Backcountry Avalanches

Post by blogger | January 2, 2006      

I was hoping that this winter would see a trend to wiser avalanche safety in backcountry snowsports, but it appears the mania has begun again.

Yesterday’s death of two snowmobilers near Cameron Pass is particularly disturbing, as SEVEN sledders were caught at once! Reports say a few of them had transceivers. Big deal. If the snowmobilers had been exposing one person at a time to hazard, only one would have been caught. He might have been rescued quickly and lived.

It’s a pet peeve of mine regarding avalanche safety: Over and over again I observe both snowmobilers and skiers grouping up in the backcountry when they should spread out because of avalanche hazard. If there is any thread in this winter’s accidents, violating the one-at-a-time rule is it. The snowmobilers did it. The kids near Kelso Mountain did it, the snowshoers in Utah did it. What is going on here?!

Because of human nature, it is indeed counterintuitive to break your group up — and social sports such as sledding and skiing make it even harder. But when we choose to play the avalanche game, the one-at-a-time procedure has such immense safety benefits it is something we should all be fanatical about. What’s your game? Do you wear your beacon like a talisman, but get sloppy about grouping up?

A few questions:

Imagine you arrive at the trailhead for a day of backcountry skiing in avalanche terrain. Someone forgot their rescue beacon. Do you let them join you anyway? If you’d forgotten yours, would you go? Most educated backcountry skiers would say NO — and be correct to do so in most situations.

Then imagine you arrive at a trailhead and one of your companions hangs a sign around their neck saying “I often don’t bother traveling one-at-a-time in avalanche terrain.” What would your reaction be? Would you react the same way as you would in the case of a missing beacon? In my view you should.


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11 Responses to “Backcountry Avalanches”

  1. DaveC January 2nd, 2006 11:15 pm

    Maybe I’m an introverted whimp, but I find good group avalanche discipline difficult to impossible to enforce in groups out for a friendly tour. Regarding transceivers:

    If someone enters an avalanche hazard because they (or their friends) have transceivers, the transciever is actually INCREASING their risk. This is particularly the case where transciever users don’t take their transceiver use seriously. Groups should not just check transceiver off – on function at the trail head, but also actually visually range each group member’s transceiver. This added overhead time is also a good time to discuss the critical need for exposing only one member at time to potential avalanche hazart. Of course just becauseuse you can turn on a transceiver doesn’t mean you are ready to use it effectively enough to save a buried victim – see: . If you are reading this and plan to get into the Indian Peaks Wilderness (northern Front Range) this winter, I / Rocky Mountain Rescue would like to help you get your friends to brush up on their transceiver finding skills – free dry land transceiver training: see right column. We try to push this as training transceiver users to practice, rather than a life time credential.

    We are happy to work with folks from further away, but you’ll have to come to Boulder. For those of you further afar, consider putting on something similar yourself locally – at least for your winter companions. Burying beacons under snow is more realistic, but dryland training in the dark is a very convenient.

    Back to avalanche discipline in the field:

    I think I’ll make up sign like Lou brought up “I often don’t bother traveling one-at-a-time in avalanche terrain.â€? to get people talking about the need for avalanche discipline. Multiple burials are a vastly harder problem than a single one – just try to find three transmitting transceivers inside 20′ diameter circle in a dryland setting!

    Dave Christenson
    Rocky Mountain Rescue Group

  2. Lou January 3rd, 2006 4:54 am

    Thanks for the comments guys.

    Everyone, remember that joke about “here is your sign?” I think it was comedian Jeff Foxworthty who popularized it, and he wasn’t talking about astrology. Honestly, I’d forgotten about that till now, funny to remember back on it. The jist of the joke was someone would say or do something stupid, and you’d just say “here’s your sign,” as if you were handing them the “stupid sign” to hang around their neck.

