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Produced & Maintained by Idaho Mountain Express, Box 1013, Ketchum, ID 83340-1013 
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Copyright © 2001 Express Publishing Inc.
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For the week of December 5 - 11, 2001

  Features

Snow brings danger on backcountry ventures

Know before you go


By GREG STAHL
Express Staff Writer

With consecutive new snowfalls the past two weeks, the Rocky Mountainsí backcountry winter snowpack is thickening, and avalanche season is dawning.

Already, four avalanche accidents and two fatalities were reported this fall and early winter. After storms pelted the Rockies early last week, a Colorado snowboarder was killed in an avalanche that swept him into a lake near Rollins Pass, 30 miles west of Boulder, Colo.

During the past 50 years, U.S. avalanche fatalities have steadily risen, though the Wood River Valley has had a relatively clean record for the past five years. In the early 1950s, the five-year average number of U.S. avalanche fatalities was zero. By the early í60s, the average had jumped to five, and by the late í90s, the five-year average exploded to more than 25.

And the number of fatalities pales in comparison to the number of close calls.

Kelly OíNeill, a Ketchum resident who has been skiing Central Idahoís backcountry for 15 years, said more people are definitely venturing into the winter backcountry than when she began strapping on skins in 1987.

Among skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers, there is a heightened level of avalanche awareness, OíNeill said, but many "donít have a clue, for sure."

OíNeill said taking avalanche awareness and rescue courses from the U.S. Forest Service, Galena Backcountry Patrol or other qualified sources is a mandatory step before schussing into the backcountry. She also recommended regularly reading the U.S. Forest Serviceís on-line avalanche report at (www.avalanche.org/~svavctr/)

"You think it wonít happen to you, but you donít want to be pulling your friend out. Iíll tell you that. Itís definitely something you donít want to do," she said.

And she knows.

In January, 2000, OíNeill was skiing in the Smoky Mountains with Forest Service avalanche forecasters Janet Kellam and Ann Marie Devereaux, when Kellam was swept more than 100 feet in a hard-snow slab avalanche that completely buried her.

"It was just unbelievable," OíNeill said. "The snow was just all ripping, and seeing her in the middle, we just pulled out our gear and went to work."

Training and practice paid off in that case, OíNeill said.

"We were right on it, because we were so aware of what was going on," she said. "And no matter what you know or donít, know how to use your beacon."

Kellam emerged from the slide in good condition, and later pointed out that the groupís preparations for, and execution of, a rescue are examples of how "the little things" can make a difference.

When traversing the slope that snagged Kellam, the three crossed one at a time. They all carried avalanche beacons, probes and shovels and were ready to use them, even if nothing had gone wrong. Crossing the slope one at a time ensured that only one of the skiers was caught in the slide.

"Practice safe travel every time you go out, and be absolutely prepared to do a fast rescue," Kellam said.

"All the clues and the data are out there," she continued. "Make all your decisions based on good data. Donít make assumptions. Donít be so goal-focused that you overlook the clues that are there.

"For a group thatís not prepared, itís going to be a tragic accident, and needless."

John Craig, of Ketchum, has also amassed an extensive backcountry skiing resume in Central Idaho.

"Itís truly amazing that there arenít more accidents, but the terrain here isnít as steep as other places." Nonetheless, he added, "Iím amazed that we donít have more fatalities."

Craig said there is no substitute for practice and knowledge accumulated over time, but recommended that new winter backcountry travelers find experienced companions to travel with.

"Thereís no better way to gain experience," he said.

Modern skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers have advantages over their decades-old counterparts, however.

In the 1950s and 1960s, avalanches commonly claimed their victims at ski areas, but research and ski patrol training have all but eliminated in-bounds threats, according to Bruce Temper, Utah Avalanche Forecast Center director.

Beginning in the late í60s and early í70s, backcountry skiers, out-of-bounds lift skiers and climbers began to account for most avalanche fatalities. Many avalanche schools and classes sprung up as a result to combat the trend. And itís working, Temper, who called the classes "popular and successful," said.

"The new kids on the block are snowmobilers and snowboarders," he continued. "In the last half of the í90s, the numbers have risen at an alarming rate, especially snowmobilers, to the point where snowmobilers account for nearly twice the death toll as the next recreation group."

New, more powerful snowmobiles are capable of climbing innumerable steep slopes in fresh snow. The technology, he said, has outpaced snowmobilersí knowledge of the backcountry.

"Very few snowmobilers have even the most basic avalanche training, mostly because, until recently, for the most part, they didnít need any," he said. "The machines of the 1980s were only rarely capable of accessing steep avalanche terrain right after or during a storm when most avalanches occur."

Between 1993 and 1998, snowmobilers accounted for 35 percent of all avalanche fatalities. Snowmobilers were followed by climbers (23 percent), backcountry skiers (15 percent) and snowboarders (8 percent).

Colorado and Alaska avalanches accounted for almost half of avalanche fatalities between 1995 and 2000. Slides in Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Montana and Utah also accounted for about half of the fatalities during the same time period.

And more avalanche fatalities occurred in New Hampshire than in California, Oregon, Nevada, New York, Arizona and New Mexico combined.

The typical avalanche victim is outdoors-oriented, male, between 18 and 35, white, educated and very skilled at his or her sport.

"But their avalanche skills almost invariably lag behind the skills in their sport by a wide margin," Tremper said. "They are almost always killed in the backcountry and they, or someone in their party, almost always trigger the avalanche that kills them."

 


The Idaho Mountain Express is distributed free to residents and guests throughout the Sun Valley, Idaho resort area community. Subscribers to the Idaho Mountain Express will read these stories and others in this week's issue.