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Sidecountry Fatalities on the Rise | UNITED STATES, COLORADO | 02/20/2008, by HotChocolate

Small Avalanche on Teton Pass
Did you see the full moon eclipse tonight? I know it's just a shadow and maybe it's not as exciting as an action filled adventure... Still I just love seeing stuff like that. I think it's healthy for us all to remember that the universe, in fact, does not revolve around whether or not we ski powder every day.

At the same time I believe that every life is precious and it makes me truly sad to hear about ski related deaths. The Denver Post published an article today about one of the skiers who died in the Vail Resort backcountry this year. I think it's a good reminder to us all. Be safe and have fun!

Here is the article:

Avalanches claiming experts in one of country's deadliest years:
Sidecountry fatalities on the rise


By Jason Blevins
The Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 02/20/2008 06:25:05 PM MST


Justin Lozier orders his buddy Jesse Brigham to stop inching his snowboard closer to the lip of an overhanging ledge of ice, and with an expert eye, he examines the snow below him.

He hammers the ground hard with his skis, over and over and over again.

He talks about the "convexity in the snow," sure there is a weakness there somewhere. Finally, Lozier scoots down the hill a bit farther, looking for just the right spot, until a fracture appears and triggers a 1-foot-deep avalanche down the steep cliffs in East Vail known as Charlie's Death Chutes.

Before the 24-year-old professional ski guide navigates the nearly vertical band of frozen rocks, he warns his pals to stick to the avalanche's track. To
the left are monstrous cliffs ending in rocks. To the right is a looming cornice of snow.

"Right in the track?" asks Brigham, a 27-year-old snowboarder in his second year as a ski bum in Vail.

Those are the last words Lozier hears Brigham utter.

Minutes later, as Lozier films from below with his helmet-mounted camera, Brigham is caught in an 800-foot-wide avalanche that throws him down the cliffs like a flake of confetti.

Fuming snow barrels over Lozier's skis.

His friends don't panic.

"This is what we were trained to do. We got this," Lozier says to 32-year-old snowboarder Jim Muguerza.

But there is no signal on their digital avalanche transceivers. The pair's guttural screams "Jesse!" "Jesse!" grow increasingly frantic.

In the haunting video Lozier captured that first Friday morning in January, the confidence quickly dissolved in Lozier's voice. Muguerza located Brigham 500 feet below them, sealed facedown in 7 feet of concretelike avalanche debris. They desperately dug, crying and cursing. The pair traded CPR efforts for an hour in between passionate calls to Vail's ski patrol.

"It goes from so stoked, like 'Yeah, Jesse!' to tragic, horrifying in a second," Lozier says, watching the video on his laptop. "It was just a second."

In this frame from video Jesse Brigham is seen moments before his fatal ski down the slope. (Photo from video courtesy of Justin Lozier)
In this frame from video Jesse Brigham is seen moments before his fatal ski down the slope. (Photo from video courtesy of Justin Lozier)

By the time two veteran Vail patrollers arrived, Brigham had become the seventh of nine U.S. skiers and 'boarders killed this season after they left a nearby resort in search of steep powder. It's already an ugly record for deaths in what is shaping up to be one of the country's most fatal avalanche seasons.

These aren't clueless adventure-seekers. Every sidecountry death this season has involved expert riders carrying avalanche transceivers, shovels and probe poles

While it's difficult to gauge growth in backcountry skiing, one barometer is the sales of the Backcountry Access digital avalanche transceiver or beacon. This year company vice president Bruce Edgerly expects a 30 percent increase in beacon sales, on top of 40 percent last year and 20 percent annual growth in the years before that.

An increase in deaths can be expected when there is that kind of growth in a sport played on a field that can collapse and kill in an instant.

But it's the location of the deaths that has avalanche researchers worrying.

Of the 43 deaths recorded by avalanche researchers in North America this season, almost a fifth were in resort sidecountry, the easily accessed areas a short stroll past a resort boundary.

Traditionally, out-of-bounds or sidecountry deaths in the U.S. account for 6 percent to 9 percent of the country's avalanche fatalities.

"Something is happening this winter that hasn't happened before," said Dale Atkins, an avalanche researcher and educator. "These gates have been open for 15 to 20 years and we haven't seen these sort of accidents, so something is going on."

Part of it is equipment. Skis have widened, enabling less- experienced riders to venture into deeper, steeper snow.

