The Lure of Skiing in Avalanche Country

The best—and most foolhardy—years of my life

After dancing out on the edge of winter some years ago, I returned to solid ground with a good story. Unfortunately, others haven’t been as lucky.

My adventure occurred in thebackcountry beyond Colorado’s Beaver Creek ski area. A buddy and I took the lifts in late afternoon, then crossed throughthe backcountry gates to create our own adventure in the Holy Cross Wilderness. I think those were the best days of my life. Leaving behind the orderly, safe world of groomed runs and mechanized uphill transportation, we plodded uphill, breathing heavily, into the above-timberline landscape of wind-filed snow called sastrugi.

It’s a magical world up there. The lights of Vail twinkled below, as did the string of lights along I-70 to Glenwood Canyon. But it was the dark shadows of the peaks that enchanted.

With good eyes, you can see reasonably well at night, even under starlight. We were approaching the top of the12,000-foot knob, where the wind each winter whips the snow into a cornice on the lee side of the ridge. Cornices can become massive, extending 20 to 30 feet out over thin air. I had admired this one from below, even in midsummer.

A crack—and a whoosh: The cornice broke a foot away from my buddy’s outer ski. I had stayed closer to exposed ground, but instinctively I lunged away. We were both safe. My friend guffawed as he watched me desperately—and successfully—claw for the certainty of rock and grass. We ended up having the stars to ourselves, a good laugh, and a scary story to tell. We were lucky—and also foolhardy. Because we were playing a dangerous game.

As of mid-March of last year, 27 skiers had been killed in avalanches, about the same as last year. There was an avalanche death in what locals call the cathedral of Bear Creek, adjacent to the Telluride ski area. Another occurred in the backcountry adjacent to Utah’s Canyons ski area, and in Washington, a trio of expert skiers perished in an avalanche near the Stevens Pass ski area.

Most chilling was the story of a skier from Bozeman, Mont., who was skiing in a valley bottom below a steep hill in Yellowstone. I had interviewed him some years before in his professional work as an advocate for wildlife, and he was doing just what I had done many times. Normally, you’re pretty safe in such situations. Most fatalities occur in avalanches triggered by thevictim and his partner. In this case, the snow was so unstable that even quiet, muffled movement in the valley below was enough to unleash a torrent above. He didn’t have a chance.

The stark truth is that most avalanche victims don’t have a chance. Despite all the technology that’s been developed, including “Avalungs” that let a buried skier breathe through snow, packs that inflate like air bags and whatever else, getting caught in an avalanche is usually a losing proposition.

Yes, beacons and the like improve your odds. They do save lives. So does wearing a seatbelt when you’re driving. But a seatbelt probably won’t save your hide if you drive over a cliff. One chilling image from Telluride haunts me: Rescuers said the victim was wearing all the right safety gear, and it was all bloodied.

Avalanches are violent things. Surviving one involves both luck—staying near the surface—and planning—having buddies who are trained and have the right equipment, including low-tech shovels, to dig you out. Even then, it’s something of a crapshoot.

This essay could be construed as blaming avalanche victims, including those who don’t survive. I don’t intend it that way. There are always risks, always calculations, in the backcountry. That’s why I wanted to share the story of the night my buddy and I spent on top of the “Beave” 15 years ago.

Still, I can’t help but wonder about the widows—most of these victims are men—and their children. When avalanche danger is moderate, which is when most fatalities occur, or even considerable, as it has often been rated this winter, is the beautiful powder on steep and dangerous slopes worth the risk?

I have to assume that some of the victims fully realized the odds and went ahead anyway. The lure of backcountry adventure is strong. I know my life would have been poorer without it. But then again, I was lucky.

This essay first appeared in High Country News.