Snow brings danger
on backcountry ventures
Know before you go
Express Staff Writer
consecutive new snowfalls the past two weeks, the Rocky Mountainsí
backcountry winter snowpack is thickening, and avalanche season is
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.
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.
number of fatalities pales in comparison to the number of close calls.
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.
skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers, there is a heightened level of
avalanche awareness, OíNeill said, but many "donít have a clue,
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
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.
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
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."
and practice paid off in that case, OíNeill said.
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
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.
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.
safe travel every time you go out, and be absolutely prepared to do a fast
rescue," Kellam said.
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.
group thatís not prepared, itís going to be a tragic accident, and
of Ketchum, has also amassed an extensive backcountry skiing resume in
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."
there is no substitute for practice and knowledge accumulated over time,
but recommended that new winter backcountry travelers find experienced
companions to travel with.
no better way to gain experience," he said.
skiers, snowboarders and snowmobilers have advantages over their
decades-old counterparts, however.
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
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.
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
powerful snowmobiles are capable of climbing innumerable steep slopes in
fresh snow. The technology, he said, has outpaced snowmobilersí
knowledge of the backcountry.
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
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).
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
avalanche fatalities occurred in New Hampshire than in California, Oregon,
Nevada, New York, Arizona and New Mexico combined.
avalanche victim is outdoors-oriented, male, between 18 and 35, white,
educated and very skilled at his or her sport.
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."