When an avalanche comes calling

  • Molly Loomis

 

On Jan. 24, an avalanche raced down the slopes of Mount Taylor, a 10,352-foot peak in Wyoming's Teton Range. You might think this is hardly worth mentioning, since thousands of avalanches scour mountainsides in the West each winter.

The Mount Taylor avalanche, however, has launched a flurry of debate in the world of backcountry skiing -- a place where there's no admission and few enforced safety regulations. Because even though the parking lot at the base of this popular backcountry ski area was packed with cars, the slide -- which turned out to be massive -- had been intentionally triggered by a local mountain guide. Luckily, no one was hurt, though someone might easily have been; hundreds of skiers were in the area.

Strange as it may sound to non-skiers, intentionally triggering an avalanche is a common safety practice in backcountry skiing. In theory, it allows an experienced skier to blunt the potential danger of a future avalanche from the relative safety of the top of the slope. With this in mind, Greg Collins, who had skied Mount Taylor hundreds of times, deliberately set off the avalanche. He publicly apologized later, explaining that he never expected the slide to be as big as it was. The avalanche tumbled over 2,500 feet before plowing over a creek often crossed by skiers.

"It would have been a fatality (if anyone had been there)," David Fischel told the Jackson Hole News&Guide; he had skied down Coal Creek shortly after the slide occurred. "I hope this will be a lesson for folks who ski up there. They put people like me at risk."

But has any lesson been learned? Comments from people have poured in from the international backcountry skiing community, and they range from outrage and anger to strong support for Collins. Critics decry Collins' actions as selfish and irresponsible -- especially considering this winter's unpredictable snow conditions -- while many of his defenders say uphill skiers bear no responsibility for the people below them. Risk, they insist, is inherent in any wilderness experience. After all, as some have pointed out, "wild" is a part of wilderness.

But does skiing in heavily used areas such as Teton Pass truly constitute an outing in the wild? And where's the line between pursuing your own goals and ignoring the safety of other people in the neighborhood? If this had occurred in a ski resort with rules and regulations, the answers would be easy. But it happened in the backcountry on public land, where we all have equal opportunity to recreate and where the only bosses are usually ourselves.

Moreover, the Tetons aren't the only place an event like this has occurred. Utah and Montana have had similar incidents. If it hasn't already happened in other mountains ranges around the West, it likely will, sooner or later.

Before anyone decides to ski in the backcountry, there are lots of questions to answer, ranging from choice of equipment to current weather and snowpack conditions. Yet there seem to be few rules for acceptable behavior once we're out there. Of course, that's why many of us are drawn to mountain towns where we can escape into crowds of aspens, not people.

But like it or not, the woods are filling up with more and more people doing their own thing. When that is combined with unclear ethics, such as the degree to which a skier is or isn't concerned about other skiers, I'm reminded that Americans have become extraordinarily willing to sue each other. Are we heading toward a future backcountry filled with ski cops and a fat book of rules, or will we be forced to accept reduced access?

It is ironic that for years many skiers have fought to keep snowmobiles out of popular backcountry skiing terrain, in part fearing the hazard of a snowmobile racing up a mountain to "high point" and triggering an avalanche. Now, I fear, we have brought that kind of argument into our own ranks. Are we going to return to the days of tire slashing in the Tetons, as happened at the height of the skiing-snowmobile controversy? One blogger suggested aggressive bumper stickers might be a first step: "I intentionally kick off avalanches. Skiers below beware."

Instead, why don't we thank the powder gods that it didn't take a fatality to get this conversation going? All too often in an event like this, tears drown out the sounds of dialogue. Let us hope that this avalanche -- which harmed no one -- will wake us up to our responsibilities as backcountry skiers. Let's remember that although we choose to ski in a wild place, we are not always alone -- so let's make sure that our fun remains as safe as we can make it.

Molly Loomis is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives on the west side of Teton Pass in Victor, Idaho.

Mike Welch
Mike Welch Subscriber
Feb 11, 2012 06:28 PM
Good stuff. Informative piece. We have had similar debates, for many years mind you, regarding winter backcountry use in Utah's Wasatch--often referred to by locals as "Wasangeles". Will there soon come a time when backcountry skiing becomes policed and highly regulated? Seems to be a fairly reasonable concern, especially when one realizes the growing number of backcountry winter sport enthusiasts, combined with the projected growth rates of many of our western "mountain" towns. I personally hope backcountry skiing, as well as any backcountry sport (non-hunting of course) for that matter, remains as unregulated and "free" as it currently is. However, as populations increase, backcountry users increase, accidents and avalanche deaths increase, so too will the rules and regulations. I suppose it’s a matter of time.
Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
Feb 14, 2012 09:42 PM
When someone sets something in motion its their responsibility to take into account the extent of the repercussions. In this case steps should have been taken to verify the slide zone was clear prior to initiating the event. Use some common sense please! If we don't police our own actions some other entity will do it for us and another over overprescriptive regulation is added to the books.
Bruce Smithhammer
Bruce Smithhammer Subscriber
Feb 15, 2012 08:13 AM
Peter Prince: "When someone sets something in motion its their responsibility to take into account the extent of the repercussions. In this case steps should have been taken to verify the slide zone was clear prior to initiating the event."

I think that sums it up perfectly, and it's hard for me to see how anyone could argue otherwise.

