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Experienced?

Jeff Leahy, Beaver Creek Ski Patrol

It reeks of inexperience by both Zalzanick and the “experienced local” caught in the recent avalanche outside the Beaver Creek Ski Area boundary. This article sensationalizes a myriad of basic mistakes made by a careless local into a tale of heroism. Zalzanick does the community a disservice with his irresponsible account of what was actually a textbook example of everything a backcountry skier can do wrong.

It strikes me as odd that that Zalaznick chooses to print the Weinreich’s lessons to be learned from his near tragedy when Weinreich himself could have avoided his near tragedy had he heeded his own advice. Sure, hindsight is 20-20 but, nowhere in his quote does Weinriech say that he or his partner weren’t carrying any of the equipment (beacons, probes or shovels) he so adamantly suggests everybody else carry.

Perhaps his partner could have dug out more than his face if he was carrying a shovel and was not forced to dig with his hands. The locals Zalaznick refers to in his article talk about snow that turns to concrete and being 100 percent immobilized. Avalanche debris cannot be brushed away with a gloved hand.

Ask Weinrich’s partner if he wished he had a shovel when he realized his friend was buried upside down in concrete or how he would have found him had his ski tip not been sticking up.

As for keeping track of weather and the forecasts issued by the CAIC, he would know about that. The Beaver Creek Ski Patrol faxes it to his shop each day. If he had read it that morning he would have noticed it read as follows: “Below tree line CONSIDERABLE, triggered avalanches probable where snowfall amounts exceed 8 inches or snow has loaded. Near and above tree line CONSIDERABLE with pockets of HIGH. The CAIC (The sources he himself recommends) defines HIGH as: natural and human triggered avalanches likely. Travel in avalanche terrain is not recommended.”

How he can say he “felt pretty comfortable and were certainly aware of the dangers back there” defies the logic of those of us who work and play in these same areas, given the fact he was completely unprepared for what his lack of judgment held in store for him.

No one will argue that every time a skier travels in avalanche terrain they assume some risk. That is part of the game. Skiing in those conditions with no equipment and an apparent lack of the basic skills of terrain analysis, snow pack evaluation and route choice illustrates poor decision-making. An experienced backcountry skier would have identified this situation as hazardous and not skied there at all or chosen a more moderate, less wind-loaded slope.

Historically Colorado leads the nation in avalanche fatalities. We have a notoriously tender snowpack. The conditions we are currently experiencing aren’t an anomaly. It happens every year as a function of a relatively shallow snowpack, cold temperatures, and recent snow and wind.

It’s an unfortunate circumstance that all the factors that make up the skiing we crave also make up the conditions that are ripe for potential tragedy. Every time a person leaves the ski area boundary and travels into avalanche terrain, they must make decisions that can have disastrous outcomes.

A little education goes a long way. There are numerous avalanche courses of all levels available to the public. There are shops in the valley with knowledgeable staff that sell all the equipment these people lacked.

Mr. Zalaznick should be informing the community of these things, not talking about “rampages of snow” that overwhelm “experienced backcountry travelers.”

Perhaps what should really be examined here is what we consider experience. Do these people have experience skiing suspect terrain in questionable conditions without the proper equipment? Probably so and if that is what Mr. Zalaznick refers to when he describes experience, then his description of this backcountry traveler is right on. If we choose to accept this description as accurate, maybe the rest of us are all a little bit better off without it.


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