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The Human Factor: Chapter Two

Wednesday, Septembre 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 second chapter of a five-part series exploring five separate slides, the editors of Powder elucidate The Human Factor.


Photograph: Nicolas Teichrob


Nickel or Dime? — by David Page

IT WAS THE LAST DAY OF 2013 when Jake Merrill and his girlfriend, Katie Griffith, set out from Bellingham, Washington, in separate vehicles packed with ski gear and their dog, Cedar, bound for the Wallowas. Merrill had just graduated from Western Washington University with a degree in Outdoor Recreation and Leadership. He’d heard about Wallowa Alpine Huts (WAH) from his friend Ryan Ghelfi, who’d guided there the year before. He’d emailed a resume earlier in the fall, highlighting his month-long glacier travel course in Alaska with NOLS, his winter alpine training with John Minier’s Mount Baker Mountain Guides, and a 10-week professional internship with Larry Goldie and North Cascades Mountain Guides out of Mazama, where he’d covered everything from tweeting to complex rescue techniques, as well as cheerily humping up a glaciated volcano with a 100-pound pack containing, among other sundries, a freshly baked chocolate cake.

In November, he’d gotten an email from WAH owner Connelly Brown offering him his first bona fide (read: paid) guiding job. “He was all fired up,” Goldie recalled this past summer, reclining on a couch outside his attic office in Mazama. Griffith lay curled up at the other end. “If Katie wasn't gonna go, he hoped their relationship would survive it, but he was going.”

“I was like, ‘Sure, I’ll go. Why not?’” said Griffith. She figured they’d both work for three months down in Oregon, save some money, then travel in Thailand or Nicaragua for a while before starting jobs at Outward Bound that summer.

January was tough for the couple, with no room of their own to get away from the others and little snow. “There were all these new guides—like nine of them,” Griffith said. “And no work.” In early February, when Merrill saw his name on the online schedule as tail guide for a four-night trip heading up on the 9th, he was over the moon. Not Aspirant, not Powder Slave, but Assistant Guide! He wondered why he’d been chosen over others with more experience, like Ryan Matz. But he wasn’t going to argue. This was what he’d always wanted to do. This was what he was here for. And as Matz would later write to me, “Although he probably wouldn't say it, he knew he’d earned the spot.”

In the aftermath of the accident, Matz and Ghelfi asked themselves repeatedly: Would it have gone differently if they’d been out there in Merrill’s place? “Every time, we come to the same chilling conclusion,” Matz wrote. “Probably not. Merrill was likely the most cautious guide working for WAH, if not the most cautious that I personally know, and if he could let this happen, we certainly could have as well.”

Looking beyond the hard sequence of events put together by avalanche investigators, we can only imagine how it went down, psychologically. It’s quick, probably not even on the level of conscious thought: You’re standing on a ridge in blowing snow. You have no intention of dying anytime soon, or letting your clients be harmed in any way. You know there’s a persistent weak layer, but you haven’t seen anything move. You’ve done one good lap already on a similar aspect. You’ve dug another pit and the slab seemed stable, even on a 36-degree slope. Your co-guide seems OK with it; the clients are fired up. Yes, there’s an obvious avalanche path to the left, a deep gully that makes a nasty terrain trap. But if you stay out of it, if everyone stays on the open slope where the trees are, where you've skied before on other occasions, everything should be good...right?

To read the rest of The Human Factor: Chapter 2, visit