Avalanche accidents – Backcountry and Frontcountry

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 28, 2005      

You’re driving up the highway for a day of backcountry skiing. You slam on your brakes and swerve to avoid an avalanche pouring off a cliff up ahead. You notice a flash of something human in the plunging snow. Sure enough, a snowboarder has crashed down on the road in tons of churning powder. Along with dozens of other motorists, you rush to the pile of debris and begin a roadside avalanche rescue. Don’t laugh it happened a few days ago. Update, read an account of one of the more tragic avalanche deaths in the Tetons.

More on the avalanche safety front: A recent backcountry skiing avalanche fatality in the Tahoe area has been honestly reported by a party member. Turns out their beacon search took quite a while, possibly because inexperienced or mentally compromised party members left their beacons transmitting and thus confused the search. This should pound home the point that beacons are a LAST RESORT and EVERY person in your group should have extensive practice doing beacon rescue. By practice, I mean doing dummy rescue scenes that include the human factor — not just playing around with “find the beacon” out in someone’s back yard.

More, this accident was yet another that involved more than one person caught at a time. Unless it is absolutely necessary, we backcountry skiers need to keep our groups spread out, and expose only one person at a time to even moderate avy hazard. Following this one practice would make a HUGE difference in many of the fatal backcountry skiing avalanche accidents over the past years.

And since I’m on a safety tear, I should mention our ski day yesterday at Snowmass Resort in Colorado. We headed up there to practice on their steep terrain. We checked slope angles with an inclinometer and managed to enjoy some solid 45 degree terrain, and a few turns up in the 50s. The idea was practice for spring chute skiing here in Colorado. While riding the lifts, I witnessed a near-miss when a snowboarder caught air above a skier. More, a friend of ours recently ended up in the hospital after being hit by someone coming from above. I can’t believe how frequently I see such lunacy on the slopes. This tragic junk needs to stop.

Our ski resorts can control the level of idiocy and still allow skiers and riders to get radical. Slope safety folks should simply pull passes when they see people behaving in ways that put others at risk.

Sounds easy? For some reason, prevention of homicidal skiing and riding is being done at only minimal levels. Perhaps the ski areas are afraid of scaring off their financial saviors (young snowboarders?), or perhaps the “extreme” ethos is so important to the resorts, they’re willing to sacrifice a few innocent customers on the alter of their “extreme” image.

Whatever the case, for those of us who love skiing, and regard it as a sport one can pursue for a lifetime, it appears tragic to let uncaring maniacs become human cannon balls that the rest of us have to constantly guard for. Please… MAKE IT STOP! My neck hurts from looking over my shoulder!


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