This year, the ski season in Utah kicked off with a very promising October and early November. For the first time in three long years, almost constant early-season snow meant good avalanche stability and amazing coverage. Things were looking great for both the resorts and the backcountry skiers. That's when it quit snowing.
Now as I sit down to write this article, over two weeks have gone by with only a meager nine inches of total snowfall. Our snow pack has gone to hell. Clear, cold nights have robbed all of the snow's integrity. In the backcountry, while the skiing is still good, it is evident that when the snow finally falls, there are going to be serious avalanche problems.
In this respect, the Wasatch Mountains are not unique. Over dinner last night, a friend from Telluride, Colorado, was describing a very similar scenario shaping up there; early season promise has been replaced by the surety that snowfall will lead to eventual deep slab instability. These thoughts concern us. Then the phone rings.
Things have already come to a head in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Paul, my climbing partner, tells me he can't make the trip we had planned for this week. A close friend of his was killed yesterday in a very large avalanche in Glory Bowl up on Teton Pass, and he's headed up to Jackson for the funeral. [About the Incident]
What I speculate now, and later find to be true, is that the scenario was a classic early-season climax release. A relatively new snow load, made dense by prevalent wind, slid on faceted grains on an ice crust. The avalanche was two feet deep more than half the total snow depth. The slide hit the road. It was big, and widespread. I'm not prepared for how much this news upsets me; certainly I'm sorry for Paul, but, after all, I don't even know his friend. I think it's just that I'm sick of hearing this story year after year. Avalanche deaths are becoming way too familiar in the inter mountain region of the west, with seemingly no end in sight.
Over the past four winters (Fall 1996 to Spring 2000), 33 people have been killed by avalanches before January 15th. The majority were skiers or boarders, and mostly in Wyoming, Colorado and Utah. During the '98-'99 season alone, 33 people lost their lives due to avalanches. Over the past 50 years, avalanche-related fatalities in the United States have increased more than 200%, with an alarming upward spike in the last 15 years.
"Remember that, if you go skiing in the backcountry or beyond the ski area's boundaries, there are no longer 40 or 50 patrollers working hard to make each slope safe for you."
Of course, this is easily explained. Advances in snowmobile technology have greatly increased the number and range of snowmobilers in the backcountry. The invention of the split snowboard for touring and greatly improved randonee and telemark equipment have made access easier, as well as made it easier to descend larger and steeper terrain.
There are more talented skiers and boarders than ever before; at every resort in the West, riders are just as talented as those you see in the magazines. It is difficult for alpine skiers and boarders to resist the temptation of the untracked as more ski resorts open their boundaries, and after watching skiers ripping down huge Alaskan faces in the last ski flick almost impossible.
Simply put, there are many more people accessing big avalanche terrain than ever before.
Don't get me wrong. I am implying no fault or blame here, except for that which lies with the rider. The advances in equipment are fantastic. Moviegoers don't see beyond the screen; moviemakers, such as the Jones brothers of Teton Gravity Research, are former guides themselves, and still, they hire seasoned guides whose only job when they are filming is safety.
Open boundaries are a wonderful thing, but when people start dying and the lawsuits begin, the boundaries won't stay open for long. The mountains are there, and Mother Nature is going to do her thing; it is up to us to use common sense and acquire the skills necessary to travel safely in the backcountry. The only way to acquire those skills is to do so actively. Take a class, read a book or two, and then cautiously implement the things you have learned out on the snow.
Dig snow pits! The sometimes nebulous ideas presented in books and classes are quickly grounded in reality once you start looking at the snow closely.
Below are some ideas to get you started. Much of what is talked about can be formulated in your mind before you step on the snow each day. If you are trying to forecast, even if you are not always correct, you are headed in the right direction. Try to "know before you go." Remember that, if you go skiing in the backcountry or beyond the ski area's boundaries, there are no longer 40 or 50 patrollers working hard to make each slope safe for you. It's up to you and you alone to safeguard your welfare.
The Absolute Basics
Backcountry skiers and boarders often think about avalanches and avalanche hazard in terms of quantity. We think about the amount of new snow, we think about how much wind accompanied the snow, or perhaps even about how much weight the new snow actually is distributing onto the existing snow due to its water weight. Then we ask ourselves questions like, "How much danger is there?" or "How long should I wait before attempting the second descent of the daunting 'Bunny Slope Couloir'?" These are all valid questions and should always be part of one's avalanche hazard assessment, but they are also the obvious thoughts. Sometimes it's staying abreast of the unobvious that can mean the difference between safe backcountry travel and tragedy for you or one of your friends.
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