December 29, 2008

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

ANDY LEWICKY is a Los Angeles-based writer and photographer who enjoys good books, jasmine tea, long walks in the rain, and climbing and skiing the big peaks of the California Sierra. email | follow

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