The rising fever of winter anticipation broke abruptly on November 13 with the death of pro skier Jamie Pierre. The father, husband, and new ambassador for Moonlight Basin in Montana triggered a slab avalanche while snowboarding at Utah's Snowbird Resort. Pierre suffered fatal trauma after being swept 700 feet over rocky terrain. The ski area had not yet opened for the season. Pierre and a friend wereriding in uncontrolled, backcountry conditions. The Utah Avalanche Center reported 17 other avalanches on the day of Pierre's death, an eye-opening reminder that avalanche danger is a threat long before snowfall accumulation hits triple digits or resorts open.
"The early season snowpack is always pretty tricky," says Alaska's Kent Scheler, the lead guide for Teton Gravity Research. Pre-season storms dust the mountains with snow. And then that snow sits for a long, cold, clear periods. This creates an opportunity for hoar frost to form on the surface, essentially creating a rotten layer. When another storm comes through it piles more snow on top of that weak layer and creates avalanche danger, both in the backcountry and inbounds at unopened resorts. "I'm very cautious of the open, loaded slopes," Scheler says of early winter. "I tend to stick to the trees, low-angle stuff, and short pitches. I let the snowpack build a bit and let the first avalanche cycle of the season roll before I head deeper or higher."
Lel Tone, the assistant avalanche forecaster for Squaw Valley, also recommends a cautious approach for the first forays into the backcountry. "Don't be lulled into thinking that because there's not a lot of snow on the ground, it's safe," she says. Besides avalanche danger, Tone says "low-tide skiing conditions" can conceal hazards like rocks and stumps. It was trauma, after all, that killed Pierre—he was only partially buried.
Both Scheler and Tone emphasize the importance of having the correct gear—and knowing how to use that beacon, shovel, and probe. They're also proponents of avalanche airbag packs, as well as checking in with avalanche forecasting centers and education via free clinics or avalanche classes. Caught up in the excitement of buying new ski gear that makes backcountry touring more accessible, Scheler says people overlook budgeting for an avalanche course. "Getting an avalanche course under your belt early in the season will give you the eyeballs you need to have when you're going out into the backcountry," he says. "With the rest of the season, you'll practice new skills and start to fill your toolbox." —Olivia Dwyer
Visit avalanche.org to find an avalanche center near you, and to view online tutorials and avalanche course listings. The American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education also has information on courses and other online resources. Check your local REI or EMS to see if they host avalanche awareness or training, and watch Kent Scheler talk avalanche safety in The North Face's web series "Know Boundaries."