Backcountry Skiing Avalanche Accident Burnout

Post by blogger | April 6, 2005      

After a winter of tragic avalanche accidents recently punctuated by this incredibly needless and horrible death of a young backcountry skier in his prime on Grand Mesa, Colorado, recent ski-town newspaper editorials are doing a good job of focusing on the “human factor.” Good to see that happening rather than spouting the tired old lecture about “carrying the right equipment and taking an avalanche class.”

As I’ve written about numerous times here at WildSnow dot com, it turns out that the more avalanche education you have, the more likely you are to get hurt or killed in an avalanche. So if someone tells you to “take an avalanche class,” you might want to think about what you’re getting involved in. That has to change of course (though cause vs correlation is something to consider), and the newspapers are looking at some of the factors involved.

The Idaho Mountain Express had this to say today:

While efforts to improve the odds of rescuing someone caught in an avalanche, wider use of beacons and shovels are admirable, they are not the answer. Counting on a successful rescue involving someone skiing through 900 vertical feet of avalanche debris, finding the beacon signal, digging a victim out of concrete-like snow in less than three or four minutes is a high odds bet. READ MORE

Yesterday the Aspen Times published an excellent guest editorial by Hugh Zucker, a Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer hit hard by the recent Five Fingers avalanche near Aspen that killed a New Mexico mountain rescue volunteer who was taking an avalanche safety class. Sources tell me that the mountain rescue community is quite upset by the whole state of affairs with avalanche safety education, this seemingly endless march of “human factor” induced tragedy — all capped by the Five Fingers event.

Zucker had this to say:

The fact that this latest incident was during an avalanche class, and that the victim, John W. Jenson, was a fellow rescuer (Atalaya SAR in New Mexico), has shaken up quite a few of us. A few of our team members attended the memorial services in Los Alamos last Tuesday, March 29. READ MORE

I sense a coming sea change in avalanche education and safety practice over the next few years. For starters, as I’ve been harping on here all winter, it appears that frequently we’re simply not cautious enough. Sure, life is full of risks, and recreational risk is part of a full worldly existence for us in Western culture, but how much risk is acceptable, and when we backcountry ski, do we know how much risk we’re really taking?

Analogy: You go to Vegas and hire a person to teach you how to gamble. They say, “okay, I’ll teach you, but you’ll have to gamble your life savings, your wife, and your house — and once every 100 games you’ll lose big… but it’s a really fun game and you’ll get $100 each time you win. Yeah, it’s sort of like the rush you get while powder skiing — you’ll love it!”

Would you participate in such? Well, some of the mid-winter powder skiing descents people are doing these days have a pretty good chance of avalanching now and then — perhaps even one out of every 100 times they get skied. If the slope doesn’t slide you win the gamble and cash in — but, if it slides you’ll probably lose more than your wife and house.

Bleak? Yes. But the game can be played. For most of us, that simply means skiing avalanche terrain in such as way that the odds of being caught in a slide are more along the lines of normal life, such as that of automobile accidents (and better than loosing a poker game). This can be done, but requires a substantially different approach than what’s presently promulgated in our backcountry skiing culture. The change needs to start with guides and avalanche educators — and I believe it already has.


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