describes the effect as "parking an Oldsmobile on top of the potato chips." More snow (from storms and blown by wind) creates extra stress, or load, on the existing weak snowpack. The snowpack can only adjust to additional stress at a limited rate; if it happens too quickly, the stress becomes too much for the snowpack and it has to release the load. That release is an avalanche.
The Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center forecasts avalanche danger on a daily basis, describing the expected conditions based on a host of climate and snowpack data combined with the incoming weather forecast. When the three friends set out on Friday evening for their weekend trip, the avalanche rating was moderate-to-considerable through Saturday, which meant that caution was definitely merited. But on Saturday, an avalanche watch was announced and the forecast was upgraded to extreme for Sunday, meaning that either natural or human-triggered avalanches were essentially guaranteed.
By both Baugher and Schaaf's accounts, the avalanche risk was manageable on Saturday. "There was sunshine and powder [on Saturday]," Baugher says. "Anyone who was out and got down by 4:00 p.m. was just fine."
Schaaf, before starting out that day, analyzed the snowpack and concluded that it was stable. "But only for the present snow load," Schaaf remembers. "The whole place would slide if loaded with more than four more inches of denser snow." The storm that started on Saturday afternoon dropped over 30 inches on the Cascades in just two days. So much for the Oldsmobile—that's like dropping a fleet of Hummers out there.
"Everyone knew that storm was coming," says Baugher. "It was well forecasted. Not just on Friday, but on Thursday we were talking about this storm." But the weather forecasts from earlier in the week—well before the snowboarders left for their trip—predicted that the storm would ramp up late in the day Sunday. It started blowing on Saturday instead. When Carter, Williams, and Hollins left, they thought they'd be fine through Sunday. But conditions in the mountains can change rapidly. Not just from day to day, but from hour to hour.
In any avalanche safety class, you learn about the avalanche trifecta: precipitation, wind, and temperature. That weekend, on top of an already weak snowpack, snowfall and wind were increasing, along with the rate of precipitation. Temperatures were also moving from cold to warm, creating more stress and instability. Baugher doesn't mince words when recounting the situation: "The people who were out during the day on Saturday before the storm blew in, they had a great day and came home. But the people who spent the night out... well, we had five fatalities related to people spending that night out."
The same Sunday that Carter, Williams, and Hollins were supposed to return home, three hikers got caught in an avalanche near Snow Lake, east of the Alpental ski area at Snoqualmie Pass. Two died, and one survived by dragging himself into a tent with a broken leg and waiting for search and rescue to find him. Of the two people killed, one was his wife, the other their good friend.
The stories in the daily papers during the search for the three missing snowboarders emphasized how bad the weather was, how many people had died in avalanches already this winter, and how risky the backcountry is.
But what wasn't covered is why people venture out there in the first place. The media is obsessed with covering the risks, but rarely discusses what the rewards are. The public—mostly people who aren't likely to try backcountry snowboarding or skiing—only hears about the backcountry when people die or are injured. But people play and survive in the backcountry regularly. More importantly, people take risks in everyday life far away from the dangers of the mountains, and many of those risky behaviors are much more likely to kill than backcountry snowboarding. People drink, smoke, or eat themselves into early graves. All of those behaviors offer some form of reward; otherwise people wouldn't take the risk in the first place.
So what is the reward of the backcountry? "It offers me peace of mind and serenity," says Eric Houtkooper, an avid backcountry skier I found in a forum at www.turns-all-year.com, a website for backcountry enthusiasts. "The backcountry is an escape from reality, from the frustrations and rigors of life." It is a Narnia, or Hogwarts, for adults: a slightly mystical place separate from the rules, laws, and regulations of daily existence. Whether you exit the boundaries of a ski resort or hike miles to a remote location, the exhilaration, freedom, and tranquility offered by the backcountry is addictive. In the backcountry, you feel more alive because you're wholly responsible for your own survival. Surrounded by beauty that could kill, every moment is heightened. Combine that with thousands of feet of untouched powder, and the draw for any skier or boarder becomes even more apparent. I've experienced the heart-racing, otherworldly pleasure of turns taken in knee-deep powder far away from the rest of the world; I've never tried the drug ecstasy, but I suspect the effect is similar.
