On Saturday afternoon there was another fatal avalanche in Colorado near Loveland Pass. It is notable for being the deadliest slide in Colorado since 1962: five skiers and snowboarders died; a sixth was only partially buried and survived. This tragic event brings Colorado’s avalanche-related death toll this winter to 11, out of the 24 deaths nationwide.
This story hits close to home for reasons besides the obvious: that it happened in Colorado and that the victims were of similar age and had similar passions as me. Amanda and I were also in Summit County this past weekend. On Friday we had dinner at the Dillon Dam Brewery, where this group was hosting a fundraiser for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center. And on Saturday we skied at Arapahoe Basin in the morning and then drove over Loveland Pass at around 1:30pm to get home, about 30 minutes before the slide occurred. Thankfully, my connections stop there — I don’t know the victims or their families or friends.
The CAIC will conduct a comprehensive accident report based on their on-site findings and their conversations with the sole survivor. Until then, comments citing either bad luck or idiocy are speculative and, too often, heartless. Whatever their findings, I’m sure this story will be a valuable avalanche training case study, perhaps on par with the Tunnel Creek slide in February 2012, about which the New York Times ran an excellent but sobering story earlier this winter.
Avalanches are like grizzly bears, which I have more experience with and which I often analogize to driving a vehicle. There are two sources of risk: (1) controllable and (2) uncontrollable variables. By obeying the speed limit, using turn signals, staying out of others’ blind spots, and not running red lights or even momentarily losing your vigilance, normally you can drive a long time without an accident. But, even if you do everything right, there is the off-chance of getting hit by a another driver, of being blinded by sun glare just before a pedestrian steps into the street, or having a seizure while cruising down the highway. By getting into a vehicle — or by skiing in avalanche terrain or backpacking in grizzly habitat — you are implicitly acknowledging the uncontrollable risk that something bad could happen, and accepting this risk as the price of entry.
In the case of avalanches, personally I’ve yet to become comfortable with this risk. This is partly because I lack the professional expertise: I’ve had avalanche training, I read the daily bulletins, and I even managed to ski across the Alaska Range without incident, but at least thus far I’ve focused primarily on fair-weathered endeavors. But it’s also because I’ve found less risky alternatives for winter backcountry travel. First, if I stay completely out of avalanche terrain, I will never get caught in an avalanche. I enjoy horizontal travel more than vertical anyway, and if I really want to ski the steeps I’ll buy a lift ticket and stay in-bounds. Second, I always have an avalanche-free route as a backup. The risk is often hard to predict days or weeks in advance, and by having a safe route I don’t force myself into an unsafe situation.
It’s been a sad winter in Colorado. Hopefully, this story forces us all to question the risks we’re willing to accept for the thrills and joys found in the mountains.
Well written and well considered. Thank you.
Good post. It was a tragic event. I liked your comparison to grizzly bears.
When I heard the news, I thought of you guys.
Big “Phew!” to read your post and find out all is well.
Good reflection, Andrew. You always manage to find thoughtful points to say, be it about how to avoid serious injuries or monkey bottoms.
Looking forward to more trips out with you.
All my best,
I don’t know much about the background of the guys who were killed in this recent slide, but reportedly the local advisory had rated the risk as considerable for that area. If they knew that and went anyway, I fully respect their decision (even if mine would have been different). I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they were experienced with backcountry skiing/boarding/travel either. At the end of the day, it comes down to risk management; sadly the risk caught up with them.
I’ve been on slopes where the risk was low to moderate (a slide is always possible) and my training taught me to dig a pit and get the crystal card out – but I didn’t. Not wise on my part, but honestly, I haven’t seen too many people dig pits other than when training (a little ironic). It takes a high level of discipline and maturity to take the time and energy to do that instead of just diving into that untracked pow.
The information that can be gathered before even stepping onto the snow is crucial and something that anyone can check… like what’s the history of the slope, what was the recent snowfall, what was the last snowfall before that, what’s the exposure, what’s the wind been like, and what does the avalanche advisory say about a specific area. With all of those pieces of information it should be enough to make a decision. At the end of the day, we all put ourselves at some risk with our outdoor activities; hopefully we can learn something from what happened and not judge those who lost their lives.
Your comment raises two good points:
1. To be safe in avalanche terrain, you really need to have a good pulse on the snowpack. Even if you watch the forecasts and snow reports, and read the bulletins, you really can’t be well informed enough if you live on the Front Range and are 75 miles from the action. Five years ago I worked part-time for a snow removal business in Frisco, and I never before and never again have had such a good feel for the Colorado snowpack — we spent 8 hours a day on rooftops pushing snow off. Ditto for when I skied across the Alaska Range in April/May 2010.
2. Pits have always struck me as odd — the objective of one is to determine the snowpack’s failure point. Then, you know the snowpack can fail, but you ski on it anyway?
More info is always better than less for decision making, but I think I concur about snow pits. It’s one point of information of several and, personally I couldn’t use that one factor as the determination of go/no-go if all the other information points the opposite way.
Well… ok, if my information on the area was favorable and I dug a pit, sawed some blocks, and they yielded really easily… I would probably call it a day and head for the tavern. In reality I’d probably only bother to do this in an area I wasn’t familiar with – but In reality, I tend to travel with someone who *is* familiar with the locale when I’m not.
I just learned that these guys were participating in an event to raise funding for the CAIC… really a tragic loss.
Thank you for your thoughtful remarks. One of the victims was a good friend of my son’s. I read in one account that they were down on a lower part of the mountain & knew there were avi warnings. I’ve been wondering if possibly someone was higher up the mountain & triggered it. They certainly were experts in this & had all the right gear. My son also is an avid back country snowboarder who has had quite a bit of avi training. As a mom, this scares the crap out of me because it really brings home that no matter how good you are , it can happen to anyone but 5 experts all at once is beyond most peoples’ worst nightmares! My son has taught me a bit abt avi safety & has told me abt the need to dig pits to ascertain safe conditions. Hopefully, the lone survivor can shed some light on why!!! Such a sad tragedy!!! Hope the answers come!!!!!!
The final report has been issued!
Such a tragedy!!!
Well written. Thank you for writing on the logic of risk assessment, and mitigation.