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The Human Factor: Chapter Four

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
Despite hours of training and years of experience, it happens. Somewhere between digging pits and assessing terrain traps a lapse in good judgment occurs, and avalanches entrap even the most experienced skiers. And we are left asking, why? In the fourth chapter of a five-part series exploring five separate slides, the editors of Powder elucidate The Human Factor.


Photograph: Jim Harris


And Then it Bites—by David Page

ADAM CLARK is a world-class ski photographer who lives down the hill from McLean in Salt Lake City, in a scruffy old suburban neighborhood set at the base of Big Cottonwood Canyon. His friends call him A.C. He has an overgrown apricot tree in his backyard, a deck in the front with no railing that features two reclining camp chairs with an unobstructed sunset view, a spare room for his camera gear and another in the basement that he lends or rents to pro athletes and other friends passing through. Like McLean, Clark has skied all over the world. He’s spent enough time in big terrain to know his way around avalanche paths. According to his editors, he’s not only one of the best photographers in the business, he’s also one of the most thoughtful and cautious.

Last winter, on a sunny day in early December, Clark got up early and drove to Alta. He skied all day with friends and shot some photos in 16 to 24 inches of blower pow. “It was all time,” he told me. “All smiles.” In the afternoon, he met up with Kalen Thorien, another local pro, and Amie Engerbretson, who came out from drought-ridden Tahoe to host the 14th Annual Powder Awards. They got some great shots off the top of the Wildcat lift. The light just kept getting better. “We were on the wave of a perfect powder day,” Clark recalled. “We didn’t want to quit.”

He suggested they head to Grizzly Gulch, whose north-facing lines just above the parking lot catch late afternoon light. Amie was ready. This is sweet, she thought. Kalen got a POWDER cover shot there in 2012. And so did Caroline Gleich the following year. It seemed like a recipe for magic.

They stopped by the car to grab their backcountry packs. Clark didn’t have his: no beacon, no shovel, no probe. He’d read the forecast that morning, calling for extreme avalanche danger on north-facing slopes above 8,000 feet but hadn’t planned on going out of bounds. He didn’t think of Grizzly Gulch as avalanche terrain. It was so small, so close. He’d skied it hundreds of times, ever since he was a kid, and had never seen it slide. And yet in retrospect the terrain trap is deadly obvious, a series of steep rollovers funneling into a deep creek bed.

“What was I thinking?” he said to me later. “How did I get to this conclusion that we should be skiing on this terrain that nobody should’ve been skiing on?”

It wasn’t even a 10-minute hike from the car. At the top of the boot track, Amie and Kalen got ready, and then Kalen realized that she didn’t have her beacon in her pack. Clark skied a few turns down to set up below a clump of pines. There was an avalanche course in progress just above them, on the slope facing the ski area. Across the ravine, a pair of backcountry skiers paused to watch. One of them pulled out his phone to get some video. “That is not a good slope to ski,” he said to his buddy.

Clark called 10 seconds on the radio. Amie had offered to let Kalen go first because she’d done it before and knew exactly where to sink the turn. But Kalen wanted Amie to get the shot. “Dropping!” shouted Amie, straightlining down along the ridge, under the powerlines, to get speed for the turn. With Clark’s camera clicking away, Amie nailed the perfect deep-pow turn in the perfect spot. And then, with all her momentum scrubbed, the slope shattered beneath her.

To read the rest of The Human Factor: Chapter 4, visit