There is one other important, albeit less stirring, reason for seeking out the backcountry: It's free. As resort ticket prices continue to climb (a single day at the Summit at Snoqualmie costs $48, which is cheap compared to most resorts), in-bounds skiing is increasingly a luxury activity; by many accounts, Carter, Williams, and Hollins had started venturing outside the resorts when they tired of trying to scrape together the funds for lift tickets. As bike messengers, it's not hard to imagine them skipping out on the C-note price tag for a weekend on the slopes when that's often a whole day's income.
A great deal of attention was paid to the fact that the three friends were or all had been bike messengers. (Technically, Carter was a bike messenger for Fleetfoot Messenger Service while Hollins drove a delivery van for Fleetfoot; Williams had been a bike messenger for Fleetfoot in the past.) An undercurrent of judgment characterized these reports. It wasn't overt, but the point was driven home: These three men were "risk takers." Of course they were risk takers—that's the only way they could even entertain the idea of entering the backcountry. But that doesn't mean that doing so is reckless or that the rewards weren't worth the risks. Anyone interested in the backcountry is naturally more of a risk taker than someone who is inclined to get his kicks on the couch playing Wii. But there's a huge spectrum of risk when it comes to the backcountry, and every person who chooses to go there has to evaluate how far they're willing to go.
One weekend in early January, I went out to Crystal to meet Joseph Schaaf. I wanted him to take me back to where he last saw the three snowboarders. I wanted to see that haunting spot, covered in more snow than the mountains have seen in over 30 years. But Schaaf refused. My backcountry experience is minimal and the conditions were too dangerous. So dangerous in his mind, that he's been limiting his own backcountry outings this season. I was relegated to in-bounds, lift skiing only. And yet, I still managed to push the limits of my own tolerance for risk.
I was skiing with my husband and two of our friends; all three are snowboarders and advanced riders—fast, hard-charging guys who love to seek out steep and deep terrain. On mellow days we'll stop a lot, bullshit, and play around. But that day we were charging around the mountain like a pack of wolves. We were chasing the same high other snow addicts have been after ever since we started measuring this year's powder in feet instead of inches: making fresh tracks. We headed straight for the new Northway lift, which grants access to an area of Crystal that used to be backcountry.
We decided to hug the resort boundary, where fewer people had been. We were flying through thick trees, whooping and hollering. But we took precautions: In double-black terrain, our group was adamant about keeping visual contact and sticking together, especially because the heavy snowfall this year means that even in-bounds, someone could easily fall into a tree well and suffocate. So when our friend Kevin, out front, popped underneath the bright orange boundary rope and kept going with our other friend in tow, I plunged along behind them. My husband followed. In a season when nine people had died in avalanches, and on a day when the backcountry forecast was high-to-extreme, we'd just jumped the rope and entered avalanche territory.
I thought Kevin was going to work his way to the right and get back to the boundary rope. But his trajectory kept moving more downward and over toward a ridge on our left-hand side, so I finally called out to him and we all collected together. And then we looked down below us: thousands of feet of untouched, pillowy, thigh-deep powder. My God, we wanted to hit that. But my hair was standing up; ski patrol doesn't do avalanche control back here, I kept thinking. This is serious.
The group discussed what to do. I said we needed to climb back up. My husband knew the ravine we were looking down into; we'd end up way the hell down the road and have to walk miles back to our car. That argument seemed more convincing to the group than my concerns about avalanche danger, but I'd take what I could get. After about 10 minutes of lung-busting work to hike back up, we had to cross an open, steep slope below a large boulder bordered by a small group of trees. Classic avalanche terrain. As we traversed it gingerly and spaced well apart (to keep the whole group from getting swept away if someone triggered a slab), the irony was not lost on me: I was in an avalanche area of Crystal backcountry researching three boarders who died in a Crystal backcountry avalanche.