Good balanced article, Molly.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Feb 28, 2012 10:03 AM
May I recommend a fascinating read: "The White Death:Tragedy and Heroism in an Avalanche Zone" by McKay Jenkins. Though a nonskier, I am intrigued by avalanches and other dangerous displays of the forces of nature.
But help me out here . . . When backcountry avalanches are NOT triggered purposely or otherwise carelessly by bushwhacking skiers on high, can't they still occur naturally? And if so, should people really expect safety when recreating farther down the slope??? And if they choose to do so despite the ever-present danger, shouldn't they accept responsibility for their own misfortune? What am I missing here?
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Feb 28, 2012 10:06 AM
And to the author, thank you for this articulate and informative article on this important debate.
Peter Prince
Peter Prince Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 10:24 AM
Jim; Yes an avalanche can occur due to natural initiation and yes backcountry users need to accept responsibility for their own actions. Typically you enter the backcountry based on an assessment of the snow pack through research and investigation. You acknowledge the risk and do your best to put the odds in your favor. However other then to not enter the backcountry there is no way to protect yourself from the scenario presented in the article. It is a random, black swan event and not matter how much preparation you do you are still at risk. An analogy is to driving a car. You stay alert, you maintain your car in good working order, you drive at a resonable speed and then some yahoo pitches a bowling ball of the bridge through your windshield.
Mike Welch
Mike Welch Subscriber
Feb 28, 2012 10:41 AM
Jim; To add to Peter's response, there are relatively safe ways to skiing the backcountry---even in terrible terrible years like this one. I won’t go into all the details cause I am sure it would bore you to death, but I will say that "kicking cornices" is absolutly unsafe as well as POINTLESS. Think about it. What does intentionally kicking off a cornice and trying to force a slide accomplish??? Well, if it doesn’t go then one may think it’s safe for skiing----WRONG! Just because a cornice kick or other method didn’t cause a slide does not mean that the slope won’t slide when you are on it! Doesn’t really tell you much now does it. Now say you did indeed get a slope to slide, well, now what? You go to a different slope with a different angle and aspect and start all over. In short, intentionally starting avalanches or kicking cornices accomplishes NOTHING other than putting people in danger. The safest way to ski the backcountry is to know your snow, know the area’s recent weather history (temps, storms, winds etc…), know what kind of slope your on (angle, aspect), and simply be prepared with all the proper training and equipment. You can be safe in the backcountry, but those who purposly initiate slides or kick cornices don't help one bit.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Feb 28, 2012 02:12 PM
Peter and Mike, thanks for your replies here. I can see that there is a great deal more to backcountry skiing safety than I had ever imagined. Your explanations seem quite reasonable and convincing, and I am quite pleased to accept the logic and values you project. It's good that you are engaging in this debate, because the info you share is very helpful to those of us who care but are totally inexperienced with skiing ourselves. Rest assured that I will pass on this article, including your responses above, to the younger members of our midwestern family who are taking up the sport of skiing, so they will begin learning the proper etiquette and safety strategies.
Martin Hagen
Martin Hagen Subscriber
Mar 01, 2012 12:33 PM
I have skied the backcountry of Wyoming since the 1960's and never have I encountered such a disregard for other's safety than what I am hearing in connection with the Taylor Mtn slide. It flies in the face of everything I was taught about basic mountaineering and backcountry travel in general. Ms. Loomis makes a very relevant point in the hope that this will wake us up to our responsabilities as backcountry skiers. Here is a scenario to illustrate that point.
I'm hunting elk, I have gotten into a small group and pick one out. Basic firearm safety dictates that I check the background to make sure it is safe to fire because bullets fired from a high powered rifle can and will pass completely through a body even as large as a moose. There is a group of hikers with their dogs that come into the background. Do I fire or not? If I were of the "I intentionally kick off avalanches. Skiers below beware." mind set, then I fire and people and pets in the background beware. After all, I went through all the trouble to find these elk I deserve the right to take one and all others be damned. The potential for maming and death are the same and I see no differance in the attitude either. This selfish disregard for others in the backcountry smacks of the immature and uninitiated and maybe they should go back to kindergarten to learn respect for others. I have passed up shots both on skiis and at game for safety reasons, they should learn to do the same.
Jim Cleary
Jim Cleary
Mar 02, 2012 06:04 AM
Great analogy, Martin. As a hunter, I get it ! Of course, regard for the safety of others should always be the priority, both in hunting and in backcountry skiing. Let's hope lots of others are reading this article, as well.
AJ Linnell
AJ Linnell
Jan 14, 2014 09:53 PM
Ms. Loomis has done an excellent job of presenting this issue without bias, choosing to focus instead on the danger that the backcountry could become regulated and litigated. The reality is that ski-cutting is a common practice in today's backcountry skiing world, and when done well it is an effective tool for minimizing risk. While the avalanche triggered by Mr. Collins was enormous, he had no intention of triggering such a big event and vilifying his actions only encourages future litigation in similar cases. Though responsibility rests with Mr. Collins for his assessment of the hazard he was attempting to control, I would suggest that there is equal responsibility that rests with those who ski the Coal Creek track at the base of Mt. Taylor. (Where the slide debris was deposited.) The Coal Creek track is in the bottom of a terrain trap and passes beneath 5 major avalanche paths in the space of a mile. Skiing through there, the clues are plentiful and obvious that these paths have a history of avalanching, and that they will continue to do so with or without skiers present on the upper mountain. We teach our avalanche students to enter that terrain consciously, with recognition that they are exposing themselves to significant hazard, and to employ travel precautions to minimize their exposure. Mr. Fischel's statement, "I hope this will be a lesson for folks who ski up there. They put people like me at risk." strikes me as simplistic and short-sighted. If you choose to ski up or down Coal Creek, you are making a choice to place yourself in an inherently hazardous situation, regardless of whether or not anybody is up on Mt. Taylor. Yes, Mr. Collins' actions might have placed others at risk, but there is equal negligence on the part of those who choose to travel beneath avalanche terrain and are then surprised when they find their lives at risk.