Backcountry Ski Touring News Roundup — Experts in Avalanches and Jaguar Tow In

Post by blogger | March 10, 2016      

An unfortunate aspect of avalanche safety is that being involved in the industry and knowing what you’re doing is no guarantee. Fact is, if you’re in that group you’re out hundreds of days in an environment where deadly hazard is sometimes inches from a safe zone. Or, the right decision is a few neurons from the wrong idea. Or, bad things can just, happen — to anyone. We don’t know the details of Oregon Avalanche Center director Kip Rand’s fatal accident this past Tuesday, but we do know he was committed to avalanche safety along with truly knowing what he was doing. Thus, while offering our sincere condolences to his family and friends, we’ll take a few moments of silence today in honor of him and all the others who’ve died while involved in helping the rest of us stay safe. Official details here.

I’m reluctant to keep the bad news going, but recent accidents in Austria are extra sad — and worth noting. Two guides with beacons, one with a balloon pack, die in slides. Then another guy skiing by himself without a beacon gets buried and lives. A lesson in there somewhere. Report here, use Google translate.

Solo or in a group, what is safer?

Solo or in a group, which is safer?

Speaking of solo backcountry skiing, Check out this study that shows traveling in small groups or solo is safer. We knew that small groups tend to be better, but solo? The authors state “…We found higher avalanche risk for groups of 4 or more people and lower risk for people traveling alone and in groups of 2…The relative risk for people traveling alone was not significantly different compared with the reference group size of 2…”

In my opinion this is a fairly significant study and supports something I’ve been observing for years: In popular touring areas such as the Alps and Utah Wasatch it is common to see solo skiers, but you rarely hear of them getting into trouble. Could it be that traveling solo inspires so much extra caution you’re actually safer than anyone else out there? Could be. Human nature is an ever convoluted mystery.

Now for some good news (at least for her, though I’m already lonesome). Mrs. WildSnow took off this morning like a jet fighter pilot, heading up to Montana of all places for the Yellowstone Women’s Backcountry Ski Course. She drove our giant Chevy truck so she’d fit the rancher enabled parking slots in Wyoming and Montana. I saw the DPS Wailers and Volkl BMTs jutting out the side window and heard a Cripple Creek Podcast already playing (it’s a 10 hour drive). Will the gal return, or file a few blog posts? Stay tuned.

Kate Middleton gets slammed by PETA for skiing in the wrong gloves? Seriously? Next thing you know they’ll be tearing my wool undershirt off and making me ski shirtless as punishment for not wearing petroleum base layers.

To continue, will being towed by a Jaguar sportscar result in the fastest human on skis? Is this guy channeling Evel Knievel? When I read he’s also using jet packs and an “Iron Man suit” I was convinced. Stay tuned!


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


16 Responses to “Backcountry Ski Touring News Roundup — Experts in Avalanches and Jaguar Tow In”

  1. Charlie Hagedorn March 10th, 2016 10:36 am

    Our condolences to everyone in the Wallowas. More detail here:

    On soloing:

    I skied alone more than with groups for several years, and found great comfort in it. I have trouble hearing myself think when in groups. Skiing alone removed that stress entirely, and opened me up to hearing what conditions had to say.

    It’s easier to turn around, for any reason, when skiing solo. I remember well a long nap I took in the morning sun an hour into what a planned ambitous/arduous day. I’d eaten too much of the wrong food the night before, and without anyone to disappoint, I stopped hurrying, napped in the sun, and enjoyed a single lazy corn lap of the Snowfield.

    Alone, every decision is a consequential one. You have to be right, as there’s no backup. As we were reminded most forcefully this year at Snoqualmie Pass, risks like tree wells have no counter when you’re alone.

    These days, my favorite way to travel is with a trusted partner. The benefits of a second opinion, rescue, companionship, and shared experience are all there, but the hazards and stresses of group dynamics are minimized. Gear failures are few, and decisions are efficient. There’s no doubt what the plan is. I’m with you, you’re with me; we’re skiing together.

    I’m not surprised that solo skiing might have lower accident rates, especially among those who have chosen it in the face of social stigma against it. Some risks are lower (without a partner, if you don’t trigger a slide, nobody else will either, and peer pressure, in the moment, is non-existent), but the consequences of apparently-minor accidents can have great magnitude. I never recommend soloing to anyone, but I respect those who choose it.

    Tiny steps with each outing. Leave yourself many ways home.

  2. Jim Milstein March 10th, 2016 1:27 pm

    Solo skiing is safer on balance, I think. I do it frequently. The undisturbed awareness of the situation balances the benefits of a trusted companion or two. Big groups, while potentially fun, introduce lots of risks of their own.

