The New Rules: Avalanches Don’t Discriminate

Just because you're in-bounds doesn't mean you're safe.

    Photo: Photo by Charley Shimanski/Mountain Rescue Association

Calculating Risk: How Long Can I Live Without Oxygen?

It depends on your temperature. If you were drowning in warm Hawaiian waves, three to four minutes is all it'd take to cause irrep­arable brain damage or death. But if you fell into your ice-fishing hole, you might last 20 minutes or longer. When the brain is cooled, it requires less oxygen and produces fewer harmful substances during recovery. Cold also triggers redistribution of blood to core organs, conserving oxygen. According to the University of Manitoba's Dr. Gordon Giesbrecht, a leading expert on the effects of cold on humans, the quicker you cool down, the longer you can last. "Some people will breathe water in and out when they're submerged," he notes. "We don't know why some do and some don't, but there's evidence it helps you survive because it cools the brain faster." —L.L.

The prevailing wisdom goes something like this: If you ski in the backcountry, you're on your own. You should be trained in avalanche safety and carrying all the essential gear. But if you're skiing at a resort, you don't have to worry about slides; ski patrol has "controlled" the slope and deemed it safe.

Not true.

Consider what happened at resorts across the West this past winter. In mid-December, Snowbird opened its iconic hike-up peak, Mount Baldy, for the first time that season. Around noon, after more than 300 people had already skied Baldy, Heather Gross, a 27-year-old Salt Lake City local, lost a ski partway down the tree-and-cliff-riddled slope. As she was hiking up to retrieve it, a snowboarder above her triggered an avalanche. Skiers and boarders screamed warnings, but it was too late. Within seconds the slide had buried Gross beneath three feet of snow and debris. It took ski patrollers and a 150-person search a little more than an hour to locate her. She died later that day.

On Christmas Day, a slide at Squaw Valley killed 21-year-old skier Randall Davis. Two days after that, 31-year-old skier David Nodine asphyxiated beneath seven feet of snow when an avalanche struck an experts-only area at Jackson Hole. Overall, the season saw the highest number of in-bounds deaths since a single avalanche killed three skiers at Alpine Meadows in 1976.Granted, the snowpack was unusually unstable last December. But, say many experts, as resorts continue to cater to skiers' growing appetite for challenging slopes by expanding boundaries to include more-extreme terrain, skiers need to start taking an active role in reducing their risks.

"Resorts do a phenomenal job making it a safe experience, but they're working in nature's domain," says Dale Atkins, a VP at the International Commission for Alpine Rescue. "They can't guarantee safety."

That doesn't mean every resort skier needs to take an avalanche course. If you stick to intermediate or groomed terrain with little exposure, you can essentially ignore the risk of slides. But if you search for the steepest, gnarliest terrain, wear an avalanche beacon and carry a shovel and probe, especially on high-risk days (during major weather and the first few days after). Studies suggest that if rescuers find you within 15 minutes, you have a 92 percent chance of survival. All the ski patrollers at these resorts, and many of the locals using them to access the backcountry, carry beacons. In the incredibly rare instance that you get caught ina slide, wearing one could save your life.

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