Wednesday, January 27, 2010

United by snow

People in mountain communities are united by snow.

They share its joys, and they share its sorrow when friends, neighbors or family members are swept to their deaths by cruel accident in an avalanche, as a longtime valley resident was last week.

This year, Idaho, Wyoming and Utah have lost skiers to avalanches. Even an experienced ski patroller at Jackson Hole died while working to make others safe.

Avalanche danger, especially in the backcountry, remains acute and is more serious than usual because heavier snow fell on top of the season's first shallow layers, which remain highly unstable.

No one knows when or if conditions may improve this winter.

Forecasters at the Sawtooth National Forest Avalanche Center wrote this week, "In a region known for a weaker snowpack, we are seeing avalanches this winter that indicate we are dealing with an exceptional problem.

"We have received more reports of human-triggered avalanches than we ever have by this time of year, yet not many people are going into the backcountry. Most of the people out there are staying in low-angle terrain and remotely triggering all these slides."

"Remote triggering" means that pressure can spread from skiers to start slides that occur yards away from them.

To honor the dead, the living must respect the snow that killed them and understand that even extreme caution and great knowledge will not prevent every death. Hardest of all, we must sometimes turn away from the siren song of uncut powder snow and leave it for another day.

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