3rd In-Bounds Avalanche Fatality of Season

According to the Jackson Hole Daily, a skier was killed Saturday, December 27, at the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort by an in-bounds avalanche, making this the third in-bounds avalanche fatality of the 08-09 season. Statistically, in-bounds avalanches at ski resorts are extremely rare. Three such incidents at the start of this year's season can thus be viewed as either a dramatic anomaly...or perhaps an early warning of a disturbing new trend.

Reviewing the preliminary information about the slide, it seems apparent that no one did anything particularly wrong. In fact, the speed with which ski patrollers reached the victim is impressive—reportedly they dug him out within ten minutes. According to the JH Daily, the victim was wearing some sort of avalanche transceiver, which aided the search.

For some time now, Lou Dawson at wildsnow.com has been stressing the need for in-bounds skiers to protect themselves from avalanches. In fact, Lou posted an article on the subject just a few days ago. That's fine for backcountry-oriented skiers who are already used to thinking about terrain and assessment, but what about the vast majority of in-bounds skiers (including experts) who have absolutely no experience or skills when it comes to identifying and avoiding avalanches?

The rise in in-bounds avalanches, which includes several events last year, would seem to correspond to two major trends. The first is the aggressive opening of double-black and so-called extreme terrain within resort boundaries. Such terrain is simply more difficult to control for avalanches, as it is inevitably more likely to slide. Expansion areas may delight today's ambitious freeride skiers, but they are unquestionably a severe challenge for ski patrol who must protect skiers across ever-growing acreage.

Another, more controversial trend is the issue of global climate change, which many believe is creating historically novel snowpacks. For example, last season saw snowpack across the Colorado Rockies which often resembled stable Sierra conditions, while California saw colder, more typically continental conditions.

Such flip-flopping takes away one of the most potent forecasting tools in the avalanche professional's repertoire: comparison to historical norms. If patrollers are faced with a snowpack they've never seen before, by definition they are at a disadvantage.

What does this mean for skiers?

First, I strongly agree with Lou: skiers of all stripes need to learn to protect themselves. This is especially true of skiers who venture into aggressive in-bounds terrain during or immediately following storms and wind events. But perhaps resorts should embark upon education programs targeting all skiers to provide at least rudimentary information about avalanches.

This information could form a foundation for future study for those skiers who eventually venture out-of-bounds. It could also save a few lives in-bounds by encouraging skiers to be more conservative and mindful in threatening conditions, rather than automatically delegating that responsibility 100% to ski patrol.

Andy Lewicky is the author and creator of SierraDescents

Dan Conger December 29, 2008 at 10:05 pm

I was caught in a post control avalanche at Mammoth when I was 18. It was March 4th, 1995 and Dave's run slid big-time one me. I haven't stopped skiing and really enjoy the sport tremendously (being a true double diamond skier). I had an epic powder day at Mammoth on December 26th of this year. I was on the second chair on chair 23 and got a totally untracked descent of Paranoid Flats (#2). The lesson of this fatality is this ... next time you're in a lift line waiting for ski patrol to open the mountain, be thankful they took so much time ensuring it is absolutely safe for you to enjoy. The alternative is not so wonderful. Blessings and many first descents to you!!!

Dan Conger
San Leandro, CA (raised in Bishop, CA)

skiing the backcountry December 29, 2008 at 10:22 pm

You can check out some crazy photos of the incident here: http://www.skiingthebackcountry.com/jackson_hole_Avalanche.php

Andy December 30, 2008 at 8:26 am


Thanks for the link. Where is skiingthebackcountry.com based? You've got a good looking site there.

Skiing the Backcountry January 16, 2009 at 1:36 pm

We are based in Jackson Hole. Great to hear that you like the site! Every day we are adding more articles, gear reviews, videos, and backcountry skiing routes.

Sierra Descents has a lot of great info as well!