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Rising risk of ski mountaineering tragedies #4810
Back To Discussion List Written: 2017.03.08 by: Steve Grant

Backcountry skiing has changed a lot since I got into it. Especially in the last few years. It used to be that we never saw anyone else out there. Skiing steep stuff was never a trip objective and was rare.

Now, most winter backcountry, especially the more friendly terrain has been zoned for snowmobilers and heliskiers. Snowshoers follow skiers almost everywhere and trample the snow into crater traps. Multiple, if not many, other parties occupy all the old familiar places even on weekdays. There are always steeper and more difficult places, and that is where we find ourselves.

Other changes combine with those factors. AT ski gear, using skis resembling water skis allow intermediate skiers to ski pretty well anything. Media exposure such as film festivals and videos popularized extreme skiing. So now the goal of ski mountaineering seems to be seeking out new and steeper "lines" rather than reaching summits. Even the language has taken on an elitist slant, full of references such as "shredding the pow".

The result is that exposure to avalanche hazard has increased greatly. This has been partially balanced by increased education and safety equipment.

But the education comes with its own risks. People seem to think if they take lots of "avi" or "avy" education, they can more precisely determine whether a given slope on a given day will slide. They seem to forget the part that avalanche conditions can also be highly variable and highly unpredictable. The fine line they draw between what is safe and what is not easily ends up on the wrong side of the conditions. They think they can outsmart the mountains. Well, even avalanche experts die in avalanches.

As for the safety equipment, the victim in a recent fatality had his airbag torn off and his transceiver was on the wrong setting.

What is not emphasized is that over many years of mountaineering you develop a feel for what is going on. Courses cannot teach this. Period. Such as if the snow settles under you on the approach to a slope, you recalibrate your guess about the hazard. You notice the behavior of the snow wedge on every kick turn. But folks seem to be in a big rush to do expert mountaineering these days. To prove their mettle by advancing quickly up the ranks, propelled by courses, film festival attendance and wearing helmets to save their noggins.

The demographics seem to have changed. While in the past the people you'd meet in the mountains tended to be modest and outgoing, now the mountains seem to be crawling with insecure, aggressive and self-centered people. Their drive to make names for themselves appears to overwhelm their self-interest in surviving.

Another change driving this increasing risk is technology and social media. Yes, in the old days we expressed our ego in mountaineering journals and summit records. However now there are digital photos and videos and gopro cams with the imagery quickly spread far and wide. The pressure to carve out a position in the mountaineering community and make and enhance that reputation is intense.

And so the whole picture tilts into a formula for tragedy.


#1876 - 2017.03.08 Stephen Klassen - It doesn't surprise me
Thank you for posting this.

Since having kids about a decade ago, I have not been out in the backcountry much. But what you describe does not surprise me. Fundamentally I get the impression that a lot (not all) of people start with the premise "It won't happen to me" and all their risk reduction activities appear to really be a rationalization to justify going somewhere/skiing something.

After the Traviata and Rogers Pass incidents, my thinking (and the thinking of many of my skiing partners) changed. Really dialed things back, but with some hiccups along the way, fortunately none that resulted in any accidents.