Backcountry Skiing News Roundup

Post by blogger | October 7, 2009      

At Telluride Resort in Colorado, they continue working towards adding huge terrain in Bear Creek to their official resort boundary (it’s sidecountry at this time). To do so, they’ll continue closing the area in the morning from 6 to 10 a.m. so the ski patrol can do snow studies that may include use of explosives. Expanding the actual resort into Bear Creek is not without controversy, as doing so will rob core backcountry skiers of an area that’s now accessed by ski lift, but still uncontrolled wild backcountry. More, the usual environmental objections are popping up, this time as concerns for pika (small alpine rodents) that live in the area. As the place is already heavily used, we really don’t understand why adding more skiers would affect pika, but we’re not wildlife biologists so no more about that (biologists, you are free to comment). More here.

I’m sure you guys have all seen that avalanche rescue Vimeo vid? Yes it’s gripping and scary, but a couple of technical details stand out.

First, the guy in the Vimeo does use an Avalung and it quite possibly helps him survive. But, the accompanying text describes how the Avalung mouthpiece did not stay fully in during his “ragdoll descent,” and that he thus ended up with his ‘lung in the corner of his mouth and got a snow/ice plug in his mouth that compromised his breathing. More proof of our contention that the Avalung mouthpiece should be more like a diving mouthpiece (larger, soft rubber) and perhaps have a security strap around the back of your head? I’ll take the leap and predict that the Avalung mouthpiece will in time have a better way of securing it in your maw than it does now.

Also, did anyone notice that the guy in the Vimeo avy is dug out with a plastic shovel? I’ve always thought plastic avy rescue shovels were still viable for backcountry skiing, but howls of protest drown my opinion out. So what’s this mean? Plastic shovels actually work? Now I don’t have to keep mine hidden in my pack?

The burning of Fowler-Hilliard hut in Colorado is a bummer, but the hut keepers have it under control. They’ll be installing a yurt there this winter, and rebuilding next summer. More here.

And lastly, helmet hysteria is alive and well. I don’t mind helmets, and wear them myself for a variety of sports. But the recent news that Whistler will make helmet use mandatory for certain user groups is interesting. Frankly, I just don’t know where this comes from. Sure, head injuries happen to skiers. But there is no certainty on how many of those head injuries would be prevented or significantly mitigated by most ski helmets (which actually provide very little protection compared to something like a motorsports helmet). What’s more, skier’s knees continue to rip apart at alarming rates. So where is the outrage and activism about that? Why doesn’t Whistler make something like the Knee Binding mandatory? My only conclusion is that Whistler is yammering about helmets because doing so is good PR, while actually trying to do something about knee rippage would simply be an uphill battle. Kick me in the left knee if I’m wrong.


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25 Responses to “Backcountry Skiing News Roundup”

  1. Tuck October 7th, 2009 9:04 am

    Helmet use: If I ran a ski mountain, I would definitely require all my employees to wear helmets both as a good example and because it would probably lower my insurance bills.

    As far as Whistler goes, it’s kind of annoying that they would require helmets, but consider this: when Natasha Richardson died I looked into the cause of the accident. One of the things that I learned from some site (that I did not keep a record of, unfortunately) is that in Canada they do not do helicopter evacuations unless you’re in an area that cannot be reached by ambulance. So Ms. Richardson, who might have survived had she been heli’ed directly to a trauma center, was put in an ambulance, driven to a local hospital, examined, and didn’t get to the trauma center until 6 or 7 hours after she’d left the mountain. At that point there was nothing they could do.

    I was kind of shocked to hear this, as every mountain in the US would just call in a helicopter for an injury like that. Apparently, in Canada, it’s not even an option.

    Obviously Whistler doesn’t want to advertise the fact that you’re much more at risk from a serious head injury if you ski there. But requiring high-risk skiiers to wear a helmet is one way of lowering the risk, without getting into the bad PR that the ambulance issue would bring…

    (If you know for a fact that that is not the case, please post a link, because I’m not going skiing in Canada if this is in fact the case, and I’d like to go to Whistler.)

  2. Jordan October 7th, 2009 9:21 am


    If you are carrying a plastic shovel, I will swap you for my metal one!

    Not a fan of them. Surprised they even make them anymore!

    Sorry Lou…Can’t agree with you on this one.