I would later find out that a man died a year ago in that same part of the backcountry. He'd been skiing the Northway area all morning and concluding it was safe to venture out of bounds. He died in an avalanche.
Whenever someone is reported missing or dead in the mountains, I take it like a punch in the gut. I'm surprised I haven't lost someone close to me already, knowing the people I do. I've always lived near mountains, and am drawn to people who are adventurous, outgoing risk takers. So in a way, I felt like I already had some sense of who Carter, Williams, and Hollins were.
The papers gave us a bare outline of their lives. Kevin Carter, 26 and originally from Idaho, had been skiing since he was 4. He worked at Fleetfoot, drove a four-door Subaru with a snowboard rack, and used to sport a Mohawk. Devlin Williams, 29, who no longer worked for Fleetfoot, grew up in Shoreline. Phillip Hollins, a 41-year-old Florida transplant, attended liberal-arts college Harvey Mudd in California before moving to Seattle, loved to play rec-league soccer, and was a caretaker for his 72-year-old blind mother.
A former high-school classmate of Williams told me that he was always on his bike and while most kids were getting into video games, he was "active and enthusiastic" about being outdoors. Gary Brose, Carter and Hollins's boss at Fleetfoot, told me that they were both fairly quiet, and Carter in particular tended to keep to himself. Both were hardworking, and extremely well respected by their coworkers. But that didn't really tell me who they were—only their friends and family could tell their stories with the respect and depth they deserve.
I tried to speak to their friends because I didn't just want to tick off the surface details about their lives. And in telling their stories, I wanted to put faces not only to these three guys who died in the backcountry but to all the people who experience unbounded joy there. That joy called to Carter, Williams, and Hollins; it was part of who they were.
But Carter, Williams, and Hollins's faithful friends have kept quiet out of fear that the media will get the story wrong or cause more pain. No coworkers or friends I spoke to were willing to tell me anything; they declined to put me in touch with family members. It was a pact of silence that I could not break through. I was simultaneously baffled and humbled—the love and loyalty they so clearly have for their friends is fierce and limitless.
Then again, if friends of mine had died under similar circumstances, I would want people to know who they were and why they were there. I would want people who shared their passion for the backcountry to know how they might avoid the same fate. Which leads to, for some of these men's friends, another reason for silence. Talking about how it happened—talking about what went wrong—can be seen as assigning blame.
"You need to talk about it," says Schaaf. "I'm not saying that they weren't smart people, or not necessarily experienced, but they might have made just one bad decision. I've made so many bad decisions." Schaaf has hung upside down by his skis in a crevasse; he's skied off cliffs not knowing where he was going to land. "I've done some really dumb stuff, and in truth I've gotten lucky."
The hardest thing to acknowledge after people die in the backcountry is this: Being caught in an avalanche is not an accident. It is the result of a combination of terrain, conditions, and human judgment. Your brain, not an avalanche beacon, is the most important piece of equipment to bring into the backcountry. Schaaf carries all the requisite gear, but believes that "one of the key dynamics for survival in the backcountry is not allowing yourself to become too complacent and comfortable."
Avalanche beacons breed complacency. At the end of every article in the daily papers about the rescue efforts, there were one or two sentences encouraging people to bring an avalanche beacon with them when entering the backcountry. They reported that the three friends carried "at least one" beacon with them. This is where this tragedy becomes exasperating: A shiny new beacon, a shovel, and a probe do not make for a safe backcountry trip. If you head into the backcountry believing that your beacon will protect you, odds are good that someone will end up using that beacon to recover your body.
Close to 90 percent of avalanche survivors recount that they observed avalanche indicators but chose not to alter their route. Additionally, group decision-making dynamics are a common factor discussed after avalanche fatalities; whether it is people's egos, the giddy high delivered by powder, or even the desire to take an easier route, people have an amazing ability to ignore the facts—even experienced people.
