Dangers of Backcountry Skiing

Avalanche debris, Convict Canyon

I was recently asked the following questions on facebook regarding backcountry skiing:

“So is it just rolling the dice everytime you drop in? Is there really anyway to mitigate some of the risk, short of staying home? Yeah, I’ve had avy 1, can evaluate terrain and select relatively safer routes, and hopefully find a buried beacon. But digging test pits is awfully time consuming and just seems like trying to assuage your fears with a bunch of numbers. Besides, I’ve been here all winter, I know the snow pack history.”

“You ski alone frequently, no? Do you feel as safe alone, or safer?”

Thirty-five years ago when I first started wandering in the winter landscape, it was all about avoiding avalanche paths.  It was all about just being in the mountains, not skiing them.  As times and ability have changed, it’s now about both.  Many of us now seek out “exciting” ski runs which are actually avalanche paths.

So is it “rolling the dice” every time you drop into an avy path? Yes.

The more experience one has regarding terrain, snow pack, weather etc. the more one can stack the odds in their favor. Conversely the more you know, the more you can rationalize the risk (for better or worse).  Every time we venture into the mountains we need to evaluate the risks, whether it be climbing, skiing, etc. We then must weigh those risks, make decisions and proceed one way or another. The harsh reality is that when we go in the mountains, there is no guarantee we are going to come back alive.  Skiing avalanche paths, especially in winter, is a crap shoot. You can limit your liability through education and experience, but in the end there are no guarantees.

I ski alone for several reasons; I’m unorganized and rarely plan ahead and I like, at times, being alone in the mountains. The main reason I rarely ask other people to ski with me is that I found several years ago a burden of responsibility; people (some partners but mostly spouses) thought that they or their loved ones, would be “safe” if they went skiing with me.  This is a responsibility I am unwilling to accept.

When I’m alone, I am responsible for my own actions, when I ski with others I would like them to be responsible for theirs. This is in no way to suggest I don’t accept group input, on the contrary, group input and communication is vital and I will be the first to “back off” something if someone voices concern.  But on the same note, if everyone agrees to a decision, and something happens, I don’t want the burden of responsibility because I’m the guy with the most experience.

Do I feel “safe or safer” when I ski alone?  Most of my judgments are based on being alone. For the most part I’m not going to take additional risk because someone else is there (I can think of some exceptions).  If something catastrophic happens, it of course doesn’t matter one way or another. But, if you get hurt, you’ll be wishing you had a partner or good cell phone coverage.


~ by dittli on March 18, 2010.

One Response to “Dangers of Backcountry Skiing”

  1. Great words, John… I ski by myself 90% of the time, too, finding a partner in some ways is pretty committing, in more ways than one.

    Perhaps it may be (in this day-in-age of radical extremeness) that folks might find the places I like to ski – just simply too BORING anymore.

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