by James Vlahos
The first of the storms hit Lake Tahoe on Tuesday, February 15, 2011, and the last one didn't relent until Saturday. Eight feet of new snow smothered the mountains, with even more loaded onto some slopes by 117 mph winds. For backcountry skiers and snowboarders who suffered through a balmy January, the powder bonanza was as tempting as it was dangerous. In the Mount Rose area skiers triggered three avalanches over the weekend. Nobody was hurt, but one skier had to outrace a slide to a stand of trees, then cling for his life to a trunk as the snow blasted by.
Monday morning dawned calm and clear. The view from atop Mount Judah, facing northeast into the backcountry behind Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, was of white mountainsides glittering under a blue sky. A dozen skiers and I were trying to make a decision. After the massive storm, was the untracked slope below us stable enough to ski? The group was prepared to assess the risk. We were students in our third and final day of an avalanche education course with Alpine Skills International (ASI), and the instructors were on hand to make the ultimate judgment. "We will have to be super careful," one of the teachers, Logan Talbott, said on the first morning of the class. "We can go to the same place we went to on five previous courses and get killed because the snowpack is different."
To people who enjoy risky sports like backcountry skiing, rock climbing, or kayaking, no question is more important than "is it safe?" Is the next run, pitch, or rapid manageable, or is the danger too high? To help people make wise choices, outdoor educators and academics perform extensive research on past accidents and the factors that contributed to them. They study not only the objective risks—crumbly rock, unstable snow—but also the faulty ways that people often assess those hazards.
An educated person is a safer one, or so the theory goes on courses like the one I was taking. There's mounting evidence, however, that knowledge isn't always power. Safety education can lure people into thinking they can control outcomes that are significantly influenced by random, cruel chance. Avalanche forecasters die in avalanches, too. The seemingly contradictory research leads to an uncomfortable question: If you can't eliminate the danger inherent in many of your favorite sports, how do you justify participating? There are many defensible answers, but the question still must be asked.
At Sugar Bowl, the run we were considering was on a wind-loaded, north-facing aspect above treeline—exactly the type of slope that a local avalanche center had flagged as having the highest potential danger. Ben Mitchell, another ASI instructor, sidestepped onto the cornice overhanging the run and stomped with one of his skis. The snow didn't crack or make a "whumpfing" noise, both would have been bad signs. Mitchell then pointed downslope to a few large blocks of snow that had been blasted free from the cornice by ski patrollers. The fact that the chunks, each weighing a ton or more, had hit and run down the slope without triggering an avalanche was also encouraging. And finally, he knew that the slope angle of the mountain was less than 30 degrees, making it much less likely to slide than a steeper slope.
The run was safe enough to ski, we decided. But as I clamped down my bindings, I knew that I could never be 100 percent certain. Avalanche forecasters talk of "spatial variability," meaning the snowpack is seldom uniform, even on a uniform slope. There could be pockets of slab snow below, or worse, a trigger point that could get the entire slope pouring downhill. But we went anyway. Bela Vadasz, the head of ASI, told us that the goal of the course was to teach "decision making and situational intelligence" rather than the strict rules of the 1980s. "If we followed those exact rules," he said, "we'd never go skiing again."
A video is playing in the front of the classroom when we arrive for the course. It shows a skier, Mitchell, shooting off the top of a 600-foot cliff and then deploying a parachute. A woman follows behind but crosses a tip and loses a ski just before making a shaky takeoff. "She's a good BASE jumper but not that good of a skier," Mitchell remarks, almost to himself. Then he switches off the television. "Let's talk about something way more dangerous than BASE jumping," he says. "Avalanches."
I would never launch such a cliff. Like many people who enjoy wilderness sports, though, I do enjoy a hint of danger. Managing risk makes you feel focused, capable, and alive. But my attitude is shifting. A few years ago, during a mountaineering expedition in the Andes of Argentina, rocks from a sun-warmed hanging serac rocketed toward my partner and me. In that instant my notion about relishing danger was exposed as a sham. It turned out that I liked only the faintest perception of life-threatening risk but nothing approaching the gut-clenching reality. Parenthood also lowered my risk tolerance. The dangers of outdoor activities haven't changed since my two sons were born, but the consequences of dying are now radically higher. I signed up for the avalanche course believing it would help me to ski more safely. But it's also true that avalanche education epitomizes how risk can't truly be tamed.
On the first afternoon, Talbott covertly buries an avalanche transceiver in the snow to simulate a buried skier. Another student and I switch our transceivers to the "search" mode and begin the rescue. We're on flat ground within smelling distance of the resort snack bar, but I'm stressed. The readout on my transceiver tells me I'm 10 feet away from the buried beacon, then six. Then it shoots back up to 10 again. "You need to find the curving flux line and follow it in," Talbott calls out. I have no idea what he means. I take off my skis and immediately sink to my waist in the powder. It takes several agonizing minutes to cover the last few feet to where the signal is strongest. We pull the shovels from our packs and frantically dig until we find the buried transceiver. "That took 15 minutes," says Talbott, shaking his head at our fumbling.
