Risk; a part of adventure in the backcountry


Swoosh! My skis arched as I bounded through the untouched, dry, champagne powder that fell and blew to the top of Palisades Bowl. This was the kind of powder that is epitomized at Kirkwood: Deep. Light. Dry. It was the fourth time in a row that one of my ski partners, Craig, and I had pulled up to the gate right next to a patroller. He drew back the rope and sign marked “closed,” as though it were a red velvet drape at the theater. We flew through the lodge pole pines that framed the gate. First tracks!

We traversed straight to one of our favorite, tighter, bowls that has a small chute and cliff about halfway down. We started making long and beautiful turns, hooting and hollering, all the way down towards the drop. I stopped. I looked back up to see that I had triggered a small slide on one of my turns. It wasn’t enough to even feel, but when Craig came down, more of the slope started to give. We didn’t think much of it. It was just a little slough, right? I commented on it, as did he, and we hucked the cliff.

A few days before, on Jan. 17, a massive slide ravaged the K3 chute, a steep line that falls from 12,481-foot Kachina Peak, in Taos Ski Valley. The inbounds avalanche took with it two skiers, 26-year-old Matthew Zonghetti and a 22-year-old Corey Borg-Massanari, burying them in a 450-foot long debris field. The crown was reported to be as tall as eight feet. According to Morgan Timms, a photographer for the Taos News, the debris field was so deep that the probes used for the rescue, some as long as 30-feet, could not reach the bottom. The victims were buried more than six feet under the snow for more than 20 minutes. They were both rushed to the ICU. Both men died.

A few days later, after a full seven hours of powder skiing, dropping cornices, and hurtling down chutes, I pulled into my apartment off of Ski Run Boulevard in South Tahoe. I started talking to my partner Gena about how much of an amazing day it had been, but she looked down. “It’s not fair,” she said, glaring into her phone. I asked what she was talking about, thinking it had been my gloating.

“The second skier caught in that slide a few days ago just passed.”

We have both always considered Taos our home mountain. Throughout high school and into college, Gena would lap the K chutes off of Kachina. It is a mountain that I myself learned to ski on and, even though it is more than a thousand miles away, it felt a little too close to home when we heard about the accident. That same night we kept getting drawn back into the conversation. We realized how easily that could have been us. We were planning on going to Taos during March to visit our families. We’d probably ski a K chute.

We have always talked about how the most amazing thing about skiing at a resort, as compared to the backcountry, is the ability to ski in a “safer” environment that allows us to push harder and take more risks. I’ve started to come to the conclusion that this might not always be the most responsible outlook on risk mitigation and management in-bounds.

I spoke with Sierra Nevada College professors Rosie Hackett and Daryl Teittinen about the incident. Together they taught my AIRE 1 avalanche safety course. I was really interested in hearing their takeaways from the incident and hear their recommendations to mitigate risk in-bounds.

“First off- as a ski patroller of eight years and avalanche professional, that accident is terrifying,” Teittinen said.

He was certain that the control team did all they could do to mitigate that risk but that obviously a mistake had been made. Hackett mentioned that deep persistent slab avalanches such as this one are extremely complicated and that a skier could literally ski over it a hundred times before hitting that exact spot, where there might be a slight concave rollover, with a weak layer buried deeply underneath, that causes it to release.

They both agreed that education is paramount. Hackett likes to think of herself as “productively paranoid.” She constantly looks at consequences and educates herself every day.

“I look at the SAVY center every morning. It’s a part of my morning coffee!” she exclaimed. I agreed with her. The Sierra Avalanche Center’s Instagram page is one of the easiest and most reliable ways to stay updated on the snowpack.

Hackett and Teittinen both went on to explain how they almost always ski with transceivers in-bounds on high-risk days.

“On a storm day, I absolutely wear my transceiver,” said Hackett.

The reason for this is that, if an accident occurs, they can immediately start searching so that once patrol is on sight, they can move on with the rescue. Teittinen also elaborated on this process, touching on how a partner beacon search is ultimately more reliable and faster than a Recco (a device put into ski clothes that can be found by most resort rescue teams) search performed by patrol once they are on sight.

Teittinen mentioned several other tactics that he deploys during higher avalanche conditions. He said that it is important to watch conditions, particularly if it is nuking later on in the day, and to “look at terrain as if it could avalanche.” Avoiding terrain traps like cliffs, creek bottoms, and generally having a plan make for a safer outing.

Managing a group in-bounds is equally important.

“It is all about working together and taking care of your partners,” Teittinen said. “Spot from the top while the first skier goes through, then they ski the whole pitch and move to the side at the bottom, and then they wait while you continue down.”

This style of group management is also important when looking at, what he referred to as, a “deep snow immersion” (a non-avalanche related deep snow burial). Teittinen recommends taking care when in trees and watching out for tree wells. Even smaller trees, he explains, have the ability to trap someone because of their branches, making it almost impossible to get out of. He challenges the “meet at the chair” mentality and, instead, recommends a “we will ski really tight and stay in verbal contact with frequent over-the-shoulder look backs from the leader” mentality.

When conversing over the recent avalanche in New Mexico, Teittinen mentioned that Taos, in particular, has a continental snowpack (quite different from the Sierra) where there are almost always some buried persistent weak layers. “If they were to wait for all of those to go away, they will never be open,” he said.

It is so easy for us as skiers and snowboarder to assume something is “safe” if it is in-bounds. There is a reason this word is not often found in the vocabulary of an outdoor professional. Mountain environments are never safe. Risk is mitigated. It is not taken away. Because of this it is extremely important for everyone who ventures into riskier terrain, in-bounds or not, to get educated.

We all, so very easily, fall into the rabbit hole of thinking that tragedy will never happen to ourselves. The truth is that we accept this risk in order to pursue what we love. We must be open to knowledge and prepare ourselves, because when everything hits the fan, that knowledge and preparation could mean the difference between life and death.

Editor’s Note: The AIRE 1 and backcountry skills course takes place from Feb 15-18 during the 2019 spring semester.