  3. Mark January 3rd, 2006 6:52 am

    Sometimes it looks as though we humans feel safer in groups, safer because we’re close to the road, and safer due to amazing technology–like snowmobiles that just might allow us to outride that slide. I’m not saying any of these thoughts ran through the heads of the snowmobilers caught in the slide, but deep in the recesses of their minds, I’ll bet some of these thoughts were ruminating. Too bad such a great toll was paid. I know someone who was rescued from a slide triggered during a snowmobile outing once, and though he was alive, the experience changed his attitude about slides greatly. A photo was taken of him just after he was pulled out of the debris. He looked like a corpse. Coming that close to death has to change a man.


  4. Carl P January 2nd, 2006 9:41 pm


    A bit disturbing! The avalanche danger was HIGH all weekend long here in Jackson Hole and people were still skiing very exposed, 25-35 degree slopes! Skiers were triggering 2000-foot slides into Granite Canyon, and a series of slides throughout the Teton Pass area. There were multiple search & rescues over the past 5 days here – costing the county money, time and endangering the lives of other people. I’m not perfect when it comes to skiing in the backcountry, but you are right…there are things that you do not do…skiing clustered together on avy-prone slopes is just ONE of the practices that needs to be followed.

    An interesting way of evaluating slope safety was provided to me in an avalanche safety course by local meteorologist, Jim Woodmency. He made this analogy: Imagine that you were walking along the street headed towards a local bar. Just as you arrived at the bar you witness someone getting thrown out into the street, bloodied from a recent brawl. You ask him: “How is it in there.” His reply is “Listen buddy if you go in that bar, there is a moderate chance that you will be killed.” Would you go into that bar?

    I’m not saying if the danger is moderate don’t go, what I’m saying is that when the danger is moderate, considerable or high – follow avalanche safety travel protocol, travel in areas that do not put you at risk (or at least minimize your risk) and use common sense.

    Thanks Lou for keeping us posted. Thanks for being a great mentor in this realm. It is a reality check for sure. We are not invincible, we are humans – tiny specks in the enormous backcountry!


  5. Brian L January 3rd, 2006 9:33 pm

    An interesting comparison between missing the beacon and “the sign”.

    I would see a missng beacon as a lack of preparedness or education on backcountry safety – not a deal breaker for me. As a guide, I am always educating new people to the backcountry (and providing them with beacons for that matter). If no extra beacon were available as in your scenario, the old 30 foot red string tied around the ankle would come out and could serve the day. If this seems to some to be far less safe than a beacon, think again about how much a beacon “protects” you from a slide.

    A sign saying “I often don’t bother travelling one at a time in avalanche terrain”. This would throw up greater red flags for me as someone whose behavior is reckless, foolish. or uncontrollable in the face of “irresistible grandness”. More of a deal breaker. More difficult to overcome with tools and wisdom.

    No equipment is more important than the brain.

    Brian Long
    Sunlight Mountain Resort

  6. galen woelk January 3rd, 2006 10:08 pm

    Not sure why you are so disturbed. I was actually surprised at the few fatalities so far this year. I expected a gaggle of deaths over the holidays because that is when the hacks who have little experience in the mountains venture into them. Just look at the residence locations of the three snowmobilers that died over the last week, (2 on Cameron, 1 on Togwotee). Responsibility is an individual choice, and unfortunately responsibility in the mountains is not a trait you are born with. You generally acquire it through years of experience and maturity. Just go check out the backcountry access off of the Village on a big powder / high avay danger day. 75% of the kids could care less what the rating is, as evidenced from the comment above. Reason: Because they are young and less concerned about the risk. A “responsive” reaction rather than a “proactive” one. This is not surprising to me as I was the same way when I first moved out West as a 20 year old in 1989 to ski. Choices, whether related to skiing or setting a climbing anchor were not as thought out as they are now adays. With all that being said, my feelings go out to the young 18 year old that died on Kelso over the weekend. Looks like the two boys were doing the right thing and retreating, and probably thought they were taking a relatively safe exit. Looking at the pictures on the avay web site, I am quite confident that any of us more experienced backcountry travelers could have made the exact same mistake the two boys did. Hopefully all of us can learn from the tragedy.

