Out-of-bounds avalanche risk studied in High Country
Summit County, CO Colorado
Avalanche experts exploring the mindset of backcountry travelers have found a strong sense of denial, a general lack of preparedness and a willingness to accept high risks among those who take advantage of ski lifts to go out of bounds.
In the last 18 years, 57 people have been killed or seriously injured by avalanches after leaving U.S. ski resorts through backcountry access points.
Forest Service rangers and ski resort officials have long wrestled with how to manage the ski area boundaries in a way that balances risk management with maintaining reasonable access to adjacent public lands.
In most cases, that involves posting a variety of warnings at the access points to highlight the potential danger and the difficulty of rescue.
Utah-based avalanche researcher Ian McCammon has studied the issue to try and determine the effectiveness of the signs and to determine if communication can be improved.
To McCammon, one thing is clear: Use of the access points has increased dramatically in recent years as skiers and snowboarders seek out powder snow and challenging terrain outside the resort boundaries.
“Many of these people, if they had to put on snowshoes, skins or use a snow machine, they wouldn’t be going out there,” McCammon said. “My take on this study is, since they are, what’s the best way to communicate avalanche hazards to the people using these access points?”
To try and answer the question, McCammon and other researchers visited five resorts in Canada and seven in the United States between January and April of 2008.
At each area, they interviewed people leaving the ski area and studied the boundary-management policies. Several other resorts were contacted by telephone and e-mail.
“The message to resort operators is that, unless we understand the risk story people are telling themselves, communication is hit or miss,” McCammon said.
Based on the interviews, McCammon found that, despite the signs with dire warnings, people reported a relatively high acceptance of avalanche risks.
“People say to themselves, it won’t happen here, it won’t happen to me, it won’t happen today,” McCammon said.
The surveys also found that out-of-bounds skiers carrying avalanche rescue gear were willing to take more avalanche risks than people without beacons, shovels and probes.
At the Canadian resorts, 47 percent of the 390 respondents said they were carrying a beacon, but only 29 percent carried a shovel and probe, the other instruments needed to rescue a buried victim.
“The communication goes beyond simply putting up signs. By and large, there’s not a lot of evidence that people actually read the signs,” McCammon said.
“Often, these recreationists find themselves in the midst of backcountry avalanche conditions for which they may be poorly prepared,” he reported in a preliminary paper on the topic that was presented at the most recent International Snow Science Workshop. “And when accidents happen, it is often the resort staff that performs the rescue.”
Creating a wider culture of avalanche awareness may be just as important as putting up a skull and crossbones sign at the access point, he explained.
That involves proactive communication like hosting avalanche-awareness events and even going to the point of having ski patrollers contact skiers who are preparing to leave the area and asking them about their plans and preparedness, he added.
Based on the research, McCammon is preparing a set of recommendations for ski resorts to help them fine-tune the way they present information on out-of-bounds risk, to be finalized later this year.
New snow and winds have bumped the avalanche danger up toward the red zone. A considerable danger rating for slopes near and above treeline on north to east to south aspects means natural avalanches are possible and human-triggered slides are likely.
Call the local hotline at (970) 668-0600 or visit the avy center online at
http://avalanche.state.co.us/ for the latest forecasts and bulletins.
Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at email@example.com.