  3. NickD October 7th, 2009 9:43 am

    Here’s the real scoop on the pikas in Telluride. Seems that due to the down economy, unemployed realtors and bonus-less lifties have taken to snacking on the critters during loops in Bear Creek. As the word of their tastiness got around, Sterbie and his evil minions decided to jump the competition and get in there early in the morning – that’s the real reason they extended the snow study. You don’t think those pits and explosives are really for avi work, do you? :devil:

  4. gringo October 7th, 2009 10:28 am

    plastic works fine.

    I have used my lexan life link shovel to dig out a deeply buried partner.

    The only caveat to plastic being that you can get a larger volume scoop made from Alu….that detail is a valid argument, but strength wise its just a matter of taste.

  5. Tim Peterson October 7th, 2009 11:00 am

    Hi Lou
    I’m with you on the helmet regulations. Knee injuries are much more common, but I think the issue revolves around protecting themselves from seriously damaging injuries to their clients. On another note, head injuries have not necessarily declined since the inception of helmets for snowsports. While helmets do prevent serious injuries (ie. concussions), they do not necessarily prevent fatalities, where riders typically collide with large and inanimate objects. The American Medical Association provided a report that does not support mandated helmet usage (
    As well, snowriders tend to increase their perception of acceptable risk with the use of a helmet, which does not compensate for the increase of actual risk.
    Thanks for the post

  6. Brian October 7th, 2009 11:06 am

    Here in the East, we have very few locations that you really need to worry about avalanche danger, but one location that there is almost always a danger is Mt. Washington. Snow conditions on this mountain can be down right nasty most of the time, and when that snow slides it gets even worse. A few years ago I completed my Avi 1 training on Mt. W. During a drill in which I was to dig out my instructors pack as fast as I could with my lexan shovel, I almost snapped my wrist when the damn thing wouldn’t chop through frozen snow a crud in my frantic attempt to get the pack uncovered. My instructor told me that he would prefer that I not come back up to the mountain with “that piece of crap” as it will do me no good in an emergency up here. I completed the excerise with his metal shovel and found it much easier to get through frozen crud. I now carry a metal shovel and pay the weight price, which is marginal in any case. I don’t want to take the chance of not being able to dig someone out in time if it comes to that, and I don’t know why anyone else would want to either.

  7. jason October 7th, 2009 11:09 am

    i have a problem with skiing with people with plastic shovels. yes, MAYBE they will work if they need to, but they DO break. I know this as one of my friends broke his while using it for things you would expect to do during a rescue (ie digging through debris). it was from a reputable company, and when he called the company regarding warranty, they insisted that it wouldn’t break as they’ve done advanced tests and the material would stand up to what metal would, even though he was looking at a broken shovel blade right in front of him.

    as for helmets, i wouldn’t mind wearing them (i wear a climbing helmet while snow climbing and skiing backcountry couloirs), but i just cant find one that fits while i ski (have actually bought ski helmets on 2 occasions that fit better than anything else in the store, but once i tried skiing/riding, i couldn’t stand the damn things). if they are too big of a nuisance that they interfere with the skiing, they just don’t get used. same deal w/ an avalung. i sold mine to a friend as i never wore it, as it was just extra weight, something to fiddle with, and the logistics of having to use it seemed like it wouldn’t be effective (case in point, the story above). it seems to me that we should be putting our design attention towards airbags…

  8. Clyde October 7th, 2009 11:33 am

    As always, people fail to qualify their proclamations. There are several cheapass metal shovels on the market that are not at all reliable. And there are some higher-end polycarbonate shovels that work well even on frozen debris. I’ve seen metal blades that have cracked and others that snapped from prying (always a bad idea). And some of the cheap plastic blades do shatter in the cold or sproing off debris. The real issue is people should not buy cheap safety gear, no matter what the material.

    As for helmets, still looking for one that actually protects from the injuries that matter. Had high hopes for POC helmets but, alas, they have a serious design flaw that rules them out for skiing. The CAMP Pulse is still the front runner while Giro makes nice hats for cold days.

  9. Brian October 7th, 2009 11:47 am

    Agreed on the helmets Clyde. Also on cheapass shovels. I use the G3 with the D-handle on it, which ever that one is. Its welded at the shaft tube on the back of the blade. I don’t think I have enough arm strength to break this one, although adrenalin has a way of overcoming these limitations…

  10. Ron E October 7th, 2009 11:53 am

    Tuck – B.C., including Whistler of course, has air ambulance service and it’s one of the world’s largest (according to this link:; also see health care centre in Whistler has its own heli-pad. It sounds like from this link ( that Quebec is the only province in Canada without air ambulance service.

