White Death

.. maybe not such a great place to build a jump after all. PHOTO: Scott Serfas

It’s summer here at the TransWorld offices, so I was going to start this off with some crappy correlation with avalanches being to snowboarding as sharks are to surfing, and so I did. Excuse it. But while in 2008, according to The International Shark Attack File, there were four fatal shark attacks across the world, according to the American Avalanche Association (AAA), in the U.S. and Canada alone there were 54 deaths from avalanche burials. It seems that anxiety with which I nervously dangle my feet in the dark waters off the coast lately would have been better directed at the backcountry snowpack this past winter.

The reality of avalanche deaths is not pretty—snowmobilers made up the majority of last winter’s avalanche victims with 35 fatalities. Sixteen skiers and snowboarders were killed by avalanches both inbounds at resorts and in the backcountry. What to do?

By now we all know that the best defense against becoming a victim of an avalanche (besides the relative safety of the couch) is education, but the education doesn’t just mean registering for a class and digging pits. Other people’s experience’s gone wrong can provide a ton of information that might register a little closer to home.  AAA’s database of actual avalanche incidents that happened last winter is a useful resource for understanding how things really go down out there. How long it can really take to find someone who’s been buried without a beacon versus with one, why you should seriously only have one person on the slope at a time, why shredding alone in the backcountry is a terrible idea, why the ski patrol makes such a big stink out of not cutting the boundary lines.

The quality of each reported avalanche incident varies from newspaper articles with basic summaries to a fourteen-page report on an Oregon avalanche complete with photos and graphic charts. If you do spend time in the backcountry snowboarding or snowmobiling to the shred spot, I can’t say enough about how informative these accounts are.

To wrap things up, Karl Birkeland, based in Bozeman, Montana near the filming nirvana of Cooke City, Montana, is an Avalanche Scientist with the U.S.D.A. Forest Service National Avalanche Center. He offered a little insight into last winter that should keep you motivated to head out next winter, but with a healthy dose of caution.

Would you describe this winter as unusually active as far as avalanche burials and deaths go?
“In the United States this was an active year, but I would not have characterized it as unusually active as far as avalanche burials and deaths go. We had 26 fatalities so far (there are sometimes additional fatalities in the spring and summer), and recently we’ve been having around 25 to 30 fatalities per season. During the 2007-08 season we had 36 fatalities in the U.S.”

What distinguished this winter from winters with fewer avalanche incidents?
“This past winter was fairly tough because we had some early season snow which sat on the ground for a while and became weak. Some of this weak snow was also interspersed with some crusts, making those layers especially dangerous. When they were buried by significant snowfall in December and January it made for dangerous conditions in many areas across the West and led to a number of fatalities. A mid-season dry spell led to another weak snow layer that was buried by snowfall in March, creating more dangerous conditions.”

Is there a common story line to snowmobile avalanche burials that we can learn from?
“Like all accidents with all the user groups, each one is somewhat unique. In general, I believe the snowmobiling community is better educated and better equipped to deal with avalanches than in past years. However, we are still seeing avalanches that involve multiple snowmobilers on the same slope. Snowmobilers, like all user groups, need to remember to only expose one person to the avalanche danger at a time while others watch from a safe location.”

There were three deaths inbounds at resorts this year, what precautions if any should riders take when riding inbounds on a big powder day?
“In general, I don’t think riders have to take special precautions with regards to avalanches when riding in-bounds at ski areas. Despite the accidents last year, the safety record of the ski areas is excellent and the chances of being caught in an in-bounds avalanche are extremely small. I ski with my two young daughters at ski areas in avalanche terrain and I do not think twice about it. However, it is always good to pay attention in the early season and on big snow days, and I’d always recommend skiing with a partner. In addition, people need to remember that the conditions outside the ski area are completely different than the conditions inside the ski area.  Backcountry conditions exist outside the boundaries, and this is where we are increasingly seeing problems.”

Do you think there is value on reviewing the accidents database? What can be learned?
“I think it is very valuable to review accidents. There are lessons to be learned from each one, and our accident database has been used to learn more about how people make decisions in the backcountry and why they are caught in avalanches.

We always encourage you to take avalanche education classes through your local avalanche center, most of which are available in the Fall, but this is just one more avenue to educate. Look for the Backcountry Basics column this next volume recounting real life stories of the life-threatening situations pro snowboarders got into last winter, how they got out, and what they did right and wrong in retrospect-so you can learn from their mistakes, too.

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Speaking of avalanches, check out this video of JOhno Verity's ride last winter.