December 21, 2010

Backcountry Skiing: A Risky Endeavor?

Utah Avalanche Center forecasts for this past weekend. On Saturday (12/19) we skied a zone that falls within the area I outline in blue, N/NE aspects between 9-10.5K ft. On Sunday (12/20), when the danger increased, we avoided the backcountry altogether, and skied at Solitude.

It frustrates me when people call me a "risk taker" for participating in backcountry skiing (or many other forms of recreation that I enjoy, such as mountaineering). Early this week, after a major storm buried Utah's mountains under several feet of heavy (20% water weight) snow, the avalanche danger was elevated to High/Extreme in the Central & Southern Wasatch mountains. Despite numerous avalanches all over the region (both natural and skier triggered), a broken leg in Cardiff Fork was the worst thing that was reported. During the same storm cycle, 13 people lost their lives in automobile accidents in Utah.

Andrea and I skied steep backcountry terrain in Days Fork on Saturday under "moderate to considerable" danger (according to the UAC forecast, which we read and analyze every morning before heading out, along with looking at maps and guidebooks in planning which areas we are going to ski). While in the backcountry, we were dialed in to everything happening around us: the wind speed, wind direction, temperature, terrain features, slope aspect, slope angle, safe zones, avalanche paths, snow surface, snow crystal shape, etc. We stood at the top of each run and talked about where we were going to ski and how we were going to ski it. We talked about what potentially could go wrong and how to mitigate the danger. We made informed decisions as a team. We carried rescue gear (beacon, probe, shovel, and the new addition to the 3 essentials, an Avalung backpack). And ultimately, we skied 6 laps of face-shot powder, had a great time, and felt really good about the choices we made. When we got home, we looked at the conditions reports from other backcountry areas, to compare our first-hand observations to what other people saw, and get a better understanding of the snow/weather dynamics throughout the entire region. The next day, when the storm intensity increased and the avalanche risk was further elevated, we opted for a day of lift-served skiing at Solitude Mountain Resort. It was a great weekend.

When I read about how many people died in car accidents during this storm, it motivated me to write this post, as some of these ideas have been kicking around in my head for a while. The thought of lots of people, with lots of other things on their mind, with the ability to accelerate a five thousand pound chunk of metal to 70 miles per hour with just the slight extension of their foot is downright scary to me! Just as the thought of making ski turns on an uncontrolled mountain slope is scary to a lot of other people.

I'm not trying to say backcountry skiing is "safe" ("safe" is a word I hate because very few things we do, and especially no recreational activities that are worthwhile, are completely safe), but I am trying to point out that whether its driving or backcountry skiing or anything else, there are certain rules that you follow to mitigate risk. For driving, there are road signs, lights, lanes, and many other "rules" to guide you. For skiing, you pay attention to all the things I mentioned above in the second paragraph. Sometimes, inevitably, no matter how good your decision making is, you still might be involved in an accident. So when you are driving, you take further safety precautions such as wearing a seat belt and "carry" (in your car) devices that mitigate damage, such as air bags. While you are skiing, you wear a beacon, avalung, and carry a probe/shovel (and are trained in how to use all of those things).

Skiing isn't safe. Accidents will happen. But I'm not going to stop skiing the backcountry. I'm going to do it more and more and more. I feel confident in my ability to mitigate the risk, understand that the mountains are bigger than I am, and the ultimate goal is always to ski another day.

How often are you truly in tune with the dynamics of everything happening around you? How often are you completely dialed into what you are doing? I don't think many people can say that about their driving. Phone calls, radio, eating, drinking, texting - they are all distractions. Other yahoo drivers who aren't paying attention further increase the risk. Yet we all drive cars every single day and don't think twice about it.

I've probably beaten this analogy to death, and by no means did I mean to capitalize on the fact that so many people died recently in car accidents. I'm sure there are some statitistics out there that actually show driving is "safer." That's fine. The point of this was to demonstrate how much thought and training people (like myself) put into safe backcountry travel. Backcountry skiing is not a "grip it and rip it" sport. We're constantly thinking about what we are doing, and the consequences of our actions, a lot more than most people are when they turn on their car and pull out of the driveway. How often do you lay in bed at night and think about where you are going to drive your car the following day, and then are 110% focused on driving when you are actually in the car? Probably not too often. I know I don't. But with backcountry travel, that is pretty much always the case for me. Its a sport with risk, but incredible rewards. With knowledge, tools, and a slice of humble pie every once in a while, you can spend a lifetime skiing the backcountry (and blogging about it ;-).


  1. Good write up. It's come up a bunch of times in the past few days, with friends effectively saying the backcountry is closed because the danger is too high. I don't agree with this, and there are always ways to travel in the mountains while minimizing avalanche risks.

  2. Thanks Porter. There are always lower-angled slopes in the trees that are skiiable, and usually a lot of fun, during times of high avy risk.

  3. Great post, and I totally agree!