This year, a tremendous snowfall, coupled with high- wind storms, has created a complex snowpack, with several avalanche-generating layers lurking as deep as 10 feet below the soft powder on the surface.

On top of all that is the widespread pursuit of easily accessed steep-and-deep powder, encouraged largely by films featuring iconic athletes ripping down pristine big mountains.

"Most people who go through those gates don't realize that in that quarter-inch span the thickness of a rope they go from a very managed and safe environment to the Wild West," Atkins said.

The only other time the out-of-bounds death rate climbed as high as this year was in 1987, when three died in two February slides outside Telluride ski area and three died in a single February avalanche beyond the rope of Breckenridge ski area.

Following that calamitous season, the U.S. Forest Service in Colorado took stock of its ski resort backcountry access policy, which until then consisted of small openings in resort boundary ropes. Local law enforcement and resort operators in Summit County urged the Forest Service to close swaths of public land flanking resort boundaries. But the public advised otherwise.

"We got overwhelming public feedback that reasonable access should be maintained," said Ken Kowynia, winter sports program manager for the Forest Service's Rocky Mountain region.

The Forest Service resisted pressure to close public lands and instead created specific and well-signed backcountry access points designed to prevent the unaware skier from wandering out of bounds.

This year Don Dressler, snow ranger for the Forest Service's Holy Cross Ranger District, which includes Vail and its surrounding public lands, has spent more time than ever hiking the 15 minutes from Vail ski area up to the historically deadly Benchmark Bowl.

He talks with skiers and 'boarders, making sure they have the right gear. Warning about slide danger. Talking about the safest routes down the bowl.

"Just because you have the equipment doesn't guarantee your safety. We've seen that this year," Dressler said.

The recent spike in avalanche deaths has some avalanche educators tweaking their tried-and-true teaching strategies, including an increased emphasis on digging work and route selection.

"I see too many people coming out of avalanche courses with confidence instead of being a little more tentative," said Dean Cummings, a helicopter skiing pioneer with a heli-skiing business in Alaska. This season he organized a new-school avalanche awareness program at Utah's Snowbird ski area.

"Look at the mountains three dimensionally," he said. "If everything became liquid, where would it flow? Where would it get pushed? Where would it push you?"

Lozier had skied Charlie's Death Chutes several times already this season before that Jan. 4 morning with Brigham. He liked to jump the knoll in the middle of the cliffs, landing in the deep powder far below. He was unaware of the fatal avalanche history haunting that particular face in East Vail.

Since that day, he has struggled. He hears the video's audio all the time; he can't stop the scenes from playing over and over in his head. He kept Brigham's helmet in his apartment for a while, wondering whether the big hole in the side meant his friend suffered a serious blow that maybe, he hopes, eclipsed the terror of burial.

He has a chart of the avalanche, compiled by researchers with the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, that shows a barely detectable 1-millimeter-thick layer of weak snow 7 feet below the surface that triggered the avalanche that took his friend.

"I'll never be the same," he said. "I wonder if it ruined me."

Lozier will soon spend a week in Silverton, studying for his Level III avalanche certification.

He's decided his friend Jesse whose favorite saying was "I do what I want" would want him to continue exploring on snow.

"I'm dedicating my life to avalanche safety, and it's because of Jesse," he said.

Jason Blevins: 303-954-1374 or jblevins@denverpost.com


Colorado sidecountry / out-of-bounds avalanche deaths and close calls

Even before the worst of the avalanche season, this has been a bad year for deaths and close-calls in Colorado and elsewhere in North America:

1/12/2008: One skier, Matthew Gustafson, 33, killed and another skier partially buried in East Vail's King Tut slidepath, just outside the Vail ski area boundary.

1/8/2008: Rescuers find Adam Putnam, 36, and Rachel Fehl, 30, alive after the pair of snowboarders spent three nights lost near the Santa Fe ski area. The two left the Santa Fe ski area three days earlier to ride out-of-bounds.

1/4/2008: Snowboarder Jesse Brigham dies in an avalanche in East Vail's Charlie's Death Chutes outside the Vail ski area.

1/5/2008: Two Albuquerque snowboarders, Michael George and Kyle Kerschen, both 27, go missing after leaving the Wolf Creek ski area boundary. The two still have not been found.

12/30/2007: A skier is partially buried in an avalanche above Lost Lake outside the backcountry gate of Eldora Ski Area.

12/18/2007: One unknown skier partially buried in East Vail.

