It’s a fact of life that someone—and probably several someones—will die as the result of an avalanche in Colorado this year. By the time you read this, someone might have died already.
They could be brothers, mothers, big-line heroes and newbies, but no matter who they are the ‘why?’ of their deaths will haunt their friends and family. Some will have succumbed to the sorcery of swirling snow, throwing caution to the wind in a final exchange for a deep line of untracked powder. Others may be hit by a slide from above, tragically unlucky. While many more may have solely trusted their lives to the seemingly miraculous powers (but no sure bet) of ever-improving snow-safety technology.
There’s a school of thought that suggests the more safety features we have in our lives, the more risks we’ll take, whether it’s on the highway or in the backcountry. I’ll never forget the heartbreaking statement from a snowboarder who lost a friend to a slide on Berthoud Pass a few years ago: “The guy with the transceiver didn’t show up,” he told the papers, as if one product designed for interactive companion rescue could have saved the lives of many all by itself.
Once, while researching a story on the success rate of avy airbags and the superhero kind of smugness they might instill in some users, I interviewed Dale Atkins, a former president of the American Avalanche Association and consultant to RECCO Avalanche Rescue Systems. While discussing the role of human nature in relation to any off-piste innovation, I repeated the cliché, “Your mind’s still the most important piece of safety equipment you have in the backcountry.”
Atkins, who should probably be in the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Hall of Fame for his contributions to avalanche forecasting replied, “I’m not so sure I believe that anymore.”
Mental Errors and Mojo
The fact is humans aren’t the best decision makers. Even when confronted by facts and science, we often sidestep logical reasoning in favor of “gut feelings” and instant gratification. Take our ongoing addiction to fossil fuels in the face of accelerated climate change, or our continually ballooning population growth despite the planet’s diminishing resources, as two current examples of our inability to act rationally.
As far as skiing powder is concerned, the study of heuristics—the mental shortcuts we take in our decision-making processes—puts a spotlight on why people ignore obvious red flags and die in the backcountry.
The blog snowpit.com highlights some excellent case studies of how the lust for powder, slope familiarity, a “we’re-all-experts-here” mentality, evidence of an earlier successful run or the desire to be the hotshot entices experienced off-piste skiers to make fatal mistakes in high-risk conditions. In short: The lure of fresh tracks can make us stupid crazy!
On the other hand, and at the risk of being labeled a heretic by any shear-test supplicant reading this, I would suggest that fate also has a role to play. Science or stupid, sometimes it just is or isn’t your day to die.
I have a friend who survived a 1,000-plus-foot slide over two cliff bands and was buried for more than an hour. After they dug him up, still very much alive and smiling, everybody got to calling him, “Mr. Lucky.” My father and I survived stupidly triggering the separation of a two-foot fracture in Northern New Mexico that never completely released. And yet somehow someone like extreme and speed skiing icon Steve McKinney was killed in a crash while sleeping in his car on the side of a California highway.
Life is rich with irony. But also with joy and glory. And the fact that someone like Steve McKinney ever even existed makes me very happy. Ditto for late great ski heroes like Doug Coombs, Shane McConkey and Fritz Stammberger, whom I was lucky enough to meet twice as a child and whom I just read about again in The Silver Chalice by Jeff Long, easily my favorite climbing narrative.
Cheers and good health as well to still thriving ski legends like Scot Schmidt, Glen Plake, Colorado’s own Lou Dawson (the original ski king of the Fourteeners), and brothers Mike and Steve Marolt, who have made turns on some of the highest slopes on the planet. They are all quite literally living proof that a life of adventure can provide many long, happy years of rewards.
I hope, too, that all of your backcountry adventures provide deep rewards all winter, and that at the end of every day you come back to some place safe and warm to share your story with the rest of us.
—Elevation Outdoors editor-at-large Peter Kray is the author of The God of Skiing. The book has been called “the greatest ski novel of all time.” Don’t believe the hype? You can buy it here: bit.ly/godofskiing