ON THE AFTERNOON of February 23, a 24-year-old snowboarder named Timothy Robert Baker was killed in an avalanche in Dutch Draw, a lift-accessed drainage just outside The Canyons Resort, in Park City, Utah. Baker’s death was the latest in a grim week for Western skiers seeking fresh sidecountry powder—it was the sixth fatality in 10 days, including two skiers who died in Colorado in separate incidents, and three who perished in a massive slide on Stevens Pass, northeast of Seattle, Washington on February 19.
The rash of accidents pushed the season total of skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers killed in slides to 22, according to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, a number that is now likely to exceed the national average of 28.8, (January and February are statistically the deadliest months). Not surprisingly, the incidents prompted a melee of media attention, including prominent coverage from the New York Times, CNN, NPR, and NBC. One would be forgiven for coming away with the impression that the danger, and the number of skiers and snowboarders courting it, are on the rise, and that, as the Times put it, “increasingly those who put themselves in harm’s way seem not to be careless novices but rather experts pushing the limits of safety.”
Much of the coverage has focused on two significant trends: the growing popularity of the sidecountry— lift-accessed terrain beyond resort boundaries—which isn’t new; and the use of airbag backpacks as avalanche prophylaxis, which is, at least in North America (the devices have been in use for several years in Europe). The packs, which inflate like car airbags, work on the “Brazil nut principle:” as debris flows down hill, the largest particles sift to the top. Elyse Saugstad, the fourth skier who was also caught in the Stevens Pass slide, has credited an airbag with saving her life; none of the three skiers killed, one of whom was buried just a few feet from Saugstad, were wearing airbag packs. Sales of airbag packs spiked as much as 300 percent in February, according to online retailer snowbigdeal.com.
As for the popularity of the sidecountry, it is indeed on the rise, and by most accounts appears to be accelerating. Given our growing appetite for fresh snow, resorts get tracked up faster than ever—and those in search of the next powder fix are all the more apt to leave the resort to find it. Outside has been reporting on this, and the associated problems, for at least a decade, including a nearly identical accident in Dutch Draw back in 2005. While it is partially true that seasoned experts often get into trouble (several studies of avalanche accident history suggest that risk exposure rises with experience level) that only tells part of the story—and it's a story that continues to evolve and develop.
“I’d say about two-thirds of all the accidents are either people who know absolutely nothing about avalanches—they’ve bumbled into it, as it were—or people who know just a very little bit about them,” Bruce Tremper, director of the Utah Avalanche Center, and author of Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain, told me. “The other third is the hardcore crowd.”
The numbers so far this season may be skewed above average due to particularly hazardous snow conditions around the West. It’s also worth noting that the number of actual fatalities by avalanche, whether in the sidecountry or bona fide backcountry, remains pretty low, both as a percentage of those visiting resorts (about 10 million skiers and snowboarders hit the slopes each year), and compared to other outdoor activities. According to recent figures from the National Safety Council, about 900 people die annually while riding a bicycle, 129 are killed by tornadoes, and 25 by lightning. What’s more, roughly 40 people die while skiing or riding in-bounds at resorts—and, unless the victim is a celebrity, those deaths hardly ever qualify as news.
Since there are no hard numbers reflecting just how many riders are venturing into the sidecountry these days, it’s impossible to reliably quantify an accident rate. But pretty much everyone I’ve talked to—skiers and boarders, patrollers, avalanche professionals—all concur that the last couple of seasons have witnessed a dramatic increase in traffic beyond the ropes. If true, then it stands to reason that, considering this season’s poor conditions and what is only a modest spike in the number of fatalities, sidecountry safety on the whole may actually be improving. And that encouraging phenomenon may itself be due to some very recent game-changing developments across the entire industry.
TEN YEARS AGO, the snowsports community was still neatly delineated: You had resort riders, and you had backcountry riders. But since then, nearly everyone, including gear makers, resorts, and the media, have been racing to meet in the middle. In 2009, I wrote about how Black Diamond, best known for climbing hardware and serious ski-touring and telemark equipment, was betting its future on innovative backcountry products that resembled traditional downhill gear. Meanwhile, established alpine ski companies have been moving in the opposite direction, towards lighter-weight, more versatile equipment that allows you to travel more comfortably and efficiently beyond the ropes. In the same way that open boundaries blurred the distinction between backcountry and frontcountry, off-piste and on, this new hybrid equipment blurs where you are supposed to ski and how.