  11. Njord October 7th, 2009 12:04 pm

    I think someone should explore the potential of wrapping skiers in 20 ft. of bubble wrap. This should prevent all the injuries that occur duing collisions (i.e. snowboards, snowboard devotees, trees, tree while playing football and being intoxicated, etc..). Cheap and economical. Might even provide a layer of insulation. This should be mandated by law! Matter-of-fact, now that I think about it, anyone caught skiing without 20 ft. of bubble wrap is being willfully negligent and are a danger to society, and so they should be thrown into jail.

    Bubble warp… think about it!

  12. Lee Lau October 7th, 2009 1:03 pm


    Ms Richardson’s accident occurred on Tremblant not Whistler

    A substantial number of emerg callouts in Whistler involve heli-lifts. I have no link for this. Some are ambulance evacs. Some are heli-lifts.

  13. john October 7th, 2009 1:19 pm

    I personally work for a ski resort/corporation (hint: not Intrawest) that has also made it mandatory for employees to wear helmets. Ever the sceptic, I did not feel that my company’s new policy was entirely selfless. I’m sure that those who work for “The Man” rarely witness proactive measures. Reactive responses are usually the standard. This past winter a professional patroller of many years died of apparent head injuries in Wyoming. I was recently informed that Wyoming OSHA has since sued the resort for not providing protective head gear to its employees. In my mind, these new helmet policies would follow the traditional CYA policies that corporations usually implement.

    I personally wear helmets on occasion. They do have their merits. Heck, 10% of something is better than 100% of nothing. I only wish that these corps acknowledged the true motives behind these new policies. THEY DON’T WANT TO GET SUED! I don’t blame them. However, until the real issues are discussed real solutions won’t be found.

    I personally can’t wait for the rebellious lifty who comes to work wearing a football helmet. I only hope they have the cajones to argue that their helmet is no less safe than a standard ski helmet.

  14. Mark October 7th, 2009 4:27 pm

    Consider me howling, Lou! If I tour with someone with a plastic shovel, we have to switch and they carry mine, I carry theirs or we don’t go. I figure that’s fair.

    The mouthpiece thing seems like no big deal to fix. If you’ve ever played full contact sports you are used to having something like that in your mouth anyways, I bet it changes soon.

  15. Cory October 7th, 2009 4:30 pm

    thinking aloud…
    burly snow
    plastic shovel breaks or chips
    metal shovel bends
    which one still works?

  16. Caleb October 7th, 2009 5:04 pm

    I think the plastic shovel can work in a shallow burial. But I think metal is necessary in deeper burials. Once the snow sets up like cement, Lexan won’t cut it. Of course the argument can be made that the survival rates on deep burials don’t justify bringing special equipment. But personally I like skiing avy terrain with people like Jordan, a young strong dude with a metal shovel. You never know.

  17. Bar Barrique October 7th, 2009 9:19 pm

    1. Convincing a person that has suffered a concussion that they need to seek immediate medical treatment can be difficult.
    2. The gladed runs at ski resorts create an inherent hazard of bare tree trunks. This problem does not normally occur in the backcountry.
    3. When the truck gets stuck, I much prefer my metal shovel.


  18. john Gloor October 7th, 2009 11:03 pm

    As for helmets, I wear one , dirt biking, street biking, Road biking,mtn biking. resort skiing except in the spring (hot), ice climbing,and steep backcountry skiing. Generally I am a helmet fan. If resort employees are required or recommended to wear one, fine, but I should be an option for adult skiers. I’m ok with minors being required to wear them.

    Plastic shovels suck. I remember climbing Rainier in 2000. at one of the popular camps on our descent, my tent partner and I made a tent platform in the spring crust snow. He is in the recreation industry and a friend convinced him to try a plastic shovel another friend was repping. He was so pissed off he almost threw it into a crevasse out of frustration. I’m glad he wasn’t digging me out of solidifying/freezing avalanche debris.

    I am really bummed by telluride’s goal of inbounds skiing in bear creek, It is fantastic side country skiing and a great portal for back country skiing. Why do ski resorts always see the good times being had outside their boundaries and try to make money of f of it. Unfortunately the forest service seems to like the income from ski companies more than the knowledge that nonpaying people also use the areas. business as usual.

