News of avalanche deaths have cast a somber shadow on the backcountry ski community. With spring powder and unstable snow packs in some areas, safety has, once again, hit mainstream media. And with backcountry travel becoming more popular, thoughts are mixed on educating skiers on the dangers beyond the ropes and gates. Who’s job is it to keep backcountry skiers safe? Skiing caught up with a variety of avy experts to get their take.
We spoke with:
- - Mike Hattrup, a well-known ski mountaineer
- Andreas Fransson, a Chamonix, France-based pro ski mountaineer
- - Loren Kroenke, the U.S. Forest Service’s national winter sports program manager, who’s in charge of the organization’s national avalanche center
What are your thoughts on digging pits?
Pits provide valuable information as to what’s happening in the snowpack for a particular location, but too many people give them too much importance. You may get a different result with a slight elevation, aspect or steepness change. They should be viewed as one piece of information that goes into the decision making process of whether or not to ski a particular slope, NOT a go or no-go test. That’s akin to trying to guess a phrase on Wheel of Fortune after getting one letter correct. — Mike Hattrup
Avalanches are frequently caused when stress is added to the surface of a snowpack that has a buried weak layer. By digging a pit, you can identify and evaluate the strength of the various layers. Based on that information, a decision can be made whether to ski or traverse a slope at the same elevation and with the same exposure. While it’s important, evaluating what can be seen in a snow pit takes experience and many other factors should be considered. — Loren Kroenke
I think it's good to dig pits to get an idea of the snowpack when you get to a new area, and maybe to reaffirm a feeling of what’s going on in the snowpack. But as most experts seem to agree, it's not something that will give you a "go" or "no go" during a specific descent. I think general understanding of snow science, local knowledge, knowledge of the weather and snow history, general mountain skiing experience as well as humbleness is much more important. If you feel like you want to dig a pit for a specific descent, then maybe that feeling should keep you from playing Russian roulette when skiing a specific risky descent. — Andreas Fransson
What are your thoughts on educating skiers on safe backcountry travel?
As more people enter the backcountry, it’s clear we need to put a greater emphasis on education. No single group is responsible for avy education; we need to come together as an industry. — Mike Hattrup
We need to reinforce the importance of attending avalanche classes; carrying the proper equipment, such as transceivers, probes and shovels; and by regularly practicing using the equipment. — Loren Kroenke
I think we can try to mediate humbleness for the mountains and encourage people to educate themselves in general mountain sense. I think most of this can come from the media (films, magazines, etc.) that the industry is sponsoring. And I think we should stop supporting media that is showing disrespect towards the mountains. As an example it's not really cool to out-ski an avalanche and then scream how cool that was. Instead maybe we should see it (and communicate it) as a mistake made and celebrate that we survived our own stupidity. — Andreas Fransson
Where does that education start, and how?
Again, as more people enter the backcountry, it’s clear we need to put a greater emphasis on education. No single group is responsible for avy education; we need to come together as an industry. — Mike Hattrup
There is a variety of groups who provide avalanche education. These classes are often set up to provide varying levels of information, depending on the experience of the student. One of the best places to obtain a comprehensive list of organizations providing avalanche education is to visit the website for the American Avalanche Association http://avalanche.org/education.php. — Loren Kroenke
I think the industry reaches the biggest crowds through the media (films, magazines, etc.). I think it should start there. The knowledge and education is there, but we need a cultural change for people to understand they should reach out for more knowledge. — Andreas Fransson
As with everything in this sport, cost is an inhibiting factor for many skiers. How can we break that barrier when it comes to taking avy courses, hiring guides or even buying the right gear?
The cost of avy courses, guides and safety gear is actually very reasonable. I think the mindset has to change. Spending a few hundred bucks on an avy course, or hiring a guide is actually extremely affordable considering that education is something you can take with you and build on, whereas a single day lift ticket will run you $75-$100 and expires at 4 p.m. — Mike Hattrup
Avalanche centers are an important provider of high quality avalanche education. Typically, avalanche centers work in partnership with local non-profit “Friends” groups. Supporting Friends groups is an excellent way the industry could help make avalanche classes more available and affordable. — Loren Kroenke
In order to learn and make decisions you have to be humble and recognize that you don’t know everything. That humbleness is free. I think it all starts there and everything else is added detail. If you love this sport and understand that the mountains can be dangerous, then I think you would take any means necessary to either learn or hire a guide. In terms of equipment, I think that, as the backcountry gear competition is increasing, especially with airbags, we will see prices go down. — Andreas Fransson
Some people say that eliminating “sidecountry” from the vernacular will make things safer. What’s your take on that?
Eliminating the term “sidecountry” as a way to increase safety is absolutely ludicrous. You could change the name to the Eiger North Face, and it won’t change people’s mindset. It’s not the name that makes people feel safer, it’s the proximity to lifts, ski patrol, other people, the fact that there are tracks to follow and that their cell phone works that make them feel safer than they should. The term is already in the public lexicon and would take an enormous amount of energy to change with no increase in safety. Instead, spend that energy educating people that sidecountry has all the hazards of driving to a remote trailhead and demands the same respect. — Mike Hattrup
In the U.S. Forest Service we attempt to not use the term sidecountry because we’re concerned that it gives the impression that conditions and hazards there are similar to the more-or-less controlled environment at a ski area. It is backcountry, and it is arguably more dangerous than more remote areas because of incomplete compaction and numbers of skiers and snowboarders who use the area who are inexperienced and poorly equipped. — Loren Kroenke
I think that's just a play with words. Maybe it's right for some, but what's most important is that we need to have respect for the mountains in the same way as surfers have respect for the ocean or skydivers have respect for empty air. Mountains, water and empty space are wonderful things, but using them unwisely might kill you. — Andreas Fransson