Aspen Local Dies in Avalanche, France

Post by blogger | March 2, 2006      

We learned a few days ago that a well known local, John Seigle, died in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in France. I didn’t know John well, I’d met him a few times when he was working with our town (Carbondale) to do some developments. I remember John as the first developer to see the potential our town had over more well known nearby areas such as Aspen, and I remember how well he dealt with our beloved anti-everything-development locals. What we got out of John’s efforts was a really nice convenience store and hotel on the edge of town , one that we’ve always liked and recommended to out of town visitors. Some of our friends knew John quite well, and we send our condolences to everyone during what must be a hard time, as John was one of the most safety conscious backcountry skiers out there, so his death is a shocker.

I hope the following isn’t too preachy, if so, please remember I’m preaching to myself.

Today the Aspen Times has a detailed article about the accident. Of note is that John had beacon, shovel, helmet, Avalung etc., and was skiing in a place deemed safe — he died from trauma (impacted a tree), and his guide was caught and injured as well (more of that tiresome guided group skiing together and being caught together, instead of skiing one-at-a-time).

As always, my thoughts turn to just how cautious we need to be if we expect backcountry skiing to be safe, especially if we’re in it for the long term with the odds stacked against us. Avalanches are violent and deadly, one ride and you’re likely to end up dead or crippled. More, is your backcountry skiing guide really keeping you safe, or just providing you with a skin track? I’m all for guiding, but guides are just people and can only go so far as to balancing risk/reward — especially when they’ve got to make a living and provide the goods people expect.

I also find it worrisome that over 40 people have died from avalanches in France this year, and that Seigle and his group were backcountry skiing an avalanche slope on a day when the hazard was rated at the higher end of the scale. Seems like things are a bit out of hand over there…time to dial it back a bit?

Open for comments.


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5 Responses to “Aspen Local Dies in Avalanche, France”

  1. Scott Newman March 3rd, 2006 10:33 pm

    Lou, I’ve been following this one quite closely, having skied in La Grave and knowing a number of guides. I met the guide involved while I was there. I did not ski with him.

    This incident has me puzzled. In France, ski and rock guiding is taken much more seriously than in the North America. The UIGMA certification is unbelievably rigorous. Conversations with both French and Swedish guides in La Grave have led me to believe that they only get one chance. In short, if a client dies, they are pretty much done in the guiding business.

    So given the amount of snow, published avi risk, and number of reported slides and burials, in my opininon some of the guides decisions are questionable.

    1. The group was skiing in Montgenvre because the lift wasn’t turning in La Grave (effectively closing the area) because of avi danger. Montgenvre is roughly 6 miles from La Grave. That would be my first clue that conditions may not be safe. There may be other factors (microclimates, etc.). But I think I’d be nervous with that alone and would question the decision to ski anywhere but controlled slopes during this cycle.

    2. Slope choice. Gladed terrain … not bad. But a north facing slope, below a convexity, that measured greater than 40 degrees. Isn’t that combination, under those conditions a true terrain trap?

    3. Skied this slope with more than one skier at a time? It hadn’t snowed in over three weeks when I was there, yet there wasn’t a single line we didn’t ski one at a time. That is incredibly questionable, in my opinion.

    I don’t know if the guide had dug pits or what was involved in his decision making process, but it seems as if he ignored a lot of pretty obvious clues.

    Given the nature of European guiding, these decisions seem even more grievous. The counterpoint to this is pressure on guides to show clients “the goods.� I don’t know if this was a factor given Siegal’s reputation for safety and the rumored agreement between he and Ashurst regarding the terrain that he would be comfortable skiing.

    Finally, did two experienced backcountry skiers ignore there warning signs because they were relying on a guide’s expertise?

    I may be off-base in my analysis. Clearly I don’t have all the information that was available to the group, but it seems mistakes were made and it’s worth considering them so we can improve our own decision making process.

  2. JohnHemlock March 5th, 2006 9:19 pm

    I have found North American guides to be much more safety-conscious than European guides, on balance. Having climbed with both of them, I find the Euros much more willing to take chances in the snow, use terrain belays and simulclimb on rock and mixed, etc. The Euros seem to want to get off the route more quickly and by the most expeditious route.The certification process might be more rigorous (not sure) and I’m sure I’m making generalizations based upon personal experience but I have seen American guides throw in the towel on conditions when a Euro guide has not.

    I think there is someting to an experienced skier or mountaineer turning off their mountain sense when on a guided trip and deferring to the professional acumen of the “expert.” A decision that can cost you your life, I guess.

  3. David George March 6th, 2006 4:27 am

    Here are some pictures of the slide which may provide some additional information

    [url=]Montgenvre Avalanche[/url]

  4. Matt Schonwald March 6th, 2006 2:57 pm

    I would like to take this moment to give you the facts about this accident. i skied by the site the same day and returned the next day to do a fracture profile.

    To begin with, the location of the area is 50 kilometers east of La Grave, on the French Italian border, near the Olympic venues. The lifts were open at the La Grave but the conditions were better at Montgenevre. Many groups guided and unguided were skiing that day in the same area. The posted risk at the area was 3/4. At 10;30 several groups went to the area known as the Cime de la Plane, a north facing area with well know tree sking. The upper slope is barely 20 degrees, with timbered steeper sections up to 35 degrees.

    With over dozen tracks on the slope, the group, chose a spot untouched between the tracks. The angle of the slope they skied ranged between 25 -36 degrees, the elevation was 2345 meters. Unlike Scott’s post, they were skiing one at a time, with the first person skiing the first 100 meters then pulling off over 30 meters to the right, waiting for jon to ski down. Jon skied just left of the first tracks and 4-5 turns or 30-40 meters down slope, he triggered the avalanche.

    The slab was 150 meters wide, 1-1.3 meters deep and ran 300 meters down. Jon skied over a rock that was buried about 30-50 cm beneath the surface, covered by the smooth snow surface, no irregularities were visible. The thrid member of the party was up top waiting his turn when the slab broke 2 feet from his ski tips.

    The issue here does not revolve around guiding, they were a group of friends skiing together, one of whom happened to be a guide. People were skiing cautiously, no one was out in open faces, steep terrain. When the avalanche occured, it exceeded the terrain they were skiing by over 100 meters, the trigger point was impossible to see, spatial variability of the ground. There was no pressure to “ski the goods”, just a group of friends trying to have a good day of skiing.

    The surprise here was the size of the avalanche relative to the feature they were skiing. With several experience groups skiing in the same area, skiing lower angle terrain, their choice was conservative, micro changes in the ground underneath the snow provided the hidden trigger point.

    If you wish, I can send you an accident report I wrote so you have all the important details before casting judgement. I used a gps and clinometer to measure the slide and slope angle. Feel free to contact me for the facts.

  5. d sehguh March 6th, 2006 11:02 pm

    Drove there through a year ago, spoke to some longtime La Grave locals, they had us stay a few days. They dont really go up there any more. They say its out of control, too much competition for fresh in the chutes. No one waits for the snow to settle any more, seems theres that many takers eager to roll the dice in fresh dumped snow that some of the locals (who have seen a lot of fatalities) dont even bother going up the lifts.
    When going into Briancon from La Grave, watch out for a rigorous seatbelt checkpoint at the traffic circle, its about $130 per unbuckled driver and they love americans.

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