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The Subtle Art of Not Dying

By Lee Cohen

I’ve got to admit that when my son hits the road for a ski trip or heads out into the backcountry I get puckered. More than I would if I was heading out myself. I have a lot of confidence in him, he’s very level-headed and he’s more than able, having been raised on his skis at Alta. But his vision quest as a pro skier occasionally scares the shit out of me. The face of skiing has undergone major reconstruction, and to get any recognition as a skier now requires pushing athleticism and risk to Hollywood stuntman levels. And now, that stunt skiing is in the backcountry.

For almost 30 years I’ve been shooting ski photos, and while I’ve seen a lot go down in that time, nothing compares to what gets laid down in the recent hyper-accelerated progression of the ski world. When I started back in the ’80s most photos were shot within resort boundaries. Being from Utah and because I love skiing pow, the majority of what I focused on was shooting powder skiing. But the evolution of skiing and ski photography means most of the imagery you see in magazines today is shot out-of-bounds—from the easily accessed sidecountry just beyond the ropes to heli-skiing in Alaska.

The first day after a storm, I still usually start my day in the resort, but within an hour or two we are heading out to where the snow is pristine. Avalanches have always been a factor in capturing powder skiing images, but within the ski area boundaries ski patrol works hard to control them. Out of the area you are on your own. And people are dying out there. The ski community has become far too familiar with dealing with the grief caused by losing people who are out doing what they love. Going skiing is not supposed to be like going off to war.

For years, skiers have been pushing it—and usually getting away with it. But lately I’ve wondered if skiing is on the backside of a curve that has peaked. The curve of people getting away with shit they should not be doing. It would be easy to say this backlash has been inevitable; that it’s a mathematical equation. Keep pushing and eventually physics pushes back. Like that last snowflake that overloaded the avalanche slope.

These are just a smattering of the brand-name skiers who have died in big mountain settings, whether in avalanches or in falls, in the past few years: Doug Coombs, Billy Poole, CR Johnson, Jamie Pierre, Jim Jack, Johnny Brenan, Chris Rudolph, Ryan Hawks, Kip Garre, Arne Backstrom, Steve Romeo, Chris Onufer, and 11 people on Manaslu this past fall. The list is way too long, much longer than this, and it includes people the ski media doesn’t write about: husbands, fathers, mothers, daughters, sons. The saddest thing is that it’s going to get longer still.

We shouldn’t be surprised. For years we’ve all gaped in awe as skiers push outward, whether those exploits are heretofore unskiable lines or testing the safety of the snowpack before the storm has even abated. To cite individual instances and try and analyze what happened is an attempt to understand why, but examining the trends gives more insight to what is actually occurring out there. Why is this happening? Without robotically citing a catalog of statistics let’s take a look at the obvious.

More skiers are in the backcountry. Backcountry skiing is almost a mainstream activity. Leaving aside the time it takes to acquire real backcountry skills, the simple numbers are telling: More skiers above you and more skiers below you equals more hazard for all. More people in a group means it is more likely some are wrapping themselves in the security blanket of someone else’s decision making.

Then there are the images we see in film and in magazine pages: Much of the rowdy terrain featured would be unapproachable in anything but ideal snow—the kind filmmakers and pro athletes wait weeks and months to capture. This is far from what you come across as a typical backcountry skier. In the Rockies, weak layers can persist all year.

Sage Cattabriga-Alosa, one of the world’s foremost big mountain skiers, describes it like this: “We are selling the glory, sharing those epic moments with people; encouraging and inspiring more and more people to come live that reality. But it comes with a price. More and more people become exposed and immersed in backcountry experiences, and those involved in the inspiration business have to raise the bar every year.”

Films, photos, Facebook, better gear, airbags, shorter winters, too little knowledge, too much knowledge—it’s easy to get lost in our search for answers. But if you can be cold and calculating, the simple truth is that most human-triggered avalanches involve breaking one of the cardinal rules long ago established for safe backcountry travel. Maybe it’s cutting a ridge near the top to save some steps on a climb, not spacing out enough on a traverse, ignoring obvious avalanche signs, skiing something foolish where even a small slide will be catastrophic, putting too many people on a slope, not bringing a beacon-—the list goes on and on. It’s not a lack of knowledge. If you look at the deaths of even the most experienced backcountry skiers, each of them at one point violated one of those very fundamentals we are all told to observe religiously. We all break the rules. But when you go out ski touring, the most important consideration is to make it home at the end of the day. I try to remind myself to head out with aspirations, not expectations.

“Focus on the experience. Being present to all the little details along the way will assure that every day, whether we get turned around in the woods or bag the peak, will be a success,” says Cattabriga-Alosa. “It’s a subtle art, but what it really comes down to is backing off on the days when there is resistance, and going for it when everything has lined up perfectly.”

Dave Richards, a second generation Alta ski patroller, takes a similar stance on the decision making process. “I finish every avy speech and course I give with the same statement,” says Richards. “I tell them, ‘Don’t get dead.’ ”

My boy is on the road again this winter. Last winter, at 19, he hit AK for the first time, spending six weeks with his buddy Zach who lives in Girdwood, loving it at Alyeska during a record winter and hiking to lines off Turnagain Pass. He didn’t make it out in a heli, but he still got up close and personal with Alaska. I was a little gripped when I’d hear what they were planning next. When I hit the road to be a ski bum it was about spending the winter camping out and skiing Colorado’s A-Basin. We mostly skied in the resort, but there were some runs across the street and up on Loveland Pass that were out-of-bounds. Avalanche beacons were relatively new and we never even heard of or saw one. It was about skiing powder and bumps and catching a little air. Today it’s all about skiing the gnar with speed and style, and throwing in a big air with a trick. Quite possibly out in the middle of nowhere.

But you don’t have to be pushing it to get killed, you just have to make one mistake in a situation where you can’t make one. That’s how it usually happens.

More avalanche safetyFrom the Winter 2013 issue. 

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