Eating, living and breathing avalanches |

Eating, living and breathing avalanches

J.K. Perry
J.K. Perry/Vail DailyScott Messina prepares dinner last weekend at Peter Estin Hut above Eagle as 12 other avalanche students settle in for a night of lectures and the solitude of sleep.

EAGLE COUNTY – Scott Messina loves the backcountry and has dedicated his life to it. Along the way, the backcountry guide has taught others to appreciate and understand avalanches.Helping recover more than 20 bodies from avalanches has shown him the danger he lives with skiing in the backcountry, he said. “One of the hardest things about mountain rescue is body recovery, especially when you ski in the backcountry,” Messina said. “You make mistakes when you don’t have your avalanche eyeballs in. I love avalanches and avalanche education but don’t want to see people get into trouble or die.”Messina, of the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, said there are two reasons people take a class to study avalanches.

“Some people want to go out and ski the steep and deep,” he said. “Others want to have the confidence to go out and be careful.”Minimizing the threat of avalanches was the reason most often given by a recent group Messina took into the backcountry.”Most of my friends get into the backcountry doing day tours to get away from the resorts,” Laurie Maciag said. “I wouldn’t go out with my friends until I’ve done this. I don’t want to hurt myself. The more aware of the danger you are, the more empowered you want to be.”Still, Maciag understands the danger traveling in avalanche country. What scares her about avalanches? “Being pummeled by snow, rammed into trees and rocks and suffocating,” she said.David Young also doesn’t want an avalanche to be the end of him.

“I don’t want to die that way – I want to live to ski another day,” he said.Jay Paonessa signed up for the class after he triggered an avalanche on newly opened terrain at Loveland. “I cut in and a slab 10 feet wide and 4 feet deep came in behind me,” he said. “It was enough to make me think.”This experience, and other slides he’s witnessed, persuaded him to seek professional help from the 10th Mountain guides.Some who have traveled into the backcountry have compared skiing and riding in avalanche country to a game of Russian Roulette, but this group did not agree with the comparison.”You have to make informed decisions,” Maciag said. “You’ve got to know when to turn around – when to call it.”

Having a realistic environment to test avalanche danger is key, Messina said.”When you’re out there eating, living and breathing avalanche, that’s the best,” he said. Staff Writer J.K. Perry can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 14622, or Vail, Colorado

Support Local Journalism