The North American backcountry is filling up with highly skilled, avalanche savvy skiers barely skipping across the snowpack on fat rockered skis and snowboards while carrying the latest in safety gear in their packs and on their persons. So how come they keep dying?
By Frederick Reimers
In a record year for avalanche fatalities, last season’s first death was a harbinger in more ways than one. “It’s the day we haven’t stopped talking about around the office,” says Utah avalanche forecaster Drew Hardesty. The accident, he says, presents nearly every trend in a recent rise in avalanche fatalities. “It was madness up there.”
On Sunday afternoon, November 13, 2011, professional skier Jamie Pierre and his friend Jack Pilot crossed the boundary from Utah’s Alta Ski Area to adjacent Snowbird. Neither resort was yet open for the season, but 14 inches of snow had fallen overnight. The Alta parking lot was full—nearly to capacity—with the cars of Utah locals. Skiers and snowboarders were already out in force, traveling uphill under their own power to access the slopes on the first good weekend storm of the preseason. Snowbird was entirely closed to uphill travel due to avalanche danger, rated “Considerable” by the Utah Avalanche Center. Married with two young children at home, Pierre was a fixture of Little Cottonwood Canyon. He was a well liked, if occasionally polarizing, skier who had appeared in several ski films and made headlines in 2006 for setting a world record skiing off a 255-foot high cliff in the Wyoming backcountry. Both Pierre and Pilot knew Alta and Snowbird well.
The pair traversed the southwest chutes on Baldy Mountain—the conical summit that separates Alta from Snowbird—and crossed the Peruvian Gulch in order to make the next ridge, where they planned to ride the South Chute, a rocky, treed, 1,000-foot run. On their way out of the Gulch, they triggered a massive avalanche that ran harmlessly behind them, covering their tracks. They may not have known the slide happened, says avalanche forecaster Hardesty, because a thick cloud layer had the mountain socked in. (Pilot didn’t respond to interview requests.) At some point during their tour, however, the pair must have seen other signs of avalanche activity. Nearly everything steep enough to slide that day did. Hardesty’s team counted 18 skier-triggered slides at Alta, six of which caught and carried people, resulting in one femur fracture and lots of lost gear. One rescue party was nearly buried by a second avalanche triggered by oblivious riders above. “Jamie was just the unluckiest of the people who made bad decisions that day,” says Hardesty.
As a professional skier accustomed to outrunning sluff avalanches in exotic, big mountain settings, when Pierre left the security of the Cirque Traverse and dropped into South Chute that afternoon, Utah forecasters speculate he must have believed he could “manage” whatever avalanche he’d trigger. But because there was so little snow in the Chute, when Pierre broke through the snow’s top layer, his snowboard—for some reason he’d opted for a snowboard that day—hit bedrock, rather than a lower snow layer. The rock was impossible to maneuver on, and the avalanche swept Pierre 800 feet down the gully, over a cliff, and deposited him at the bottom, only partly buried, but dead from trauma.
Read More: Keep Your Name Off the List, by Jill Fredston | Decisions, Decisions: Why do educated backcountry skiers die? | Avalanche Airbags: Prophylactic or work in progress? | The Subtle Art of Not Dying, by Lee Cohen | Through Thick and Thin: How weather shapes the snowpack. | You Screwed Up: this is your last chance. Here’s the new way to shovel. | Weekends Are For Amateurs, by Will Gadd | Faceshot Book: An avalanche of posts.
The popular 38-year-old’s passing made national headlines and sparked an outpouring of grief from the mountain community. The season only got worse. In February, there were more national headlines as three expert skiers died in an avalanche just out-of-bounds at Stevens Pass Mountain Resort in Washington, including the head judge of the Freeskiing World Tour and the resort’s director of marketing. Then in March, Steve Romeo, owner of the popular backcountry skiing website TetonAT, was killed in a slide in Grand Teton National Park along with his touring partner Chris Onufer. Never before had so many ski professionals been felled in such quick succession. It sent shockwaves through skiing circles. By the end of the 2011–12 season, a record 20 skiers and snowboarders were killed in avalanches. And it could have been worse. “Last year we had a depth hoar layer weaker than anyone could ever remember seeing,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. “We were really lucky we had only six weeks of winter in Colorado.”
