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Avalanches Don’t Care Who You Are; They Kill You.

Ted, you do not want to meet this on your bluebird, outback ski day. Credit: UtahOutside.com

[Author Note: I wrote this as a letter and emailed it to a college student nephew who’s experiencing his first Utah winter with lots of snow and avalanches. He thinks he’s infallible.

If you have grandkids or others who are new to snow country, you’re invited to copy and send any part of this story to them. They probably won’t get this kick in the pants anywhere else.] 

Hi Ted,

The photos of your ski adventure into the backcountry are beautiful. The ski is blue, the snow is deep, and the mountain you climbed is extremely steep. You must be very proud of yourself.

And you are lucky to be alive. You acted stupidly.  Avalanches do not play favorites.

Craig Gordon, a forecaster with the Utah Avalanche Center says backcountry skiers who get caught in an avalanche have already made three bad decisions before they get swept away and killed. Gordon’s examples include exactly the bad decisions you made.

  1. It’s a beautiful day, let’s go.
  2. It’s fresh snow. I want to ski it.
  3. We’ll be okay because my friend is going.
Your pal has 18 minutes to find you and dig you out. That’s it. Credit: Mountain Savvy

Furthermore, if you’d checked the avalanche forecast—the very first thing you should have done—you would have learned that many backcountry areas were closed and  others were under extreme avalanche danger warning. But you went anyhow.

I know that you were dead set on getting an avalanche flotation bag that you would hope to inflate and ride out an avalanche if caught in one. But absolutely no piece of equipment can compensate for stupidity.

Perhaps you equate an avalanche with a Disney World ride. Whoopee! I’m riding down an avalanche. It’s not like that. Avalanches don’t care who you are, what your college GPA is, how much you work out in the gym, or what your life’s goals are. Avalanches kill.

An avalanche doesn’t care about Mother Nature either. Avalanches snap off trees and rip up boulders. If you’re caught in an avalanche you’re pummeled with broken tree trunks, tossed around with boulders, and thrown over cliffs and buried. The snow quickly sets like concrete. You are entombed.

If you haven’t already died from blunt force trauma, you have 18 minutes to live before you die from asphyxiation from being sealed in an airless tomb. Your buddy had better know how to use his avalanche beacon, his probe and his shovel and use them furiously fast.

There is no time for your buddy to see if his cell phone works out there in the backcountry. It won’t do any good to call 911. He has to dig you out within 18 minutes. Just 18 minutes.

Avalanche burials frequently become body recoveries.

Ski patrols work to reduce the avalanche danger in-bounds, but that does not guarantee in-bound safety. But the moment you leave the in-bounds by stepping through a gate, you are totally, completely, absolutely on your own—even if your are only 10 feet out of bounds.

You were lucky this time. You did everything wrong, but you were lucky. Pull a stupid stunt like this again, and you might be dead.

Being macho won’t save your life. Take an avalanche course. Courses include field work where you dig snow pits, learn to calculate slope angles, and learn to use your avy beacon, probe and shovel. Then practice in one of the many avy beacon “parks” at ski resorts and trailheads.

Craig Gordon also says: Time your buddy while he practices in the beacon park. If he’s slow finding the buried target beacon, he’ll be slow finding you if you’re buried—so don’t go into the backcountry with him. You need to be quick and expert with your equipment.

Practice. Practice. Practice. You can’t learn to drive a car in one lesson. You can’t be proficient with your avy equipment in one lesson. Practice. Avalanches don’t give you a second chance.

An avalanche is not an amusement park ride you can race. If you try, you will lose. Credit: KUTV

7 Comments

  1. Amen. Great message.

  2. Hi Harriet,
    This is great message although it’s seldom needed here in the east. I remember years ago when I was assigned by the late I.W. Berry to cover and avalanche seminar at Crested Butte. The first forest ranger to speak, stated with “All of the avalanche experts are dead’. Even though i was a 20 year veteran ski patrolman, I learned a lot in those few days. I would add to your excellent message. East or west, back country can kill, especially the unprepared. And you’re right about cell phones. Signals are highly unreliable in the mountains. Keep up the good work, Dave Irons

  3. Avatar Jody Warfield says:

    Perfect for my son (who already knows this) and his friends (who apparently do not). He’ll appreciate the ammunition when they are calling him a wimp. Thank you Harriet!

  4. Avatar Scott Jimmerson says:

    Great article Harriet. We would tell our son every year that the beacons help the patrol find your body. Also, if you get caught in an avalanche…….you don’t get to ski powder anymore. At 72 I love the powder here in Idaho.

  5. Avatar Alicia Schilder says:

    Great article Harriet! Tough love!

  6. Avatar Naomi Karten says:

    Superb article, Harriet! Sadly, even inbounds, a few skiers die in avalanches every year.

    I recall an article a few years ago in one of the outdoor magazines about a group of skiers determined to ski backcountry following a mega-storm. A few members of the group felt leery about participating, but the fear of being seen as a coward kept them from dropping out. When the avalanche struck — triggered, as is so often the case, by the skiers themselves — those above the fracture line survived, but were unable to save the lives of those below it. Tragic, and so unnecessary!

  7. Blunt, straight-forward, well said. I might add that irresponsible behavior on the part of some can also endanger the lives of the professional and volunteer rescue teams who will heed the call for help. They also are tasked with the sad prospects of recovery, not rescue, and notification of loved ones. The mountain will always be there tomorrow.

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