Eagle's Eye

Opinion: Avalanche course changed my backcountry safety awareness

Gabby+Dodd
Gabby Dodd

Gabby Dodd

Gabby Dodd

Gabby Dodd, Editor

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Eventually, when lift lines become packed, the parking a nightmare, and the powder tracked out, winter enthusiasts look for options outside the constraints of resorts. Backcountry skiing provides an outlet for adventurous athletes, but danger can lurk for those who are unprepared to go out of bounds.

Before I moved to Tahoe, I had never experienced the chaos that often comes with popular resorts. I grew up skiing at a small mountain called Purgatory in Durango, Colo. Our local hill is unknown to many skiers and therefore doesn’t experience largescale traffic.

This past year, I fell in love with abundance of Tahoe’s resorts, but weekend crowds here can be frustrating to me, so I set out on a mission to explore the backcountry.

At the end of SNC Tahoe’s winter break, I participated in the four-day introductory American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education course (AIARE 1) at SNC, taught by Daryl Teittinen and Rosie
Hackett. I wanted some basic skills to pursue a future with more backcountry skiing.

By the end of the course, my view of the mountains and the backcountry skiing and snowboarding community completely changed. Every skier or snowboarder knows that avalanches happen, they are dangerous, and are certainly nothing to mess with. However, despite the tools and the education out there, even the most elite athletes have died in avalanches.

Avalanche.org has reported four avalanche deaths in 2018, including the death of a backcountry skier from my hometown of Durango.

Rosie Hackett, director of the Outdoor Adventure Leadership program (ODAL) at SNC has been teaching avalanche courses for more than 23 years. She says the most common mistakes people make in the backcountry are poor terrain choices to match the avalanche problem, and getting caught in “human traps.”

“People go on and look at the Sierra Avalanche Center forecast and they only look at the overall danger rating and base their terrain decisions off of that,” Hackett said. “The report needs to be read thoroughly to understand the avalanche problem and where it is located.”

According to Avalanche.org, 47 percent of avalanche deaths occur when conditions are reported as “considerable.” Deaths often happen because conditions are hard to predict, and, due to the less extreme rating, not as many backcountry users will cancel their plans.

The most dangerous mistakes even the most experienced backcountry users make, are falling into “human traps” known as FACETS. The acronym relates to the faceted snow, a type of angular snow formation with poor bonding that creates a weak layer notorious for causing avalanches.

FACETS stands for: Familiarity, Acceptance, Commitment/Consistency, Expert Halo, Tracks/Scarcity, and Social Facilitation. Each represents a human factor that can bias an otherwise excellent judgement. The idea that we’ve skied an area before and things were fine, hucking a cliff because we want to look cool for our friends, following through with a plan even though the weather is getting bad, assigning and following an inexperienced leader, hitting the pow line that you haven’t had in forever even though you know the risks, and sticking with the group’s decisions even though you have your own concerns, are all examples of FACETS that have killed even the most skilled skiers and riders.

This season, backcountry adventurers face a scarcity problem in Tahoe because of the dry season.

“Powder fever is starting to happen,” Hackett says. “The worst kinds of scarcity are when you just experienced an abundance of snow like last season and now you don’t have it.”

This could potentially inspire people to enter terrain they know they shouldn’t for a taste of good snow.

The AIARE 1 course changed the way I ski. Now, I always think of potential terrain traps near me, the aspect I’m on, what the degree of the slope is, etc. The course also brought to light mistakes my friends and I have made outside of resort skiing. It also stressed the importance of spreading avalanche awareness in the snow sports community. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, “Over the last 10 years, an average of 27 people died in avalanches each winter in the United States.”

AIARE level 1 courses provided by Alpenglow Expeditions will be held at Squaw Valley starting Feb. 2 with another starting Feb. 10. Tahoe Mountain School will also be conducting AIARE courses throughout February, and there will be another offering of AIARE at SNC in February.

Alpenglow Sports will be hosting a nine-day winter mountain festival Feb. 17-25. Events include beginner and intermediate ski tours, AIARE 1 courses, guest speakers, music, films and more.

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Opinion: Avalanche course changed my backcountry safety awareness