Fresh untracked powder. Deep turns. The lure follows snowstorms to duck past closure signs inbounds or exit ski area boundaries to nab first turns. But ski patrols and avalanche professionals advocate using caution with the push to plunder pristine powder—with good reason: avalanches have claimed the lives of at least five people nationwide this season, most recently causing the tragic death of Anthony "Tony" Seibert, 24—grandson of one of the Vail's co-founders—in the East Vail Chutes backcountry area outside Vail Mountain’s ski boundaries.
Blame the lure of powder dreams. But in the past decade, ski patrols and avalanche forecasters have watched more skiers and snowboarders compromise their safety and the safety of others to grab first tracks.
Safety and adventure don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Follow these four tips for a safer ski season, wherever you may wander.
Avalanches can occur inbounds and out-of-bounds at ski resorts.
1. Closure Busting
Some resorts have avalanche-prone slopes inbounds that get closed temporarily following storms until ski patrols can mitigate the danger. But resorts are seeing a trend in people ignoring those inbounds closures.
The message is clear from ski patrols: don’t ski or ride in closed areas. The closures help temper potential avalanches, which do happen inbounds. According to the National Ski Areas Association, 3 percent of the U.S. avalanche fatalities since winter 2000/2001 resulted from inbounds avalanches. Patrol groups are seeking to improve respect for the closures.
In 2011, with frustration mounting from so many skiers ducking past closures—even into zones during explosives detonation—Washington State put more teeth in punishments for violating closures. Now, skiers can get fined for ignoring closures, rather than getting passes suspended. Closure signs at Crystal Mountain even reference the law.
“It’s generally been positive so far,” says Paul Baugher, director of Crystal Mountain Ski Patrol. “I think we’ve seen a drop off in skiers crossing into closed areas.”
Whistler Blackcomb took another approach this November. Professional avalanche forecasters Tony Sittlinger and Anton Horvath presented a public forum to share the behind-the-scenes thinking for closing terrain following storms in hopes of trimming closure busting. Whistler Blackcomb aims to share the video of the forum online in the near future.
Gates into the backcountry from Crystal Mountain are sometimes closed due to avalanche danger.
Copyright: Andrew Longstreth/Crystal Mountain Resort
2. Sidecountry Skiing, Not Always Safe
Ducking closures is one thing, but the increase of out-of-bounds skiing is quite another—especially what avy pros call yo-yo skiing where people ski out-of-bounds routes, then cut back into the ski area to hop the lift back up. Skiers yo-yo between the sidecountry and the inbounds chairlifts.
The terms “sidecountry” or “slackcountry” for ski resort backcountry connotes safer conditions, when that isn’t necessarily true. While ski resorts mitigate avalanches with explosives inbounds, they do not do so out of bounds. In the last decade, 9 percent of total U.S. avalanche fatalities occurred just outside resort boundaries.
“Admittedly, sidecountry can be safer than pristine backcountry due to snow compaction from lots of skier traffic,” explains Bruce Tremper, author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain and director of the Utah Avalanche Center. “But often it’s not safer. Literally, conditions can be safe and stable inside the ropeline, but extremely unstable outside. It’s like being at Disneyland, and at the edge there is just a single rope line and by going on the other side you walk into a very rough neighborhood. That’s hard for people to wrap their heads around.”
As interest in sidecountry skiing increases, avalanche professionals have pitched the safety message regarding training, preparedness, proper equipment and knowledge of weather, snow conditions and terrain. “The safest management is by avoidance,” said Tremper, addressing a packed room in Whitefish, Montana this fall at the Northern Rockies Avalanche Safety Workshop. He emphasized the human factor that sits center in the avalanche triangle of weather, snow stability and terrain.
“We often mistake randomness and luck for skill,” Tremper told the audience. “Because snow may be stable 95 percent of the time, we mistake that randomness for skill. Unless you have lots of experience in an instant feedback environment, your intuition means absolutely nothing.”
Tremper pointed out many of the human behavioral causes of avalanche fatalities: the instinct to follow the herd, competition, reliance on an expert leader in place of self-education and summit fever. The breakdown of avalanche deaths speaks to a testosterone factor: 91 percent of U.S. avalanche deaths are male while 8 percent are female. To combat the behaviors that propel skiers into dicey avalanche terrain, Tremper advocated a change in how skiers and snowboarders make decisions, such as giving credence to the one dissenting viewpoint and avoiding rationalization.
To this last point, he (and other avy pros) are talking more now about how skiers and snowboarders make decisions, as human decision-making is one of the parts of the avy triangle—the factors that add up to avalanches. Traditional decision-making relies on majority rules, following the leader or rationalizing. Tremper is emphasizing alternative decision-making paradigms for safer decisions—listening to the one viewpoint that says no-go, for instance. That’s how the BC heliski operations decide what runs to use on any given day, scratching off the list every area to which any of the pros raise objections.
At Whitefish Mountain Resort, signs at ski area boundary exits remind backcountry travellers of safety concerns.
Copyright: Becky Lomax
3. Smartphone Apps Don’t Cut It
With smartphones abounding, new avalanche apps are being touted as cheaper replacements for transceivers. This October, the Canadian Avalanche Centre reviewed the apps and issued a warning against using avalanche apps due to incompatibility with avalanche transceivers, other apps and limited frequency ranges.
While the American Avalanche Association has not issued a collective warning, the Utah Avalanche Center stated that it does not endorse the apps. “Get a real avalanche beacon if you want to be found,” summed up avalanche forecaster Brett Kobernik.
Sidecountry skiers and snowboarders should carry the proper gear: beacons, probes and shovels.
Copyright: Becky Lomax
4. Safety Skills that Save
So, what can you do to prep for a safe winter?
Brush up transceiver skills. Many ski resorts have beacon parks. Log some hours honing your beacon skills before exiting the resort into the backcountry.
Take an avalanche course. Find your regional avalanche center to locate educational options: U.S. avalanche centers, Canadian Avalanche Centre. For an introduction or refresher to avalanche basics and skills, take the online course through the U.S. Forest Service.
A skier practices with her beacon before going into the backcountry.
Copyright: Becky Lomax