Deaths highlight boom in backcountry skiing

Story by Craig Welch
Scripps Howard News Service, Seattle Times
February 22, 2012
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The untrammeled mountain slopes a handful of elite powder junkies sought just outside the boundaries of Stevens Pass ski resort Sunday no longer are the rarefied terrain of even just a few years ago.

By the time a massive avalanche swept through and whipped four of the skiers down slope, killing three, the once-small world of skiers who chase snow in the backcountry near big resorts had become the biggest national phenomenon in skiing.

"It’s trending like crazy right now," said John Stifter, a contributing editor at Powder magazine, who was part of the group involved in Sunday’s tragic slide. "It’s the thing everyone is doing and talking about."

But this rising popularity comes with certain risks, and managing that risk demands a particular discipline.

"I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more and more accidents" in such terrain, said Benj Wadsworth, director of Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. "That’s what every ski movie’s about these days. That’s what everyone wants to do. It sure looks fun, and it is fun. But there’s a danger to it."

It’s not just that slipping past warning signs or under gates to carve turns out of bounds is, in many places, no longer even frowned upon.

It’s that so-called "sidecountry skiing" or "lift-assisted backcountry skiing" -- because participants buy resort passes and ride chairlifts and then hike or cross-country ski to slopes outside area boundaries -- is the fastest-growing segment of skiing.

It’s "growing by hundreds of percentage points a year," said Drew Simmons, former editor of a Seattle-based backcountry-skiing journal who now runs a public-relations agency that represents backcountry ski-gear companies. "All the big alpine companies have now gone all-in on backcountry."

Sales of specialty ski gear made for backcountry skiing doubled between 2010 and 2011, according to data prepared for SnowSports Industries America, a ski-industry resort and retailers group. Sales of specialty boots made for backcountry travel quadrupled just since 2008.

The reasons are many. Ski gear has become lighter. Outdoor culture, in recent decades, has celebrated the extreme.

"There are skiers and snowboarders who have gotten so good that they’ve excelled past what the resorts have to offer," said Sam Petri, Web-content producer for Teton Gravity Research, a popular Wyoming-based ski-film company that helped lend backcountry free-skiing its current cachet.

And many skiers -- like kayakers, mountain climbers, surfers or hikers -- seek total reliance on their skill and wits. They want to escape crowds, carve tracks in virgin terrain, find steeper cliffs and narrower chutes.

Sidecountry skiing allows them to access such terrain faster. But the sport now is so popular the temptation is great to be the first to grab fresh powder, regardless of consequences.

Controlling that temptation is part of what avalanche-awareness training focuses on, said Scott Schell, education coordinator for the Friends of the Northwest Weather and Avalanche Center. He has been a teacher and a student of avalanche training since the mid-1990s and has seen an evolution in the discipline as more skiers hit the backcountry.

"The first avalanche class I ever took, I remember getting so frustrated because all I wanted to know was, ’Can I safely ski this slope or not?’ " he recalled. "Ten or 15 years ago we’d spend all this time focusing on the mechanics of avalanches -- what are the weak snow layers, why do they fail, what about vapor transport -- the basic physics."

His classes and seminars now center on human traits involved in making safe, smart decisions -- on group dynamics and social pressures and other things that lead skiers to mistakes.

Sunday’s deaths brought to 17 the recreational avalanche fatalities this year in the U.S., but six of those occurred in as many days. A snowboarder and an off-duty snow patroller were killed in two separate incidents in Colorado’s backcountry last week.

Yet it’s the kind of risk sidecountry skiers have faced from the beginning, back when going out of bounds was considered poaching.

At the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in Wyoming, an underground band of skiers in the 1980s took to calling themselves the Jackson Hole Air Force. They fled ski patrollers and ducked past ski-area boundaries to jump off cliffs and ski fresh tracks.

But in the late 1990s, years of confrontations between these poachers and ski patrollers led to a watershed ski-industry moment. Skiers complained loudly that these out-of-bounds areas were, technically, on public land -- forested slopes owned by the National Park Service or the U.S. Forest Service.

In October 1999, the ski area capitulated, opening six gates and allowing skiers to go anywhere they wanted -- regardless of avalanche conditions. Skiers were entirely on their own. Any search-and-rescue efforts would be performed by the county -- not ski-area employees.

"It was one of the driving forces behind ski areas around the country opening their borders to out-of-bounds skiers," Petri said.


Craig Welch


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