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Snowboarder Rips in Austria

A snowboarder makes powder turns in the Alps.

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Questions After 5 Die in Avalanche

Colorado's Deadliest Avalanche in 50 Years

Sheep Creek 12' Avalanche CrownThe April slide in the Sheep Creek area near Loveland Pass caught all six men in a touring party, killing five of them. The surviving group member was partly buried and waited four hours for rescue. The group, many of whom had just met, came together as part of the Rocky Mountain High Backcountry Gathering, an event intended to promote backcountry snowboarding and avalanche safety. Their planned tour was a short one, only about an hour in duration. The slope they selected to ski was lower in avalanche risk, but their skin track crossed dangerously exposed avalanche terrain.

The slide caught the group shortly after they left the parking lot. Larger than most avalanches that backcountry enthusiasts observe, this slide had a crown ranging from 1’ to over 12’ and ran 600 vertical feet. A deep persistent slab that the touring party was aware of caused the slide, which ran on buried weaknesses and down to the ground. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center the slide was remotely triggered by the party skinning below it.

This slide attracted a blizzard of media attention, as multiple fatality outdoor tragedies are prone to do. Furthering the interest were the details that several members of the party were involved in the snowsports industry and they had gathered for an avalanche safety focused gathering. I’ve never skied in the area and don’t have the local expertise to contribute the already extensive discussions taking place. The remainder of this article highlights some excellent coverage of this incident from elsewhere on the internet. It also raises some questions about group decision making and avalanche safety 

education focused on the prevention of similar incidents.

“SATURDAY’S DEATHS WILL BRING NEW SCRUTINY to the growing community of backcountry enthusiasts, and to the gear industry supporting their off-piste pursuits. And nagging questions surrounding the safety of backcountry skiing resurface: Is backcountry education able to mitigate the level of risk riders take on? Or even more unsettling, is backcountry awareness and the availability of new backcountry equipment fostering a false sense of security?”

- "Colorado's Loveland Pass Avalanche: Lessons Learned," Colin Bane, Outside


“It is easy to underestimate the consequences of getting caught in a deep-persistent slab avalanche, because these slides are often much bigger than most of the avalanches witnessed by backcountry recreationalists. Deep-persistent slabs do not form every year, like storm and wind slab avalanches. The only effective travel technique for this avalanche problem is to avoid areas where deep slabs might release, or if the risk is deemed acceptable, expose a single group member to the danger. Spreading out often does not mitigate the risk to the group because these avalanches are always large and destructive.”

"Sheep Creek Avalanche Report," Brian Lazar, Colorado Avalanche Information Center

“. . . I firmly believe that by documenting this tragedy and using it as a mirror, we can all significantly improve our avalanche safety decision skills. Indeed, I’d recommend that avalanche safety curriculum would heavily document this accident and use it as a decision making scenario — starting at the party the night before, leading to a parking lot meeting between a number of strangers, and on through stepping out of your car while looking at an avalanche slope thirty feet away that you don’t need a snowpit to rate as considerable hazard or worse. And that’s not even the slope that’s going to get you.”

- "Site Visit – Sheep Creek Avalanche," Lou Dawson, Wild Snow

The discussion following Dawson's post is interesting (though very long). Also relevant to this discussion is Wild Snow’s "Alpha Angle" post addressing how far avalanches can continue beyond the toe of the propagating slope.

"Pack Mentality May do More Harm Than Good During an Avalanche," article in the Denver Post is inaccurately titled, yet offers some good discussion on group leadership and decision making in avy terrain (Added to this post, June 19, 2013).

This incident raises many questions. Good answers to these questions could help improve avalanche safety and outdoor recreation safety in general. Here are a few that seem important:

• How can larger, informal groups make effective decisions?

• Does ease of access lead to greater complacency around safety? If yes, why is this and how can this effect be countered?

• How can avalanche safety training be improved? How can tragedies such as this one best be used as educational opportunities?

Last year our attention was on the 16 skiers involved in Washington’s Tunnel Creek slide (see the stunning multi-media feature, "Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek"). Here in Montana and across the West there are busy “backcountry” slopes that many others and I feel are disasters waiting to happen. Unfortunately, it’s likely that we’ll be talking about one of these next winter—and even if we aren’t there are numerous smaller incidents, many preventable, occurring each winter. With winter backcountry pursuits exploding in popularity how can the outdoor and avalanche safety community stay ahead of the curve?

Photo © Colorado Avalanche Information Center

Posted by

Alex Kosseff

on 5/8/13
Field SafetyIncidentsOutdoor LeadershipResourceNews


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