Fresh powder isn’t worth dying for

Mark Beattie, assistant manager of Mountain Gear in Spokane, demonstrates the Backcountry Access avalanche airbag system used for backcountry skiing. (Dan Pelle)
Mark Beattie, assistant manager of Mountain Gear in Spokane, demonstrates the Backcountry Access avalanche airbag system used for backcountry skiing. (Dan Pelle)

The best are most likely to die.

That applies to many recreational sports, but after Sunday’s tragedies in the North Cascades it’s worth examining why exceptional skiers, snowboarders, climbers and snowmobilers are more likely than the rest of us to be avalanche victims.

Thousands of ski area visitors safely carved through glorious fresh powder Sunday without worrying about the slopes sliding down with them. Professional avalanche control at all of the region’s downhill resorts is a hidden service sliders get for the cost of a lift ticket.

But a snowboarder and three skiers with exceptional skills were reduced from role models to case studies within seconds because they had the talent to leave most people behind.

Avalanche advisories Sunday morning rated the danger as considerable to high on uncontrolled backcountry slopes. A regional storm had dumped more than a foot of snow on mountain snowpacks with documented weak layers.

Survivors of the Stevens Pass-area avalanche said they were comfortable with managing the risk, as they’d done before and as many other skiers did Sunday outside the boundaries of managed ski areas.

This time, the odds caught up with them.

Pro skier Elyse Saugstad endured numerous interviews Monday to give the public insight on the accident. Of particular interest was her first-person account of surviving while others around her died. She credits an avalanche airbag that instantly inflated to help buoy her to the surface of the snowy torrent.

“We’ve sold a lot of those airbag backpacks, but we’re happy to say we haven’t heard of any customers who had to deploy them,” said Mark Beattie, of Mountain Gear in Spokane. “It’s like the airbags in your car. We want you to have them, but never have to use them.”

Beattie said Saugstad may be the first person reported to have survived a Northwest avalanche by deploying an airbag.

All winter backcountry travelers should be equipped with an avalanche transceiver, probe and a shovel that’s quickly accessible. And they must recognize that none of it will do much good if an avalanche crushes them into a tree or folds them into a pretzel.

Saugstad’s experience guarantees that airbag backpacks will join the list for more people.

Publicity about Sunday’s tragedies assures that more winter adventurers will enroll in avalanche safety courses.

A significant number of lives could be saved by the awareness raised by this dark day in the Cascades. And the number could be even higher except for one thing:

Fresh, deep, backcountry powder makes us stupid. It’s an opiate that blocks rational thought. It’s easier to turn down a proposition from a spectacular prospective lover.

Avalanche equipment and training is of marginal value if the thinking isn’t confronted.

In 2006, a group of introspective skiers and the Montana Avalanche center produced the bare-our-soul video, “A Dozen More Turns.”

The documentary focuses on the human factor that led to the 2005 death of a Bozeman-area avalanche expert caught up in the emotional high of skiing deep backcountry powder with his group of five.

Although it’s based on a skiing accident, the factors apply to all backcountry travelers, including snowmobilers.

One survivor said the group had discussed the snow conditions and dangers but disregarded them as the day went on because they were “so stoked” about the great skiing in new powder snow.

They talked themselves out of their training and exposed themselves to unstable snow that killed one in their group – for the sake of going just a little higher to get a few more turns.

Avalanche experts are trying to help us with everything short of an intervention.

They’ve warned that half the region’s avalanche fatalities would have been avoided if only one skier or rider at a time had been exposed on a slope.

They’ve documented that lives have been saved by avalanche training and the emphasis on carrying the right gear.

Yet there’s no substitute for playing it safe when conditions are questionable.

Good skiers live for the steep and deep. The problem is that too many would die for it.

Contact Rich Landers at (509) 459-5508 or email richl@spokesman.com.

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