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Inherently Unstable


The view to the northeast just above Colorado’s famously avalanche prone Silverton Mountain. (Photo Dave Cox)

From the editor:
A Colorado Supreme Court case brings inbounds avalanches into the spotlight. Marc Peruzzi offers an all-in-one history, science lesson, and editorial on the topic.

Both civil suits involve tragic losses of life in separate inbounds avalanche fatalities at Colorado ski resorts. The deaths occurred on the same Sunday in January 2012: An avalanche at Vail killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin and another, at Winter Park, killed a 28-year-old father, Christopher Norris. In September, the Colorado Supreme Court heard arguments on behalf of Norris’s family, which hopes to hold Winter Park responsible for his death. A lower court judge ruled that avalanches are an inherent risk to Colorado skiing. If the state’s High Court disagrees, the decision will have an immediate and specific impact on both cases. The broader fallout of such a decision, however, could end resort-based expert skiing as we know it.

The ruling ultimately rests on whether avalanches are an integral risk of the sport, similar to catching an edge and smacking a tree, skittering into snowmaking equipment, getting blindsided by a 350-pound never-ever from Nebraska, passing out on a lift and falling to the rocks, being struck by lightning, or anything else that may or may not be explicitly spelled out in Colorado’s Ski Safety Act. That act, and acts like it in other states, allows the sport to exist in a litigious society. The basic gist is this: Resorts have every duty to keep people safe, but skiers and snowboarders are always taking on risk—risk is inherent to the fun. And more vitally, risk is inherent to spending time in the mountains. This is especially true when it comes to inbounds avalanches, although avalanches aren’t mentioned specifically in the Colorado act. Regardless, that’s what the law means, even if, like some of the verbiage in Obamacare, it does a poor job of spelling it out.

Still, if you take the avalanche science at face value and assume (correctly) that any slope steeper than 30 degrees can theoretically slide, and then—through fear of devastating lawsuits—demand that avalanche controllers stabilize every such slope with 100 percent accuracy, the ski industry in the West would be forced to close virtually all terrain from blue square on up.

As with wind, waves, and earthquakes, avalanches are complicated natural phenomena that have been studied by scientists for decades, but remain nearly impossible to predict and almost as hard to control. This is true even inside of ski areas, where explosives—intended to trigger slab avalanches before skiers are allowed onto the slopes—are tossed like candy at a Shriner’s parade. There’s never been a winter in North America without at least one potentially deadly inbounds avalanche incident. I personally witnessed a severe inbounds avalanche that partially buried a snowboarder and left him with the type of blunt force trauma common in car wrecks. And I’ve kicked off at least a dozen small slides inbounds on open terrain. While inbounds avalanche fatalities are now exceedingly rare in the U.S., there have been at least five since 1990—three in Colorado. That’s but a small fraction of the 39 avalanche deaths we see annually in North America, but a fraction nonetheless.

You might feel safe and cozy sipping your macchiato in a puffy coat while waiting for first chair—and you should—but that’s all an orchestrated Mount Disney illusion. As Aaron Brill, guide, owner, and chief explosive thrower at Colorado’s famously avalanche prone Silverton Mountain recently told me, “There are no avalanche experts. We all live on the avalanche novice scale.”


photograph Lee Cohen

Avalanche History Digest

If you graphed avalanche deaths through American history, you’d find obvious groupings. The first major loss of life occurred with Victorian age miners, who moved through avalanche terrain witlessly. The next big spike doesn’t show until our mountain-trained Second World War troops returned and opened ski areas throughout the West. As those resort operators, ski instructors, and snow rangers moved off the lower packed runs and up into the alpine bowls, faces, and chutes, they moved deeper into avalanche terrain. As did their customers: Through the ’50s and ’60s, most North American avalanche deaths occurred inbounds at ski areas.

Dave Hamre is now the Avalanche Program Director for the Alaska Railroad, but he began his avalanche training at Alta, Utah, in 1971. Think of Alta as the birthplace of North American powder skiing—and, by necessity, avalanche science and the business of avalanche control. Then, as now, that control work involved studying the snowpack and sending slab avalanches downhill by discharging explosives and ski cutting (skiing at a diagonal across a start zone). As proficient as our nation’s ski patrollers have become at making inbounds terrain (relatively) safe to ski, there’s not much more to it than that.

Hamre’s first few years were an interesting time in Little Cottonwood Canyon. Its new neighbor, the resort of Snowbird, was just opening, and faced with similar avalanche hazard thanks to 500-plus inches of a snow a year and ample expert terrain, the owners promptly recruited many of Alta’s seasoned avalanche route runners. Soon enough, Snowbird was opening avalanche terrain after storms faster than Alta. Powder skiers followed the open terrain. The competitive vibe that ensued advanced the working knowledge of inbounds avalanche control. “The techniques we developed haven’t changed much since 1975,” says Hamre. “Mitigation became pretty efficient. And because of the cross pollination of ski patrol exchange programs, ski areas like Jackson Hole and Squaw Valley got more aggressive, too. Eventually, those methods infused the entire business.”

Most of us skiing in 2015 came of age in a gilded era of inbounds avalanche control. Today, nearly all avalanche deaths occur out of ski resort boundaries, spiking their way through new user groups like backcountry skiers and snowmobilers. Potentially fatal inbounds avalanches are rare during operating hours, but they remain part of western life, particularly in the Rocky Mountains—from Santa Fe, New Mexico, all the way north to British Columbia’s Liard River.

