Coloradans have long pursued outdoor adventures, usually to satisfy a craving for one thing: Adrenaline. But what’s the real cost of our most feverish obsession?
With the number of avalanche deaths increasing, here’s how to avoid becoming a statistic.
Avalanches kill more coloradans than any other natural hazard. Although it ends up being about six deaths per year, sliding snow is a bigger threat than lightning, and avalanche fatalities are on the rise. “They ebb and flow every year, but the general trend is upward,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Colorado’s recent increase mirrors the national numbers. Last season saw 34 avalanche deaths across the United States. (The number usually is in the mid-20s.) Some of those accidents occurred within ski-area boundaries, normally a rarity, even though avalanche education and awareness have increased and avalanche safety equipment—transceivers, AvaLungs that let victims breathe during burial, and backpacks fitted with airbags—is better and more readily available.
So why are more people dying? “Better equipment is letting more people go into dangerous areas,” says Dale Atkins, a member of the Alpine Rescue Team and president of the American Avalanche Association. He says today’s fat powder boards and rocker technology make tough terrain easier than ever to navigate. “All you need now is athleticism and daring,” Atkins says.
Even less-experienced skiers are becoming bolder—and more rash—and terrain that would’ve seemed unskiable not long ago now attracts attention hogs intent on posting their exploits online. “That’s the beauty of the Internet, that you can immediately post where you are and how much fun you’re having,” says Atkins, who suspects Facebook and YouTube have become self-promoting stages for show-offs. “There’s now a fast, easy way for people to communicate about avalanche conditions and spread valuable information,” Atkins says. “But if you’re using it for glory, you’re asking for trouble.”
With increasing traffic into avalanche terrain, deaths are bound to rise, because as Greene says, “You just have more people in harm’s way.” These new danger zones exist within ski resorts, not just in the backcountry. Last January, for example, two people died from in-bounds slides at Vail and Winter Park. Although the victims’ families have sued the respective resorts, Atkins says, “Ski areas do a phenomenal job of reducing the avalanche danger to almost zero.”
Yet even the most conscientious resorts can’t totally manage every inch of snow, particularly when the smallest slides can prove deadly. “Safety has to be a shared responsibility,” Atkins says. “Riders have got to take some responsibility for where they go, how they go, and when they go into this terrain.”
That’s why learning to discern danger zones is the best way to manage risk. “You can’t change the snowpack, or the weather, but you can change your terrain choices,” Greene says. Similar selectivity should determine whom you hit the slopes with, because although following an avalanche-ignorant daredevil into sketchy terrain is a recipe for disaster, a properly skilled buddy might save your life. “Your companion is your immediate rescue party,” Atkins says, “so choose him carefully.”—Kelly Bastone
* SAFETY TIPS
˛Stay in control
˛Give right of way to people downhill from you
˛Stay on designated trails
˛Pay attention to signs indicating treacherous conditions or closed trails
˛Wear reflective clothing
˛Wear a helmet
˛Adjust bindings properly
Colorado’s Five Riskiest Ski Runs
1: Rambo at Crested Butte
Short (less than 1,000 feet) but deathly steep with its 55-degree pitch.
2: Body Bag at Crested Butte
Another 55-degree slope, this one with a 275-foot drop. Also, it’s called Body Bag.
3: Two Smokes at Silverton
This 53-degree rock funnel is open only to skiers accompanied by professional guides.
4: Avalanche Bowl to Zoom at Loveland
Called the sixth-toughest run in North America by Gearjunkie.com in 2007.
5: Lake Chutes at Breckenridge
Has the highest chairlift in North America, and at 55 degrees, it’s another super-steep run.
Walk This Way
Think a little hike can’t hurt you? Think again.
Even if you have no interest in scrambling up one of Colorado’s daunting rock walls or schussing down a backcountry slope, at some point you’ll probably do some hiking. Just don’t fool yourself into believing this relatively pokey pastime is any safer than the more daring outdoor options.
In fact, every year, hiking accidents account for the highest number and greatest percentage of mishaps that require assistance from Colorado’s county-based search-and-rescue (SAR) teams. (See charts below.) It’s not just volume; these incidents are increasing per capita: They accounted for 28 percent of all reported SAR operations in 2003 and increased steadily to 35 percent by 2009. According to Howard Paul, public affairs manager for the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, “More hikers get into trouble than those who are engaged in another activity because of the number of people who do it, but also because you could’ve moved here from sea level in Houston last week, and have never been in the mountains before, and off you go.”
˛Plan a route ahead of time to avoid getting lost
˛Don’t hike alone
˛Tell someone where you’ll be and when you expect to return
˛Pack basic gear: simple first-aid kit, Swiss army knife, whistle, small flashlight, brightly colored bandana, and rain gear, along with adequate water and food
˛Stay on marked trails
˛Never climb on waterfalls
˛Wear proper shoes and bright clothing