The high-profile deaths of celebrity skiers revealed an ominous truth: The death counts have been rising since the ’90s, from an average of nine skiers and snowboarders killed a year to a recent average of more than 12, not including last year’s spike. There’s unquestionably a boom on in backcountry skiing—last season two million riders ventured into the backcountry or beyond ski area boundaries—but the rise in fatalities occurred despite the best efforts of avalanche educators, growing sales of rescue gear, and a proliferation of avalanche forecast centers dispensing more and more detailed information. It has sparked some serious soul-searching in the mountain community: Was last year a fluke, or are those numbers here to stay? What’s behind the sudden rise, and are the most experienced and well-trained skiers, who should presumably best know how to avoid slides, now at more risk?
In the early 2000s, when avalanche forecast centers spread from Denver and Salt Lake City to a dozen backcountry skiing communities in the West—like Jackson Hole, Bozeman, and Truckee, California—there was a maxim, says Greene, “that the people being caught in avalanches were the ones who didn’t know what they were doing.” The theory went that when new users like skiers or snowmobilers entered the backcountry in large numbers, there would be a bell curve of death that fell off as education caught up with skill levels. That’s no longer the case, says Dale Atkins, president of the American Avalanche Association. Backcountry rookies are still being killed by avalanches, but as with last year, he says, “we’re seeing some very experienced and savvy people getting into trouble.” Instead of a bell curve the graph would look like steady incline.
Atkins says that the entire focus of backcountry skiing has shifted. “Ten years ago people used avalanche bulletins to avoid avalanches. They carried shovels and transceivers as a last resort. Now, people are using the avalanche forecasts and carrying the rescue gear in order to help them push the limits. They are using the information and rescue gear like a shield, but the reality is that if you have to pull out your rescue gear, you’ve already screwed up.”
Atkins and Hardesty both report that skiers now tell them that they expect to be caught in a slide once in a while. Back when ski touring was a fringe pursuit, purists patiently waited all season to ski bigger lines. The gnarliest stuff would not be touched until spring, when the freeze/thaw cycles transformed the snowpack into a solid, isothermic, predictable mass. As the resort season winds down, backcountry avalanche ratings often get pegged at “low,” typically rising to “considerable” only in the afternoon, when the sun bakes the slopes into slush. In the spring, it’s often possible to predict stability in the top layers of new snow without grave concern for buried surface hoar. Get off the steepest slopes before it warms up, and you are generally good to go. That was the natural progression of the season: resort powder early, low angle touring midseason, big lines in late spring. But now skiers and snowboarders are tackling those steep lines in early winter—often before the storm moves out. “People are skiing 40-degree slopes on the day after the storm,” says Atkins. Last year, as with Pierre’s death, 40 percent of the fatalities occurred on days when the avalanche danger was rated considerable or higher.
What caused the shift in behavior? Most experts point to improved gear. Skiing in the backcountry used to be exhausting and hard. Thanks to oversized rockered skis, splitboards, and svelte bindings and boots, it no longer is. “The equipment is now so easy to use that it enables people to access backcountry terrain they aren’t prepared for,” says Atkins. “Peoples’ judgment and experience lags behind their riding skill.” The harder you are ripping in the backcountry, the more risk you take on. Then there’s the media footage of athletes like Pierre skiing their way out of spectacular slides as if an avalanche is just another terrain feature like a spine or a succession of pillow drops.
The single biggest factor in the increase in skiing steep, avy-prone terrain in sketchy conditions might simply be the sport’s own popularity. Because the backcountry is crowded, say experts, there’s a race for fresh powder. That competition sends people onto steeper terrain for the payoff of inscribing their tracks onto a virgin powder slope. The crowding also clouds judgment, says Karl Birkeland, the director of the U.S. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. “When you see a whole lot of other people out in the backcountry, you tend to feel safe and become complacent about the risks.”
