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.