The Nation's Pulse

Avalanche Country

In the Rocky Mountains, going out of bounds could definitely stop your clock.

By 2.9.10

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Every year an average of 25 winter sports enthusiasts die in avalanches in the West. There have been a dozen such fatalities so far this winter. Two were "in-bounds" skier deaths: one a skier at Sun Valley, Idaho, and another a ski patrolman performing early morning avalanche control work at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming. But most avalanche deaths are the result of "out-of-bounds" skiing or snowboarding, or backcountry snowmobiling.

Ski resorts have definite boundaries (signs, fences, rope barriers, etc.) beyond which the terrain is neither groomed nor patrolled. Legally, in-bounds, you ski at your own risk; but out-of-bounds you're literally on your own. Though in cooperation with local Search and Rescue personnel, ski patrollers do assist searches for missing skiers out-of-bounds.

Out-of-bounds is so designated for good reasons, and in the Rockies is mostly due to the prevalence of avalanches. The problem is that the forbidden areas many times offer great skiing, thus the temptation to cross the line for the "steep and deep" expanses of untracked powder. Or there is the need for solitude and a get-away-from-it-all experience.

Recently, a young man was caught by an avalanche while skiing out-of-bounds at Snowbasin Resort in Utah. When found, he was dead and buried under only a foot of snow. The physics are interesting. When an avalanche stops, the snow settles within seconds and sets-up as hard as concrete. The victim's movements are paralyzed, and -- like drowning -- death usually comes within 15 minutes due to suffocation. Though there are historical cases of people surviving after being buried up to 45 minutes. At any rate, it's a hideous way to die.

Snow conditions in the Rockies this year are the result of storms depositing heavy accumulations on months-old snowpacks after fairly dry weather in December. As those recent California rainstorms moved inland, the Sierra Nevada and the Central and Southern Rockies saw huge snowfalls. Flagstaff, Arizona, recorded four feet. Near Salt Lake City, the Snowbird Ski Resort had seven feet in seven days. The deep new snows atop the old snowpack makes for a dangerously unstable combination where the new snow doesn't bond to the old. "It's like putting a brick on top of a pile of potato chips," is how Bruce Tremper, Director of the Utah Avalanche Center described it to AP. These conditions are especially deadly on slopes with 30 to 45 degree angles. Utah has recorded three avalanche deaths since January 24.

Idaho has seen two deaths from avalanches befalling snowmobilers in that same two-week period. While these tragedies (one man near Fairfield; another in the Garns Mountain area of Teton County) both seem to be the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, many snowmobile fatalities are the result of "high marking," where you point the snowmobile straight up a steep slope and drive hard for a ridgetop. This is the snowmobiling equivalent of hill climbing with a motorcycle. But after a heavy snowfall, it's a great way to trigger an avalanche.

There are precautions to be taken in avalanche country. Check avalanche conditions online or via local media before a trip. Know the landscape and avoid open, expansive areas without trees. Never cross-country ski, snowmobile, or otherwise travel alone in the backcountry. When accompanied by fellow recreationists, small portable shovels, collapsible steel probe poles, and electronic transmitter beacons all increase the survival odds if one is caught in a snow slide. If caught in a slide, flail your arms and legs around in a swimming motion that might leave limbs exposed when it stops. If there's time, extricate yourself from skis or a backpack to assist range of motion. Even a deep breath before it hits will increase survival time by a few minutes. Keep your mouth shut so it doesn't fill with snow and choke you. After all that, say your prayers.

But avalanches aren't the only hazard found out-of-bounds. Recently, at Grand Targhee Resort in Wyoming, a 46-year-old man from New York skied over the line near day's end and simply got lost. He called the 911 on his cell phone and reported his predicament. When asked to describe his surroundings he noted an open snowy meadow with a creek flowing through it. Unfortunately, that described hundreds of acres in the area. The man had a GPS Unit, but didn't know how to use it. He was dressed well for a day of skiing, but lacked the extra clothes and survival gear needed to survive the night. Local Search and Rescue personnel and the Grand Targhee Ski Patrol searched for part of the night, but due to snowy weather and the avalanche danger, halted the search until daylight. In the morning they found the man dead of hypothermia.

Follow the rules in avalanche country. Skiers should stay in-bounds, and snowmobilers should take sensible precautions. Because the Rocky Mountains are wild, beautiful, and unforgiving.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.