Avalanche series: Backcountry enthusiasts take big risks for deep, untracked powder
February 18, 2014
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a series on avalanche danger.
It was the kind of powder day where pillows of fluffy snow call out to winter-sports enthusiasts. The kind of day worth calling in sick to work for because you never know how many more days like it there might be in the season.
Edwin and Davis LaMair, brothers who attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, began their ski day on Dec. 22 in sunny Vail thinking about the foot of new snow that had fallen over the previous 48 hours. Edwin, 22, and Davis, 19, headed into the East Vail backcountry, where they had skied many times before. They did a morning run through deep, fresh snow and couldn’t resist going back for seconds.
The weather had changed since the morning, though. The skies went from sunny to overcast, and the wind had picked up slightly, Edwin recalls. The weather was pleasant with light snow and relatively moderate temperatures for late December.
Moments later while skiing what he thought was a perfect line, Edwin felt the mountain crumble, taking him with it.
He slid over a cliff band, and it wasn’t long before he was partially buried in the snow.
“I was pretty panicked at that point,” Edwin said. “I was worried more snow was going to come over my head.”
The next thing he saw was his brother coming to his rescue. The helmet camera Davis wore that day captured the avalanche and subsequent rescue, giving skiers and snowboarders across the country a rare glimpse into the dangers that often lurk in the backcountry.
“The more I reflect on it, I think about the mistakes I made, but it’s not like I did anything really stupid,” Edwin said. “It makes me really aware of how unpredictable avalanches are.”
Edwin, Davis and another friend set out that day with Level 1 avalanche certification as well as backcountry experience.
“We’ve been back in East Vail a lot, so it wasn’t like we didn’t know what we were doing or weren’t experienced,” Edwin said. “We knew how to respond, which is part of the reason I think it turned out the way it did.”
Edwin is out for the rest of the season because he tore knee ligaments in the accident that day. He has had a lot of time to think about the avalanche that nearly killed him and knows it’s time well-spent.
“I’m definitely more cautious. I guess I’m more aware of the group dynamics and decision-making,” Edwin said. “I will spend time while I’m injured learning more about avalanche safety, maybe take a Level 2 course.”
How much experience is enough?
In 2012, an avalanche near Stevens Pass in Washington caught a group of ski-industry professionals in its fury. The group was large — 16 skiers in all headed into a backcountry area called Tunnel Creek adjacent to the Stevens Pass Ski Area — with a collective knowledge and experience that created a dangerous groupthink. Survivors who later spoke of reservations they had that day about heading into the backcountry given the snow conditions and the size of the group also spoke of the reassuring feeling they had because of who was in the group.
The head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour, the ESPN.com freeskiing editor, lifelong backcountry skiers in the area and competitive skiers were just a few of the people in the group. Everyone had a direct ski industry connection. They were without a doubt an experienced group of skiers.
But skiing experience is a lot different from avalanche experience or backcountry education, said Ethan Greene, the director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a program of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources that provides avalanche information, education, accident investigation and research.
“A lot of times that line gets blurred a bit,” Greene said. “It’s important for people to understand the difference.”
As the center has researched avalanche accidents over the years — records date back to 1950 — an obvious trend researchers have seen is that people are better at their mode of travel than they are with avalanche training.
Greene said avalanche education and training can be tricky because while you want to amass a depth of knowledge that could save lives someday, you also don’t want to get too close before understanding how this force of nature operates.
“Taking avalanche classes doesn’t give you the experience, but it gives you a framework to gain experience,” Greene said.
The ability to assess hazards is a critical part of such a framework. Backcountry travelers learn to use terrain in such a way to minimize risks and make important observations about the conditions.
The importance of making crucial observations about snow and weather conditions is something Edwin LaMair learned the hard way. Even though his group skied the same slope earlier in the morning, a few hours can make a big difference.
“The morning avalanche report, if it’s snowing that day, can be completely irrelevant by the afternoon,” Edwin said.
Edwin gained experience that day, but Greene reminds backcountry travelers that certain experience can really matter in some situations but not in others.
In April, for example, five people were killed in a backcountry avalanche near Loveland Pass, the deadliest Colorado avalanche in 50 years. The group was made up of industry skiers and snowboarders who were participating in a backcountry-enthusiast fundraising event benefiting the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Hard lessons learned
A group of six decided to head to the backcountry area known as Sheep Creek. They crossed the bottom of a steep slope to reach their intended terrain, but they never made it.
“Our assessment was that unfortunately the group, they were taking steps to reduce their risk to the hazard, but the steps they were taking were not enough for the type of avalanche they were facing,” Greene said.
The Colorado Avalanche Information Center had described the types of hazards in the days before that April 20 avalanche. There had been another fatality two days before in East Vail on a similar slope and aspect.
The center’s avalanche forecast that morning mentioned the exact direction of the slope that slid as being dangerous. It also warned that triggering a slide from the bottom of a slope was possible that day.
“We really take it as a lesson for us,” Greene said. “In this case our description was very accurate, but it wasn’t presented in a way that they took action. We’re looking at how we can present information better for people.”
And while the center’s forecast is the first place backcountry travelers should look before heading out, preparations don’t stop there. Skiers and snowboarders have to observe their surroundings constantly and look out for signs such as natural avalanche activity and other obvious signs of instability.
“The best sign of future avalanche activity is recent activity,” Greene said.
Edwin LaMair thought he did that with his group, but he knows they missed some clues. It was too late by the time he saw signs of instability.
“I saw it cracking up below me, the snow pulling apart and fracturing,” Edwin said. “Then I looked uphill and saw the same thing happening. Then I felt myself sliding downhill, and I tried to ski out of it toward the right, toward a tree I was going to grab on to.”
Edwin’s skis knocked the tree he was aiming for and sent him tumbling over head first. Luckily his head remained free as his body became buried, making for a happy ending in this accident tale. According to the American Avalanche Association, there’s a 50 percent chance that you won’t make it out alive if you’re caught in an avalanche and buried.
Dale Atkins, a Vail resident, 20-year Loveland ski-patrol veteran and recent president of the American Avalanche Association, tries to put that statistic into perspective for people. That’s why preparations before heading into the backcountry are so important.
“Think about it — we wouldn’t drive on I-70 if there was a 50-50 chance of getting into an accident every time,” Atkins said. “You have to make all decisions beforehand and stick to them.”
Looking at avalanche experience versus skiing or snowboarding experience is relative, too, he said. If a skier gets 50 days per season, for example, and has been skiing for 10 years, that’s a good amount of experience.
“Compare that to your avalanche training,” Atkins said. “Our avalanche knowledge and skills lag way behind our skiing and riding abilities.”
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 970-777-3125.