In the last week, four backcountry users died in avalanches over a two-day window. On December 18th a 41-year-old snowmobiler was buried in Wyoming’s Salt River Range. He deployed an airbag, and part of the airbag was visible above the snow, but his partners did not arrive in time to save him.
Also on December 18th, a very experienced backcountry skier was caught in a soft slab that he triggered in Colorado’s Anthracite Range. He was skiing solo and another party saw the slide debris and recovered his body.
The next day, December 19th, two skiers were caught in a large avalanche on Ophir Pass, also in Colorado. They were reported missing that night, and Search and Rescue recovered their bodies the next day.
Our sincere condolences go out to all the friends, family, and partners of these victims.
Information about all North American avalanche fatalities can be found on this page.
As news of each of these incidents broke, the keyboard warriors came out in full-force to blame the influx of new backcountry users for the spike in accidents. But so far, that hasn’t really been the case, and statistically, it never really has been.
When I first took an avy class a few years ago, our teacher kicked things off with a chart that detailed the levels of avalanche education of folks who had been involved in slides. Her conclusion was that we were more likely to be caught in a slide after our Avy 1 than we were before. She wryly invited anyone who wanted to play those odds to walk out the door. No one did, because we all understood the difference between correlation and causation.
Last year the Colorado Avalanche Information Center did a study that put those stats into the context of pre and post-pandemic skier/avalanche interactions and accounted for experience level. The whole study is available here and is absolutely worth a read or three. My biggest takeaway from that study and one of the things I’ve been ruminating on this year is that the pandemic actually shifted the ratio of experienced vs. inexperienced users who were involved in avalanches in the opposite direction most internet warriors predicted.
General consensus this year has been that everybody who bought Shift bindings and a pair of skins in March after the pandemic shut down ski resorts is the problem. There’s been plenty of hand wringing about “all these inexperienced new backcountry users.” And that’s sort of to be expected. The experience of gaining education and experience often makes us eager to disparage anyone who we perceive as being less educated and experienced. "Experts" putting down beginners also artificially inflates their perception of their own abilities. But that’s just building an expert halo around ourselves, and we all know expert halos don’t do you any good when the snow decides it wants to move.
Here’s a prime example from a prominent professional skier that @Sklar was kind enough to bring to my attention:
Hey #Colorado skiers and Snowboarders, if you are NOT an expert or professional at understanding and managing avalanche terrain, now is a great time to STAY HOME...or at least just ride a chairlift.
I agree with much of that sentiment, and I too firmly believe that a chairlift is my best defense against avalanches during an elevated avy cycle, but this post just perpetuates the myth that education/experience = safety. The slope doesn’t care what level of education you have. If it’s going to move, it’s going to move. Everyone’s definition of “expert” is different.
That’s why I appreciate the more precise language our avy center uses. “Cautious route-finding and conservative terrain choices will be essential for safe travel in avalanche terrain.” or “Monitor temperatures, make conservative terrain choices and be wary of rain on snow events.” Those are all actionable items that don’t depend on your own perception of your experience level. And that’s how avalanche safety works. The wrong decision is the wrong decision no matter how many books you’ve read. The same goes for fatal decisions.
As the CAIC study showed, experts entering more complicated avalanche terrain are much more likely to be caught or buried than beginners sticking to safer terrain. Your level of experience alone doesn’t dictate anything, it’s the decisions you make that do.
So far I have had two takeaways from the combination of this season’s avalanche events, and that study.
The first one is obvious: Don’t talk shit and internet quarterback every avalanche fatality. It’s a useless exercise in hypothetically infallible self-endorsement. Instead try to use these incidents as opportunities to examine potential mistakes and bad calls you’ve made in the past and weren’t punished for. There’s an opportunity for growth here, but only if you enter it with a growth mindset.
My second takeaway is less obvious, and I’m not sure of it yet, but here’s my prediction: I think the influx of new backcountry skiers will influence our overall exposure to avalanche incidents, but not in the most simple “new skier gets backcountry gear, new skier gets slid” manner.
Instead, I think there’s a good chance that this influx of new backcountry skiers is pushing more experienced backcountry users to make more questionable decisions. Many “safe” areas are also perfect beginner terrain, shorter laps closer to the road with less challenging approaches and skin tracks. And a new crop of beginners is flocking to these areas, tracking out snow, and pushing more experienced users to get a little creative with where they ski.
I’ve seen it happen already this season to myself. I usually spend a few days at the top of Teton Pass early in the season to get myself back into the swing of things. This year the crowds and parking have been such that I haven’t touched that mellow terrain at the top of the Pass yet, and probably won’t all season. Instead, I’ve been exploring new zones that see much less skier compaction, have more complicated avalanche problems, and less overall information to help inform my decisions. In an effort to avoid the crowds I’m taking more risks and looking at more complicated objectives. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. I’m not blaming new backcountry skiers here - they’re falling in love with the same sport we love, but it is important to be honest about their impact on our own decision making.
The CAIC study found that more experienced skiers were getting involved in slides on “Considerable” days after the pandemic wave of new skiers. It looks like more experienced skiers are banking on that experience to take bigger risks to ski more dangerous lines on days when there will be less competition with newer skiers. That’s a worrisome trend.
All of these factors forced me to reexamine the processes going into my own decision making. It’s easy to pound away at the keyboard, proclaiming that everyone needs an avy class ASAP. And I agree, get educated. But it’s more important and more difficult to see that in fact, the bigger impact of this influx of new skiers is probably the effect it has on the decision-making of existing backcountry users.
The longer you’ve backcountry skied without interfacing with an avalanche, the higher the odds are that you will soon. Stay sharp. The only thing you can truly control in the mountains is whether you go into them.