Outside Colorado:

1/25/2008: A series of avalanches just outside the boundary of southern California's Mountain High ski area kill three skiers. Off-duty Mountain High patroller Michael McKay, 23, was the first killed. Then Mountain High ski patroller Darren Coffey, 33, and television actor Christopher Allport, 60, were killed in a separate slide. A day later, 24-year-old snowboarder Oscar Gonzales Jr. was rescued after spending the night outdoors after he left the Mountain High ski area boundary.

1/18/2008: Peter Bowle-Evans, 61, of Golden, B.C. dies in an avalanche outside the boundary of Western Canada's Kicking Horse ski area. The veteran hang-glider's death marks the 11th avalanche fatality in Canada of the season.

1/13/2008: Two skiers are killed in an avalanche just outside the boundary ropes of northern Montana's Whitefish ski area. Anthony Kollmann, 19, of Kalispell, MT, was killed in an avalanche that also killed 36-year-old Whitefish resident David Gogolak. 1/0-2/2008: A 29-year-old skier is killed after he and a 21-year-old snowboarder were caught in an avalanche in a permanently closed section of British Columbia's Whistler ski area.

12/09/2007: The search for three snowboarders last seen near the Crystal Mountain ski area south of Seattle is suspended. Kevin Carter, 26, Devlin Williams, 29, and Phillip Hollins, 41, are suspected buried in the avalanche-prone terrain near the ski area.


That's Our Opinion. What's Yours?

Dana wrote on 02/21/08 at 09:17:57 am pst:

Wow, that death was tragic, so it's a little soulless to niggle the experience to pieces...but, that article raised a few questions about those skier's "expert" status. My biggest question is, if Lozier suspected instability, why did he keep risking the exposure in physically pushing to see if he could get it to launch, rather than digging a pit? I gotta say, I think he led his buddy to his death by venturing out onto a potential crown like that - and he's lucky that all three of them didn't die.

I've been pretty disturbed lately by the number of skiers and boarders that I've met in real backcountry areas who test a line by ski-cutting it, rather than taking the time to really check for instability by digging. (For the record, when I see behavior like this, I head somewhere else.) The backcountry community should really, truly push peer pressure to get people into avalanche-safety classes and teach them to assess risk responsibly.

"Sidecountry" risk is probably even higher, since many of the people who venture out of bounds either have no avalanche education whatsoever, or didn't bring all their gear to the resort, or else know just enough to be truly dangerous to themselves and everyone else around and below them (or in this case, to their buddies.)

Ideally, none of us should ever have to use our fancy, expensive little beacons or avalungs or avy-wings, or god forbid, our shovels to dig up a dead buddy or loved one. Ideally, we could all be smart enough and educated enough and diligent enough to correctly assess that avalanche risk BEFORE we ski that perfect powder run, and careful enough to say, "eh, fuggedaboudit!" and turn around if that risk is too high. Lozier and Brigham didn't make that decision, and paid a huge price for it. I hope Lozier IS haunted by Brigham's death, and am glad he's turning that nightmare into a drive to educate others.

Sure, we all love to ski and crave that perfect line, but we should all love skiing enough to be able to make the decision to back away and try somewhere else - somewhere safer, anyway - when it's warranted.


horseypants wrote on 02/21/08 at 1:38:12 pm pst:

Dana your response is a very very good one.
common sense has to play an important role in everyone's skiing decisions. For those of you that have widsom and know life can end, pray for safety and guidance before going out and doing something that will be regretted nd could have been prevented. B/C I am a mother, can't help but think what a terrifying phone call Bingham's family received. Life is precious and we must never take it for granted.
Love to all, please make the right choices as there is no return from death, only eternity.


heliskier wrote on 02/21/08 at 4:48:24 pm pst:

Dana an interesting and good response, but second guessing does no good. If he dug a pit too high, it would give him a false read anyway. Quite often digging an appropriate pit requires being in the starting zone. The article suggests that Brigham wasn't in the path that the other skier kicked off. Otherwise, the intial ski cutter would have gone for the ride as well.
This does not excuse not digging a pit and ski cutting instead. With a hanging cornice they probably could have gotten a great read with a cornice cut and drop. That, most likely would be a much better stability tester and from a much safer spot if they possessed the appropriate equipment than a pit or a ski cut. All you need to do that right is a snow saw and a connector to your probe or ski pole and Pcord with knots tied in the cord.


Mitchelljz wrote on 02/23/08 at 4:49:11 pm pst:

nice work, brother



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