Meditation on Recent Avalanches

Post by blogger | February 27, 2007      

Our best to Adam Smith, who got “Maytagged” a few days ago in a large avalanche behind Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Smith’s injuries include a broken femur and being punji staked by a tree. He’s definitely lucky to be alive. It’s said he’s “not out of the woods yet” so send your healing prayers his way.

What I’m seeing in many recent avalanche accidents is that people are pushing too hard on snowpacks with too much deep instability. It’s difficult to dial it back in places like the Tetons or Utah where the pack is usually nicely bonded by this time of year, but every season is different and it sounds like this is a more a year for some standing back when it comes to taking direct ski lines down loaded avalanche paths. Another interesting thing is I’m seeing avalanche forecasts that mention “frequently skied paths” running anyway. I’m a big advocate of using heavily skied backcounty runs for safer turns, but I’m rethinking just what I mean by “heavily skied.”

A death up in

Posted by Lou Dawson on February 27, 2007 | Filed Under Avalanches 
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18 Responses to “Meditation on Recent Avalanches”

  1. Thomas February 27th, 2007 1:43 pm

    the most influential piece of avalanche education I ever received was watching a video of a 30 degree treed slope with 40 or so tracks on it rip out, you could hear the trees snap. This event killed several people. Heavily skied means nothing to instability.
    Fat skis have brought a huge amount of new skiers to the mountains, aggressiveness is up but experience over time is not. The ethos of turning around to ski another day is not celebrated. In this day “gettin ‘er done/staying the course/ nabbing the peak” is the only thing that matters and when death stalks because of that attitude, we placate it, we say “how sad” instead of painfully pointing out the errors leading to the deaths. No one wants to be the one breaking the societal taboo of “criticizing” the deceased( that includes me), but in terms of education it is, at some point ,necessary.

  2. Big Sky Rida February 27th, 2007 1:57 pm


    Just thought I would through this out. A couple days ago a snowmobiler triggered a slide on a slope outside of Yellowstone NP in Montana. The sledder was totally consumed by the slide, but pulled an airbag while he was entrained. The victim surfaced easily as the slide came to rest. He probed his sled, dug it out, and got the hell out of there. Lucky? Definitely…but this is the first actually occurence that I have heard of where a airbag was actually used sucessfully. Do you know much about these products? Are they heavy? Expensive? Are they one-time deals or reusable?

    Anyways, thought I would throw that out in the comments. Great site, keep up the great work and come rip it up in Montucky sometime if the Colorado crowds ever get to you…

  3. barry February 27th, 2007 2:44 pm

    A few thoughts. A slope with tracks on it is almost irresistable. We humans seem to be wired that way. If someone, and in particular quite a few people, skied the slope successfully then it must be safe. An incredibly bad assumption but reality just the same.
    There will always be deaths from avalanches. Just like traffic accidents we make mistakes and bad decisions and sometimes we are plain unlucky.
    I am a big supporter of education. It won’t elimate all avalanche deaths but it will help. I also think it should start in school. Even a couple of hours of basic information at the junior high and high school level would be a good start.
    Those of us with education need to exercise it. Highly trained people continue to go where they know they should not be.
    Finally support your local avalanche forecast centre. We all need more information to help us make decisions.

  4. steve romeo February 27th, 2007 4:04 pm

    Hey Lou,

    Unfortunately, from what I hear, Adam Smith is far from out of the woods yet and really needs some positive vibes sent his way to pull through this one.

    Hang in there Adam!


  5. frank February 27th, 2007 4:51 pm

    Hi Lou.

    First off, it’s Adam Smith, not Andy.

    Internet chatter has never been as difficult to read as it is regarding this situation. Adam and I are friends and it’s been a tough day hearing the updates regarding his condition, although knowing how tough Adam is I’m sure he and his family will be fine in no time.

    One of the members of his group discussed the incident over at tgr. I’m not sure how many people would have done anything differently than this group. Many of the main ski runs in Granite had already been skied, including the one that they were in. It doesn’t appear that there were any glaring signs that were missed. There tend to be a lot of assumptions and conjecture on the internet anytime there is an avalanche incident and outside of the people directly involved it’s difficult to really KNOW what happened and conclude much of anything.

    Anyway, my thoughts go out to Adam and his family. Everybody play safe out there! Tomorrow looks to be a good day at a lot of ski areas across the west, so enjoy the powder!