Even the safety gadgets we employ cloud our view of risk. Toting a high-tech piece of gear into the woods makes many people feel safer regardless of their expertise using it. A 2007 Austrian study that looked at avalanche accidents divided victims into two groups: seasoned backcountry skiers on wilderness tours, and sidecountry skiers near resorts. Predictably, only 21 percent of the backcountry skiers without beacons survived, but the survival rate jumped to 50 percent for people who were wearing the devices, suggesting that transceivers are beneficial when employed by knowledgeable users. Among the presumably less savvy sidecountry skiers, though, the survival rate dropped for people wearing beacons, from 41 to only 32 percent. The take-away from the study (and from our drill) is that expecting an inexperienced beacon user to conduct a life-saving search is like sending a 15-year-old driver out on the interstate, blindfolded, after his first couple of spins around the parking lot. That, and we rely too much on gear to save us.
On day two of the course, seven of us skin up a ridge. The instructor, Steve Reynaud, pairs off the students to dig pits. We prod the pit walls with fingers and fists to identify different layers in the snowpack before isolating a column of snow with a saw, then measure how hard we hit it with a shovel before it crumbles. "You can see that we've got hand hardness of 1F to 4F, and an RP13, resistant planar fracture," Reynaud says—or something like that. He speaks rapidly and the terminology is complex. I clear my throat. "So, uh, what does this indicate in terms of snow safety?" I ask.
"That's what everybody always wants to know," Reynaud says, sounding frustrated that I can't appreciate the beauty of snow science for its own sake. "So, Steve, can I ski it or not?" He goes on to say that our test results are positive but inconclusive. They have to be factored in with every other piece of information we have, from recent weather activity to the features of the terrain. As I listen I realize that it will be a long time, maybe never, before someone like me can gain enough expertise to make a life-risking decision based on reading the tea leaves of a snow pit.
But I'm a beginner. Expertise, surely, will make me safer—that's the promise of outdoor education courses everywhere. "In the end it's up to you guys to ski a lot, to see a lot, and slowly build up your level of comfort and experience in the field," Talbott advises during a classroom lecture. "That goes for anything that's high risk, be it rock climbing, riding a bike, whatever. Experience is what you need."
Talbott's point would seem unassailable, but the evidence to support it is mixed. Researcher Ian McCammon reviewed information on 715 U.S. avalanche accidents between 1972 and 2003 and found that skiers trained on avalanche courses were only marginally less likely than totally ignorant ones to proceed "into the avalanche path in the face of ample evidence of danger." McCammon speculated that the savvier skiers got themselves into trouble in part because of something called risk homeostasis. As your outdoor competence rises, so too does your willingness to take on greater risks. Witness the ski-BASE jumping likes of Mitchell.
McCammon also reports that beginners and experts alike endanger themselves by taking risk-assessment shortcuts. Many of the accident victims he studied relied on social proof. They saw other people skiing where they were going to ski and assumed the slope was safe. They were also trapped by commitment—the need to stick with a decision, even a bad one, in order to appear strong to their peers. And they fell prey to familiarity—the belief that if you've done something in the past and gotten away with it, you can do it again.
There's yet another problem with the "see a lot, ski a lot" approach to risk management. Your exposure—the sheer amount of time you spend in risky situations—rises, which can grossly outweigh any safety gains that come from being able to, say, dig a perfect snow pit. Consider the case of the first American killed in an avalanche in the winter of 2010-11. The victim wasn't some clueless rookie, but rather Scott Kay, the director of ski patrol at Colorado's Wolf Creek Ski Area. Kay was buried inbounds on a routine morning patrol performing avalanche mitigation work before the resort opened for the day. The famed mountaineer Alex Lowe, meanwhile—who was killed in 1999 by a naturally triggered slab avalanche in Tibet—didn't die for lack of skills. His peers considered him the world's greatest all-around alpinist, and he too was a professional avalanche forecaster. Instead, as someone who logged thousands of hours in volatile high-altitude environments, Lowe essentially died from exposure. He had gambled one too many times that he wouldn't be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by something he couldn't control. In this case, a massive avalanche that started thousands of feet above him.
I once took a lesson in driving a behemoth RV that was more expensive than most three-bedroom homes, and almost as roomy. Whenever I was about to do something stupid, like turn into a cul-de-sac that would trap me like a wooly mammoth in a tar pit, the instructor would share his favorite folksy motto: "It's better to stay out of trouble than to get out of trouble."
