Most backcountry athletes who go into avalanche territory are aware of the dangers.
Dan Burnett of the Summit County Search and Rescue group likened dying in an avalanche to dying in a shark attack.
“You’d have to work to get killed,” he said. One must research where the sharks are, swim there, thrash around and be bleeding in order to be attacked. Just as they are with shark attacks, the odds are stacked against getting killed in an avalanche.
“It’s a hideously violent way to die,” said Burnett, describing the many injuries that can occur when a victim is buried by a wall of snow packing the force of an 18-wheeler.
“There are different motives for doing things that are really beyond what other people think are reasonable,” said Frisco psychologist James Klein, who offered a cursory guess as to a backcountry adventurer’s motives. “Some of those tend to be attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder people. There’s probably a biochemical component that’s related to that.”
Needless to say, Klein’s guess was controversial.
“I find that as appalling as them labeling every third child as attention deficit just because they have a lot of energy,” said Jim Nicholas, a mechanic at Altitude Motorsports in Breckenridge.
But Klein was referring to attention deficit and hyperactivity on a larger scale. For expert skiers, snowmobilers and snowboarders, the in-bounds territory at resorts can get old, so they search for other challenges. Riders compile a list of locations to ski or snowboard. After checking them off as they go, they move on to bigger and more aggressive slopes.
Klein mentioned several other possible physiological explanations for the overconfident – at times, arrogant – behavior exhibited by some backcountry enthusiasts.
“Some people may be compensating for a sense of inadequacy,” he said. “Some people have never had anything go wrong and they don’t believe that something like that can happen. In terms of appearing overconfident, those would be at least two reasons why people would seem that way.”
Lorann Stallones is an injury epidemiologist at Colorado State University. She studies the factors that lead people to engage in risky behaviors.
“I guess it’s easy to talk about if you think of the people who are going to go backcountry skiing,” Stallones said. “They may not be paying attention to what kind of situations they’re putting themselves in, or maybe the risk is what they’re seeking.
“We don’t know very much about these things, but there may be people who physiologically need a stronger risk to get a thrill,” Stallones said. “They have to push further the boundary of safety in order to get excited.”
Scott Young is a snowmobile guide and member of the Summit County Rescue Group.
“When you see where some of these people put themselves, it’ll blow your mind,” he said. “How do these guys make it through puberty? A lot of these guys just don’t think about it.”
It’s easy to ignore tell-tale avalanche warning signs when you’re blasting down a hill, but most people who encounter avalanches are experienced, backcountry travelers. They are both well-versed in the proper techniques and who have seen or known an avalanche victim. They know an avalanche is a possibility.
Josh Flenniken has been skiing and snowboarding in the backcountry for eight years. He has the necessary training, knowledge and equipment to be safe in avalanche country.
Flenniken has encountered two avalanches. The first, a slab avalanche, was triggered by his friend, James Orlet, when the two were snowboarding.
“I felt like we were kind of really doing all the right things, not just blindly going into a situation and trusting blind luck,” he said.
Flenniken said he and Orlet had overlooked a significant terrain feature – the presence of rocks jutting out of the snow that ultimately led to an avalanche. Rocks can melt the surrounding snow and affect the snowpack.
“I felt shock and horror and nausea, watching the whole thing go,” he said. “I was just kicking myself that I hadn’t taken a very important feature of the terrain into consideration.”
Flenniken was standing in a “safe” spot when the slide released, but watching his friend get swept away with the debris sparked a realization in his mind. “After that, (I had) kind of the realization that it can in fact happen to anyone, including me,” he said.
The events engendered in Flenniken a greater respect for the raw energy avalanches can unleash.
“The power of an avalanche is really hard to comprehend,” he said. “I had sat through the slide shows in avalanche courses, looked at avalanche debris and watched documentaries on the Discovery Channel. But until I saw the absolutely unbelievable force, I didn’t understand.”
The experience, and another one two years later, prompted a change in Flenniken’s attitude toward backcountry sports.
“I became even more conservative,” he said. “Just being extra cautious, erring more on the side of caution.”
That caution can manifest itself as a decision to walk away from a dangerous situation, even after spending several hours blazing a trail to get there. “It’s hard to walk away, even if you think there might be some danger there,” Flenniken said. “I’ve become more willing to say, ‘Yeah, it’s just not safe today,’ and walk away from it.”
Many backcountry travelers who have either been caught in an avalanche or know someone who was, continue to practice their sport. The prospect of dying is omnipresent in backcountry sports. Yet, it does not seem to motivate people to avoid the activities.
“The people who are those high-risk, sensation-seeking individuals may not mind dying in those situations,” Stallones said. “It may not be a perceived tragedy to them. Perhaps you’d just as soon – if you have to die – you’d just as soon die doing something you’re really excited about.”
Indeed, the platitude, “At least he died doing something he loved,” comes up again and again in obituaries of avalanche victims. But one High Country snowmobiler who rides the backcountry doesn’t think that phrase is very comforting.
Mike Merik, a good friend of the snowmobiler, lost his life to an avalanche.
“When Mikey died, the way that we made ourselves feel better about it is saying, ‘Hey, at least he died doing something he loved,'” said the snowmobiler, who asked his named not be used. “His death wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t something that by saying, ‘Hey, at least he died doing something that he loved,’ made it all better.
“It’s hard to glamorize or romanticize an avalanche death, whether he died doing something he loved or not.”