    In recent years I’ve been carrying and using an inReach SE, which is a two-way satellite text communicator w/GPS. It reduces to some extent the hazard of backcountry travel.

  3. Lou Dawson 2 March 10th, 2016 1:57 pm

    Hi Jim, I agree that solo travel backcountry skiing can be incredibly safe in comparison to public opinion, but I do feel that carrying a 2-way communicator is pretty much the social contract (or at least a 1-way SPOT), otherwise you’re expecting SAR volunteers to do major ground search if you don’t come back. Lou

  4. swissiphic March 10th, 2016 3:24 pm

    Soloing. Subconscious attunement with one’s environment; it doesn’t emerge to the same depth in one’s mind connection with the environment when travelling in groups, for me at least. Maybe my brain is a little ‘different’. wink emoticon …I suspect because humans evolved in a social context and our consciousness is in part fundamentally based on emotional connection with others…beyond the distraction of vocalized communication, hearing others’ gear noise, wondering about pacing, route finding that is correct for the group/partner, etc…if the ‘mirror neurons’ are firing, as they will in the presence of another human being, the mind is unable to absorb and process the undistilled purity of all the little subtle and gross cues from nature… I also suspect that the same ‘mirror neurons’ have evolved to, in the context of a human being alone in nature, serve the purpose of heightening sensitivity and awareness of the context of intrinsic hazards in nature both living and non living, and also, the rewarding joys of the experience of man in nature…and can be ‘trained’ like any other skill, to gain in specific performance mental/neural ‘fitness’. In my experience and opinion anyways.

    On the other hand human psychology has also developed the highly useful function of denial; if we all lived with the awareness of every single boogyman in life at the forefront of our thoughts for every waking moment, well, we would never leave the cave or perform any activity or employment where the continuous exposure to hazards could maim or kill… All just speculation and could be the case of ‘a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing’.

    Growing up in in the northwestern British Columbia town of Prince Rupert (rainiest city in Canada), i was born into a culture of self sufficiency in an extreme environment where role models of soloists presented themselves in all aspects of outdoor life. I was surrounded by fishermen who made a living alone in their boats out on the ocean, a mountaineering mentor who basically lived half his life in his cabin 1700 feet up the mountain into his 70’s, routinely mountaineered regionally and solo bushwhacked around his place in the rain forest schnarb. Beyond him, there were the solo ‘extreme’ bush fishermen, bushwhacking into remote lakes in the pissing rain, the solo goat hunters, the solo kayakers, etc…. My interest in back country skiing developed in the late teens in the late 80’s. At that point had already enough experience in rainforest bushwhack hiking to get past the totally ignorant fool stage. But for skiing…nobody else was doing it locally, so I read a few books, bought some securafixes, modified grandpa’s skins to fit me skis….and just did it…no other options other than riding the t-bar, salivating at the ‘out of bounds pow’ and dreaming. Been ‘doing it’ ever since.

    For me, backcountry soloing whether it be hiking or skiing feels more ‘normal’ than in a group. Still enjoy the social aspect of groups but it’s like junk food; tastes good but too much can make you sick. Kidding of course; love touring with my buds but not just not every. single. time.

  5. Aaron Mattix March 10th, 2016 8:36 pm

    The extension of traveling solo, and not having a partner to rescue you, is that no one is there to see you pull off a risky maneuver. Without an audience, the urge to look rad is significantly diminished.

  6. See March 10th, 2016 9:15 pm

    I agree solo has a lot going for it, but it’s too bad that the go pro group dynamic is somewhat pathological.

  7. Lou Dawson 2 March 11th, 2016 7:46 am

    Cool post Swiss, thanks. Lou

  8. snowbot March 11th, 2016 8:59 am

    So how about some numbers instead of paeans to self reliance:

    2 of 4 avalanche fatalities in CO this season have been solo travelers, and there’s a solo skier still missing that may be a fatality. At least 8 of 24 of the fatalities in the US this winter have been solo travelers. 1/3 to 1/2 (or 3/5) of people traveling in the bc are not traveling solo.

    Ian McCammon’s study of exposure vs group size shows soloists and groups of >4 expose themselves to more risk. Very different results than the european study noted above.

    I hear rationalizations. Lots of them. Sure, you *feel* safer. But that’s because so many decisions are influenced and determined subconsciously, and our mind is cognitively set up to feel confident when decisions are subconscious and feel effortless. It’s an illusion of skill and validity that’s a product of a wicked environment, one that does not provide good feedback for our decisions. The fact that nothing bad happened doesn’t mean you made safe decisions. It may mean you just got lucky.

    I don’t see more awareness of conditions and the environment from soloists. I see less. But they *feel* more attuned. Not the same thing at all. And over and over, the riskiest choices I see are invariably made soloists. But they think they got it nailed, they think they’re in tune, because there’s no one to call them on their blindnesses. You’re always right when you’re alone. So of course it feels safer. Until it isn’t.