That same feeling goes for the frequency of skiers’ visits. The better they know the terrain, the safer they tend to feel there, no matter the underlying snowpack. But what happened on a slope the year before may not hold true the next season, or the next storm, or the next run. “The snowpack each year is completely different,” says Greene. Furthermore, says Atkins, avalanche forecasting isn’t the exact science people think it is. “Sometimes a rating or forecast can be right for an entire mountain range, but it can be deadly wrong for a specific ski run, or even a specific line on that run. A single terrain feature can throw the estimate off.” Then, says Atkins, “all it takes is one wrong turn.” As with their rescue gear, people are putting too much faith in forecasts.
All these factors come sharply into play in the place where backcountry travel has risen most dramatically—the sidecountry adjacent to resorts. Because areas just beyond ski resort boundaries get more traffic, there’s a greater sense of complacency there, and the race for powder is most acute. “The sidecountry is the most dangerous place,” says Birkeland. “You are trying to dig a pit and someone is jumping off a cornice next to you. I’m amazed by what I see in steep terrain on high avalanche days out there.” Avalanche professionals are urging people not to even use the terms “sidecountry” and “slackcountry” because they believe it conveys a false sense of safety. “Once you step beyond those ropes,” says Atkins, “the avalanche hazard is the same as if you were 10 miles into the backcountry.”
On November 13, 2011, the scene at Alta and Snowbird was very analogous to sidecountry skiing. The hordes that day were extremely familiar with the terrain—it was their home resort after all—and therefore somewhat complacent. People were skiing the same expert lines they do in January, but without the benefit of avalanche control work. And they were racing to get them. The risk of slides was deemed “Considerable” by forecasters, and indeed, 18 of them were triggered. “I believe that if all those skiers had been in the wilderness, rather than at Alta and Snowbird,” says Hardesty, “none of that madness would have ensued.”
What of the experts like Jamie Pierre, and those killed at Stevens Pass—those who have taken the avy education courses, who make a living in avalanche terrain, and who analyze and write about it almost every day, as Steve Romeo did? In part, it’s a numbers game. Snow sports professionals simply spend more time in avalanche terrain than anyone else. Which includes avalanche forecasters themselves. “It’s something I wrestle with all the time,” says Greene.
But oftentimes that’s the cop-out response. Because we don’t like to blame the dead we fall back on false truisms and pin deadly accidents on mountaineering terms like “exposure.” If you spend enough time in the mountains, the idea goes, you’ll eventually get caught. That’s might be true if a Himalayan serac fails 3,000 feet above your traverse. But it’s not universally true with human-triggered avalanches. At some point a decision was made. And when you recreate the avalanche scene, you can usually find that bad decision. People tend to score particularly high on what avalanche researcher Ian McCammon calls his six heuristic traps in avalanche accidents: familiarity, commitment, acceptance, the expert halo, social proof, and the race for powder. “Experts accept avalanche risks in the same way that people still text while driving even though they know it is dangerous,” says McCammon. “From their point of view, it’s a manageable risk.” Until it isn’t.
“We need to find a way to diminish confidence,” says Dave Richards, one of Hardesty’s colleagues, in response to the day Jamie Pierre died. “We have to find a way to drill into experienced people like this that there is something different about every day. That every slide is different, and that just because you have ski cut snow like this before, in terrain like this before, on days like this before, that today isn’t just like before.”
It’s possible that the tragic loss of 20 skiers and snowboarders, an inordinately high percentage of them industry insiders, may raise awareness enough to tamp down confidence, but Atkins doesn’t think so. “I used to say avalanche deaths were preventable,” says Atkins, “but with the new-school approach of tackling big lines in the backcountry all season long, deaths are probably inevitable. By the end of the decade we could be averaging 40 a year. The only way to avoid dying in avalanches is to avoid getting caught in one. The best piece of safety gear we have is our brain. We need to use it more.”
From the Winter 2013 issue.