WITH this ski season already shaping up to be more dangerous than most — in just the last month there were six deaths from Western avalanches, three of them within ski resort boundaries — skiers, snowboarders and those whose businesses accommodate them are taking more precautions.
Those hitting the slopes are buying safety devices at a fast clip, while experts are warning that areas that might seem safe, like those right next to marked trails, actually hold considerable peril.
Following an avalanche that killed an expert skier at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort last month, Backcountry.com, a Utah-based purveyor of outdoor products, experienced an enormous increase in traffic on its Web pages that feature transceivers — battery-powered devices that emit signals to guide rescuers to a person trapped in an avalanche — and other safety equipment.
Doug Abromeit, the director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center in Ketchum, Idaho, said statistics indicating that most avalanche deaths occur in the backcountry can be misleading. People tend to think they will be safe on or near resort trails. About a third of the skiers and snowboarders who die in avalanches are within a couple of hundred feet of resort boundaries, so their deaths are listed as having occurred in the backcountry, he said.
“We call them ‘slackcountry’ skiers because they ride the lifts up, and then duck the ropes” to get to the untracked snow, he said. These people assume that they are safe because they are so close to resort property, but because the areas outside of boundaries — even just outside — are not controlled, they are not.
In fact, the pockets of fresh snow that skiers and snowboarders can see just beyond a resort’s boundaries are particularly hazardous. “The wind blows and drifts the snow into big fresh pockets that people are looking for,” said Chris Fellows, who teaches backcountry safety and avalanche rescue as director of the North American Ski Training Center in Truckee, Calif. “They think, ‘I’ll just sneak out and make a few turns and then head back in,’ ” he said. “But as soon as they get onto that unstable snow, it breaks away.”
The bottom line: “Obey the closed and boundary signs, no matter how enticing it looks on the other side,” Mr. Abromeit said.
And consider taking a backcountry safety course, even if you spend most of your time in-bounds, said Jerry Blann, the president of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort. Mr. Blann, who helped rescue seven ski patrollers and forest service employees who were recently trapped at Jackson Hole, has one more bit of advice: “Always ski or ride with a buddy. You can have the best safety equipment in the world with you, but if you’re alone, it won’t do you any good.”
Other experts’ advice for skiers and riders included wearing a helmet. “A quarter of avalanche victims die from the trauma of hitting trees or rocks mid-slide,” said Craig Gordon, an avalanche forecaster at the United States Forest Service Utah Avalanche Center in Salt Lake City.
Taking an avalanche safety course is recommended, even if you do not expect to venture beyond a resort’s boundaries. Information about seminars is available at avalanche.org.
Skiers should survey the terrain: contrary to the footage often shown in skiing and snowboarding movies, long, steep slopes aren’t the only places that avalanches occur. About half of avalanche accidents happen on slopes that are less than 300 feet long and between 30 and 45 degrees steep. In some instances, a skier or snowboarder may begin to descend on a gentle 25-degree slope that gradually becomes steep enough to be an avalanche hazard.
If you’re caught in an avalanche, yell so potential witnesses know that you’re being swept away. Let go of your poles if possible, and use swimming motions to thrust your body toward the top of the snow. When you stop, fight to keep one hand or foot above the snow so rescuers can see it. Try to create an air pocket in front of your face by punching into the snow. Stay calm to preserve the air space and conserve energy.
If you see someone caught in an avalanche, pay close attention to the spot where you last saw the person. When the avalanche has stopped, wait a minute or two before you move toward the slide. Look for an extremity, or clues like a piece of clothing. If you are the only potential rescuer, start searching immediately because the victim can suffocate within about six minutes. If you have a probe, start at the place where the victim was last seen and insert the probe into the snow, every few feet.
If you ski on expert terrain or outside of resort boundaries, consider investing in basic rescue equipment: a probe, a shovel and a transceiver.
The information above comes courtesy of The New York Times’ fitness and nutrition section, for which thanks.
The video below from folio3 sums up the situation.
And in the video below from lemourtis there is some excellent footage of a guy snowboarding and getting caught up in an avalanche – luckily for him he survived – but be warned and take every precaution possible to avoid a tragedy – that is not worth it.