    The disproportionate # of fatalities involving soloists relative to their actual numbers makes it clear: you are taking more risks riding solo. Don’t believe the numbers? Ask the solo rider buried at cottonwood pass with a boot sticking out. Or the President of the AAC. Or the others who were partially or shallowly buried but still died.

    If you want to ride solo, fine. I do it, when conditions are appropriate. Low danger rating. But I don’t fool myself or justify it w some BS that I’m actually safer.

  9. Jim Milstein March 11th, 2016 9:08 am

    Okay, Snowbot, here are some numbers: Sixty-three ski seasons without significant injury. Fifty-four days in the backcountry this season so far without incident, the majority solo. Could be luck. Could be caution. Maybe both.

  10. snowbot March 11th, 2016 9:15 am

    Nothing bad happened. Of course it’s because you’re making good decisions.

  11. Lou Dawson 2 March 11th, 2016 9:20 am

    Snowbot, your points are good but I don’t think the numbers in Colorado this season support any kind of conclusion about solo skiing in avalanche terrain. None of the fatals so far are even skers (!). More, the study I cited is a very sophisticated statistical analysis, not just an offhand look at fatals in one state.

    Me, I don’t feel safer at all when I’m by myself, and often make different decisions than I would if I was with a partner. When I was more agile and fit I think I was safer going solo because it was easier back then to make route variations such as climbing out of bad situations, nowadays I don’t feel as comfortable going by myself and do it much much less, hardly ever. My gut feeling is that it’s indeed possible that solo backcountry skiers could statistically be very safe — though it would come down to individual style. I’ve indeed seen literally hundreds of instances of solo backcountry skiers doing really dumb stuff.

    Despite studies such as this, as well as observations and personal experience, I’ll go on record and say I do not recommend solo backcountry skiing. If you’re good at it and have the requisite decision skills, and carry a communication device (as well as perhaps staying in well traveled areas), you know who you are and I wish you the best. Sometimes I’m envious (grin).


  12. Matt Kinney March 11th, 2016 10:05 am

    I don’t think BC skiing solo is riskier than riding a road bike fast alone on some country road, hiking, jogging trails solo, solo sailing, solo rowing, solo parachuting? We want it be different in the perceived macho world of skiing but it’s not. I know lots of good skiers who never ski alone because they are just more social generally. Some are scared to ski solo and there is nothing wrong with that. Some have a wife or husband who insist they ski with others.

    I ski solo a bunch and try not to over think it, but certainly enjoy it! Gosh solo at sunrise can be pretty special. Solving powder shots on a complicated line so I can ski it solo? Heavenly as it can get IMHO.

    I need to get a SPOT device, but they keep putting cell towers up everywhere and change my mind.

  13. Jonathan L March 11th, 2016 11:09 pm

    If you’re going to go out solo, and I hike solo a lot more than I ski solo, you really need to consider the WCS and your communication options. As the years have dragged on, I’ve been through ham radios, sat phones, spot messengers and have finally settled on the ResQLink PLB. Yes, it’s one way, and it’s a $250 item you hope never to use. But it’s GPS enabled, weights 4.6 ounces and is so small I alway bring it. And isn’t that the test?

    I had a lot of dead zones with the SPOT and the cost and weight of a sat phone was such that I was only renting them intermittently. It’s still probably the best solution internationally, but for the US, I would strongly suggest checking out a PLB.

  14. Bruno Schull March 11th, 2016 11:43 pm

    Hi. I do some solo outdoor activities in Europe. For several years I have wanted to get some kind of PLB, but I have not been able to find any consistent information about what devices work in different countries. I’m usually in Switzerland, France, or Spain. I don’t need a two-way device, just a one-way emergency beacon with a GPS locator. Turn it on if I have a true emergency, and hope somebody comes. Does any body have any information/experience about what may or may not work in Europe? By the way, often here in Europe, the best device is just a charged cell phone with a chip that works in whatever country you are–but I don’t have a smart phone (just an old emergency phone) and there of course are areas with no coverage, or areas where the different carriers can cause confusion/problems. Would a modern smart phone with GPS be my best solution?

  15. atfred March 12th, 2016 7:42 am

    +1 for ResQlink PLB – got mine for $250 from Amazon over the holidays. It’s small,simple, basic, and requires no monthly subscription – as said, something you throw in your pack and hope never to have to use, but some insurance, just in case, especially if you’re out alone.

  16. Bruno Schull March 14th, 2016 1:40 pm

    Here’s a link to a story of a recent fatal avalanche in Italy, and very sobering video of the fracture line. Sad news.

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