*Getting the rescue gear is an important step towards staying alive in avalanche terrain but knowing how to use it is the most important piece of the puzzle*
The drive to ski and snowboard on wilder, more dangerous terrain has dramatically upped the risks for those exploring inside the ski area boundary. Long before you can load that first chair in the morning, hardworking men and woman of ski patrol are busy at work to help study, ski-cut and use explosive charges to keep you safe.
But when historic snowfall blankets the high alpine, this task morphs into a behemoth undertaking. It’s almost akin to finding 100 thumbtacks in a haystack that measures 1,000+ skiable acres.
And even though hard-working ski patrollers accomplish this task with baffling success and safety rates across the industry, the unthinkable danger of an unexpected avalanche always lurks in the shadows. In the 2018-2019 season we’ve already witnessed some unsettling, and surprising avalanche accidents within the boundaries of well-known ski resorts that are making us rethink how we approach these big storms as a collective mountain culture.
Compared to Europe, North America’s ski culture is better and worse in a lot of ways when it comes to how we approach avalanche safety.
On the positive side, I’d say the level of control on prominent slide paths and the ability to close more avalanche prone areas at the right times makes skiing in North America much safer than Europe– at times. In the alps, the distinction between what is controlled by ski patrol and what is “off piste” is a line that’s blurry at best (*main cause of ski-related fatalities consists of off-piste accidents where the victims were unsure where they were).
In America, boundary lines are almost always clearly marked, and unless it’s got a rope across the entrance– we consider the shredding as safe as can be… But where does that safety umbrella go when wild weather creates a barrage of snowpack instabilities that could prove fatal?
Personal Responsibility On Big Snowfall Days
This is where our European counterparts do a better job. As a ski culture, we could learn a thing or two about how to ski (or not) during heightened avalanche conditions. For denizens of the alps, that means having avalanche safety equipment and knowing how to use it during potential incidents. Unlike in the USA, tourists across the pond see historic snowfalls as time to hunker down and wait on the snow to settle. For them, the deadly nature of snow takes center stage every year as headstrong tourists are lost to slides in tragic fashion.
The familiar safety we feel at our local ski resorts is a wonderful aspect of the relaxed recreational opportunity that North American ski culture provides but we shouldn’t let it make us get complacent, irresponsible, or worse yet– ignorant.
When it snows 2+ feet in 48 hours, the inbounds is inevitably risky no matter how many bombs you throw. Considering all the important factors of riding safely in the mountains, using an avalanche beacon should become commonplace at all ski areas that prominently host avalanche terrain. In the best interest of staying alive, and making the most of your time in the mountains; why not utilize every tool in your arsenal?
Carrying an avalanche beacon inbounds may seem a bit overboard, but with the right application, it can help save your life. In the United States and Canada, we are fortunate to be home to some of the steepest and safest resort terrain available but these are still wild mountain environments that deserve our respect.