Avalanche danger, Part 3: As backcountry travel increases, so do avalanche education programs
February 18, 2014
Editor's note: This is the third and final installment in a series about avalanche danger.
For those willing to go a little farther than a ski resort, both in distance and in risk, the rewards in the backcountry can be exhilarating. Mike Thompson knows the feeling all too well, and he has almost lost his life for it.
Thompson lives in Colorado Springs now but once called Vail and the surrounding mountain ranges his home. It's easy for him to understand why people take risks in skiing.
"It's the love of the backcountry," he said. "The feeling of getting back there and skiing in a pure environment. It isn't man-made. Just that experience that you have draws you to that."
Rebecca Selig, a big-mountain skier in Vail, knows the feeling. She found herself caught in a Jan. 7 East Vail avalanche that took the life of Vail founder Pete Seibert Sr.'s grandson, Tony Seibert. The experience has changed her feelings about heading into the backcountry, but not so much so that she'll stop going.
"When I felt snow flying over my head and the ground sink below my feet I knew I was powerless as I was torn off the tree I was hugging, being thrown over a cliff band," she said. "I had a moment when I thought I was for sure going to die. I had another moment of clarity when I felt a closeness with my mother, who just passed this last August. When I landed on my own two feet with one bent pole after being tossed over and over on a little ledge with another 20 feet of rock below me, I knew I had survived."
Similarly, Arabella Beavers talks of the spiritual feeling she felt on the day she was caught in the avalanche near Independence Pass last year. Her mother was not well, and she knew she didn't have much time left with her.
"On that day, I was keen to get out into the wild," Beavers said. "I was trying to deal with the fact that I knew I was about to lose my mom. It was a very spiritual feeling. … I was going through severe grief and loss, but it really taught me the value to life."
From 1950 to 2013, the amount of avalanche fatalities in the United States have climbed, but the increase has been much slower than the increase in backcountry travel, said Dale Atkins, past director of the American Avalanche Association.
"Twenty years ago, you (had) to be a really good skier to get onto steep enough slopes to get yourself into trouble," Atkins said. "With the improvement in skis, skins, bindings and boots, it got to be a lot more fun to walk uphill and ski down. All of a sudden terrain that was inaccessible to the masses is open for skiing and riding, and snowmobiling, too. Machines got more powerful and lighter, with improved track designs and compounds."
When equipment helps propel skiers and snowboarders to the next level, though, sometimes they can get ahead of their game. Skiers often ski the same slope 100 times and think it's safe because nothing has ever happened before.
"They think, 'we beat the mountain on a dangerous day; we did the right things,'" Atkins said. "But they need to ask themselves, 'How lucky were we today?' Eventually — not always — their luck runs out."
Atkins has watched the new generation of backcountry skiers and snowboarders seek out dangerous areas rather than avoid them, a shift from the generation prior, he said.
"Which is fine, it's wonderful, it's a great place to ski and ride, but they're charging out on to steep, avalanche-prone terrain during periods of significant instability in terrain with high consequences," he said.
Atkins said people were trying to do all the right things in at least half of the fatal avalanche accidents in the United States over the past five years. They had the right gear, tried to travel in the right ways and thought they were managing risks.
"What they weren't managing was the uncertainty," he said.
Uncertainty is a concept Beavers has become more familiar with since her avalanche experience. She tries to manage it responsibly by recognizing that her knowledge, education and experience in the backcountry might not always be enough because Mother Nature ultimately is in charge.
"It hasn't dampened my love for the backcountry or my love for being out there skiing these beautiful areas," she said. "It has made me think, 'here's the bigger picture: We're skiing this line, but what's above us, to the right of us, to the next ridge?'"
That's exactly the kind of thinking people like Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, want backcountry skiers to keep fresh in their minds. Over the past several years, more and more avalanche-education classes are popping up throughout the mountain region.
Project Zero is a new public messaging campaign with support from SnowSports Industries America, the American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education, Colorado Avalanche Information Center, the National Ski Areas Association and the National Ski Patrol, among other groups. The effort's goal is a seemingly simple idea: eliminate avalanche fatalities.
The program is still in development as organizers gather information from focus groups around the West, including one that happened in Vail earlier this month. A larger scale program is expected to begin next winter, according to a recent statement.
"Backcountry riding is the fastest growing segment in the winter marketplace right now," said Bruce Edgerly, the SnowSports Industries America representative on the Project Zero board. "While it is exciting to see more people embracing the backcountry, we also feel a responsibility to provide context for these activities through a strong and consistent safety message."
Unfortunately, sometimes the safety message can fall on deaf ears, especially when the allure of fresh powder hinders smart decision making. There have been nine avalanche deaths in the United States this month, including four in Colorado. The Colorado Avalanche Information Center issued avalanche advisories and warnings leading up to and on Feb. 10, the day two backcountry travelers died in separate incidents. One skier was killed in the backcountry near Keystone, and a snowmobilier died in an avalanche near Crested Butte. The center also issued a forecast last week warning of unusual and unpredictable avalanche conditions throughout Colorado, but seven skiers headed into the backcountry west of Twin Lakes and were caught in an avalanche on the eastern side of Independence Pass Saturday. Two of them were killed.
Never stop learning
Regional ski patrols and ski companies have started doing more in the way of avalanche training. Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said that while avalanche education isn't the ski company's role, it does try to do what it can.
Skico has provided one of its hotel properties in town, the Limelight, as a venue for avalanche-safety seminars, for example.
The Vail Ski Patrol also has an avalanche-awareness series it sponsors along with the Beaver Creek Ski Patrol. The first two sessions this year have had great turnouts, said U.S. Forest Service Ranger Dave Neely.
"We recommend people to go to these events," Neely said. "You never stop learning."
The survivor of an East Vail avalanche in 2007 wrote to Colorado Avalanch Information Center about his experience in a letter posted on the information center website's accident investigation page. His name remained anonymous, but his message is poignant.
"In the past week, I've been thinking a lot about the decision-making process that led to the accident," he wrote. I think that this is a red flag in terms of avalanche safety, basing a decision on experience from years past rather than making a critical evaluation of the terrain in front of you. It was my most critical mistake. … I think that's where group dynamics come in. I was with such a strong group that I probably had a tendency to let my guard down a little bit, figuring that they were thinking critically about the terrain and snow conditions and so I didn't have to think quite so much. This illustrates how communication within a group is critical for sound decision making."
A group that doesn't communicate or have a plan is a group that Beavers won't be skiing with. She knows her group's pre-planning saved their lives last year and now has a few basic criteria for choosing where to ski and who to ski with: Have a detailed plan, including a what-if plan and escape route, and choose your friends wisely.
"Group dynamics will be the most important decision," she said.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects editor for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.