The accident report from the Snow Lake avalanche near Alpental on the same Sunday—the avalanche that left one man with a broken leg and killed his wife and their friend—shows that this group took a physically easier route even after discussing that it was more dangerous. "It was obvious that the steep slope before them was... significantly loaded but the very strong wind made staying on the more exposed ridgeline uncomfortable and they began to descend onto the loaded slope," reads the report. "The survivor was the most experienced of the group and was in the lead, hoping to trigger a sluff ahead of him and relieve some of the slope's avalanche potential. He stated that they began to descend in single file and reports hearing an exclamation from behind by one or both of the other party members just prior to being hit from behind by a wave of snow."
"You've got to know when to say no," Schaaf urges. "It doesn't matter if it's high avalanche danger, low danger, considerable danger... you're 'considerably dead.' I've been places where I'm halfway up and thinking 'I don't know about this' and turned around and gone home."
Carter, Williams, and Hollins were experienced. That's what so many people said to me. That's what the papers reported. Hollins had taken avalanche safety classes (perhaps the others had; I couldn't confirm that), and they'd all been out in the backcountry before. But the mountains don't give a damn if you're experienced. On the Sunday that the three snowboarders were supposed to return home, Paul Baugher and fellow ski patroller Chris Morin got caught in a very small slide that almost killed Morin. On that day, Baugher, who has decades of ski-patrol experience and teaches some of the state's most well-regarded avalanche safety and snow science classes, made a decision that almost killed him and his colleague. He agreed to venture out to the Northway area to support urgent safety work that would allow the new lift to open early in the season; it was a classic risk/reward scenario. The avalanche risk was extreme, and he knew it, but the reward for the resort was high.
The pair was stopped in a shallow depression under the lift; they were getting their skis back on when a small slough of snow, just three to four inches, broke off and fell down from a cliff band above them. On a regular day, it would have been a nonevent. But they were waist-deep in snow and that small slide knocked them both over. "I felt a little snow coming down on top of me, then a little more, and then the lights went out," Baugher recalls. He was able to dig himself out; Morin was totally buried. It was a massive struggle in that much snow, but Baugher got his skis on and made his way over to Morin. Meanwhile, Morin was able to punch one of his gloves through the snow. That helped Baugher locate Morin's head, and haul him backward from the snow by his pack. The whole event took only about seven minutes, but by then Morin was already having trouble breathing. A few minutes more and he might have died.
This year has brought the backcountry into the foreground. Given the insane amount of snow that just kept coming and coming during January and February, at times even Interstate 90 was effectively the backcountry. When you have to worry about getting caught in an avalanche while driving on a busy interstate, you realize that risks are everywhere, whether we're aware of them or not. So even the most prepared people with beacons, radios, and years of experience will go out into the backcountry and never come back, just like every day some people go out in cars or airplanes and never come back.
The backcountry is the antithesis of the modern American existence. Nothing is satisfaction guaranteed. You must actively collect data and be willing to reevaluate and assume nothing. The backcountry is the purview of empiricists—leave faith and prayer at the boundary ropes; they will not save you beyond that point. In the backcountry, you cannot want what is not true to be true. Kevin, my boundary-line-jumping friend, has a new mantra he picked up after taking an avalanche safety class in late January: "See the mountains for what they are, not what you want them to be."
My imagination replays that Saturday afternoon over and over. What if that third snowboarder—Carter? Williams? Hollins?—had stopped when he saw Schaaf? Could he have signaled to his other friends to wait? What if that third boarder had talked to Schaaf? What if he had called to the other two, told them to hike back up, and discussed the newest forecast with Schaaf? Maybe they'd heard the reports earlier in the week and believed the storm would blow in Sunday, just as they were getting into their car and heading home. Perhaps Schaaf could have explained it was moving in sooner.
What if, maybe, perhaps... the uncertainties and unanswered questions are agonizing. Even in the spring, when the record-breaking snow has melted, making way for summer hikers, when the three friends are found, we will still have to wrestle with uncertainty and the friends and families of these three men will have to revisit their grief. But Carter, Williams, and Hollins will have finally come home from the backcountry and those who love them will hopefully find some sense of peace.
And countless other people, myself included, will carry their memory with us the next time we head into the backcountry.