  7. Lou January 3rd, 2006 10:21 pm

    Exposing more than one person at a time is not doing the right thing. Not carrying a beacon and rescue gear is wrong. And come to think of it, the boys could have taken a much more avalanche safe route while moving below Kelso peak. Harsh? Yes. But I’ll bet if one kid could be saved by learning from these other kid’s mistakes, such harsh assessment is worth it. And who cares if they were retreating or not — all that means is they were being exposed to the same hazard twice instead of once. If they’d retreated while still down in the trees, that would have been a different story.

  8. Sky January 3rd, 2006 11:07 pm

    Like Brian, I would still go skiing with a forgotten beacon. It might severely modify the day’s itinerary and I’d just be a little extra cautious. Not that one should change their behavior because of a beacon…

    But excellent point about one-at-a-time methods when the risk is there. I’ve seen the one-at-a-time protocol possibly save a friend’s life. Route-finding is also very important. It seems like it might be the MOST important thing for people who still want to ski given higher avalanche hazard.

    Nothing you can do to MAKE people cure their ignorance and save their own lives. Just don’t put yourself at their mercy when you’re out there. Sometimes route-finding could mean breaking a new skin track to get away from others who could put you at risk, or breaking a new skin track that gets away from a track taking a bad route. Always good to lay a new skin track!

    Oh yeah, where can I get my t-shirt? I think I’ve earned it many times. Then you’ll know to avoid me.

  9. ham January 4th, 2006 3:16 am

    I hate to be pessimist, but I’m not sure that we’ll ever see avalanche accident numbers go down, especially as backcountry use explodes. The unfortunate reality of gaining knowledge about avalanches is that it only comes after a lot of experience. I always considered myself a pretty responsible skier, reading every avalanche book and taking classes but it took a partial burial before my eyes were really opened. Many people, especially in a relatively stable maritime climate, have bad habits continually reinforced because they never experience an avalanche, until the big one. I can’t tell you how many well-read and self-described experienced skiers I’ve been with who shred bowls in big groups or otherwise disregard safety. The other problem with bc skiing or sledding is that it’s a game of managing and balancing risk and as safe as we want to be, that balance sometimes gets tipped and if we’re lucky then we get to learn from it.

  10. Michael Kennedy January 4th, 2006 6:29 pm

    Here’s some heresy:

    Get a group together. Leave your beacons, shovels, and probes at home. Go on a ski tour.

    Chances are good that you’ll pick an ultra-safe route. You’ll pay close attention to the weather and avalanche forecast that day. You’ll travel one at a time in any area even remotely threatened by avalanche. You’ll go with a small group you really trust, and you’ll communicate constantly. You’ll watch out for one another. You’ll err (very far) on the side of caution.

    You might also get a sense of how much we all depend on our equipment to give us a sense of comfort and security in the backcountry. And maybe a reminder that the most important bit of gear is the one we carry between our ears.

    I’d be thrilled if I could someday look back at 40 or 50 years of backcountry skiing and say, “I’ve never been caught in a slide, nor have any of my partners.” I’d be even more thrilled if I could say, “I’ve never even had a close call, nor have any of my partners,” but it’s too late for that.

  11. AKBC January 4th, 2006 6:47 am

    aha! I told you sledders are more dangerous! ; ) But seriously though, I think Mark’s comment regarding technology making us feel safer is part of the problem (particularly when the technology is a super fast sled) but also the fact that snowmachines are one more level of disconnect from the environment. Recently, an avy rescue professional related a story of teaching a sled-specific avy class in which he had trouble convincing the participants to get off their sleds to feel the snow! I think the bigger problem illustrated here is not the group dynamic issue (which is legitimate nonetheless) but the issue of not being prepared for the BC, a problem sledders seem to suffer from more than any other user group.

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