  19. john Gloor October 7th, 2009 11:22 pm

    Oh, I for got the Fowler-Hilliiard hut. I am going there with good friends mid December. I wish it could have been the hut, but a cozy yurt will work.

  20. Jason October 8th, 2009 7:09 am

    I manage a small ski area. We have had Helmets Mandatory in our terrain parks for years. We also provide helmets with all rental packages, much like we do ski poles etc…if the person doesn’t take them that is up to them. All children in our snow school programs must wear a helmet. That would be children that are under our care. This year we have tabled a policy that all on snow staff (Instructors, Ski Patrol, Marketing) will be required wear them while being paid. When they are off duty they are free to wear what they want. We will also sell helmets to on snow staff at our cost and also have purchased a set of helmets that can used if they don’t want to purchase them. I look at this is a caring for the well being of my staff, not trying not to be sued. Also if we as an industry are trying to encourage people to wear helmets, it doesn’t make much sense if we do not wear them ourselves.

    I agree with Lee Lau. In Canada, much like the US, helis are used when warranted, not only if an ambulance isn’t available. In some situations both are dispatched.,,20266173,00.html

    Natasha’s accident would not have been a air evac at any ski area based on the info in the above article.

  21. Dhack October 8th, 2009 7:13 am

    Lou: Subject the Knee Binding
    Background: My wife, youthful 60, barely 5 ft and maybe 110 lbs. intermediate skier, ACL’s replaced in both knees. Trying to keep her on the slopes at ALTA with the least risk to further knee damage etc. What is your evaluation of the knee binding?

  22. Lou October 8th, 2009 7:26 am

    Dhack, I tried to get some for review a while back and they didn’t seem very interested, which was fine as after all we’re not exactly an alpine skiing website!

    The ideas behind the binding seem solid, and in my opinion anything helps as it is appalling how poorly just about any modern alpine or AT binding protects your knees from certain kinds of damage.

    Interestingly, I believe that the Dynafit binding (when set at correct DIN) is actually one of the safer bindings out there. But that’s just anecdotal.

    Overall, I also believe that people sometimes blow their knees or break legs because they get lazy about their binding DIN settings and keep them set to high.

    Bottom line, you have to admit it’s pretty amusing (insofar as observing human nature) to see all the helmet hoopla and then little mention about the sound of ripping knee ligaments that you can hear on the slopes any day of the week at any resort. Yeah, a blown knee isn’t going to end your life or make you a head injury disabled case for the rest of your life, but a blown knee that doesn’t heal correctly can result in a lifetime of problems and sometimes become a permanent disability. The “repair” rate is not 100%.

  23. Chase October 8th, 2009 7:46 pm

    Hey did anybody time how long it took these guys to dig there buddy out?
    I did, it took about 5 minutes. But it seemed longer. Gives you a great perspective
    on what it’s like to be buried. Man that was intense.

  24. Jeff October 9th, 2009 9:53 am

    I have to disagree with the protection portion of your helmet comment.
    “most ski helmets (which actually provide very little protection compared to something like a motorsports helmet)”

    It would be rational that this argument would logically extent to bicycle helmets too, which are not much more than shaped styrofoam covered in heat molded plastic. Seeminlgy not a lot of protection.

    Consider this:
    Seven years ago my mom was on on organized bike ride and was hit by a run-away trailer loaded with railroad ties. She suffered numerous bodily injuries. Her helmet actually BROKE INTO THREE PIECES, yet the only injury to her head was a cut that took five stitches,

    Helmets work and they save lives.
    Sure there are some crashes that even a helmet won’t save you from (yes, even on a motorcycle) but I’ve seen their effectiveness for myself.

    It is irresponsible to insinuate that they don’t provide any real protection at all. One little off-hand comment will only lead the people who could really use a helmet on the slopes (beginners, tourists) to question why they should use one.

    I recommend you think before you write and edit before you post.

    That said, I can see the validity of your thinking there might be a PR element involved. It might also be a matter of the resort adding an extra layer of protection against the ambulance-chasing, sue-at-the-drop-of-a-hat, way too many lawyers, society we now live in.

  25. SB October 9th, 2009 11:00 am


    I might have to try that as my costume for a spring day!

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