Sidecountry Fatalities on the Rise | UNITED STATES, COLORADO | 02/20/2008, by HotChocolatedoes 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."
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
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.
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 email@example.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.
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.