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The lure of skiing in avalanche country


After dancing out on the edge of winter some years ago, I returned to solid ground with a good story. Unfortunately, others haven’t been as lucky.

My adventure occurred in thebackcountry beyond Colorado’s Beaver Creek ski area. A buddy and I took the lifts in late afternoon, then crossed throughthe backcountry gates to create our own adventure in the Holy Cross Wilderness. I think those were the best days of my life. Leaving behind the orderly, safe world of groomed runs and mechanized uphill transportation, we plodded uphill, breathing heavily, into the above-timberline landscape of wind-filed snow called sastrugi.

It’s a magical world up there. The lights of Vail twinkled below, as did the string of lights along I-70 to Glenwood Canyon. But it was the dark shadows of the peaks that enchanted.

With good eyes, you can see reasonably well at night, even under starlight. We were approaching the top of the12,000-foot knob, where thewind each winter whips the snow into a cornice on the lee side ofthe ridge. Cornices can become massive, extending 20 to 30 feet out over thin air. I had admired this one from below, even in midsummer.

A crack – and a whoosh: Thecornice broke a foot away from my buddy’s outer ski. I had stayed closer to exposed ground, but instinctively I lunged away. We were both safe. My friend guffawed as he watched me desperately – and successfully –- claw for the certainty of rock and grass. We ended up having thestars to ourselves, a good laugh, and a scary story to tell. We were lucky -- and also foolhardy. Because we were playing a dangerous game.

So far this mid-March, 27 skiers have been killed in avalanches, about the same as last year. There was an avalanche death in what locals call the cathedral of Bear Creek, adjacent to theTelluride ski area. Another occurred in the backcountry adjacent to Utah’s Canyons ski area, and in Washington, a trio of expert skiers perished in an avalanche near the Stevens Pass ski area.

Most chilling was the story of a skier from Bozeman, Mont., who was skiing in a valley bottom below a steep hill in Yellowstone. I had interviewed him some years before in his professional work as an advocate for wildlife, and he was doing just what I had done many times.  Normally, you’re pretty safe in such situations. Most fatalities occur in avalanches triggered by thevictim and his partner. In this case, the snow was so unstable that even quiet, muffled movement in the valley below was enough to unleash a torrent above. He didn’t have a chance.

The stark truth is that most avalanche victims don’t have a chance. Despite all thetechnology that’s been developed, including “Avalungs” that let a buried skier breathe through snow, packs that inflate like air bags and whatever else, getting caught in an avalanche is usually a losing proposition.

Yes, beacons and the like improve your odds. They do save lives. So does wearing a seatbelt when you’re driving. But a seatbelt probably won’t save your hide if you drive over a cliff. One chilling image from Telluride haunts me: Rescuers said the victim was wearing all the right safety gear, and it was all bloodied.

Avalanches are violent things. Surviving one involves both luck -- staying near the surface -- and planning -- having buddies who are trained and have the right equipment, including low-tech shovels, to dig you out. Even then, it’s something of a crapshoot.

This essay could be construed as blaming avalanche victims, including those who don’t survive. I don’t intend it that way. There are always risks, always calculations, in the backcountry. That’s why I wanted to share the story of the night my buddy and I spent on top of the “Beave” 15 years ago.

Still, I can’t help but wonder about the widows -- most of these victims are men -- and their children. When avalanche danger is moderate, which is when most fatalities occur, or even considerable, as it has often been rated this winter, is the beautiful powder on steep and dangerous slopes worth the risk?

I have to assume that some of the victims fully realized the odds and went ahead anyway. The lure of backcountry adventure is strong. I know my life would have been poorer without it. But then again, I was lucky.

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is a writer in the Denver area and the editor of Mountain Town News.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].