Motorized Access and Avalanche Risk: A Perspective

With the recent death of an Alpine Meadows skier in a slide and the serious injuries to another skier with a broken femur and more, the spotlight has returned to Avalanche Awareness (as it always does). Although our proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes for a maritime snowpack (and relatively safer conditions than other continental climes) we still are exposed to snow slides in the Sierra's that can be large and destructive. Us older skiers and riders still remember the slide at Alpine in the early 80's that took out facilities there and left 7 people dead and others wounded. Avalanches can and will continue to happen in the Sierra just not necessarily as regularly in the Rockies and other continental based mountain ranges.

With that in mind I believe it is easy to be lulled into complacency thinking that you'll be OK in the Sierra. Others think you'll be safe just because you are at a ski area that practices avalanche mitigation. Unfortunately all the mitigation efforts in the world are not good enough to mitigate every nook and cranny around every corner in a modern ski area. If the ski area you visit has terrain steeper than 25 degrees, they can experience slides. Tahoe-Donner anyone?

Many groups and individuals do not have avy skills or take the time to dig a pit and analyze the pack before heading down the steeps in new snow. Without the proper training equipment and practice, we have proved once again, effective decision-making and avalanche awareness is not practiced as much as it probably should be. We carry the "human element" far beyond the local ski area as well.

With the advent of easier BC motorized access, skiers and riders can now access terrain that would normally be too far from pavement.  Although access is easier, practicing avalanche awareness is not. Most survivors (and I count myself in this category) survive not due to their great knowledge and judicious decision-making, but to plain dumb luck. Avalanches know not the ski area boundary line. I rode a slab/wet slide once at Alpine Meadows off Scott Chair close to the recent fatality down "The Chute that Seldom Slides" and was buried up to my neck against a tree. The fact that no more snow came down undoubtedly saved my life. Patrol actually watched the slide take me from the chair, and despite the fact that it only took them minutes to get to me, I was having trouble getting enough oxygen by the time they started digging to remove the snow from my chest.

For those of you who have not experienced riding a slide down I suggest you check out this recent video post on the Sierra Avalanche Website:


with a great description of what the victim experienced. It just may motivate you to enroll in an avalanche awareness class and perhaps purchase some equipment and learn how to use it. I highly recommend skiing with partners who carry gear and know how to use it. Remember: The life saved... may be your own.



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