  6. Lou February 27th, 2007 5:21 pm

    All, sorry about getting the name wrong! Very embarrassing, I’ll fix right away!

  7. Lou February 27th, 2007 5:30 pm

    All, it may be awkward and somewhat taboo to use an accident as the starting point for my discussion of avalanche safety, but in the interest of our sport and everyone’s well being I intend to keep doing it.

    In doing so I of course have no intent of disparaging any individual, but instead would like to look at how decisions are made and what could be done differently to prevent problems.

    I indeed do not know the details, so any ideas I have are simply bounced off the known facts. Not being on the scene of an accident does not disqualify a person from trying to learn from it or talk about it…

    The main thing to remember is that if someone is caught in a slide, a decision was made somewhere along the line that caused that to happen. Some decisions are made with very little process, others are arrived at after much wrangling. Either way, it’s that decision making process, and related safety factors, that I intend to examine in this blog.

  8. Lou February 27th, 2007 5:31 pm

    As for Adam, any of his friends who read this please tell him we are praying that he will heal quickly and fully.

  9. Lutz February 28th, 2007 12:36 am

    answer for Big Sky Rida:

    all questions about airbags are answered on the website of the German company who invented and produce the avalanche airbag systems:

    some short comments on the questions of Big Sky Rida:

    … but this is the first actually occurence that I have heard of where a airbag was actually used sucessfully.
    –> there are 106 documented cases, 105 people survived, 1 people died because of a second avalanche

    … Do you know much about these products?
    –> i own two system, for me and my girlfriend, a lot of people in my skiing clubs use this system for off-piste-skiing.

    … Are they heavy?
    –> between 5 and 8 lbs, depending on the size of the backpack

    … Expensive?
    –> i bought one of my backpacks used but proofed in good condition some years ago on ebay for less then 300 USD, the other system during a shop clearance for 600 USD. the prices for brandnew systems are around 800 EUR

    Are they one-time deals or reusable
    –> reusable !

    for Lou: great site, my source of information about anything related to backcountry skiing.

  10. Lou February 28th, 2007 6:39 am

    The airbags do indeed look effective at preventing burial, but they are super heavy and expensive. If I was skiing a lot of avalanche terrain during high hazard I’d buy one and use it, with the fact in mind that while it might prevent burial, a large slide still may take one over cliffs, into trees, etc… and the avalanche airbag is a flotation device not a body protection device as the name implies.

  11. thomas February 28th, 2007 12:01 pm

    Why would you ski avy terrain during high hazard? Isn’t that the whole problem? I’m surprised that you of all people just proved the point that people do stupid things because they think some technology will get them out of it.
    If the hazard is high stick to non avy terrain, go XC skiing, ice climbing, skate skiing, clean and tune your gear.

  12. Lou February 28th, 2007 12:58 pm

    I’ve done plenty of stupid things in the backcountry — always trying to learn from my mistakes…

  13. Steve Seckinger February 28th, 2007 6:28 pm

    Today’s report was rated moderate to considerable, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The same report highlighted a huge slide above Park City of 8-10 feet deep and up to 1/2 mile across a big bowl — sections of it went to the ground. Low angle, XC tracks, and the resorts are fine with me right now and also all quite good.

  14. Derek February 28th, 2007 11:36 pm


    I think this statement of yours is one to live by.

    ” the concept of backcountry skiing as a quest for the day’s total experience of adventure and outdoor recreation, not just getting the perfect powder line.”

    I seem to have a couple touring partners that are more interested in the perfect line than the some of the days fun. I find it disturbing at times.


  15. Chase March 1st, 2007 6:40 am

    Hey Lou,
    As always you come up with great topics for thoughtful discussion. I think part of the blame for this attitude of “throw safety out the window and go for it,” should partly be put on the shoulders of these ski movie production companies and, I am sure every body out there knows who I am talking about, are really sending the wrong message, especially new up and coming skiers. That’s my two cents. Stay safe out there, Chase

  16. adam olson March 1st, 2007 8:17 am

    let us not forget the poor soul who lost her life cross country skiing near Ashcroft a decade ago. The only true way to to stay safe is to stay at home.

  17. adam olson March 1st, 2007 8:24 am

    Im also glad Colorado skiers seem to be ahead of the curve this year. Coincedence?

  18. woody March 6th, 2007 8:24 pm

    adam get well. !!!

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