February 6, 2008

Lost Bay Area Skiers Found

The San Francisco Chronicle reports two missing skiers have been found after they became lost in the backcountry near Alpine Meadows ski resort.

Both men are described as experienced adventure skiers, though according to the article, they did not intend to leave the resort on the day they became lost. Weather conditions were particularly foul that day, with high winds, a sustained blizzard, and white-out conditions. They apparently were unfamiliar with the resort and surrounding geography, and passed unaware beyond the boundary while skiing expert terrain in the blizzard.

What followed was a two day and two night ordeal in which they dug snow caves and slept on pine boughs, melted snow for water in plastic baggies, and followed a river downstream through heavy snow until a rescue helicopter spotted them. Aside from typical alpine ski gear and clothing, they had no backcountry equipment with them. The skiers certainly deserve credit for their survival skills, which kept them alive in life-threatening circumstances.

On the other hand, experienced adventure skiers deserve a little more scrutiny when it comes to their decisions. A not very friendly discussion is taking place at TGR, with some (but not all) familiar with Alpine Meadows suggesting the skiers did intentionally leave the resort for a short 'sidecountry' tour, expecting they would be able to traverse back to the area.

That's probably a debate that's not worth having. I've been to many ski areas in many blizzards. Patrol do their best to make ropes and boundaries obvious, but there are always gaps in the line that you can slip through unaware when visibility goes south. Often, in heavy snow, the bright orange rope itself will become buried or simply covered in snow, blending in to a sheet of white.

In my opinion, speculations about the men's intentions or honesty therefore miss the point. The more salient discussion revolves around something Lou Dawson has been talking about a lot this year: in-bounds safety in blizzards. We've seen a number of in-bounds avalanches this season, including some fatalities. Lou advocates skiing in groups with beacons in-bounds during blizzards. Beyond that, backcountry skiers especially should remember that they're still in the mountains when they're in-bounds.

In a whiteout, with gale force winds and heavy snows, I believe skiers of all stripes should adopt an attitude of healthy conservatism. Even when you know your local mountain intimately, it's wise to play it safe: stop often, make sure you always know where you are, watch out for tree wells, and avoid confusing drainages or ridgelines that lead off to trouble. And in particular if you are skiing a mountain you're not familiar with, don't vanish into the thicket expecting you'll magically pop out back at the lodge. Experienced bc skiers are particularly vulnerable in these situations, because we tend to let down our guard in a resort's perceived envelope of safety.

Don't let it happen to you!

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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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