Planning, instincts save lives in the backcountry
February 13, 2014
Editor's note: This is the second part in a three-part series about avalanche dangers in the backcountry.
ASPEN — Smart planning is what saved lives last year when a group of backcountry skiers got caught in an avalanche off Independence Pass outside of Aspen. Arabella Beavers was part of the group and has nearly 20 years of backcountry experience, 15 of which have been spent skiing in Pitkin County backcountry.
"If you have a safety plan, and you have the instinct to put that into operation, you are going to do yourself a lot of favors," she said. "(A plan) will give you every chance you have to do something to put yourself into the right place."
When her group got caught, they knew exactly what to do because they talked about it that morning. They knew which way to ski when Beavers called out, "Avalanche!"
"Everyone reacted and did what they were supposed to do," she said.
Like the Sheep Creek avalanche near Loveland Pass in April, this one also released from high above in terrain the group hadn't paid as much attention to as the terrain they were skiing. The group has lifetimes worth of backcountry experience, which is why they chose each other as partners and mapped out a solid plan that day, including an escape route.
"Instinctively I knew to shout to everybody, 'Avalanche! Move to the trees!'" she said. "I knew to visualize where everyone was. I knew one member was being caught and to keep an eye on where he was going."
Former American Avalanche Association Director Dale Atkins, who was part of an investigation team of the Sheep Creek avalanche last year, said 80 percent of the avalanche victims who are found alive are found by their friends. But for each friend found alive, statistics show one is also found dead.
"Pick your friends carefully," he said. "Your life is in their hands."
The group dynamics that plagued both the Sheep Creek and Tunnel Creek (a 2012 avalanche near Stevens Pass Ski Area in Washington that killed three) avalanche victims provided false confidence, however. Those who considered bowing out instead chose to go with the flow.
"Make sure everyone is aware of the danger," Atkins said. "Where do we want to go, what do we want to get out of this, what do we not want to do, where do we not want to go?"
No such thing as sidecountry
Beavers, who lives in Aspen, has already said "no" to skiing certain lines this season. She feels lucky that the Aspen-area backcountry community respects each other that way. You won't hear any trash-talk if a member of the group doesn't feel comfortable, she said.
"There's the utmost respect for people who make those decisions," she said. "It's a better thing to do to say 'no' than to go along for the ride."
Being caught in an avalanche has changed things for Beavers. She's still in love with the feeling of backcountry skiing and the spiritual connection she feels to Mother Nature, but she's not taking the risks she might have taken previously.
"I'm definitely changing my horizons as to what I feel is acceptable to me personally," she said. "Mother Nature is this incredible being who has this way of handing these experiences to you that are going to change your life. There's not any way when you can gauge when she's going to come into play. Your biggest tool is your instincts, awareness and pre-planning."
Too often in backcountry areas known as sidecountry, meaning easily accessible backcountry spots adjacent to ski areas, planning doesn't seem to be part of the program for everyone. Savvy skiers and riders who ski popular sidecountry routes like East Vail, Richmond Ridge off Aspen Mountain or Steep Gully near Arapahoe Basin, to name a few, often see other skiers and riders without any gear heading into the backcountry. This kind of cluelessness is not only frustrating, but it's potentially deadly even for those who have taken the right steps before heading back there.
U.S. Forest Service Ranger Dave Neely said that even in white-out conditions, you can't miss the signs that warn skiers and riders as they approach the East Vail backcountry or any other popular so-called sidecountry route. The boundary is clearly marked, and the signs in place read as if you should also write your final will and testament before you enter. The message is clear that this isn't a place for novices.
But there's nothing illegal about heading into any backcountry area on public lands without the proper gear, either.
"Frankly, their right as an American is to take some risk if they want to in their recreational activities," Neely said. "We want to balance that in trying to provide public safety by keeping people as informed as possible."
As places like East Vail become more and more popular — ESPN included it in a top-10 North American sidecountry stashes list in 2011 — that balancing act becomes harder. The term "sidecountry" also sends a message that it's somehow less dangerous than the backcountry. The accessibility is what makes these areas often times more dangerous than harder-to-reach backcountry areas.
"Ski areas do an incredible amount of work to take care of their guests," said Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, which provides daily forecasts, research and avalanche accident investigations within the state. "As soon as you go out of the rope line, none of that is taking place. Even if a lot of people have been in that area, you're still dealing with a backcountry snowpack."
Avalanche accidents and deaths in the United States are almost always in the backcountry. However, in-bounds avalanches at ski areas are not unheard of — there have been several in-bounds slides in Colorado within the past few seasons dating back to 2005. Those slides come after roughly 25 years without any reports of in-bounds avalanches in Colorado,
A group of skiers at Arapahoe Basin took a guided trip into Montezuma Bowl last winter when the snow cracked and slid unexpectedly. The group of 15 were all caught but no one was seriously injured.
At Winter Park, a skier died in January 2012 on an open tree run. On the same day at Vail Mountain, 15-year-old Taft Conlin was killed after hiking up Prima Cornice, a run that was closed at the top, but a lower gate remained open, according to reports from the incident. Taft's family is currently suing Vail Resorts for wrongful death.
And just last month, skiers triggered an in-bounds avalanche at Breckenridge on Whale's Tale, a run that had just opened for the first time this season. Three people were caught but no one was seriously injured.
Considering the millions of skier visits in the United States each year, though, in-bounds avalanches are extremely rare. Ski patrol crews assess terrain every day, all day, and use explosives to mitigate any dangers before opening up steeper runs. While backcountry enthusiasts might loathe chair lift lines and crowded slopes, there's a certain peace of mind that comes with some of those other inconveniences.
Lauren Glendenning is the editorial projects manager for Colorado Mountain News Media. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and 970-777-3125.