A few minutes after noon on Dec. 14 last winter, as Snowbird skiers celebrated the opening of Mount Baldy for the first day of the season, the cry rang out: “Avalanche!” A slab of snow the width of a house had broken loose from a traverse atop the Utah resort and was charging downhill. Witnesses shouted warnings to a lone skier below on Fields of Glory, but there was no escape.
Heather Gross, a 27-year-old pass holder from Salt Lake City, was the first of four people killed by inbounds avalanches at U.S. ski resorts last winter—the deadliest inbounds avalanche season in more than two decades. “It was a tough year,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Experts blamed unseasonal weather that destabilized the early snowpack.
A series of warm, dry spells followed snowstorms in November, creating a weak base for the big December storms that followed. “It was the classic ‘bricks on potato chips’ scenario,” says Doug Abromeit, director of the U.S. Forest Service’s National Avalanche Center.
Last season, slopes were sliding from the Sierra to the Wasatch to the Rockies. Jackson Hole resort closed for two days during the busy holiday period due to dangerous conditions. “When the snow came, it was constant and unrelenting,” says resort spokeswoman Anna Olson. The Christmas storms seemed like a
gift for skiers, but they were a headache for safety directors.
On Dec. 25, Randy Davis and a friend grabbed first chair on Squaw Valley’s Red Dog lift and dropped into Poulsen’s Gully. Visibility was low due to blizzard conditions, and the two skiers took separate lines, so nobody witnessed the avalanche that swept Davis, a 21-year-old competitor and coach, through a stand of old-growth trees, causing fatal head injuries.
One third of avalanche victims die of trauma. For Abromeit, that statistic settles the helmet debate: “It’s a good idea to protect your head if you’re going into steep terrain.” Avalanche experts recommend that resort skiers consider wearing avalanche safety gear if they plan to hit extreme or isolated terrain on powder days. However, these devices “are not a protective shield,” says Dale Atkins, director of training and education for Recco, a company that specializes in avalanche rescue systems.
Thirty-one-year-old David Nodine wore a beacon to Jackson Hole on Dec. 27. At 1:25, as he hiked up Toilet Bowl to retrieve his skis, which had released following a jump, the slope tore away from the mountain. Patrollers quickly pinpointed Nodine’s location with a beacon search and extricated him from beneath seven feet of hard debris, but the Jackson local never regained consciousness.
Two days later, havoc struck Jackson Hole again when patrollers bombing the Headwall triggered a larger-than-expected avalanche. Patrollers below
ran for their lives, ducking behind mid-mountain Bridger Restaurant as snow slammed into the building, exploding windows and filling the interior with snow. Four patrollers were partially buried, but there were no fatalities. It was among many close calls last winter across snow country. Skiers also survived partial or full burials at Sun Valley, Vail, Telluride, Brighton and Silverton.
So what’s going on? Generations of resort skiers have grown up believing their worst-case scenarios are fractured legs or bruised ribs, not being buried in an avalanche. Snow slides only happen to the few—or the foolhardy—who venture unprepared into the backcountry.
Skiing, however, has changed. The recent rash of inbound avalanches all occurred on steep, snowy, ungroomed slopes. The number of skiers tackling this type of aggressive terrain has exploded in the past decade as shorter, wider skis have opened up formerly fringe runs to the masses. To satisfy this growing legion of free-range skiers, resorts are incorporating more backcountry terrain into their boundaries. The Forest Service has encouraged this expansion so that resorts can do avalanche control in what were once rarely skied expert-only areas. Telluride’s Gold Hill and Breckenridge’s Peak 7—both sites of deadly backcountry avalanches in the 1980s—are a result of this policy.
Also, two of the runs—Fields of Glory at Snowbird and Toilet Bowl at Jackson—had been opened for the first time for the season when they slid. Ski patrol at both resorts deemed the terrain safe after repeatedly bombing it. Indeed, Nodine was near a bomb crater when Toilet Bowl slid. At Snowbird, “there was carbon on the bed surface from the bombs,” says Forest Service ranger Steve Scheid. Squaw patrollers detonated at least 18 charges in Poulsen’s Gully the morning Davis died. “Snow safety directors can reduce the risk to almost zero, but they can’t eliminate it,” the Forest Service’s Abromeit says. “That’s a key point.”
Eliminating that risk could become more difficult in the future due to global warming, particularly for “wet avalanches.” These occur in the spring when water trickles beneath the snow, acting as a lubricant. This happened in May 2005 at Colorado’s Arapahoe Basin. “Wet avalanches aren’t a problem until late spring or after the season ends,” says Brian Lazar, executive director of the American Institute for Avalanche Research. “In the future, wet avalanches will creep earlier into the operating season.”
Patrollers who do avalanche control regularly risk their lives. On March 3, Squaw veteran Andrew Entin and a colleague detonated multiple charges on the Headwall Face when a bomb tossed by Entin’s co-worker unleashed a 750-foot-wide avalanche. The slide swept away Entin, who later died from his injuries.
Because it was a workplace accident, California’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated Entin’s death and determined the resort had followed proper procedures. “These guys knew what they were doing,” says Cal-OSHA spokesman Dean Fryer. The Forest Service reviewed the Jackson and Snowbird avalanches, as it does with all deaths on public lands, and likewise found no fault.
Last winter’s fatalities cap a five-year run of increasing avalanche deaths at resorts. In 2005, inbounds slides killed a snowboarder at Las Vegas Ski and Snowboard Park and a skier at Arapahoe Basin. In 2006, a skier died in a slide on closed terrain at Snowmass. In 2007, a skier died at The Canyons after triggering a slide that swept him through trees.
There are 55 million annual skier visits in the U.S., so the odds of dying in an inbounds avalanche are miniscule. But every time a skier ventures off groomed terrain, that risk increases. “We as skiers must take responsibility for how and where we ride in the resorts,” Atkins says. “When we buy a lift ticket we are going into nature, not a carnival.”
SKI SMART Despite the recent spate of inbounds avalanches, they’re rare. Still, there are rules to follow, even inbounds. First: Obey the signs. A run is closed for a reason. Also, always be aware of the conditions around you, and don’t venture into deep snow or steep terrain alone. Any trouble (snow or otherwise) is magnified if you don’t have help. Heading beyond the ropes is another game entirely. The best advice is to learn from the pros. The American Avalanche Association’s online tutorial is a good place to start (avalanche.org).