All sports have ways to (mostly) stay out of trouble. In backcountry skiing, for instance, you can choose the stable, 20-degree run in the forest rather than a slide-prone, 38-degree one above treeline. The problem with the stay-out-of-trouble philosophy, though, is that if you followed it to the extreme, you'd never leave the house. That's just wrongheaded. Sure, outdoor activities are accompanied by unavoidable risk, but so is nearly everything else in life. So the question to ask yourself is: What is it you're not doing when you're off playing in the woods, and how risky would the alternative have been?
Start with staying at home, which isn't the safe haven you think it is. Accidents related to the toilet, shower, and tub send more than 275,000 people in the U.S. to emergency rooms every year. Razors, the sink, and hot water are involved with almost 100,000 more ER-worthy injuries. Knives, glasses, and cabinets add a whopping 750,000 to the total. Some 30,000 Americans die from accidents in the home every year.
Leaving the house, most people get into their cars. If you've ever found yourself saying during some outdoor adventure that "the riskiest thing we did today was driving to the mountain in a car," you were probably right. Automobile accidents are the fifth leading cause of death for the U.S. population as a whole, and the number one cause for people between the ages of four and 34.
Getting around on a bike is better for the environment, but not necessarily for your safety. Around 700 people die per year in bike accidents in the U.S., according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). A British government study, meanwhile, found that traveling a mile by bike is almost 14 times more likely to be fatal than traveling a mile by car. Being a dude appears to be a big part of the problem. In the U.S., nearly 90 percent of cyclists killed are men, which is partly due to the fact that there are slightly more male bicyclists than female ones, and mainly due, it seems, to the fact that men take more stupid risks.
People who prefer conventional team sports to outdoor sports might assume that they lead safer lives, but that isn't necessarily the case. Certain sports, like BASE jumping, are indeed highly risky. A Norwegian study of 11 years of leaps from the Kjerag Massif found that one in 254 jumps resulted in injury, and one in 2,317 resulted in death, which made the sport five to eight times more dangerous than conventional skydiving. But other outdoor activities aren't as dangerous as people might think. A 2010 paper in The Journal of Sports Medicine reviewed injury and mortality data from more than 400 prior studies and found that rock climbing "had a lower injury incidence and severity score than many popular sports, including basketball, sailing, or soccer." Traveling in avalanche terrain, meanwhile, can certainly be risky, but the death toll from snow slides is still relatively low—in the U.S., only 27 people per year, on average, for the past decade.
Still, if you took the RV driver's stay-out-of-trouble maxim to the extreme, you wouldn't ski, climb, bike, shoot a basketball, or do anything. You would shroud yourself in Bubble Wrap and sit on the couch watching Golden Girls reruns. But that same inactivity would heighten your risk for the most prodigious killers in America. The country's leading cause of mortality is heart disease, which is responsible for one out of every six deaths. Your risk of dying from the second and third most common causes of death, cancer and stroke, also go up when you're sedentary and obese.
A study published last year in the journal Circulation, looked at nearly 9,000 Australians and found that for each additional hour of television a person sat and watched per day, the risk of dying rose by 11 percent. Physical activity saves lives. You could run on a treadmill in a gym, of course, but too much of that and you start to feel like a caged rat on the exercise wheel—and then there are the germs. Exercising outdoors, in a beautiful if mildly risky environment, strengthens not just the body but also the soul.
Many outdoor enthusiasts, waxing poetic over beers after a brilliant day outside, will say that their favorite sport "saved my life." Some of them mean it quite literally. Claire Tinker, a 62-year-old woman in Seattle, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009. She says hiking, cross-country skiing, and especially biking helped her body gain the strength to successfully battle the disease. Jeb Corliss, a professional BASE jumper and wingsuit pilot, describes how he emerged from a "dark, deep depression" in his late teens. "I wanted to kill myself," he says. "I rose out of that depression through BASE jumping."
At Sugar Bowl, the snow on the back side of Mount Judah is just as stable as we predicted it would be. The only thing shooting down the slope is me, slowly at first, then building speed into a steady rhythm of linked turns down a long white ramp under a blue sky.
After stripping down to T-shirts to eat lunch in a meadow at the bottom of the hill, we begin the climb back uphill. "Hey! Oh no! Avalanche!" Mitchell calls out suddenly, signaling a final, surprise beacon drill. All of the students switch their transceivers into search mode. In less than eight minutes, the rescue is complete, and all three beacons from a multiple burial scenario have been retrieved.
Back in the classroom, Vadasz delivers his wrap-up talk. "People are looking for hard, firm answers—should I ski or not ski?" he says. "But we're talking about snow. Frozen yet fluid. Still, but dynamic." Vadasz trails off for a moment in a philosophical daze, then he says, "Avalanche forecasting is an art and a science. And I lean a little more toward the art." It's a tired expression, but the same could be said of any type of outdoor risk analysis. Sometimes you need to tune out the science of ice crystals and ask yourself: Should I ski that line? Or should I die of boredom?
From the Early Winter 2011 issue