Big thanks to Backcountry Access for sponsoring this avalanche education content. Check out the additional plethora of avalanche safety resources on their website.
Backcountry Skiing Update: Aspen Expeditions Press Release Dick Jackson, owner of Aspen Expeditions, has distributed a press release (archived here at WildSnow.com) about last Sunday’s backcountry skiing avalanche fatality involving his guide service. It’s a very interesting and informative report that Jackson should be commended for, as he’s no doubt going through a difficult time.
When I first heard about this accident, and that it was a guided group, I immediately wondered if the guide had lost control of the group in some way (perhaps simply because the victim chose not to follow his instructions, due to the “share decision-making” mentioned in the report), and the victim had skied into a hazard that the guide was intending to have everyone avoid. I didn’t want to blog that because it was merely an assumption — but according to the report, it turns out I was perhaps right.
More, for some reason Jackson makes it clear that the victim, John Jensen, was using telemark gear. I suspect Jackson’s point is that while John had chosen this more difficult form of skiing, he perhaps had not achieved the mastery of telemark technique necessary for the extreme terrain of Five Fingers. This may have contributed to the wide turns leading into a danger zone, and then John’s subsequent fall that triggered the slide. Today’s telemark equipment is used all over the world for this sort of difficult skiing, and it works when used well. But HOW the gear is used is key, as free heel telemark ski gear can lead to poor skiing and excessive falls unless the user has mastered the more difficult technique it requires (as compared to ski equipment that latches down the skier’s heels.)
Since I’ll get nastygrams for telling the truth about backcountry skiing telemark gear (which has a religious following amongst the backcountry skiing set), I should also mention that poor backcountry skiing technique on ANY equipment, be it telemark or alpine, can lead to all sorts of problems in the backcountry. Injury is more likely the more a person falls while backcountry skiing, and it is documented that falling skiers have triggered avalanches. As I’ve written in my guidebooks and elsewhere, the key to the backcountry skiing gear question is to pick your style (free-heel, snowboard, alpine “randonnee”) then make sure you master it. Period. Your life may depend on you doing so.
Moving along, another issue in the backcountry skiing community is that most telemark bindings don’t have safety release. While it’s debatable if such release saves knees or legs during skiing falls, since the free heel changes the dynamics of such, there is no doubt that in an avalanche, you want your skis to release from your feet IMMEDIATELY, otherwise you’ll have two long levers twisting your legs, bashing against you, and possibly dragging you down lower in the flow. The fact that John (the avalanche victim) still had one telemark ski on after a 3,000+ vertical foot violent avalanche should be of concern to anyone who backcountry skis without release bindings. John suffocated. If he’d ended up on the surface of the slide he would have lived. Did his skis drag him down? Who knows. But it’s worth considering.
Man Survives Utah Backcountry Avalanche – Becomes SyndicatedIn an unfortunate turn of backcountry skiing events, the national news media has picked up on video of a Utah man, Andy Rosenberg, surviving a violent avalanche he triggers by aggressively jumping onto an un-skied steep backcountry slope that is obviously prime backcountry skiing avalanche terrain. Just what our young people need to see. Thanks Andy! Check the adult rated footie here. I wonder what this guy’s family and loved ones thought of his antics? This easily could have been a snuff film for sale on the streets of Warez — or available at your corner vid rental as a scene in the latest “Faces of Death — Backcountry Skiing Edition.”
Adding insult, some of the articles accompanying the footage say “After a few tense moments, Rosenberg emerged from the snow unharmed.” Reality: Rosenberg was beat up, injured, and could have easily been killed. Of course, they make sure to mention Rosenberg is a “champion telemark free-skier.” I’m impressed, very impressed.
As I’ve blogged before, I understand and appreciate our culture’s need for gladiators, but glorification of such needs to be tempered. More, there is a big difference between a champion gladiator’s calculated performance, and a flail fest such as we see in this video. In the end, I hope Andy and his backcountry skiing friends make lots of money from their footage and donate it all to a homeless shelter — or perhaps to Tanner Hall’s medical fund.
Am I the pot calling the kettle black, after my own past mistakes and idiotic accidents? Perhaps. In that case, apply above crit to me as well — I’d agree with it.
Highlands Backcountry Skiing Avalanche Update:
Turns out one of the participants in last Sunday’s deadly avalanche safety course was non other than an Aspen Skiing Company ski patroller. Details at Aspen Times.