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Do you view a trip into the backcountry as a risk not worth taking? The backcountry is, after all, where most avalanches happen, and getting caught in one would surely not be fun. But though avalanches are the main cause of death for backcountry skiers, they¿as well as other backcountry mishaps¿can in most cases be accounted for and avoided. In fact, for skiers possessing experience, good judgment, and the necessary equipment, backcountry skiing may be as safe, if not safer, than skiing at a resort.
Most experts agree that skiers who commit to learning and who proceed cautiously will probably live to spend many days out back. “I think backcountry skiing is very safe if you treat it with the respect it deserves,” says Dan Burnett, a 20-year veteran of the Summit County (Colorado) search-and-rescue unit. “But for a 21-year-old expert skier who wants to throw the dice, it can be wicked dangerous.”
Nearly all avalanche deaths involving skiers occur in the backcountry or in out-of-bounds areas at ski resorts. In the U.S., 42 skiers died as a result of snowslides in the backcountry in the 1990s; an additional 19 died after crossing into closed areas inside or just outside ski areas. Only one skier died in an avalanche on an inbounds ski-area run.
If you do get caught in an avalanche, it almost certainly won’t be because of circumstances beyond your control. Although skier traffic in the backcountry has escalated in recent years, only one backcountry skier has ever been killed by a slide triggered by another group. And, unless you’re very unlucky, a naturally occurring avalanche won’t suddenly materialize and sweep you away. The vast majority of skiers caught in snowslides in the continental U.S. ignore a series of warning signs, then trigger the slides themselves. Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, estimates that in 95 percent of avalanche incidents, the victim or someone in the victim’s party triggers the avalanche.
This may not sound like a reassuring statistic, but it is. It tells you that your destiny is in your own hands. And, for people who make a point of learning about them, avalanches can usually be avoided. This point is best proven by avalanche professionals, who, despite spending much of their time around unstable snow, account for less than one percent of avalanche deaths. Thousands of other skiers who are far less knowledgeable than professionals but who nonetheless take some basic precautions (see “Know It All” in the related links box above) manage to tour the backcountry without incident every year. The reality is that backcountry skiers, by and large, seem to be surviving better than ever: Even as backcountry-skier days soared in the ’90s, one less skier died in an avalanche in the ’90s than in the ’80s.
Knox Williams, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, attributes the drop to years of avalanche-education efforts targeting skiers. “During the 1980s, most avalanche deaths were skiers. A lot of avalanche education was aimed at those people, but the skiers also wanted that information.” He notes that the ’90s saw sharp rises in deaths among less avalanche-savvy groups, namely snowboarders and snowmobilers. Snowmobilers, who Williams says have shown little interest thus far in avalanche education, now account for the greatest number of avalanche fatalities.
Williams’ advice for people going into the backcountry is simple: “Invest in at least one good class, with a reputable instructor, and at least one day in the field. That way you can see how they travel, and what tests they do to determine how stable the snow might be.” A Level I course through the American Association of Avalanche Professionals (AAAP) will teach you to recognize avalanche terrain, identify troublesome weather patterns, evaluate snow stability, follow safe routes, and conduct beacon searches for buried skiers, among other skills. If you hope to spend a lot of time skiing deep powder in the backcountry, you should also take a Level II course, which delves further into the science of snow. Williams points out that skiers who hope to ski deep powder (and the steep slopes required for plowing through it) “will probably have avalanche encounters because they’re putting themselves in prime steepness terrain.” Enter this terrain blindly, and you can quickly die.
Avalanche educators also stress that learning about the backcountry is a lifelong process. One way to keep learning, says Dale Atkins, co-author of The Snowy Torrents: Avalanche Deaths in the United States 1980-86,is to travel with an experienced partner. “Find a mentor. This will help you begin learning how to make good decisions. You’ll learn what information you need to seek, how to interpret that information, and how to make good decisions. And if something does go wrong, you’ll have a much better chance of a happy outcome.”
And remember that education alone won’t guarantee your safety when you’re feeling the allure of hip-deep fluff. Most skiers who get in trouble have had some avalanche education but make a poor decision nonetheless. “You still have the human factor that wants the thrill of the skiing experiences and overrides better judgment,” says Rocky Henderson, President of Mountain Rescue Association, a national organization of alpine search-and-rescue teams. Though Henderson would like to see all skiers exercise their best judgment all the time, he also realizes that having the opportunity to make critical decisions¿good or bad¿adds to the pleasure of backcountry skiing. “Calculating and then taking a risk is part of the enjoyment.”