Saturday, February 25, 2012

Skiing the Cascades Backcountry: The Lure and the Danger

With several avalanche deaths at Washington ski areas last weekend, Northwest skiers and riders got a sobering reminder that even familiar, ski lift-accessible "backcountry" can turn deadly in a flash--no matter how expert, cautious, and prepared you are when venturing off-piste.

I've felt the pull of the backcountry, especially at Crystal Mountain where I used to teach skiing. Over lunch breaks, sometimes I'd tag along with my fellow instructor Mad Mountain Dean and do a lap in Silver Basin or Northway (before the lift went in). We'd hike out beyond the patrolled area and get our freshies in light, sometimes heavy, or even crusty snow, munching on Clif bars during the lift rides up.

Liker surfers searching for the perfect wave or a golfer working on that perfect swing, many of us skiers and riders dream of that perfect run of perfect turns down untracked, light, deep fresh snow. And it's even better when you've earned your turns with a hike away from the crowds.
I'll admit I've not been as prepared as I could be most of those trips out to the Southback and beyond.  Sure, I have an avalanche transceiver and shovel, but I haven't always taken them with me on these deceptively safe mini-adventures.

While I'm don't venture to Stevens Pass much nor did I personally know the expert skiers who perished there last weekend, I know people who knew them.  It's not that big a ski community here in the Northwest, although there are thousands of skiers and riders in the region. 

They were skiing an area most of them had skied many times before.  Those who skied down first were standing in the trees, out of the avalanche path. Or so they thought. However, nature happens.

So I'll think twice when I head out to the backcountry tomorrow, with all the fresh snow that fell today (if it's open).  How about you?  Have you had any close calls with avalanches?

May we all have stable slopes and safe runs. Be careful out there.


TC said...

Good post - I like the Mad Mtn Dean mention!

Patricia Lichen said...

I've only ventured cross-country skiing, but did have a friend whose skiing buddy was overtaken by an avalanche. Dan was looking down and didn't hear a thing--just looked up and his friend was gone. He grabbed his shovel, shucked his pack and raced down the lumpy spillway. His friend had remembered to "swim" as the avalanche carried him, and as it slowed, he'd held his arms in front of his face. His red jacket sleeve was crooked up out of the snow--Dan found him and dug him out. (This was way before the days of the inflatable air bags.)

jill said...

Wow, Patricia, how lucky for your friend and his friend! I've crossed avalanche paths but never seen one in action.

Lesley said...

Of course, these deaths have been the topic of much conversation here in North Central Washington. Very sad. However, for a an additional perspective, go to and look for the article on these Avalanche Deaths by blog editor Andy Dappen. It's really excellent.

Anonymous said...

The community where I live was recently shaken up by the loss of a guide and client caught in an avalanche. When I read, The Lure and The Danger, about the recent loss at Stevens and your own questions about the risk taken in the past I can find myself feeling and thinking about many of the same questions.
For years I skied in both the back country and out of bounds without beacons, probes or shovels and consider myself fortunate that neither myself nor friends got caught. Of course during those day's beacons where used by few, avalanche classes rare and though we might ski check a slope we never dug pits or took any of the precautions I take today. Though I still might slip out of bounds without the gear in my pack and beacon on while riding at an area, my awareness and understanding of the risk, dangers and experience skiing a huge range of conditions has also given me the wisdom to say no, not today.
Regardless of all the precautions we might take, the danger is always there and people are going to be caught chasing those wonderful turns down a virgin slope of powder. Some of my finest day's alive have been those day's spent with friends on adventures in the mountains with ski's on our feet and joy in our heart as we spend a day enjoy one of natures sweetest gifts, powder!

Smiles, Matthew

jill said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comment Matthew. Yes, there's always risk, and the avalanche that claimed the life of the three experienced backcountry skiers was lift-accessible backcountry. One of the survivors wrote an excellent account on her blog...drat if I remember it I'll post it here. She was standing in old growth and thought she was safe.

BTW I don't pay the fee to chat on DM...however, I might be in Haines visiting friends this summer like I did last summer. :)

Anonymous said...

Well, well chance are I know your friends and them me how fun and to think you know the place I call home and maybe both for that matter. since the home I sit in now is at PT. No Pt. north of Kingston with family roots also connected to Alki though not as early. If you choose to want to have a cup of tea maybe we could do it in Seattle instead of Haines.


I also don't pay the fees but like smiling anyway

jill said...
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jill said...

M - tea sounds great, see my message above,

jill said...
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