In simpleton speak: Here in the Continental snowpack—the trickster of the Mountain West—the one universal avalanche truth is that instabilities tend to linger. They’re inherent to the snowpack. Colloquially, the disease is called “rot.” High-elevation Rocky Mountain snow falls less frequently and comes in the form of powder, which by definition doesn’t bond to itself well. Worse, high pressure dominates between storms. At midday, the sun above 9,000 feet warms the air. At night, clear skies and a thin atmosphere induce dramatic radiation cooling. Add in a thin snowpack and the warmth of the ground in early winter, and you get wild temperature fluctuations within the snowpack. People spend lifetimes studying the how, why, and when of the result, but this is where that rot comes in. The sugary layer—or more likely, layers—might be hidden next to the ground, close to the surface of the snowpack, or anywhere in between. Regardless, it’s impossible to make a decent snowball out of the stuff.

When topped by a layer of consolidated snow hardened and adhered by wind or sun, you end up with a “slab” avalanche scenario: a layer or many layers of cohesive snow, shearing and sliding downhill on those facets. It’s been described as Styrofoam sliding on ball bearings. Except in the natural world, the force can snap 50-year-old trees, and if you somehow survive the trauma, the burial will suffocate you in your own carbon dioxide exhalations—a most unpleasant experience that I once suffered in a mock burial gone awry. Because it’s unusual to get big dumps of heavy snow to rip those slabs out naturally, those instabilities linger, often waiting for a human trigger—whether it be a bomb or an unlucky skier—to send the slope ripping downhill.

photograph Scott Markewitz

photograph Scott Markewitz

Residual Uncertainty on Mt.Disney

Alta—still the antithesis of Disneyfied skiing—was founded in 1938 by a Norwegian immigrant named Alf Engen. One year later, it was the first ski area in the world to discharge explosives for avalanche control. In the ensuing decades, Alta became the global epicenter of both the art of the powder turn, through Engen’s famed ski school, and as mentioned above, avalanche mitigation courtesy of the life’s work of Monty Atwater, Ed LaChapelle, and a long list of scientists and ski patrollers like Hamre who made inbounds powder skiing relatively safe for everyone.

That, along with rockered fat skis, breathable jackets, pocket burritos, and dependable lifts, made powder skiing what it is today. Over the past two decades, powder skiing has boomed. This, any powder skier over age 40 could tell you, is a marked generational shift. Early powder skiing, like early rock climbing, was the realm of a core contingent with their winters off and beers in the truck. Hamre recalls that in the ’70s, only 25 percent of Alta’s guests ever skied off the groomed runs. From my eyes, 75 to 85 percent of Alta skiers today are there for the off-trail skiing, preferably in fresh snow. So too with the masses driving west on I-70 whenever it snows more than six inches. So too, again, with every local at your home hill. Today, we’re all powder skiers.

But as inbounds powder skiing grew safer, easier, and more popular, many of the ski areas of the West changed in other ways. They don’t even call themselves ski areas anymore—they’re “destination resorts.” The title comes complete with villages rife with tchotchke shops; rollercoasters in summer; sushi at 8,000-feet; snowpack that’s nightly groomed to corduroy; and an overall experience that’s been refined to emphasize ease rather than risk. Behind the scenes, people still work hard ski cutting slopes and throwing explosives—often in the dark—so that the inherently dangerous sport of skiing can be marketed as a harmless pastime. And for most destination skiers who spend their days on the groomed slopes and avoid skiing deep powder at the fringes of the resort, it is. For more advanced skiers, however, the risk is going back up. The more powder skiers out there charging to every last patch of untracked snow, the more chances they’ll find that incredibly rare pocket of hazard that exists in big, deadly, unpredictable, mountainous terrain. Short of carpet bombing our mountains till the trees glow, and frankly even then, that’s just the nature of things.

The deaths of Conlin and Norris were tragic. When young people die it’s always tragic. But as one follower of Mountainonline.com succinctly put it, “Hard cases make bad law.” The adage, and the Colorado Supreme Court hearing, should serve as a reminder that mountains aren’t theme parks. Rather, they’re inherently risky—despite the best efforts of all involved. And while all resorts—with the only exceptions in the U.S. being the unapologetic Bridger Bowl, Montana, and Silverton, Colorado—could do a better job of advertising those risks, to posit the idea that a ski area operator working in good faith in a dark science could control a weather and physics phenomenon with perfect accuracy is ludicrous on its face.

“When a resort’s snow safety director opens the terrain and you drop that rope, and suddenly there are hundreds of people heading out—it’s a forecaster’s nightmare,” says Hamre. “But there’s no way around it. You’re always left with residual uncertainty. A resort’s patrol can never be 100 percent certain, which means the residual risk is born by the client. Meaning it’s inherent. And given that, the bar for negligence is set pretty high.”

Learn more about avalanche safety from Know Before You Go, a nonprofit dedicated to spreading avalanche awareness. 

From the Deep Winter 2016 issue.

7 Responses to “Inherently Unstable”

  1. Rob Baker

    Your article on avalanche danger hits the mark. As they say in the legal world, “Hard cases make bad law.”

  2. Jerry Miller

    If your going into a wilderness expect the unexpected. Our justice system seems to reward people who have no common sense and take no personal responsibility for their actions. They chose to do whatever and it’s now someones else’s fault ??????? Maybe it’s attorneys ………….

  3. Lynne Wolfe

    Marc nice job on this article. I would be interested in a followup on it for the fall issue of The Avalanche Review once the Colorado court case is decided. Please contact me at email above. Thanks, Lynne Wolfe


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