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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Sports >  Outdoors

Bill Jennings: Human factor only controllable Avalanche hazard

By Bill Jennings For The Spokesman-Review

Avalanches within ski area boundaries are rare. Ski patrols control the risk of a slide with vigilance and explosives. One such avalanche occurred in-bounds at Schweitzer last Thursday. No one was hurt – but terrifying photos of the aftermath are a powerful testament to the deadly potential of an epic snowfall.

A huge slab of snowpack in Schweitzer’s north bowl fell away, on steep terrain where runs ominously named Misfortune and Whiplash drop into Lake Colburn below. A sheer wall of snow up to 12 feet high was left behind at the fracture where the crown of the slab broke loose. The avalanche scoured trees from the slope and shoved chunks of ice out of the lake.

Conditions that led to last week’s slide began to form a few months ago, before Thanksgiving. If you recall, it snowed a ton in mid-November. Skiers and riders were gearing up for a festive holiday. But a pineapple express saturated the slopes with rain and the snowpack subsequently froze. Snow that accumulated over the next two months clung to that frozen base layer with a tenuous bond.

Heavy snowfall and wind piled snow extra-deep on the steep leeward slope in Schweitzer’s north bowl. Under tremendous pressure, the bond connecting all that snow to the base layer weakened. This greatly increased stress on the flanks and crown of the slab. With little prodding, something had to give.

The Schweitzer Ski Patrol closed the area after the latest storm. According to the patrol’s Facebook page, that didn’t stop some individuals from ducking the rope to poach powder. They escaped without getting killed – or having their passes pulled. If the poachers had taken a basic avalanche awareness course perhaps they would have resisted the temptation.

I cross ski area boundaries to play in sidecountry when the conditions are right. A few years ago I thought it might be a good idea to take an online avalanche awareness course offered by the National Ski Patrol. My ignorance about the risks was replaced with knowledge about factors that combine to create an avalanche hazard: weather, snowpack, terrain and humans in the middle of it all.

Human factors are most important because they are the only ingredients in an avalanche scenario we have control over. They are also what usually end up killing someone. One of those factors is “complacency,” or expecting that an avalanche won’t happen in bounds or in familiar sidecountry because one hasn’t happened yet.

Other human factors include lack of planning, denial, tunnel vision, competition, peer pressure and underestimating consequences. It’s likely the poachers at Schweitzer last week were flesh and blood examples of them all.

In Washington state, ducking ropes is a misdemeanor penalized with a $1,000 fine. A year ago, two skiers at Crystal Mountain were charged under the law. According to reports of the incident they dropped into closed terrain just after patrollers lit fuses on two explosive charges. One charge pushed a small slide roughly 100 yards above the poachers. The second charge detonated to one side of them and triggered a large avalanche.

The Idaho Panhandle Avalanche Center (IPAC) is offering a free avalanche awareness course at REI Spokane on Feb. 6 at 7 pm. It won’t cover the full breadth of knowledge and skills you need to travel safely in avalanche-prone terrain, but like the online course I took it’s a decent prelude to a three-day Level I avalanche course that meets standards established by the American Avalanche Association (AAA).

If you’re interested in doing that, plan ahead. The few available locally have limited enrollment and sell out quickly.

An advisory published by IPAC earlier this week showed dangerous conditions above treeline and heightened avalanche conditions near treeline. The only real difference between backcountry terrain and in-bounds terrain occurs on a map – so it makes sense to be mindful.

Be aware that even though the word “sidecountry” may sound safer than “backcountry,” that isn’t always the case. If dropping out of bounds is your thing, know when to pack a beacon, probe and shovel. Finally, understand that when ski patrol ropes off in-bounds terrain there is always a good reason.

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